An insightful and drolly satirical novel about contemporary romance--"the kind of book Jane Austen would've written had she been male and hipper."
Look out for Nick Laird's new novel, Modern Gods, coming in June 2017
With his debut novel, Utterly Monkey, Nick Laird won acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for his deft humor and sharp-eyed powers of observation. In this new novel, disaffected thirty-something college teacher David introduces his former teacher, American artist Ruth Marks, to his friend and flatmate James Glover, unwittingly setting in place a love triangle loaded with tension, guilt, and heartbreak. Set in the London art scene awash with new money and intellectual pretension, Nick Laird's insightful and drolly satirical novel explores the nature of contemporary romance 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 Northern Ireland and studied at Cambridge and Harvard. He has published two novels, Utterly Monkey and Glover's Mistake, and three collections of poetry, To A Fault, On Purpose, and Go Giants. He is the recipient of the Betty Trask Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at New York University, and lives in New York with his wife, the writer Zadie Smith, and their two children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
At the kitchen table he’d turned a page of Time Out and therewas her face. He’d been so shocked that he’d started to laugh.She was still beautiful – though squinting slightly as if she’d justremoved a pair of glasses. Did she need glasses now too? Hesnipped out the inch-long update with nail scissors, folded it andfiled it in his wallet. The exhibition, ‘Us and the US’, featuredseveral British and American female artists, and it opened inthree days.
When he reached the drinks table and lifted a plastic tumblerof wine, he noticed, with unexpected anger, how the suits hadreal champagne glasses. Money grants its owners a kind ofarmour, and this crowd shone with it. They were delighted andloud, and somewhere among them was Ruth. He headed towardsher work and hovered.
She did look good; older, of course, and the hair now unnaturallyblonde. 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 suitheld forth as she twisted the stem of her empty glass betweenforefinger and thumb. Her unhappy glance slid round the group.As one of the men whispered into her ear she turned away, andher eyes had the same cast as in the lecture hall, when she wouldgaze 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 andRuth, and then slotted himself neatly into it.
‘Hello.’ The voice was lower than David would have guessedbut instantly familiar. She still dressed in black but the materialshad been upgraded. A pilous cashmere wrap, a fitted silkblouse.
‘You taught me at Goldsmiths, a long time ago now.’ He wasstaring 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 saidthere was no reason she’d remember him, but she repeatedthe name, making an American performance of the syllables:Dav-id Pin-ner. The three men had regrouped, and Chalk-stripewas still mid-anecdote. Ruth touched David’s hand for thesecond time.
‘Shall we find a drink?’
The queue was five-deep around the table. David knew heshould stand in line for both of them, letting Ruth wait at somedistance from the ungentle shoving, but to do so would be tolose her immediately to some suit or fan or journalist. Then Ruthstopped a waitress walking past, a black girl with a lip ringcarrying a tray of prawns on Communion wafers.
‘Can I be really brazen and ask you for some wine? Would thatbe okay?’
She appraised them: David left her unconvinced, but Ruth,five foot five of effortless poise, carried them both easily. Thewealthy expect and expect, and are not disappointed. Whenthe waitress smiled in confirmation, her lip ring tighteneddisagreeably 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 intohis mouth before the present incumbents were swallowed. Ruth picked a white thread from her shawl and said, ‘But what do youdo now? Oh, I’ve lost your name again. I’m just terrible withnames. 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 intogether. After swallowing, David repeated his name and said hewas a writer. This was not particularly true, at least not outsidehis private feeling.
‘Huh. So I managed to put you off art. Or maybe you writeabout 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 ofmy ex-husband had decided to explain to me how exactly I’dfucked up his life.’
‘God, I’m sure you could do without that.’
The immediacy, the easy intimacy, was surprising, and it hadstartled him to hear himself repeating God in the same dramaticway she’d said it. Did she mean she’d fucked up the ex-husband’slife or the ex-husband’s brother’s? He could imagine how shemight 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.’ Herdark eyes cast about the room.David waited for them to settle onhim and they did. ‘It was a very difficult time for me . . . coming outof one thing, moving into another . . . Maybe you heard about it.’David pursed his lips and nodded. He had no idea what shewas talking about. Her tongue was very pink and pointed.‘For so many years London was somewhere I just couldn’tcome 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 withWalter 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. TheCollector.’
‘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 hekeeps on buying you until your price is high enough and thenhe dumps your stock and floods the market. Or’ – the glassstopped in its circuit – ‘until you die, and then he plays theinvestors, 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 abank or two. Instead he noticed the grey-haired man in thechalk-stripe approaching them. Hurriedly he asked, ‘So are youbased 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 oldstudent of mine.’‘It’s very nice to meet you.’ David was anticipating nothing,so the warmth, when it came, felt considerable. The manlooked like a perfect lawyer, clean edges, something moral inhis smile.
‘Larry, where exactly is the club you were talking about?’
‘Oh, it’s just off St Martin’s Lane. The Blue Door. Do youknow it?’
He looked expectantly at David, who rubbed a finger on thetip of one eyebrow and pretended to think. ‘The Blue Door? I’mnot 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 hisexpensive watch and was all business.
‘Hmmmm, what time is it now? Half-eight. We’re probablyheading over in, what, half an hour? Forty minutes?’
That night her exhibit was a sheet of black papyrus, four or fivemetres wide, that hung from floor to ceiling in the last room. Upclose, its homogeneous black grew to shades of charcoal and slateand ink and soot, and its smooth appearance resolved into theflecked composition of chipboard. Its surface was wounded in athousand different ways: minute shapes were pricked and slicedand nicked in it. There were Ordnance Survey symbols – achurch, crossed axes – but also a crown, a dagger, a mountain, astar, 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 Davidpointed to the largest object, low down in the astral canopy, andsaid he was sure that the St Christopher medal, just there, mustrepresent 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 awayfrom the wall. Fluorescent strip lights had been placed behind itand shone through the fissures in the paper. As it wafted gentlyin the convection currents, breathing, it made a far-off tinklingsound. The conversation with Ruth had left him charged. Hewanted to be affected, to give himself up to something, and standing a certain distance from the black, and being a littledrunk, he felt engulfed. This was Ptolemaic night, endless celestialdepths of which he was the core and the centre. Everyonearound him disappeared, and he imagined himself about to stepinto the dream stupor of outer space.
David watched, he drank, he waited. He spent some time infront of a massive LCD sign that took up an entire wall of thegallery. As he watched, a single number rose astonishinglyquickly, in millisecond increments. His heart sped. Death maybe hidden in clocks, but this was a kind of murder. After aminute or so he felt hunted and light-headed. Every instantadded to the total on the sign came directly from his reckoning.And a certain sequence of those digits was the moment ofhis death.
He slipped out for a cigarette, but at nine o’clock he was Ruth’sguardian angel, floating a few feet behind her as she said hergoodbyes. When they climbed the steps to Waterloo Road, Larrystrode energetically to the central island to hail a passing cab.You could tell he was born to hold doors and fill glasses, Larry,to organize, facilitate, enable.
The view from the bridge was spectacular. The restive blackriver, slicing through the city, granted new perspectives. Thebuildings on the other side were Lego-sized, those far squigglestrees on the Embankment walk. Even though Larry and the taxidriver were waiting, Ruth stopped for a second to inspect thenight, and stood gripping the rail. The normal sense of being ina London street, of trailing along a canyon floor, was replacedby the thrill of horizons. The sky was granted a depth of field bysatellites, a few sparse stars, aircraft sinking into Heathrow.Larry and Ruth talked for the length of the journey as Davidroosted awkwardly on a flip-down seat. Ruth’s piece had beenbought before the opening – by Walter – though Larry hadretained rights to show it. When the gallery owner opened hisnotebook to check a date, David noticed that $950k was scrawled by the words Night Sky. He listened to everything very intently.
Away from the public crowded gallery, a new, personalized partof the evening was actually beginning. Somehow there were onlythree of them, and he felt nervous. When the cab pulled up hetried to pay for part of the fare, but Larry dismissed him with arather mean laugh that took the good, David thought, out of hisgesture. The club was situated down a narrow alley and behinda blue door that appeared abruptly in the wall. David hurriedthrough as if it might vanish.
Larry flirted with the girl on reception, signed them in. Theyfollowed him through a warren of low-ceilinged, wood-panelledrooms. Each had a tangle of flames a-sway in a grate and muchtoo much furniture. And each was full of people in variousmodes of perch and collapse, laughing and squealing and whispering,demanding ashtrays, olives, cranberry juice with no ice.As he trailed after, David adopted a weary expression: if anyoneshould look at him they would never know how foreign he felt,how exposed and awkward.
Larry spotted a spare corner table and charitably chose thethree-legged stool, leaving David the rustic carver. Ruth settledinto the huge winged armchair, arranging her black shawlaround her. David realized he’d been unconsciously pushing hisnails into his palms, leaving little red falciform marks, and hestopped, forcing his hands flat on his thighs. He normally spentthe evenings on the internet, chatting on a forum, but that nighthe was an urban cultural participant, engaged with the world,abroad in the dark.
‘So what did you guys think of the exhibition?’ Ruth asked.This was his chance and David began talking immediately. Hehad given it much thought and started listing pieces and theirattendant strengths and problems, then discoursing generally onthe difficulty of such an undertaking, the element of overlap andcompetition with other artists, what the curator should haveconsidered doing differently. Ruth was smiling, but the more he talked, the more solid her mask became. When she nodded in
anticipation of saying something, David concluded, snatchinghis cigarettes with a flourish from the tabletop, ‘But I would say –and I know this sounds a little crawly – but I thought your piecewas the most involving. I felt drawn into examining the natureof darkness, how it’s actually composed.’
He found he was sitting forward, almost doubled over, andhe straightened up. Ruth smiled and said, ‘Crawly?’ but he couldtell he’d talked too much. Larry had a bored, paternal grin onhis face, and he waved his hand, dispelling some disagreeableodour. The waitress slouched across.
When Ruth made some slightly barbed reference to purecommercialism, David sensed a chink between them and tried towiden it. He waited ten minutes and then asked about money,about how art could ever really survive it. Larry grimaced, andexplained that art and money were conjoined twins, the kindthat share too many vital organs ever to be separated. Ruth balancedher chin on her small fist and flicked her gaze from herold friend to the new. David said that sometimes the most private,secretive art is the strongest. It had to relinquish the marketto be truly free. Surely Larry wasn’t saying that Cubism startedwith the rate of interest on Picasso’s mortgage.
Larry frowned, forced to detonate David’s dreams. ‘Well, thefact is, not everyone’s Picasso.’
‘I think Larry’s trying to tell you that minor artists, like me,need to make saleable products. Is that it, darling?’
‘You’re certainly not minor.’
‘I’m certainly not a minor.’
Larry gave a loud guffaw and patted the back of her hand.Ruth ignored him and lifted David’s cigarettes; he passed herthe lighter and she drew one out of the packet, pinching it in halfto break it in a neat, proficient movement. She noticed Davidnoticing.
‘Can’t stop, can only downsize.’
Watching her, David found himself reminded of the finitudeof earthly resources. She expected, and the taking was so heedlessshe had obviously acclimatized to prosperity at an early age.When the time had come for her to order a drink she’d spokenquickly, astonishingly, in a volley of Italian. The reluctant waitresshad beamed, revealing one deep dimple, and replied in thesame ribboning cadences. Later, when David leant across andtold Ruth how much he liked her charcoal-coloured wrap, shesaid, ‘Well, that’s really something. It’s a bit Raggedy-Ann now,but you know who used to own it? Audrey Hepburn. She was agreat friend of my mother’s.’
Men who own banks and Audrey Hepburn. A sheet of blackpaper for one million dollars. David lifted the edge of the shawlthen, and pressed his thumb in the cashmere. It was soft as babyhair, as kitten fur. He thought of the symbolism of the act, touchingthe hem of her garment. He had a terrible tendency to thinkin symbols. He knew it made him unrealistic.
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