From a rising British novelist, an artful meditation on love and life in contemporary London
When David Pinner introduces his former teacher, the American artist Ruth Marks, to his friend and flatmate James Glover, he unwittingly sets in place a love triangle loaded with tension, guilt, and heartbreak. As David plays reluctant witness (and more) to James and Ruth's escalating love affair, he must come to terms with his own blighted emotional life. Set in the London art scene awash with new money and intellectual pretension, in the sleek galleries and posh restaurants of a Britannia resurgent with cultural and economic power, Nick Laird's insightful and drolly satirical novel vividly portrays three people whose world gradually fractures along the ineluctable fault lines of desire, truth, deceit, and jealousy. With wit, compassion, and acuity, Laird explores the very nature of contemporary romance-"The Death of Love in Modern Culture," as David puts it in one of his dyspeptic blog posts-among damaged souls whose hearts and heads never quite line up long enough for them to achieve true happiness.
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Nick Laird was born in 1975 in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, and until recently worked as a lawyer in London. His poems, essays and reviews have been published in various anthologies and journals including the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books. Laird's two poetry collections, 'To a Fault' and 'On Purpose', are published by Faber and Faber, and his first novel, 'Utterly Monkey', was published by Fourth Estate in 2005.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
At the kitchen table he’d turned a page of Time Out and there was her face. He’d been so shocked that he’d started to laugh. She was still beautiful – though squinting slightly as if she’d just removed a pair of glasses. Did she need glasses now too? He snipped out the inch-long update with nail scissors, folded it and filed it in his wallet. The exhibition, ‘Us and the US’, featured several British and American female artists, and it opened in three days.
When he reached the drinks table and lifted a plastic tumbler of wine, he noticed, with unexpected anger, how the suits had real champagne glasses. Money grants its owners a kind of armour, and this crowd shone with it. They were delighted and loud, and somewhere among them was Ruth. He headed towards her work and hovered.
She did look good; older, of course, and the hair now unnaturally blonde. Her nose was still a little pointed, oddly fleshless, and its bridge as straight and thin as the ridge of a sand dune; one lit slope, the other shaded. A tall man in a chalk-stripe suit held forth as she twisted the stem of her empty glass between forefinger and thumb. Her unhappy glance slid round the group. As one of the men whispered into her ear she turned away, and her eyes had the same cast as in the lecture hall, when she would gaze longingly over the heads of the students towards the exit.
‘Hello, oh excuse me, I’m sorry, Ruth, hi.’
David used one elbow to open a gap between the speaker and Ruth, and then slotted himself neatly into it.
‘Hello.’ The voice was lower than David would have guessed but instantly familiar. She still dressed in black but the materials had been upgraded. A pilous cashmere wrap, a fitted silk blouse.
‘You taught me at Goldsmiths, a long time ago now.’ He was staring too intently and looked down at her glass.
‘Oh, sorry. Of course, yes. What’s your name again?’
She presented her hand and David shook it firmly. He said there was no reason she’d remember him, but she repeated the name, making an American performance of the syllables: Dav-id Pin-ner. The three men had regrouped, and Chalk-stripe was still mid-anecdote. Ruth touched David’s hand for the second time.
‘Shall we find a drink?’
The queue was five-deep around the table. David knew he should stand in line for both of them, letting Ruth wait at some distance from the ungentle shoving, but to do so would be to lose her immediately to some suit or fan or journalist. Then Ruth stopped a waitress walking past, a black girl with a lip ring carrying a tray of prawns on Communion wafers.
‘Can I be really brazen and ask you for some wine? Would that be okay?’
She appraised them: David left her unconvinced, but Ruth, five foot five of effortless poise, carried them both easily. The wealthy expect and expect, and are not disappointed. When the waitress smiled in confirmation, her lip ring tightened disagreeably against her lower lip and David had to look away.
‘If you just let me get rid of these . . .’
He was nervous, and kept pushing prawn hors d’oeuvres into his mouth before the present incumbents were swallowed. Ruth picked a white thread from her shawl and said, ‘But what do you do now? Oh, I’ve lost your name again. I’m just terrible with names. I forget my daughter’s sometimes.’
David, chewing furiously, pointed at his mouth.
‘Of course . . . God, Goldsmiths.’
She said it dramatically, naming a battle they’d fought in together. After swallowing, David repeated his name and said he was a writer. This was not particularly true, at least not outside his private feeling.
‘Huh. So I managed to put you off art. Or maybe you write about it? Is this research?’
David thought she was very gently making fun of him. ‘No, I teach mainly, though I have reviewed—’
She shifted register and dipped her head towards him. ‘Look, I’m sorry for sweeping you off back there. The baby brother of my ex-husband had decided to explain to me how exactly I’d fucked up his life.’
‘God, I’m sure you could do without that.’
The immediacy, the easy intimacy, was surprising, and it had startled him to hear himself repeating God in the same dramatic way she’d said it. Did she mean she’d fucked up the ex-husband’s life or the ex-husband’s brother’s? He could imagine how she might unmoor a man’s existence.
‘You don’t have a cigarette, do you?’
‘Oh, I don’t think you’re allowed to smoke in here.’
‘They won’t mind. They’re all very . . . Ah, here we are. Darling, you’re an angel. A punk-rock angel.’
The ‘punk-rock’, David thought, showed Ruth’s age.
‘It was kind of you to come and see the exhibition, you know. I managed to lose touch with everyone I knew at Goldsmiths.’ Her dark eyes cast about the room.David waited for them to settle on him and they did. ‘It was a very difficult time for me . . . coming out of one thing, moving into another . . . Maybe you heard about it.’ David pursed his lips and nodded. He had no idea what she was talking about. Her tongue was very pink and pointed. ‘For so many years London was somewhere I just couldn’t come to, and now I’ve taken this residency here for a whole . . . Oh, stand there for a second. I don’t want to have to deal with Walter yet.’
Ruth edged David a few inches to the left.
‘Who am I hiding you from?’
‘Oh no, I’m not really hiding. He’s a friend. Walter. The Collector.’
‘Oh, it is.’ She swept her wine glass in a small circle for emphasis.
‘When Walter buys you, you know you’re in demand. And he keeps on buying you until your price is high enough and then he dumps your stock and floods the market. Or’ – the glass stopped in its circuit – ‘until you die, and then he plays the investors, drip-feeding your pieces to the auctioneer.’
‘A bit like a banker.’
‘He used to be. I think he still owns a couple.’
David glanced around the room. He wanted to see him now. He needed to get a good look at the sort of man who owned a bank or two. Instead he noticed the grey-haired man in the chalk-stripe approaching them. Hurriedly he asked, ‘So are you based in New York?’
‘Ah, there you are. Richard Anderson’s looking for you.’
‘He’s doing a special on young new artists.’
‘I’m neither young nor new, Larry . . . this is David, an old student of mine.’‘It’s very nice to meet you.’ David was anticipating nothing, so the warmth, when it came, felt considerable. The man looked like a perfect lawyer, clean edges, something moral in his smile.
‘Larry, where exactly is the club you were talking about?’
‘Oh, it’s just off St Martin’s Lane. The Blue Door. Do you know it?’
He looked expectantly at David, who rubbed a finger on the tip of one eyebrow and pretended to think. ‘The Blue Door? I’m not sure.’
Ruth placed two fingers on David’s arm – he felt it in his gut – and said, ‘We’re going on there later if you wanted to come. There’ll be a few of us. David’s a writer.’
Chalk-stripe’s interest had already passed. He glanced at his expensive watch and was all business.
‘Hmmmm, what time is it now? Half-eight. We’re probably heading over in, what, half an hour? Forty minutes?’
That night her exhibit was a sheet of black papyrus, four or five metres wide, that hung from floor to ceiling in the last room. Up close, its homogeneous black grew to shades of charcoal and slate and ink and soot, and its smooth appearance resolved into the flecked composition of chipboard. Its surface was wounded in a thousand different ways: minute shapes were pricked and sliced and nicked in it. There were Ordnance Survey symbols – a church, crossed axes – but also a crown, a dagger, a mountain, a star, miniature semaphore flags. And tiny objects – all silver – dangled or poked through it: safety pins, bracelet charms, an earring, a pin, what must be a silver filling. The man beside David pointed to the largest object, low down in the astral canopy, and said he was sure that the St Christopher medal, just there, must represent the Pole Star.
The gallery lights at that end of the room had been dimmed, and the work, Night Sky (Ambiguous Heavens), hung a foot away from the wall. Fluorescent strip lights had been placed behind it and shone through the fissures in the paper. As it wafted gently in the convection currents, breathing, it made a far-off tinkling sound. The conversation with Ruth had left him charged. He wanted to be affected, to give himself up to something, and standing a certain distance from the black, and being a little drunk, he felt engulfed. This was Ptolemaic night, endless celestial depths of which he was the core and the centre. Everyone around him disappeared, and he imagined himself about to step into the dream stupor of outer space.
David watched, he drank, he waited. He spent some time in front of a massive LCD sign that took up an entire wall of the gallery. As he watched, a single number ros...
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Book Description Viking Adult, 2009. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 670020974
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