February 28, 2010

THE DEVIL'S PAINTBRUSH

by Jake Arnott
296 pages, Sceptre

Review by Marc Nash

Jake Arnott writes about crims and rent boys. In the same way that Quentin Tarantino really needs to make a movie without a gun, it's about time Arnott extends his palate. And in "The Devil's Paintbrush" he does just that, bringing together dark magician Aleister Crowley and a General of the British Army disgraced by his penchant for colonial youths (age uncertain), to offer a broad sweep of Victorian history, colonialism, new technology and arcana. Props to him for moving out of his 1960's comfort zone.

But this book is CLUNKY! It takes place in Paris over 24 hours or so, meaning Arnott crowbars in great tracks of back story and actual history of Empire in leaden flashbacks. The worst of these is when Crowley slips the General a substance to conduct him on to the astral plane, which is fine, but the General then demonstrates an amazing narrative coherence to relay tale after tale, as his imagination fills in the blanks on acts and events he never personally witnessed. To give you an idea of the ill-fitting structure, a Dervish attack on the British forces in Sudan is intercut with a black mass being held in Paris, which in theory could work rather well as the gatling machine guns chew up the flesh of myriads of spear-carrying Dervish, only the black mass is as clich├ęd and trite as you could imagine and only a chicken cops for it...

Which leads me to the real problem of the novel. For a book about transgressive desires, be they Crowley's unspeakable dark arts, or the General's homosexuality that can never be admitted, there is a curious lack of libidinousness on offer. It's about as transgressive as a suburban wife-swap party where everyone puts their keys to their Volvos into a Tiffany bowl. If you want to read about piercing, enslaving desire, then go read Neil Bartlett's "Skin Lane". I also wonder about the politics of this, since the implication is that the General's tastes are deserving of punishment and censure; while I accept this would have been the opinion of the 19th Century, I'm a little uncomfortable with the author's lack of skill in trying to offer up even a hint of a rebutting view. None of his characters seem to merit any of our sympathy. The General is shown to have a weak personality and his sexual urges are ineluctably tied up with his repressions and anxieties, rather than being genuine and of a flourishing. Crowley is not portrayed with any of the mesmerising charisma that he must have possessed in real life. The best Arnott can offer is the hypnotic power of his blue eyes, but come on, that is feeble. I'm neither an acolyte or a disser of Crowley, but I imagine any of his fans picking up this book to read about their master, will be rather irritated with his representation. At points he is far from inviolable, letting slip his human small-mindedness and proving physically weak. The weird thing is Arnott doesn't really seem to ask us to judge him, to come down either in favour of his adventurism or virulently against his depravity. He just seems to be the deux ex humana to bring about the General's fate.

And finally, a brief example of Arnott's info-dump. About to ravish the Whore of Babylon in human form, (actually a con-artist initiated into the role of chosen one by a paymaster and not terribly convincing at it), the woman points to a birthmark on Crowley who proceeds to meander through a page full of history of its coincidental symbolism ending up at the swastika, rather than hurry on down to make the beast with two backs with her. This is on page 269, ie 30 pages from the end, yet Arnott cannot resist heaping more evidence of how well researched he is upon us. I don't doubt there is a novel lurking in these themes and characters - apparently the two protagonists did meet once in real life, but this version ain't it. It is good on the British colonial drive, but lamentable about the pursuit of dark knowledge and a bit mechanical in its characterisation and the reason why humans do the things they do. Everything arises from human neuroses, a rather Freudian view.

I actually like Jake Arnott. To me he's akin to Nick Hornby, steady, unspectacular prose that still manages to deliver good tales, well told, with recognisable characters. But this effort is way off beam. Maybe he should stick to his 1960's schtick after all. I'm off to read the new Delilo to get the taste of lead out of my mouth.

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