In two recent novels, both published by Fitzcarraldo, the writer and art critic Jeremy Cooper displays a fragmentary, reflective approach to personal and wider history.
The often poignant, always beautiful Ash Before Oak (2019) is written in the form of a melancholic nature journal. A man in his late 50s temporarily excludes himself from society to recover from a breakdown. Minutely observing the natural life of the Somerset estate to which he has retreated, as the months pass he eventually finds healing.
Cooper’s latest book, Bolt from the Blue, is a venturesome epistolary fiction spanning over 30 years. Beginning in 1985, it assumes the pattern of letters and later emails between Lynn Gallagher, who, when the novel begins, is 21 and a fresher at art school in 1980s’ London, and the single mother she has left behind in Sparkhill, Birmingham. It ends with the mother’s death in 2018.
For readers of a certain age it will jolt recollections of previous decades — the book is laced with historical and cultural fact — as well as providing an extensive sense of the often glacially slow yet purposeful development of an artist’s life.
The explosive Young British Artists scene of the early 1990s looms large; Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Michael Landy are among the real-life artists whose names, at first obscure, then internationally famous, frequently appear. Later, these figures are referenced almost elegiacally by Lynn, now a successful video artist, as the book, and her mother’s life in retirement on the Costa Brava, winds down.
If art and its interpretation — as well as its commodification — are a central absorption of the book, the other is the peculiar relationship between mother and daughter. Antagonistic, semi-estranged, as well as sometimes ruefully and fulsomely affectionate, Lynn and “Mum” or “Mother” do not appear to ever meet during their years-long correspondence. Lynn is acutely conscious of her working-class background and of her father, absent from early childhood, who, as the novel unfolds, dies in prison.
She is accusatory towards her mother about the endless intrusion of “stepfathers” into their lives. Mostly, though, she writes about the excitement and frustrations of the contemporary art world and her proliferating role within it — first as assistant and apprentice, then as an artist in her own right. The other side of the correspondence, that of the mother, who works at the local pub and is reticent about her own past, is flat and clichéd by contrast.
While resentment simmers, builds and recedes between the pair, it never seems more than artifice. Cooper’s knowledge of the YBA movement and his own collection of artists’ postcards — many of which feature as attachments to the letters Lynn writes to her mother — lend the novel the expertise of the insider, while preventing the reader’s imagination from fully flourishing.
There are some unusual and slightly frustrating conceits. For example, Lynn gives regular critiques of supposedly recently published books, whereas in reality the books in question were often published later. But these add to the overall impression that Bolt from the Blue, despite its unexpectedly moving finale, is less a living autobiography, and more an accomplished, if awkwardly contrived, artefact.
Bolt from the Blue by Jeremy Cooper, Fitzcarraldo Editions RRP£12.99, 272 pages
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