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Sunday, 25 March 2012

This is Life

this-is-life1Google Analytics says 85% of my readers will only stay here long enough to read about forty words so, for their benefit, let me cut to the chase: this is a great book—you should buy it. If only for the cover.

Now for the rest of you let me explain myself. This is the fourth book by Dan Rhodes that I’ve reviewed on this site. The other three are, in order: Gold, Timoleon Vieta Come Home and Little Hands Clapping. I have also read but not reviewed Anthropology and Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love and I own a copy of The Little White Car which he wrote under the pseudonym Danuta de Rhodes but I’ve not got round to reading it. This puts Rhodes in a rare position because there is only one other author whose collected works I own—discounting those one-hit-wonders I might have—and that is Samuel Beckett. He is certainly one of the few living authors whose books I would consider reading based purely on his name who’s not a literary novelist.

I’ve sat and looked at that last sentence for quite a while. I find I’m not altogether comfortable with it because I suspect in his heart of hearts Dan Rhodes is a literary novelist but as soon as he puts pen to paper he ends up writing funny stuff. And that tends to distract one from the fact that he’s actually quite a decent writer. In the same way that Wodehouse was arguably the finest craftsman of the English language in the 20th Century, Rhodes is without a doubt a notch or two up from your average comic novelist because at the core of each book he generally has a very serious point to make.

This is Life is a very typical Dan Rhodes book in that respect. It contains the slightly-offbeat characters we have become used to and they struggle through the same fangled plotlines we’ve become used to, all of which is resolved neatly—but not terribly neatly—at the end. The thing is, as with the other books, although you’ve spent the previous 422 pages smiling, grinning, chuckling out loud quite possibly, once you’ve read the 423rd page he wipes that smile off your face and leaves you with something to think about and I like how he does this.


So what’s the book about? Life. It’s also about Life. If there is any topic that might make a novelist—comic, literary or something-in-between—think twice before starting it would have to be squaring up to the meaning of life. Monty Python had a decent stab at it though never quite pulled it off, but what about Dan Rhodes? This is where he earns that extra notch because he manages to build up the reader’s expectations—I won’t say it was the only thing that kept me reading but it was the main thing (I wanted to see his answer to the meaning of life)—and yet he somehow manages to wriggle out of it leaving the momentum he’s created to carry the reader to his own definition. Which is what art should be all about. As Professor Papavoine says to the young art student, Aurélie Renard:

‘There are far too many words in the art world, anyway; all they do is create an unnecessary fog.’

‘So you think people shouldn’t talk about art?’

‘No, if people stop talking about it we’ll be in big trouble. We need to keep critics in business for a start. What if they all lost their jobs and had to work elsewhere? It would be chaos. Would you feel safe travelling in a train driven by a redundant arts correspondent?’

Aurélie laughed. Professor Papavoine had a knack for snapping her out of a bad mood.

‘It’s the artists themselves who need to learn to keep their mouths shut and leave all the chatter to everyone else.’

There is certainly a lot of chatter in Paris at this time, which is where the book is set. Life has come to Paris and Jean-Didier Delacroix, the chief arts correspondent for L’Univers, is looking forward to adding his not-insubstantial voice to all this babble:

[H]e, Jean-Didier Delacroix, was the only person from the entire media to have been granted access to Le Machine in the run-up to the opening of Life. This was the biggest event of the year in the art world. Everybody was talking about it, and everybody was going to want to read Jean-Didier Delacroix’s take on it. […] He had already had a long conversation with the arts editor about it, and they were in full agreement on their opinions of Le Machine. It was as much as they could do to stop themselves from rubbing their hands together and cackling with glee.

Okay, some clarification is needed. I mentioned that Aurélie is a student and her professor is Professor Papavoine who, a few days earlier, had endured the one day in the academic calendar that he found himself dreading the most:

The students had been given free rein to come up with a personal project, and it was his job to listen to their ideas and either sanction them or not.

For the most part he, despite his best efforts, zones out when they start wittering on about “recontextualising found objects, of blurring the boundary between art and the everyday, and of provoking extreme reactions. One of the students, Sébastien, [even said] something about subverting the zeitgeist.” Irrespective of what twaddle they present him he invariably nods and wishes them well in their endeavour. And that’s always been the case. With one exception some years earlier:

[One] student had proposed a project in which he would publicly collect, categorise and display everything that came out of his body over a twelve week period. A big glass vat would contain his urine, another would house his excrement, and small demijohns and specimen jars would hold snot, earwax, semen and sweat. He had planned on presenting this an exhibition called, simply, Life, during which he would be on display himself twenty-four hours a day, naked and publicly topping-up the exhibits as the weeks went by, while microphones picked up the sound of his bodily functions and a series of speakers amplified them around the room in near-deafening surround sound.

Professor Papavoine had pulled a slightly quizzical face and said he wasn’t quite sure about this idea, at which the student had turned white with rage and stormed out, vowing to leave the college, turn his back on Paris and make his name in London, which he had promptly done with this very concept.

The student has also now changed his name to Le Machine and, after much international acclaim, has decided it is time to return to his home town and face the music as it were.

Aurélie Renard is, of course, conscious of the kerfuffle concerning Life but she is ignorant of the fact that Le Machine was once a student at the same college in which she is currently enrolled and that he once sat were she found herself sitting only a few days earlier waiting to present her proposal to the good professor. She had nothing nearly as radical in mind but she is very much the exception and the Sébastiens have got her all in a tizzy. All she really wants to do is draw but she feels there needs to be an edge. And it is that edge that sets things in motion:

She told him her plans to blindly throw a dart into a map, and how the nearest suitable public space to where it landed would be the starting point of the project. Then she started saying something about small stones, and strangers, and random selection but he lost the thread.

The thread involved Aurélie chucking a pebble into the air and then basically approaching who it hits and asking them to be her art project. The one thing she had not considered—okay, there were actually many things she hadn’t considered but this is the one that makes all the difference—was what if it hit a baby? Which it does. Needless to say the mother is not happy.

‘If there is anything I can do to make it up to you and the baby,’ said Aurélie, ‘just tell me.’

‘Anything? Really?’

The next thing she knows the mother is breezing off into the distance telling her that she’d see her back there, at that very spot, at nine twenty-two the following Wednesday at which point she would collect the baby, a boy, called Herbert, from Aurélie.

Citroen-2CV-1963Once she has gathered her thoughts Aurélie texts her best friend, Sylvie Dupont, for moral support (a “gun-toting heartbreaker” according the blurb on the back of the book) and here the book’s positively Shakespearean subplot unfolds involving a 1963 Citroën 2CV, the Akiyamas, a retired Japanese couple on a week’s vacation, photographs of their two children, an “aggressive and disdainful” cat called Makoto and a Franco-Japanese translator named Lucien with a penchant for the Oriental physiognomy. Oh, and a monastery. It all gets very complicated.

Not that Aurélie’s storyline is that straightforward especially when she goes around telling her neighbours that Herbert is actually made out of rubber:

‘I know. It’s quite incredible really. It’s a wonder of modern science.’

You’d also think that being lumbered with a baby would put men off and yet, in the middle of everything, Aurélie finds herself drawn to a certain Léandre Martin and it really does look as if it’s love at first sight until the second date when he insists on holding his breath for two minutes on the dot of one o’clock:

‘I have a reason for it,’ he said, his eyes closed, ‘but it’s always been something I haven’t talked about.’

She isn’t willing to listen though and it looks as if that’s that, but by this point we’ve read the chapter which tells us why he’s holding his breath and there’s no way this character is just going to fade into the background. Just where exactly his place in Goldthis complex web is I’m not going to say but the strange thing is it’s he who holds the key to the meaning of Life if only we realised that at the time.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not my personal favourite of his books—that would go to Gold actually—but it holds its own well. At 108,000 words it’s longer than his first three books put together (and his longest to date) and that’s part of the reason I wasn’t as fond of it but regular readers will know to shrug off my personal dislike for longer texts. It was apparently written, according to his blog, “in a frenzied twelve and a half week sitting.” I mention this without passing comment but reading between the lines I get the feeling he thinks this was a good thing. The book will be available as an e-book but if you appreciate good book design you should really check out the paperback with its whopping six-panel wraparound cover (including the spine). Most impressive.


Rhodes was named one of Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists 2003, his novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home won the Authors' Club First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.

Born in 1972 he has worked in various jobs including stockroom assistant in a bookshop and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City. He says that 1980's band The Smiths are "still the soundtrack to my life—I can't work out if they saved it or ruined it"—and is, from all accounts, a huge fan of Ken Dodd.

At the moment, as far as I’m aware, he lives in Buxton with his wife and son but since his website isn’t actually maintained by him, he’s not on Facebook and has somehow managed to keep his private life pretty much offline (all credit to him in this day and age) that’s as much as I know.

You can read my other reviews of his books here:

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