I was initially hesitant to recommend Laird’s sly, cynical novel about the contemporary UK art world and its pretentious, self-absorbed characters. But this story - shaped around themes of love and sex, and jealousy that spreads out and destroys and transforms the landscape forever- is in fact a deeply compelling and sharply perceptive account of deceit, duplicity and betrayal.
At a trendy gallery opening, diffident, withdrawn, and overweight David Pinner
meets his ex-art teacher, the glamorous and beautiful forty-five year-old Ruth
Marks. Ruth is poised to set the art world on fire with her contemporary London
retrospective revolving around an abstract work on a sheet of black papyrus.
Ruth is the current hot product, and David’s attraction to her is gut-wrenching, the encounter leaving him charged and affected, even a little engulfed. He’s also eager to get Ruth to collaborate with him on an art installation set in an urban setting. But as the “cold shivers of hesitation’ settle along Ruth’s spine, David begins to feel his old insecurities settling in, and he’s only too willing to fall into his usual pattern of “comfortable passivity.”
David is a teacher of English literature, but “this once ugly duckling now a penguin, a dodo and a booby” spends much of his time alone, quietly blogging on the Internet and critiquing on his webzine. Although he has an easy jocularity with his twenty-something flatmate, James Glover, deep down David’s a little envious of Glover’s undeniable elegance and sex appeal, a physicality that is nothing but “tendon and muscle.”
David might share his flat with Glover and enjoy their sudden spurts of joviality, but the fiercely intellectual James lives in an entirely different universe. Yet Glover makes David feel masculine, daily pumping up his frail manly ego. When the two men get together with Ruth - and then Glover unexpectedly becomes Ruth’s new muse - the delicate dynamics shift, and they’re no longer as friendly or seen as Ruth’s wayward boys, “cocky, mocking and sly.”
Thus begin the cynical, misanthropic maneuverings of these three characters. Locked within their little hierarchy of ids and egos and superegos, David develops an irritating sense of being overlooked when Ruth unexpectedly starts showering attentions on Glover. David carefully maintains his cover, convinced he’s going to become a negligible thing, “an invisible man,”
but he is eventually seduced by an opportunity to sabotage Ruth and Glover’s budding romance.
Masterfully manipulating all three people, the author descends deep into David’s over-worked mind with its skewered sense of devotion, Ruth’s staggering artistic narcissism, and into Glover’s desperate
naïveté as he falls prey to Ruth’s brittle and pretentious artistic orbit, she in turn seduced by her
young muse’s hunky virility.
Balancing his characters’ surreptitious scheming, their petty sexual game-playing, and their desperate romantic manipulations against a picture-postcard London, Laird revels in the undercurrents of tension that ooze up and shape Ruth and Glover’s fragile affair, and the unwittingly cruel David, as he frantically tries to come to terms with the power of hate and the banality of love.