Lost children, missed opportunities, and an alternative history of the art scene: the best new novels
Three rather extraordinary debut novels were published recently. Each deals with its own idiosyncratic concerns and themes, but the books share a powerful common denominator: voice. Jeff Jackson’s Mira Corpora (The Friday Project) uses this powerful tool to extreme effect. First published in the US, this unsettling novel charts the young life of Jeff, a runaway who isn’t quite sure what he’s running from. It’s an anti-coming-of-age story for the forgotten – those children society, for whatever reason, has cast aside with added venom – that hits the reader in fits and bursts, employing a voice so poetically brutal and visceral.
Here’s Jackson on the smell of a burning corpse, for example: “Then the stench. As the flames blacken the boards and catch the corpse, they unleash a consuming odor. A mixture of the raw and the curdled: Overripe fruit and mold spores; singed hair and meat rot; fresh blood and smeared shit. There’s a perfume-like undercurrent, a sweet tang that’s briny. It’s the sort of smell you can only fully register in the back of your throat as you start to gag.”
Mira Corpora is an architecture of memory, violence and desire. It’s also one of those special novels that leaves the reader with a desire to read it again and again. Steeped in uncertainties, blank spaces and philosophical questions concerning the nature of fiction and truth itself, this novel makes for important reading for those who like to speculate on what the contemporary novel has the potential to become.
There’s nothing uncertain about the funny and dirty business that is the contemporary art world – something Jonathan Gibbs knows all too well. His debut novel Randall, or The Painted Grape (Galley Beggars Press) is an extremely funny satire of the dirty business of art curation, archiving, buying and selling: “There’s only two things you can do with art: make it, and buy it. Everything else – talking about it, thinking about it, selling it, looking at it – either comes under one of those two, or doesn’t count.”
The novel charts an alternative history of the British art scene, in particular the YBAs (Young British Artists). Early on, we are told that Damien Hirst was hit by a train in 1989 and killed, allowing the art world’s attention to fall on Randall, a strange kind of artist with a vast body of work. His life is mostly told via excerpts from an unpublished memoir, written by Vincent, an old friend. He charts their chance meeting at Randall’s first university exhibition through “the years that took us from kebab shops on Mile End Road to rich men’s yachts off Skiathos; from getting high on paint fumes whitewashing Shoreditch basements for jump-up shows to watching the three-hundredth Sunshines canvas roll off the LAC-6000 digital screenprinting machine outside Faversham; from crashing afterparties to having our own afterparties crashed in turn.”
What at first seems an adroit critique of the business of art, complete with its vanities and ills, slowly reveals itself as a moving account of friendship, love and loss, coupled with the desire to sift the authentic from the inauthentic (Gibbs wants us to ponder the 5th-century myth of the “painted grape” which forms the novel’s suggested alternative title). This clever and accomplished transition is relayed in Gibbs’ charming voice, rich in depth and confidence and as knowingly precise as the deftest of brush strokes.
Moving on to a different kind of art scene, The Glasgow Coma Scale (Corsair Books) by Neil DA Stewart deals with one that could have been. Its theme is missed opportunity, replaced by everyday trauma. Lynne Meacher escaped to Glasgow in order to start a new life but finds herself in a poky flat and in a job she hates. She is compelled by fantasies to give away what little wealth she has. It is during one of these moments, when giving money to a homeless man, that her life takes an unexpected turn.
The man happens to be her old art teacher, Angus, whom she once had a crush on but who has now fallen into the quagmire beneath the banalities of her own life. We follow their strange relationship as both Lynne and Angus try to make sense of their lives. The novel is brutally told, rich in Glaswegian argot. And Stewart has fun hoodwinking those readers who might expect this to be a different type of story; instead, a cacophony of voices entwine like individual threads of a wider tapestry, to create a beautiful portrait of longing and loss.