I’m a certain type of reader: the type that reads with a torch under the covers; an obsessive, a train-spotter, prone to discern patterns, almost always tipping over into apophenia. This leads me to certain types of writer: coders and decoders; mystics and messheads; those who start with the tangle or who box things up. I like to work at it, to scribble in the margins; I like the frame to be put under strain.
That’s not to say that I don’t also like a good yarn – the decoding impulse can, of course, be put to fruitful work in un-pulling those threads. I enjoy the pleasures of being sucked into a tale well told but I do tend to want something with a bit of swerve from third person narratives.
Satire works particularly well for me in this regard having, when well executed, a pleasingly analogical but ambiguous relation to the lived world and “actual” events. Having read several positive notices for Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall, billed as a satirical take on the YBA generation, I bought it direct from Galley Beggar Press. My late teens and early twenties maps onto the ’90s and although I was more music- than art-focused at the time I can’t help but feel certain affinities for the conceptual art produced in the period and the stories of the parties that went along with it. I don’t think of this as nostalgia: I don’t want it back, or to inhabit it endlessly, but I am interested in what it was.
Damien Hirst’s work in particular has long been a puzzle to me. I’ve flip-flopped. It’s genius, the perfect commentary on the byzantine futures exchange of the art market. It’s shallow, lowest-common-denominator stuff: too direct. The show of his blue paintings at the Wallace Collection was unforgivably forgettable yet the diamond-encrusted skull For The Love of God (2007) remains brilliantly ambiguous. I can’t help but admire the cleanly-framed, appalling conceit of A Thousand Years (1990); yet seeing a number of the vitrine pieces in the same room at the Tate Modern a couple of years back my daughter fled and I followed her. “Why would anyone want to put so many dead animals in an art gallery?” With so much of it in one place the concept was deadening; insufficiently complex to bear such repetition, a goth-rock teen spraying lyrics about death into your face. Regardless of the studio processes mimicking The Factory, spot paintings are workaday, unreflective imitations of the formal wing of Pop; the pill bottles and the pharmacy riffs are, for me, richly suggestive of the more interesting pieces from the same movement (and before). As an entire body of work, though, I value it enormously, precisely because it wrong-foots me so frequently. Considered in its fullness, as mediated process, it’s surely a masterstroke.
Randall tells of a fictionalised YBA – an imagined inheritor to Damien Hirst’s crown in an alternate future in which Hirst has been hit by a train – and it doesn’t take us long to discover that the lead character is very, very much like the provocateur-in-chief of the YBAs: preternaturally cock-sure, whipsmart, a party-monster and, importantly, well-versed in art history and theory. He nails his degree show with perfectly painted circles derived from Japanese calligraphic practice; he exploits his connections to wow a City collector with an improvised sculptural portrait from found materials; he’s super-canny about the market mechanisms that will allow him to succeed in the contemporary art market and determined to play them.
Gibbs’s Randall is completely and compellingly rendered. I was hooked from the first few pages, in which we discover that the narrator, Randall’s City friend Vincent, has written a memoir of his time hanging out with this crew of imagined YBAs and that sections of the memoir are alternated with sections narrating the present day. Vincent’s the perfect observer – implicated, but outside – and this is mirrored in the formal arrangement for the narrative: the gradual reveal of the present tense legacy of Randall backed up by the excitement of his past-tense emergence. The reader, too, is implicated observer.
Randall’s successes and failures and his disregard for the work or feelings of his friends that is, perhaps, simply an extension of his disregard for his own work and feelings, unfold at the same time as we discover his marriage to and child with Victor’s ex and his conquering of the American market. In traditional realist terms the execution of the whole is subtle and unfussy but profoundly affecting. The writing on occasion pulls you up because it’s so deftly turned. The getting-back-together sex scene is the best sex scene I’ve read in years, up there with Nick Shay’s encounter with Donna in Delillo’s Underworld: it’s tender, awkward, freighted with the carry-on luggage of decades of missed intimacy.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of this novel, though, is the vividly imagined oeuvre of perfectly-pitched conceptual art pieces that shock and bewitch the market and appal the general public in equal measure. In relation to Jonathan’s Delillo paper, this is a novel brimming in ekphrasis.
Exemplary of these are Randall’s breakthrough pieces: the Sunshines portraits. And here I would like to be able to quote from the book, but I urged my copy onto a friend a month ago, so I’ll have to manage without quotes. The Sunshines portraits are lurid, coloured screen-print copies of the “sitter’s” used toilet paper, an art-making concept so apt for this fictionalised artist that I can entirely understand Jonathan’s affection for it. And the punch line, as with so many Hirst endeavours, comes in the title: they’re called Sunshines because the sun shines out of Randall’s arse.
When I finished reading Randall I felt that uniquely literary little death: the text I’d spent my waking hours rushing to return to for the past week was now used up. The ingenious sleight of hand of the ending had given me one last deferred reading pleasure as I skimmed back through the last fifty pages to confirm my hunch regarding the location of Randall’s final – greatest? – work but I wanted to spend more time in this world and so I went to the next best source on my shelves: Gordon Burn’s Sex and Violence: Death and Silence, his collected writings on art. An intriguing commentator on British and American contemporary art, Burn was an enthusiast for Damien Hirst’s work and became a close friend of the artist. Indeed, not only was Burn godfather to Hirst’s first child, Hirst gave Burn his first ever line of coke, a detail that crystallizes something of the nature of their friendship. An implicated outsider?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the first few lines of this piece, I’m a big Burn fan. I’ve not read everything – yet; perhaps the true fanatic will always keep something in reserve? – but I’ve read most of it. Unlike Jonathan, and for reasons I can barely comprehend, I am drawn to the dark material as well as the light, though that’s not to say that I enjoy reading it. Happy Like Murderers, with its Hirst-designed cover, is the only book I’ve had to stop reading because I was alone: this might seem absurd, given that its horror is entirely other people; though of course, it’s the fact that they’re people, not others, that is what’s truly horrifying.
When I re-read the chapter in Burn’s book on Damien Hirst I was struck by the line Jonathan has quoted in his blogpost. Like a good apophenic I thought I’d spotted a source and tweeted to check it with the author. When it turned out that Jonathan hadn’t consciously derived the Sunshines from this throwaway remark I thought the connection even more compelling: the author had successfully occupied the mindset of his character to the extent that he was imagining the same kinds of pieces his lived-world analogue might. Whether this detail was imbibed unconsciously doesn’t matter to me: I’m very aware of how that kind of process works in academic writing, where you frequently find you’ve inhabited someone else’s thoughts so successfully that you think they’re your own. This is why we reference so neurotically.
There’s something else I’d like to remark that is both defence of apophenic reading and source-sampling. It seems to me that echo, appropriation and influence are fluxions in the same field. We couldn’t work in creative isolation if we tried and neither should we: we are constantly processing exterior sources. In my own writing I choose to import those sources and to work directly with them: the use of found materials has long been familiar practice for artists and, if we’re alert to the less well-rehearsed or canonical aspects of the corpus, for literary writers too. The incorporation of such materials allows for distinct effects: striking juxtapositions that generate fresh meaning (or hilarity); unexpected hierarchies of authority; destabilisations of the apparently real. In contemporary music it has led to entirely new forms and enabled important political and legal critique.
It seems to me that these processes are continuous with appropriation at the more granular level of sources. While there is always a desire for originality – and that, in avant gardist terms, is a much-disputed notion – I don’t think we need to look for it only in ideas, but believe that it can be generated in form, in composition and in context. The work that is purely sui generis has yet to be made but original works have frequently been composed from well-worn sources.
The reason for this post is to respond to Jonathan’s but above all to urge anyone here to read Randall in the hope that they’ll get as much from it as I did.