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BOOK REVIEW: NOT KNOWING WHO HUGH GRANT IS: MICHAEL BRACEWELL'S THE NINETIES: WHEN SURFACE WAS DEPTH



"Bracewell's take on the icons of the nineties is not as simple as it might seem. Of course Bracewell sees the stench of death in everything, the tacky balls-up it became, the failure of culture to resist commerce, its surface sheen blinding out almost all else. But he is alert to the idea that though at first this is deadening and stupid all over, exhaustively so, he also suggests there is more, that indeed there was a depth to the surface. This is a curious twist to the title of the book: a careful reader can see that Bracewell is finding depth in the culture dominated by celebrity glam."

By Richard Marshall

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


'I suggested that in his insensate wish to consume the world he was gobbling up and shitting out everything of value' (Michael Moorcock, King Of The City p 244) This is a Romantic's response to the brutality of consumerism. It is Romanticism that invents consumerism by opposing it. The Romantic has impressions that neither time nor circumstance is able to efface. Yet a decade can be a long time and time brings plain sense and plain speaking that put an end to thick-coming fancies. The waking dream, the giddy maze of opinions started, left and resumed in the past, opinions in which youth finds its greatest pleasures, are hammered out by the cynical realities of life based on commerce and contract.

For the last two decades Michael Bracewell has been caught up in this story. Throughout the last decade an intense and brilliant output in newspapers, magazines, novels and short stories has filled in some of the details. And here in his new book, The Nineties: When Surface was Depth we get them all pulled together, presented with a threaded essay that joins up the pieces. The book is a piece of diversified mosaic, a tessellated pavement without cement, with friends and enemies, the strange and the familiar indented and dovetailed but utterly unsafe to take at face value and stand on. Like Elizabeth Young's wonderful Pandora's Handbag, he makes cultural criticism a good but dangerous read.

The tone's elegiac: 'Freezing cold in Cavendish Square, shadows in the doorways of John Lewis -- the clear night sky, promising frost, above the ornamental bricks of Marylebone's rooftops.' Oh yes, hear that sad dying fall and you could join it up seamlessly with: 'Somebody had blundered and the most expensive orgy in history was over… It was borrowed time anyhow…and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.' F Scott Fitzgerald's Echoes Of The Jazz Age is never far away in these pieces. That and a perfectly pitched humour that wickedly exposes the subtle points of this most subtle of writers' most subtle points. If he's to call a spade a spade he's doing it with a certain Wildean bravado, he's having a ball where each camp witticism is an arch stylistic spado.

Which makes that connection between testicular and testament you find more purely in Beckett's Murphy and Mercier and Camier but you find here nevertheless, for Bracewell is both brave and testifying to his own times, which is an honourable role for the writer. Bracewell can write of the Pet Shop Boys and fashion and then bravely go beyond just fashion, or even suggest that fashion can go beyond fashion, just fashion, saying that '… they have always managed to mirror the zeitgeist while retaining their cultural independence' (p35), proposing that we look beneath '… lustrous sheen on the surface of their image…' before ballsily producing a sentence that strikes you as both hilariously flash and weirdly associative: 'After all, they even managed to cover Village People's 'Go West' with a Russian constructivist spin.' With writing like this you know you're going to have a lot of fun so long as you keep your brain switched to fluid.

If one of the reasons for the book having been written is to take up former Ludus guitarist Ian Divine's wish '… to not know who Hugh Grant is…' (p51), then it sets out to do that by exhausting the possibility of Hugh Grant. The project is an act of secular theology where the issue of what it means to know who Hugh Grant is -- or any celebrity of course -- is exactly the point that has to be answered. Because Bracewell's take on the icons of the nineties is not as simple as it might seem. Of course Bracewell sees the stench of death in everything, the tacky balls-up it became, the failure of culture to resist commerce, its surface sheen blinding out almost all else.

But he is alert to the idea that though at first this is deadening and stupid all over, exhaustively so, he also suggests there is more, that indeed there was a depth to the surface. This is a curious twist to the title of the book: a careful reader can see that Bracewell is finding depth in the culture dominated by celebrity glam. Though maybe what is being seen is ill it is never ill seen, nor is this a writer who belies what he sees by saying ill of it. So neither ill seen nor ill said, there is more to the project of understanding the last Millennium's last decade than may at first meet the eye. So there really is depth in the surface. Something was happening after all.

So this is a writer who works at this moribund culture with an energy that belies the thought that he really believes there is just the moribund in it. Or maybe it's about the nature of the moribund, perhaps it is those deathly qualities that the nineties reveal that draws him to them. Part of the humour and knowingness of Bracewell comes from his observing that there could be more medicos than moribunds in the place -- that the very postmodern irony of the situation leaves everything more dead than alive -- but alive nevertheless, ironically. And we might ask -- clever arses all of us -- is a double irony like a double negative?

The fascination lies in this uneasy relationship between the writer and his subject. Being alive to the deadness of the nineties, the book becomes a memento mori to something which seems to be about real estate but, being so attended, becomes more than that, is about a real live state. And being this, it is thus alive to the liveliness of that state as it was, as it was in the past, in the idea we carry forward from that past into the present. In a real sense it's an experiment in Proustian memory.

'Looking down from the apartment in Warrington Crescent, there was a feeling of being momentarily absent from one's body, neither lost in thought nor quietly mediational, but drawn, somehow, down into the gusting rain and the darkness -- a kind of emotional hypothermia, with memories taking place of sleep' (p51). It's after this he writes of Ian Divine's wish to not know who Hugh Grant was.

Bracewell finds value -- depth -- in the 'sensational infotainment' and 'cultural cloning' that defined the nineties for him, where '.. the idea of originality per se had become subordinate to the cloning process…' He does this whilst at the same time deriding the whole process. Bracewell attends to the situation with such vigor and nerve that, holding steady in the face of Hugh Grant's celebrity status, he is able to discern grander contours and reads them as outlines of a more complex landscape than is usually acknowledged.

Bracewell works on all sorts to do this: 'Culture Vulturing City Slickers' brings up an interview with Howard Devoto who says 'I don't like most of this new wave music. I don't like music. I don't like movements… What was once unhealthily fresh is now clean old hat…' and Bracewell glosses Devoto as '… playful, self-aware and endlessly self-questioning.' His essay on British experimental art in the 90's 'Contemporary Interventionism' is thoughfully concerned with the idea of integrity: is there any of that anywhere now, and what does it mean anyway? He looks at the familiars of Emin, Hirst, the Chapman Brothers as 'the convulsions of outraged Romanticism', he notes Stuart Home on archivists and librarians and also on the way art can dampen political activism: 'For Stuart Home…' writes Bracewell as he charts the development of 'Reclaim The Streets' activism, '…as a veteran of many interventionist, hoaxing and direct action campaigns, the political significance of anarchic demonstrations should not become too intimate with art. "The danger is that you begin to brand such street actions as art and thereby dampen their political directives. It's always easy for them to try and control us by treating us a cult."' Bracewell jams together all sorts of contraries in order to find out what is really happening. Just because something is popular he doesn't automatically sneer. He isn't content to rest with the received idea. He will wonder about it, go out and talk to it and about it.

In doing this he constantly refreshes the imaginative, critical and political questions that surge around him. Within the circle of each dramatic passion he interviews and discusses, each is felt keenly, profoundly and as rapidly as possible but he does not go beyond them, does not feel further than the phenonomenon, the individual he is discussing allows. In this way each essay is set up in strong contention with each other, not as a set of profiles, looking the same way, their faces turned round to the reader. This is where the whole drama of the book comes from; there's always something opposite in the essays, an argument between the people and phenomena he's writing about, a contention, a striving against each portion, which keeps the reader having to intervene and make his/her own judgements. It's a liberating performance.

So, 'The Barbarism Of The Self-Reflecting Sign' discusses the art of Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Reality TV, Tracey Emin, Ulrika Jonsson, Art and Fashion, The Carpenters, Barry Adamson and Morrissey and each agent is shown as suffering in acting and acting in suffering. Iconic compositions each and all of them, Bracewell is both admiring, attracted and repulsed by these elements; and throughout the book there's a sense of composition and decomposition as affinities and antipathies emerge. To read his essays about Emin and Jonsson back to back keeps up a unity of interest which comes about by a sort of critical intuition -- there's nothing separate, labelled, ticketed and parcelled out in the book as a whole -- Emin and Jonsson don't play into each other's hands but play out their own dramas, are allowed to play them out, because Bracewell's imagination and critical gut is, at its core, discursive and flexible. This is a grand experiment and until the experiment is tried we don't know the result, the turn that'll be taken. From Emin to Jonsson through to Morrissey, what was the depth? What the surface? Where the meaning? What the meaning? Who the final arbiter? Has it all come to this ? -- whatever 'this' might turn out to be? And is that all bad? Well, Bracewell has the legs to carry this story on, keep the questions coming with dandy gusto.

In 'Exquistite: The Gentrification of the Avant-garde' he walks to infantilism and dumbing down -- Toy Story, Bridget Jones' Diary, Disney, and then on to a major piece on Yoko Ono, '… one of the most famous women in the world. She's famous for being John Lennon's widow, famous for being a strident feminist, famous for being a misunderstood artist, famous for things she never even did…' This is followed by one on Nan Goldin who had she been a writer rather than a cult photographer would, according to Bracewell '… be closer to Chekhov than to Kathy Acker or William Burroughs… because Goldin's photographs… tell stories drawn from her lived experience.' Which in turn is followed by a piece on Duran Duran!

That is surely a challenge in the book equal to that of writing about Ulrika Jonsson for surely there are few who would dare to place this boy band as something worth discussing in terms of the weight of years and the highest contemplations of human life. Or even human culture. But that's what I mean about Bracewell's sense of daring, his willingness to pick up whatever was there in his purview and review it, turn it this way and that and find out what it was worth -- did anything lie underneath its crassly smooth, shiny surface? And by bumping Duran Duran against the others there's a rapid whirl of ideas and possibilities -- contending, always contending -- that keeps the book moving and interesting, and supplies a source for further investigations, new experiments.

He takes us to 'Quentin Crisp on the Lower East Side' thinking of the Wizard Of Oz before going 'Retro: Running Out Of The Past' where he tries out the idea that 'It could be said that we haven't had any new popular culture in the 1990's, we've simply had the recent past again, focusing on a selective memory of the 1970's.' So we get him brooding on Punk, Softcore, Alexander McQueen -- who's quoted as saying that he hates the circles he mixes in. This seems to be one of the strands that all these characters have in common (Bracewell too) -- it's the Groucho joke: I don't want to be part of any club that will have me as a member! Then on he goes, to photographs by Dorothy Bohm, to Michael Caine ('It's the voice -- all string vest and indignation, straight from the pubs and garage forecourts of south-east London…') to the Whitechappel Gallery, to Malcolm McDowell ('A Clockwork Orange was essentially a comic performance. I used to loot my style from Eric Morecambe…') to Roxy Music. These are long, perplexing and astute pieces based on interviews conducted by Bracewell that deliver mysterious, unfathomed answers out of what might otherwise be characterised as just another glitzy puppet-show.

So they leave the reader awake, wondering about the subjects themselves as well as just exactly what Bracewell thinks is going on. Why does he go to Jonsson for an interview? Does he want to find himself proved wrong? And what would it be to prove him wrong? What you don't get in any of this is murder -- Wordsworth's 'we murder to dissect' -- and that's an important feature of everything here. Bracewell's motivation is to find out what is happening but it's through laying out each of the subjects in contention that meanings are brought about. Bracewell rarely debunks his subjects, never lands a character assassination at our feet as he trawls his big fish. None of the celebrities would be hurt reading this stuff. But maybe after reading all of them they would begin to wonder just who they were and what they were doing. Hugh Grant would at last not know Hugh Grant.

The writing that stitches the essays together suggests that there is a unifying theme, but I'm not sure there is really. In fact, the intriguing thing about what Bracewell has written in between the collected, pre-written pieces is that he has created himself in those pieces. He becomes just another of the characters, a brooding enigma, a grey misty critic Nosferatu, contending with all the rest.

'Post-industrial/Auric Food' gives us Motorways, Ian Davenport's paintings, Executives, Sexual Intrigue In the Office (a piece which could act as a fascinating introduction to Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet or his own Perfect Tense, The power of the Double Act (Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer et al), Patti Smith and finally Paul Laffoley and the Boston Visionary Cell, a classic romantic '… in the tradition of William Blake, Jules Verne or HG Wells…' In the last two pieces on Smith and Laffoley there's a sense of Bracewell listening in to something that directly takes up Romanticism. It all gets a bit mystic and primitive. Terrific stuff.

It ends with Bracewell again trying to work out whether there was anything there, did he really meet anything that was worth the time. And again there's the lament, the sense of loss where, having thought once there was something. '… you look again and there's nothing there - just an up-turned packing case and a couple of empty plastic cups…' This is his final moment.

You reach the end and you realise that what you're reading is a writer reflecting on the characteristic difference between youth and a later period of life -- that we, as we get older, by degrees, learn to take things more as we find them, call them more by their real names and no longer look at everything through the genial atmosphere of our own existence. More literal, less credulous, we lose much enjoyment, and gain some useful and some useless knowledge.

But something more profound comes over too -- that the melancholy privilege of art is that it exists chiefly in ideas. It is not liable to serious reverses. If Bracewell's book reminded me of something else I had read, it was Hazlitt in his essay 'Pictures At Burleigh House' who makes this point brilliantly: ' …we need never be afraid of raising our standard of taste too high; for the mind rises with it, exalted and refined, and can never much be injured by finding out its casual mistakes. Like the possessor of a splendid collection, who is indifferent to or turns away from common pictures, we have a selector gallery in our own minds. In this sense, the knowledge of art is its own exceeding great reward.' Bracewell knew he had seen something of value, had had the idea of it, and whatever sparked this idea -- be it Morrissey or Ulrika Jonsson -- the mind, in what depends on the mind alone, soon rises from defeat unhurt.

Where others treading this ground might be found bracingly satirical or fogyishly powdered, puffed up and pompous, Bracewell is a Romantic, and he dwells in a mind fearing the humiliation of time's rebuke to that Romantic sensibility. Post-modernism is the defense mechanism of such Romanticism, a way of holding on to the imaginative impulse that is a dreaming mood, dreaming of deathless works and deathless names even whilst confronting the reality of empty plastic cups. So this is ghostly po-mo, an eerie Fitzgeraldian sensibility hunting half a day for a forgotten dream that is wondering, beautiful, funny and sad.





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