This is a guest post written by Hannah Gillow Kloster.
The day Dan Rhodes’ last work, Little Hands Clapping, was released I hopped on a train to London and went straight to Waterstone’s at Trafalgar Square. Upon arrival I cast a cursory glance around the shop, marched up to the counter and demanded “Do you have the new Rhodes? Little Hands Clapping? That’s Dan Rhodes”. (How obnoxious I can be when it comes to my righteous ideas of marketing of literature). The poor young lad at the information desk was ever so slightly flummoxed before he suggested, in his uttermost customer-is-always-right manner, that I look under R. “For Rhodes”. Raising my eyebrows in a slightly condescending way I thought “Honestly. Such an amazing writer is obviously going to have his own stand for the release of his new book”. Sadly, I was wrong. It was also already on 3 for 2. So to make amends my friend Tora and I bought the ENTIRE stock. (Three copies). Hopefully that led them to order more rather than deprive some poor Rhodes-fan of his/her fix.
For the release of This is Life I was fully prepared to march in, guns blazing, and if the situation turned out to be similar, demand satisfaction, and a stand, with a massive poster, and a life-size cardboard cutout of Dan, and someone French reading sections of the book out loud in a strong French accent, and indoor fireworks, and whatever else book-launches come with these days. However, Canongate were charming enough to send me a review copy, so I am doing my bit by writing it up and hopefully building some hype.
After this trailblazing introduction I am sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that I am, in fact, favourably inclined towards Mr. Rhodes’s new work. I have to admit, though, I am biased. It is set in Paris, and features a baby in a central role, both of which are in my opinion very good credentials. I used to wheel a baby around Paris back in the day too. I can identify. So now that I have put in a disclaimer, allow me to continue.
I knew nothing about this book when I first started reading it. I knew it was set in Paris, because the cover gave that much away. I purposefully didn’t read the blurb, ready to be surprised. And I was. If I told you this was a book about love at first sight, and love of art, set in Paris, you would probably think outrage! what a cliché! how tremendously overworked! might as well call the main character Mona Lisa! But you would be wrong. What is so wonderful about the Rhodes-ian universe is that nothing is what you would normally expect it to be, and nothing is cliché (unless it is purposefully so). As the world of pretentious art students/artists unfolds around the imperfectly beautiful Aurelie Renard, Rhodes pokes fun at the big fluffy words that surround contemporary art. So relevant in these days of the dispute around the Damien Hirst spot paintings, not actually painted by him, Rhodes invents the epitome of a modern artist – Le Machine, and lets his work, Life, do the talking. (And speaking of all things current-affairs-related, my personal favourite in this book may be the amazingly and completely irreverently portrayed “President Bruni-Sarkozy”).
What is one of the best things about this novel, apart from all the delightful and very different characters, very few of whom turn out to be who you think they will be, is the way in which their stories are woven together. This technique way too often results in a very forced, or very unlikely coming together of the stories/destinies/lives/fates/[insert poignant word]. In This is Life, they all somehow belong together right from the start in their separate lives – the girl who works in different jobs every day to increase the likelihood of meeting her husband-to-be as soon as possible, the art professor with a “type” (compact blondes), the director of an erotic cinema and the Japanese couple on holiday. They all gravitate towards baby Herbert who is unconnected to them all apart from through a (literal) stone-throw. And all of them behave in a way that could only be thought out by a curiously wired imagination.
This novel sets itself slightly apart from Rhodes’s other novels, as fewer of the characters appear to be bound together by various forms of loneliness, or separation from their surroundings. That in no way implies that these are functional, 2D characters though, and that they, and their daily lives, are suffused with plenty of what I have decided to call Rhodes-ian quirk (the hyphen is necessary to distinguish from Rhodesian, pertaining to or of the state of Rhodesia. Rhodesesque just sounds like a hamster burlesque show. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Furthermore, the novel anchors down into gravitas frequently enough to make it something to think about, and remember. The distance between the initially suggested inner life of the characters, and what they turn out to be is a reminder that things aren’t always what they seem to be. The book may also make you want to move to Paris right away.
If I have one misgiving, it is that though I agree with Dan’s website that “the jacket is excellent” I wish it had had slightly darker, more quirky drawings, that would suggest more of the richness of the characters we are about to meet. But I love, love, love the foldout pages, and they are amazing for eliciting barely hidden jealous rage on the morning commute (or maybe that was rage because I was taking up lots of space. But I think not).
Published by Canongate on 1st March 2012.