Have you ever stopped to consider where your thoughts come from, or at least how one thought leads to another until you have an unbroken chain that's taken you from an A to a Zed that have nothing in common with each other? That thing called a brain that's stuck up between our ears can do the most amazing things without us even noticing. One minute you could be talking about what you'd like for lunch, the next planning your own funeral.
In the early part of the twentieth century, James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe began experimenting with a style of writing called stream of consciences in attempts to chart the workings of the thought process. Since then, quite a few writers have followed in their footprints with varying degrees of success. Trying to recreate the continual flood of information that most of process from second to second without it becoming an exercise in tedium is a difficult and painstaking process.
Ideally, the author will utilize stream of conscience at points throughout a novel as a means of letting a character justify his or her behaviour, and to give the reader deeper insight into him or her. Of course, if as the reader we don't give a damn about the character it was all just wasted ink and paper.
Stepping into someone else's thoughts can generate a slew of feelings in a reader. But I must say that David Thewlis' novel The Late Hector Kipling is the first that's made me feel like I was rubber necking at a car accident, trying to spot the corpse as I drove by slowly. Published in Canada by Penguin Canada this brilliant piece of satire, written in the first person, on the world of contemporary visual art and artists, charts the collapse of Hector Kipling's life from successful artist with loving girlfriend to nut-job.
Along the way, we are introduced to one of the most wonderful collections of misfits and dysfunctional characters I've had the pleasure of meeting between the pages of a book in the longest time. There's Kirk who paints pictures of cutlery, Hector's oldest friend Lenny Snook who does billboard campaigns for bottled water in his underwear when he's not doing award winning conceptual art that involves filling a Cadillac with blood and digging a hole in a gallery floor.
But it's the world of contemporary art that is the true eccentric in this book. Hector has made his name by selling huge portraits of people's heads and is able to make a good living from the proceeds. But, he's not the one being nominated for an award. He's plagued with self-doubts about whether giant heads are what the world needs more of, and when a motorcycle accidentally drives through the centre of his first self-portrait, it's like a sign from the Gods.
It hadn't been a good week up then for him anyway, earlier he had broken into tears in the Tate gallery in London England while looking at the "The Scream" by Edvard Munch (a pretty healthy reaction I would have thought). Then he finds out that Kirk has a brain tumour. What's especially disquieting about this is that he finds that he's actually jealous of Kirk.
It's not that he wants to die; but he'd give anything to get the kind of attention that Kirk is getting now. Of course if Kirk were to actually die then that would be different, because he, Hector, would then get some of that pity because he would be the fiend of a person who died of a brain tumour. One can only hope.
David Thewlis is best known for his portrayal of Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies, but with The Late Hector Kipling, his first novel, he proves that he is just as adept at writing as he is as acting. He has a wonderful ear for the ridiculous and a keen sense of the absurd that he puts to use with great effect. What's especially gratifying is the way everything comes to its illogical, logical conclusion in the end.
Perhaps being an actor he's used to balancing several thoughts in his head at once, but whatever the reason, the internal stream of conscience monologues he creates for Hector are wonderful examples of a mind that is always thinking. The only trouble is the thoughts the mind are thinking have started to veer away from rational and creative, into the realm of the bizarre and dangerous.
The transition from the eccentric and creative mind of a painter, to the state that Hector is in at the end of the novel is handled so deftly and subtlety that we barely notice it happening. The fact is that for many people who are artists the line between creative genius and mental instability is very thin and Hector is no exception.
If you like your comedy black, your satire pointed, and have a keen sense of the absurd than David Thewlis' The Late Hector Kipling will be your cup of tea. Biting, sharp, and wickedly funny, it exposes and explodes the conceits and pretensions of modern art with an intelligence and skill that is a pleasure to read.
(Originally posted October 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.