Book review: Blue Ruin, by Hari Kunzru

Like his last two novels, Blue Ruin finds Hari Kunzru grappling with the real ethical quandaries of the contemporary world, writes Stuart Kelly

The first thought that went through my mind when this new novel by Hari Kunzru arrived was “so, is this actually a trilogy?” This work is called Blue Ruin, following on from 2020’s Red Pill and 2017’s White Tears. The chromatic titles might nod at, say, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs films, but for all I know his next novel might be called Agent Orange or Yellow Jacket or Green Energy. The novels do not have the same characters or settings, but they do have very broadly similar concerns: the arts in the modern world.

White Tears involved two music producers who take a field recording of an anonymous chess-player in Washington Square singing “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own”. The recording is artificially aged, distressed and attributed to one “Charlie Shaw”. Unfortunately for them, people claim to have known about their fiction. The novel dealt with cultural appropriation, and the unbelievable idea of a post-race America.

Hide Ad

Red Pill, meanwhile, has an unnamed narrator who has written rather vaguely on taste, and is on a residency in Berlin, supposedly to write about Romanticism and “the I”. Mostly he watches a crime series which seems to be more violent version of True Detective. The suicidal egomania of Kleist shades into an a fixation with the show’s writer/producer and his paranoid far-right, smirking pseudo-Nietzsche philosophy. The gerontocracy of the Stasi is neatly paralleled to, at the ending, Hilary Clinton losing the election.

Hari Kunzru PIC: Bryan Bedder/Getty ImagesHari Kunzru PIC: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Hari Kunzru PIC: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Having written on music and poetics, Blue Ruin turns to the visual arts and more specifically an abandoned project from Red Pill, “a definitive case for the revolutionary potential of the arts”. Jay is a once promising artist fallen onto desperately hard times, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic. His uncertain job as a delivery driver takes him to a gated rural property, where the residents turn out to be his college friend Rob, now an immensely successful artist, and his wife Alice, who had been Jay’s girlfriend. They are sheltering from the virus along with Rob’s agent and his partner. The estate is part studio, part gallery, part hotel and the claustrophobic backdrop for a reunion which seems unlikely to be a reconciliation.

All three novels are comparable to Ali Smith’s seasonal quintet, and deal with the real ethical quandaries of the contemporary world. Kunzru draws the London art scene skilfully and convincingly. There is a slight game in recognising which art works inspired the fictional ones, and the weary hedonism and unearned cultural cachet has the queasy feeling of an embarrassing next-day recovered memory. That sour anger went hand in hand with delirious prices is the paradox the grates away in the book. Jay has pushed his ideas to their limit, moving from a concept work where he produced a work, photographed it and destroyed it, with legal witnesses and in public view, to the ne plus ultra: “THE DRIFTWORK”, an artwork of him not being an artist, or giving up on art, prefaced only by a statement “The only thing left behind by the artist is the scene of his disappearance”. That Jean Dubuffet, the pioneer of art naïf and the conceptualist founder Marcel Duchamp are namechecked is significant, alongside the “land art” works around the retreat. The question the book raises is simply: can art ever be detached from the market?

In tandem to this, and made clear by the other books, is an anxiety about the nature of authenticity. The faking of antiquity in White Tears is counterpoised to one (white) character’s insistence that the only genuine blues can be produced by black artists. The bleaching whiteness of the Bauhaus-like Deuter Center in Red Pill is a deliberate sterilisation of its white Aryan past, and the crackers Nordic Nazi occultism loses none of its power by being ersatz not echt. One canvas in Blue Ruin – the eponymous canvas – is of dubious provenance, and a key scene involves a moment which shimmers between spontaneous whim and stage-managed performance. It is reminiscent of the great scene in Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual when the character who collects unica, one-of-a-kind items, realises the Holy Grail he is being sold is a fake. It doesn’t matter: being the only version of the Holy Grail sold in that particular scam means it is a unica too. That concerns about veracity are paired with worries about surveillance, recording and authentication in all the novels is perhaps an indication that this is an ongoing oeuvre; and one could claim that Only Revolutions and Gods Without Men were working the same seam as well.

These ideas are presented with maturity, and in a prose which is beguilingly fluent. In an interview with Open magazine, Kunzru said “I don’t think art is going to save us in any way”. These novels are shrewd, nuanced, relevant and highly readable, but they are like an agon without a victor. The ideas are eloquently rehearsed, staged and dramatized but a judgement is unforthcoming. Aesthetics may not be salvation, but Kunzru seems quite bothered about it not to be bothered about it.

Blue Ruin, by Hari Kunzru, Scribner, £20