A week ago I was travelling to the University of Sussex to give a conference paper on Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist when I got a message I didn’t understand from Mark Blacklock, author of I’m Jack (which I haven’t read), talking about ekphrasis and artists’ jokes. I replied with one of those odd, polite Twitter queries that have you worrying that someone, either you or them, is going to end up looking silly in (sort of) public. He replied:
I’m thinking here of Randall’s shit smear paintings and Damo goofing off about that idea in Sex and Violence
Me: ah – but (shit!) does Hirst preempt me, the bastard – where in Sex & Violence? (I have it but haven’t read it – too scared to)
Mark: I’ll dig it out when I get home – I had assumed an ingenious ekphrastic extrapolation – even better if it’s coincidental!
Hi Jonathan: so the line is p.327. discussing his film Hanging Around. Burn asks: “So how autobiographical is it? ‘It’s only autobiographical,’ he says, ‘in the way that wiping your bottom is a self-portrait.'” As I say, I assumed this was a seed of an idea. Coincidence only makes it better.
If this means nothing to you, then Mark was talking about my novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, which is a sort of alternative history of the YBAs. The titular artist takes the lead, Hirst-like role, and has his first success with a series of large, colourful Warhol-esque screenprints based on his and his friends’ shit-smeared toilet paper squares – works he styles as ‘portraits’, and which then grows into a cultural phenomenon: everyone wants a Randall…
Nevertheless Randall insisted that everyone – all the great and good and rich and famous that queued up to ‘have a Randall done’ – produce a ‘holograph’, as he called it, in situ, in the studio. You wanted a Randall portrait, you had to sit for it.
Now, in writing this book, I took great pride in the idea that I had ‘invented’ all the artworks myself – it was part of my sell to myself of the novel that, Randall aside, this wasn’t a roman a clef. So it was a shock to realise that Damien Hirst had, in fact, pre-empted me. Or was it more than this? Had I stolen from him?
The quote comes from Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, the posthumous collection of Gordon Burn’s writing on art. It’s on my shelf. I bought it, but didn’t read it, a few years ago, and most definitely long after I came up with the idea of Randall’s Sunshines paintings.
I had read Burn’s book of interviews with Hirst, On The Way to Work, and it’s not in there; I have just now reread the 1996 interview to be sure. I didn’t read Sex & Violence because I was scared – scared that I might find stuff so good I’d want to rip it off; scared I’d find stuff I’d already invented, or thought I’d invented; scared of the amount of stuff Burn knew about all this art, all these artists, when I actually knew very little, and was relying on the quality of my imaginative invention to stand for the quantity of work and opinion the YBAs produced.
I was scared, basically, of Burn’s insight and facility as a writer. I knew that, if he’d written a novel about the YBAs, he’d have made mine look like a piece of flimsy trash. Continue reading
I awoke this morning to the thrilling news that my novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, which goes to the best debut novel of the year. Ten books, which will be whittled down to three, and then to one. As always, it’s interesting to see how the list divides up – into male and female writers; into publishing big hitters and indie outsiders (including Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, from the crowdfunding imprint Unbound); into those that have already appeared on other shortlists and those that haven’t; into those I’ve read and those I haven’t. Elliott himself was a literary agent – “an elfin agent of genius” – who made his way in publishing by getting an interview at Macmillian aged 16, getting himself fired from all the best houses, then going on, as an agent, to discover Jilly Cooper. A profile on the prize website describes him as “waspish, witty, an uncanny mimic and a sometimes outrageous raconteur”. Edith Sitwell called him “a most impertinent person”, while to Leo (wife of Jilly) Cooper he was “a consummate showman”. D’you know what? I think Elliott would have loved Randall. He would have made him laugh. You can read more about Randall on my website here, and then why not head over to the Galley Beggars website where they are celebrating the longlisting by selling the book at the excellent price of £7.50! And if you’re a bookshop, or a book group, or a festival, or a street corner, and you fancy a reading from Randall – laughter, cleverness, art theory and toilet humour all guaranteed – then please get in touch!
* The shortlist for the Desmond Elliott Prize was announced on 15 May, with the three books to make it through Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley, Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing.
A few things that have happened, recently, that I’m keen to point people towards:
- Having been published in both Lighthouse and Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2014, I’m very pleased to say that my short story ‘The Faber Book of Adultery‘ is now online as part of Issue 83 of The Barcelona Review. Read it here. (And there’s a lovely reading of it by Lee Upton here.)
- A paper I gave at Birkbeck’s conference on Geoff Dyer earlier in the year appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The Threepenny Review, and again you can find it online. Read ‘But Funny: Geoff Dyer and Comic Writing‘ here.
- I’ve added a page to this site for anyone who’s read ‘Randall‘ and either doesn’t know the answer to the riddle it ends on, or wants to check if they guessed it right. Click here to do so. (And if you’ve read ‘Randall’, why not review or rate it at Goodreads?)
- Finally, if you’ve not heard about my current blogging side-project to read all 52 of Melville House’s ‘The Art of the Novella‘ novellas in a year, then you can find out about it here.
“Tell me this,” says a character in Don DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man: “What kind of painter is allowed to behave more unspeakably, figurative or abstract?”
It would be easy enough to rack up examples on both sides, from fiction, no less than from real life. Novelists love artists as characters, after all. If books furnish a room, then artists furnish a novel – with their artworks, and their antics. You might say they are the perfect writer’s avatar: analogue, clown and straw man rolled into one. Their created work is so much more describable than prose, their creative act too. And they get to have models, some of them, to go to bed with.
My novel, Randall, is, in intention, an satirical and elegiac alternative history of Young British Artists and art world in general, and while writing it I’ve naturally collected a menagerie of other fictional artists, sometimes badly behaved, sometimes not, but all exemplary in the way they dramatize an aspect of human nature that is, by definition, out there.
The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Carey Continue reading
Well, it’s been launched, and now it’s in the shops. Here’s what Foyles say, and you couldn’t ask for a better sell that than, could you?
And reviews are starting to appear: this one from the profane and anonymous BookCunt (so I’ll never get to thank her!) and another, with a pleasingly thorough unpacking of the art world aspects of the book, at The Literateur.
Its first print review came in The Sunday Telegraph, where Toby Lictig called it “both absurd and eerily believable… Gibbs’s novel is more than mischief: as with all the best lampoons, it dissects things that really matter and have gone awry.” (read full review)
In a wonderful and utterly meaningless synchronicity, I hit my 100th post on this blog just as I launch my debut novel, Randall, published by the indie darlings of the UK literary scene, Galley Beggar Press.
We launched the book on the Tamesis Dock, a delightful boat-pub on the Albert Embankment. The book’s not officially published until 19 June, but there was the small matter of a World Cup to avoid.
The evening was a blast – thank you to everyone who came – and I had a good opportunity to realise that it’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve seriously given my signature some serious practice.
I occupied myself during the day by laying a treasure trail of sorts around London, leaving specially inscribed copies of the book at auspicious spots, as in offering to the departed ghosts of the YBAs. Here they are: Continue reading
So, I’m nearly there. Having been held up by the Royal Cornwall Show, copies of Randall are now sitting in the offices of my publisher, Galley Beggar. See how they throb with the frustration of the unread! Tomorrow, my darlings, tomrrow you shall be read, some of you, or held at least… Continue reading
So last night I was in Shoreditch, that dull old provincial backwater, reading at the 8th birthday celebrations of hip alternative book night Literary Death Match. And, I’m even more delighted to report, I won! I was the winner!
Now, as anyone will tell you who has been to a Lit Death Match before, or has been crowned as one of their 360 previous champions, this is not something that should be equated with being, y’know, better than anyone else in the competition.
Indeed, the very amiability and absurdity of the whole process pokes a wry and really rather sensible snook at all the other literary prizes out there. Julian Barnes famously called the Man Booker “posh bingo”. Well, this was decidedly un-posh bingo, no matter that the night’s hosts, Adrian Todd Zuniga and Suzanne Azzopardi, did try to raise the tone somewhat with their stylish get-ups.
Let me put it this way. I’m only inventing what I can positively recall. If it is something I remember, then I write it down. I don’t write it unless I can definitely remember it. But once I start to write it down, I must needs invent it, in terms of how it happened. If I write it down, it happened, but not necessarily how I write it. What I write down didn’t happen, but it didn’t happen less than all the things I don’t write down, which didn’t happen at all.