Brains, By Simon Bill

I'll never forget you, whoever you are...

Peter Carty
Sunday 31 July 2011 00:00

The unnamed narrator of Brains is a drunken and dissolute painter.

He gets a job as artist-in-residence at the opulent Norman Neurological Institute in central London, but only because all the other short-listed applicants turn it down. Among the patients he encounters he is impressed, in particular, by the sublimely attractive yet mysterious Emily, who cannot remember anything for more than 15 minutes at a time. He is smitten, yet, even for him, the ethics of bedding someone who cannot give credible consent are dubious.

Simon Bill is one of the generation of Young British Artists who transformed the art world in the early 1990s. Now he has turned his talents to fiction. Brains is a novel of dark satire. It is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, from an early scene of anarchy in the patients' disco onwards. The passive amorality of the feckless narrator is a thing of beauty indeed, and invokes comparison with Michel Houellebecq's retinue of truculent anti-heroes.

As you might expect, the novel also engages with cerebral concerns, often in passages describing the patients' neurological conditions and their implications. Neuroscience lies behind everything because the brain is the portal to the universe, bringing reality into existence for us. Art, meanwhile, busies itself changing our relationship with that reality. The narrator grapples with revolutions in each field and their interconnections, in between struggling with his substance abuse issues.

At the novel's core are the key avant garde concerns of repetition and nihilism, embodied in Emily's disturbing plight. In turn, this has a sordid parallel in the narrator's fearsome black-outs during his alcoholic binges, episodes which punctuate his desperate attempts to revive his faltering career. The portrait Bill offers of the contemporary art world could be called unmagical realism, given its farcical venality. He lays bare the absurdities of the ways in which, in order dutifully to pursue the ineffable, jobbing artists are thrust into a demeaning scramble for grants, residencies and the woefully fickle patronage of collectors and gallerists.

Brains's warped iconoclasm is not of a kind to appeal to a mainstream imprint. Instead it has been taken up by the publishing arm of an art gallery, Cabinet II, in an echo of the way Tom McCarthy's first novel, Remainder, entered the public domain. Let's hope it enjoys similar success, since it is as provocative and entertaining as you could hope for.

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