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Friday, 27 June 2014
Randall, or The Painted Grape, by Jonathan Gibbs
Reviewer: JJ Marsh
What We Thought: Jonathan Gibbs is a cheeky beggar.
This alternative history take on the YBA movement born in the late 1980s and subsequent fallout is courageous, imaginative and wholly believable. It’s also terrific fun.
I actually wish some bits were true.
The premise is enticing – Young British Artists, led by a character called Randall – are shaking up and seducing London’s art establishment. Damien Hirst was around in the early days, but a lethal combination of train + alcohol took him out of the frame.
The story is told by an observer, Vincent. Much like Stingo in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Fanny in Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love or Nick in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Vincent's on the fringe.
This novel bristles with character and characters. The former manifests itself in superb set pieces such as the artistic boat intervention on the Great Day of Art, where the reader can feel both sides of the tension. Aggrieved audience and guerrilla artists, both glad they were there because they needed each other.
The characters, many of them real people, are deftly drawn, suggesting depths and tangents with one tiny stroke. Randall himself is a massive personality who looms across the present narrative (after his death) with equal presence as he does the past.
Vincent's arrival in New York, as one of the trustees of the phenomenally successful Randall (deceased), triggers a legacy neither he nor anyone else had expected. Randall’s last laugh.
The book is as colourful, ambitious and as unpredictably expansive as its eponymous hero. It takes in art’s awkward relationship with sponsorship, the peculiar effects of the observer on the observed (refractions and reflections intensified in the video made by Randall’s son Josh), and the impossibility of maintaining rebellion against the establishment once it's been embraced.
There are some perfectly crafted lines, which post 1990s, seem instant soundbites.
“The danger of success is that you fail to grow in proportion to it.”
“He had one of those severe, northern European faces that seem to say: you’re enjoying yourself now, but soon it will be winter.”
"The sight and sound of waves on the shore at night always seemed to her obscene, uncanny... as if they were proof that the unconscious mind lived on after death."
So much entertaining and thoughtful detail form the background that I already know I must re-read for more of the subtle references I missed. Sunshines, super-heroes and The Painted Grape – do we admire them as art, or acknowledge the verisimilitude to reality? In this case, I’d say both.
You'll like this is you enjoyed: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman, John Maybury's film Love Is the Devil (adapted from Daniel Farson's book on Francis Bacon), Spending by Mary Gordon.
Avoid if you dislike: contemporary British art, 1990s London, descriptions of pornographic oil paintings.
Ideal accompaniments: Eat black grapes, drink caffè corretto and listen to Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus. Wear yellow.
Genre: Contemporary, literary fiction.