Some time ago, I was blown away by Siri Hustvedt’s astounding achievement, in What I Loved, of creating, and containing, an artistic practice in a novel. I wrote:
Hustvedt brings to life numerous bodies of work that are conceived and created, that are critiqued and dissected, that are received and reviewed, that fester and mutate… and it strikes me that this as authentic and ‘real’ as art gets. There is so much work that can’t be touched or viewed ‘in the flesh’, that operates on a premise of concept: the legend of a piece is bound by language and permeates cultural society through media that often belie the fact that the work existed to the point that it is inconsequential whether it did.
I thought the feat was utterly unique. Until now.
Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall is an ‘alternative’ view of the phenomenon of the Young British Artists (YBAs) that we all know, and love or hate to varying degrees, from the nineteen-nineties. It’s alternative because, though it draws primarily on fact, Damien Hirst is notably absent (accidental death) and his void is filled by Randall, the figure around whom the novel revolves. Gibbs brings this startling, rambunctious, and borderline offensive character to life with a deft drawing that teeters between narcissism and pseudoism – a drawing conducted through unlikely friend, Vincent Cartwright.
The artistic practice that Gibbs invents is gloriously wicked and clever – ranging from the scatological to the destructive – and it embodies countless art school debates that I’ve either overheard or (to my minor embarrassment) been a part of. These arguments get boiled down, repeatedly, into ‘Randallisms’: Contemporary art: art you don’t have to see to get; art you don’t have to like to buy. Gibbs plays with the reader with these pithy statements that seem contemptuous in tone – it’s impossible to know if celebration or denigration is the point. This Schrodinger’s box, this keeping the lid on the simultaneous possibilities of futility and vitality, is mirrored superbly in a scene later on in the book, when Vincent recalls one of Randall’s arguments about daily encounters with artwork – at your workplace, at home – the work is physically in stasis, but its effectiveness, its meaning, alters with the gaze, with the myriad emotions and preoccupations of the viewer that colour the encounter. The work holds all those possibilities – it is objective – and the viewer opens the box in the moment of looking.
So far, so brilliant. What makes this an extraordinary novel though, and something else it has in common with What I Loved, is that it is essentially about friendship. About how a shared passion, a point of contention, can be fertile soil for friendship. Vincent writes of Randall:
He shaped me. There, if you were looking for one, is my definition of friendship. If knowing someone doesn’t change you as a person, then they’re not a friend, they’re an acquaintance.
The book interweaves Vincent’s attempts to record the man and the work, with action in the present – a discovery, by Randall’s widow, and Vincent’s former lover, Justine. This layer of the story is totally compelling, and provides a counterpoint to Vincent’s recollections that is full of tenderness, muted agony and frustration. If Randall, in life, is unpredictable, then in death he becomes a seemingly immoveable obstacle to gleaning understanding. This foray that Vincent and Justine take into the hinterland is precariously poised – a maelstrom of doubt, of fear and of contradictory desires – and it is no surprise that Randall’s progeny (both his vindictive paintings, and his wilful son) bring a host of possibilities crashing to earth in one inevitable trajectory.
What I loved (sorry, couldn’t help it) about Randall, though, is the sense of vulnerability that resonates between the lines, between the characters, between the ‘doing’ and the ‘doer’ of art. Vincent is an art novice (at times, I think this is the absolute best kind of audience) and Randall takes him under his wing, educates him. Vincent is aware of this inequity, aware of his role as ‘douchebag’, that he’s been bestowed this friendship precisely because he will ask what it all means. We have momentary glimpses that Vincent realises the potency of being a blank canvas for Randall, allowing him to impart his intentions in their purest form. In the main, Vincent consciously plays the part of dupe, valuing his role as insider, but he is at a loss when this is challenged by the discovery that Justine makes. She asks:
Are you angry with Randall because of his paintings, so you don’t want to be his friend any more, or are you angry at yourself because you were tricked?
Echoing Lily Briscoe’s thoughts as she’s painting in the third section of To the Lighthouse, we see Vincent struggling to accept that even after their death, our friends, and friendships, are still mutable.
What I Loved, by contrast, concentrates on the friendship between two respective ‘experts’ and their families. Over the course of the book, the painter’s career comes to eclipse the achievements of his friend the art historian, but this is less critical than the way in which their friendship develops through a mutual wrangle with art. But, being so heavily invested in ‘the scene’, these characters are less able to convey its precariousness – are further from the dalliance with invective than we get from Randall and Vincent.
The experience of reading these two books, despite their similarities, was wildly different, even if they engaged similar memory muscles of artistic debate. What I Loved stimulated an intellectual, discursive and reflexive side of me. But Randall burrowed into the core of me, bypassing taste, rejecting solitude, and directing my gaze not at the monstrous jokes we can have at our own expense, but at the compulsion to push at the boundaries, to find meaning where there seems only a vacuum.