Jonathan Gibbs’s brilliant 2014 debut novel, Randall or The Painted Grape, plunged us into the gauche, shock-and-awe world of the Young British Artist movement. In place of Damien Hirst, Gibbs gave us Randall, the fictional doyen of the scene, a gifted wide boy awash with cash and acolytes. The familiar question – art or scam, or both? – was explored with originality and wit.
Beneath the cackle and the swagger, though, Randall was also a graceful, forgiving analysis of human relationships: how, through time and circumstance, they bend and warp and sometimes break and sometimes snap back.
Gibbs, his second novel confirms, is a Young Master himself. The Large Door is if anything even better than its predecessor. This time, the setting is academia, with Jenny Thursley, a troubled, fortysomething linguistics lecturer, returning from the US to Europe for a conference dedicated to the work of her ailing, one-time mentor.
The author has an outsize talent for observation and simile,
Linguistics is a perfectly chosen backdrop for what is, again, a study of relationships and connections. Jenny, it emerges, upped and fled to the States from her former life – the mentor, her colleagues, her girlfriend – and must now, somehow, reconnect with all of them over the course of a few days.
The author has an outsize talent for observation and simile, at one moment giving the reader a captivating view of the room in the round, the next zooming in to a practically cellular level. A piano has “nicotined teeth”. An overheard group of Dutch people emit “a grim, expectorating sound… this voice… seemed to turn the mouth and throat into a militarised zone”.
Speaking, touching, looking, moving, texting, hiding: these form Gibbs’s toolkit as he examines the ways in which we communicate – and avoid communicating – with one another. Jenny watches her ex-lover deliver a speech: “Frankie had been 10 years older than Jenny when they had first met, and Jenny supposed she still was; although a year, and a decade, carry a different charge and weight as you age. Jenny was now adrift from 40, turning hopelessly in the current, while Frankie seemed to carry 53 like a mark of distinction.”
The Large Door has echoes throughout of Saul Bellow’s famous line that “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” But it is also very, very funny – Gibbs doesn’t miss the chance for a bit of campus-novel preposterousness. I can’t think of many authors who are capable of doing so many things so well, all at once.
In Pick Up the Pieces, John Corbett focuses on that other key medium of communication: music. The book comprises an entertaining series of mini-essays on the records that shaped the writer’s journey through adolescence and into early adulthood. We start in 1970 with The Kinks and Edwin Starr, and work our way chronologically through Captain Beefheart, The Stooges, Kraftwerk, Television, The Fall and many other greats, ending with Grace Jones’s Warm Leatherette – “the first Eighties album of Seventies music”.
Contemporary history, sociology, musicology, it’s all here. When, early on, you come across a sentence about Beefheart’s Magic Band describing “the brute force way that they machete themselves into one of his songs”, you know you’re in safe hands.
The Large Door by Jonathan Gibbs (Boiler House Press, £12.99)
Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music by John Corbett (University of Chicago Press, £20)