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Blue Ruin by Hari Kunzru review – sex, drugs and conceptual art

Blue Ruin by Hari Kunzru review – sex, drugs and conceptual art

I’ve always admired Hari Kunzru’s novels for their dense, satirical plunge into subcultures. His characters are nervy, laconic, forever looking for a chance to escape their domestic lives, brimming not so much with feelings as ideas. Mike Frame, the protagonist of My Revolutions (2007), may be living the “rich person’s fantasy” of a country life with his spouse and stepdaughter at the turn of the millennium, but once upon a time he went by a different name and was involved too deep with a militant ultra-left activist group in the late 1960s and early 70s. White Tears explored the American popular music scene, with two twentysomething New York-based hipster record producers who grow obsessed with old blues singers because their songs were “more intense and authentic than anything made by white people”. In Red Pill, a middling British writer has a nervous breakdown while on an artists’ retreat in Berlin and becomes curious about the nihilistic visions of neo-Nazis and edgelords.

Blue Ruin is a pandemic novel and opens with Jay, an erstwhile British conceptual artist now living out of his car in New York, who encounters his ex-girlfriend, Alice, while delivering groceries for an app upstate. He is mindful of looking old and exuding the “stink of ill health and gas station food”, having been kicked out of a cramped bunk-bed housing situation in Queens after he tested positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, she is standing all masked up at the door of a sylvan cottage, her skin looking “glossy” and “radiant”. He runs out of breath while dropping her bags, and she doesn’t just recognise him, but insists that he stay in an unkempt barn in the same property. Years ago she’d cheated on him with Rob, Jay’s closest friend in art school, now a commercially successful painter. Imagine Jay’s surprise on learning that Alice ended up marrying Rob and they are quarantining with another couple – Rob’s gallerist, Marshal, and his girlfriend, Nicole – in the house upstate.

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If the love triangle makes you think of the movie Challengers, rest assured that the sex scenes in the novel leave nothing to the imagination. When Jay inevitably sleeps with Alice in the barn, he feels “a circle closing”. Alice, in turn, tells him that she’s arrived straight from an argument with Rob: “I told him I was coming to fuck you.” Kunzru stacks things against Rob all too unfairly by portraying him as a patronising husband, a sleazeball who can’t resist hitting on cocktail waitresses and female assistants (even Nicole), a painter whose prices went up with the influx of capital in the art world but who also ended up losing himself in the process. Alice studied art history at the Courtauld and dreamed of becoming a curator once. And yet we rarely hear about her artistic tastes or influences. Marshal, too, doesn’t deviate from the stereotype of a New York gallery owner: slick, indelicate, somewhat unstable, always luring artists to sell out.

The programmatic plot is somewhat redeemed when Jay describes his “inescapably cerebral” years trying to establish himself in the 90s East End art scene. He grew disillusioned with painting just as artworks were becoming lucrative investments, fuelled by a desire to avoid making “statement objects for the rich”. Instead he became a popular young artist in London doing provocative performance pieces, inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who famously wondered in 1913 if one could “make works that are not works of art”. Jay became a cult figure online when he dropped out of the scene, sometime after Alice ran away with Rob. Jay’s 20-year disappearance of sorts – a period when he backpacked across Asia, lived in an experimental commune in the south-west of France, and briefly worked for a crew that trafficked drugs from the north African coast – was all part of an extended performance piece called Fugue: “You can make vanishing into a project.”

This narrative twist, however, only makes sense as an allegorical move. Kunzru has his sights trained on the elite insularity of modern art. But Blue Ruin doesn’t ask much from the reader by portraying virtually every member of the scene as either a drug addict or a sellout. I yearned for a more interesting chasm between what the characters do and what they think or feel. At one point, Rob and Jay clash over a rifle in the former’s studio. I might as well have been watching a Hollywood movie.

Source: theguardian.com