Re-make/Re-model, By Michael Bracewell

Art students from another planet
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The novelist and critic Michael Bracewell's first two non-fiction books, England is Mine and The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth, both combined a wide-screen sweep with flashes of finely focused inspiration. His third opts for a more microscopic procedure. In fact, its fastidious subtitle "Art, Pop, Fashion and the making of Roxy Music, 1953-1972", suggests the purposefully restricted parameters of the canny Mastermind contestant.

What Bracewell has actually done, though, is the opposite of play it safe. Right from the outset, Re-make/Re-model exhibits an almost heroic disregard for conventional notions of the sort of thing any human being – let alone any Roxy Music fan – might wish to read about. The very first sentence informs us that this book's subject will be "a particular constellation of determinedly creative individuals, some of whom, between the first half of the 1960s and the opening years of the 1970s, would become friends, and nearly all of whom – across the same period – would at least become acquainted". Roll over Susan Sontag. Tell Lytton Strachey the news.

In the pages that follow, Bracewell will prove himself to be a master of the bathetic preliminary. Each chapter begins with a Tom Jones–style summary of the delights to come. Whereas a less uncompromising writer might have been tempted to highlight the more dramatic events in the ensuing narrative, Bracewell favours a softly-softly approach, offering such provocative teasers as "Bryan attends the Glebe Infants School in Washington", and "He is inclined towards the arts, and in the sixth form will play Malvolio in the school production of Twelfth Night".

The author appears to have opted for what might be termed a "Young Mozart" strategy, wherein new light is shed on an oft-told story by zeroing in on its less familiar antecedents. Earlier this year, Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation Of Youth Culture 1875-1945 provided a master-class in how best to do this – by never allowing the reader's awareness of subsequent events to compromise the integrity of the prequel's narrative. Bracewell, on the other hand, proceeds to break all the rules of this emergent sub-genre by regular lapses into the past-conditional tense, and intermittent recourse to a rather arch cinematic voice over ("We first glimpse Ferry as a child...").

Bracewell's primary goal in the first part of the book, despite asserting that such a course would be "perilous indeed" (though the nature of this peril is not specified), seems to be to establish Roxy Music as earthly apostles of the Pop-Art gospel of Richard Hamilton. With the help of long chunks of direct quotation from Ferry and various contemporaries in the fine art department at the University of Newcastle (where Hamilton taught), Bracewell makes a plausible case for this uncontentious proposition. And just as you're beginning to wonder why a writer of his undoubted talents would waste so much energy on such a small-scale objective – is this a book, or an extended job application for professorial tenure? – Brian Eno materialises.

Like a Hollywood film whose charismatic star doesn't make an entrance until half-way through, Remake/Remodel comes alive on page 168. With the advent of Brian Eno, some of the most mystifying elements of Bracewell's methodology suddenly start to make sense. And a fascinating and hilarious account of Winchester Art School's despairing attempts to make a painter out of him provides an invaluable insight into the true nature of Eno's genius, which is the ability ruthlessly to adjust the parameters of any creative endeavour to reflect the nature of his own contribution, while somehow presenting himself as a selfless facilitator.

He's done it again in this book too, by generously allowing Michael Bracewell access to the diaries and notebooks that are primary sources for anyone determined to demonstrate Eno's seminal impact. And that is not the end of his influence. It is Brian Eno's oft-cited assertion that "pop music is about creating imaginary worlds and inviting people to try them out" which holds the key to Re-make/Re-model's most intriguing secret.

Just as Roxy Music translated their obsessions into a role for themselves as the aristocratic progenitors of a new cultural vanguard, so Michael Bracewell has dreamt up a biographical landscape in which the reader can come across not one but several mentions of Roxy camp follower Simon Puxley's doctoral thesis ("The gorgeously titled An Arduous Fullness; Rossetti and the Sonnet Tradition") without actually losing the will to live. It remains to be seen how many people will want to join the author in the rarefied atmosphere of this imaginary planet – a place where the upstart realms of art, pop and fashion all pay homage to the elite allure of red-brick academe – but there's no denying the boldness of its conception. Re-make/Re-model ultimately provides a mirror-image of its subjects in the truest sense, where the reflection is perfect, but everything is reversed.