There is much to be said for self-publishing a book, and most of it bad. If you’re not lucky enough to be a bored housewife who vanity-publishes her cheap erotic novel, spurred on by her well-meaning friends and breadwinning husband, you might be unlucky enough to be a Twitter writer, under constant scrutiny by a horde of faceless avatars who encourage you, through the positive reinforcement of likes and retweets, to exaggerate your worst, most self-parodic tendencies for their passing amusement.
Logo Daedalus, the author of Selfie, Suicide: or Cairey Turnbull’s Blue Skiddoo, is the unfortunate victim of the latter category. His readership, as he is aware, will be composed almost entirely of those who know him best for his short commentaries on literature, politics, philosophy and internet culture through Twitter. As any good Tweetsman or Tweetswoman knows, the purpose of the medium is quick engagement, and one tends to end up writing things which one doesn’t necessarily believe, only to contradict oneself weeks or even hours later when the moment becomes propitious. This is perhaps one of the potential benefits of the medium; a degree of ideological plasticity is good for any writer, as long as he or she maintains some core self-identification. But turning the pages of Daedalus’s debut novel, one sees the hand of an author unsure of himself, who is yanked here and there by his followers and detractors, trying alternatively to please and displease them, without any singular vision ever really coming through.
This is perhaps appropriate, considering that one of the novel’s central themes is a lament of the death of the individual genius. The novel’s protagonist, Cairey Turnbull, is an unsuccessful visual artist whose more traditional illusions of what art is — or what art ought to be — have been swept neatly away by his Marxist university education, which has reduced all of art to a historical process, ending once and for all in a mere process of production. “Soon,” says his professor, “you’ll be able to train a neural net to produce art based on your own consumer preferences — & when that happens, how silly will you feel having spent so much time on something that could be created instantaneously?” He proceeds to torture Cairey by challenging him to distinguish between a painting produced by a real artist and one produced by an algorithm (which he is unable to do) and as result, the disillusioned and depressed Cairey simply gives up on producing anything of original value.
Daedalus evidently belongs to the Bloomian school of thought, and against what Harold Bloom pejoratively termed the School of Resentment — the loose collection of critical schools which place a greater emphasis on the socio-political than the purely aesthetic. Selfie Suicide has already been roundly mocked for the strained, weighty prose in which it begins — “inspect her posterior anatomy with a libidinal flick of his hazel eyes” is a favorite quote — and it is worth mentioning that the style becomes more bearable a few more pages in, but it doesn’t save the novel. Self-conscious about his laboured style, but not self-aware enough to bring anything good out of it, Daedalus has doubled down on it in defiance. The result is that anything insightful or funny is buried under clumsy, unlyrical prose. Daedalus seems to naively believe that the point of writing is to describe things in the most convoluted way possible. His protagonist, smoking a cigarette, marvels at how the smoke is “pulled, like bands of lace, into curling geometries of knots which folded in on themselves and then dissolved into the air.” One gets the impression that, as he was reading Joyce and Nabokov, the author has missed the point entirely, mistaking the complexity of their writing as the cause of, and not the result of, having an ear for good prose.
The book is hardly more successful in its attempts at satire. It is churlish to talk about “author-inserts” — every character is to some extent a self-insert — and Cairey Turnbull is distanced enough from his creator to draw any easy comparisons. He is, importantly, more of a victim of the School of Resentment than he is its critic. But Daedalus uses his protagonist roughly as a mouthpiece all too often. The clumsy passages beginning with “Cairey thinks…” which are sprinkled throughout the book are too often a signal that the author is about to embark on one of his uninteresting musings. “These algorithms, he thinks, offer a horrible glance into the sameness of everything…” This is the sporadic tweet form rearing its head in a narrative, and, as so often happens on the platform itself, one gets the sense that Daedalus is constantly on the precipice of saying something insightful or interesting without ever actually getting around to saying it.
There is nothing wrong with an author philosophizing in his work, and the pretentiousness of the protagonist might have been saved had it been treated with some humor, but neither Daedalus nor his creation are capable of any substantial self-parody — they resort instead to self-flagellation; Cairey is described as one of those “pretentious, overeducated encyclopedists of pop-cultural allusion & contemporary flotsam.” While this might be true, it hardly raises any further insight, nor elicits a chuckle. It only inspires a vague pity. It’s a silly complaint to say that a character is “unlikeable” but at the very least we should expect for him or her to be interesting or funny. The antagonist of the book is even less captivating: The novel takes place during a date at an exhibition in the fictional Museum of Expressive Humanism (or MEH) which divides its primary exhibition (though “bifurcate” is the verb that Daedalus decides to employ) into two salons titled “Heaven” and “Hell.” The MEH, a vague parody of postmodern criticism condensed into one bodiless voice, boasts of having no artefacts, of not looking back into the past, but looking around. “Art is dead,” it says. “& what is dead no longer lives. & what is not here for us now, still living, unique and breathing with the vitalistic energy of the human spirit, no longer exists for us.”
This is hardly a million miles from the actuality — in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, several institutions have buckled to the new political tide. The chief librarian of the British Library has recently announced an ‘anti-racist action plan’ which will review the collection, and several other British museums are considering restitution of their collections. There is fertile ground here for launching a satire against progressive history-eaters, against the implications of the mechanical production of art, against the impossibility of transgression in late capitalism, but Logo doesn’t seem to know enough about the object of his ire to give it the treatment it deserves. In the exhibition Cairey and his date Ophelia pass by a transexual woman, who “masturbates into her own face, which wears a rubber mask of whom Cairey believes to be Jacques Derrida.” The vapidity of “late industrial capitalism”— a wieldy phrase which is bandied about twice in the novel — is lamented, but nothing novel is said about it. The Museum boasts an exhibition entitled “Everybody is a Genius”. “Is this”, thinks Cairey, “what Life has become? Is this what remains of the species that once toiled & bled on the fields of history?” Whether or not you think this is a bit on the nose or not might depend on just how bad you think things have gotten, or how bad they are going to get. I am an optimist.
The novel does succeed briefly when it drops its heavy-handed attempts at satirizing what it hates directly, and instead describes its protagonist’s darkly humorous attempts to make sense of the dystopian world around him by retreating into private escapism. Here, the book is more subtle, and that cruel world described so explicitly in the rest of the novel takes its rightful place: lurking in the margins of a crumbling fantasy. But these moments are all too brief, and we’re quickly rushed back to the bare ridiculousness and bitterness of the real world, with nothing sweet to ballast it. Daedalus, like his protagonist, is still beset by the anxiety of influence; too conscious of the problems he faces to have any fun, and Selfie Suicide reads like one long excuse as to why his book isn’t any good. Cairey spends the novel lamenting that his life is “a joke”. Well, laugh!