Star Island by Carl Hiaasen (2010)

The setup

Cherry Pye aged 22 (p.396) is a teenage American pop star. She was born Cheryl Gail Bunterman and her ambitious mother, Janet Bunterman was entering her for into talent competitions from the age of 4. Little Cheryl’s voice was poor but her parents compensated by dressing her in provocative clothes and getting her dance lessons from a local stripper. They changed her name to the soft porn-sounding Cherry Pye when she got her first speaking part in a TV show, aged 14, wearing a ‘dubious buckskin cowgirl outfit’ (p.5).

Cherry was spotted by pop impresario, closet paedophile and owner of Jailbait Records, Maury Lykes, who gave her 3 months of intensive coaching and released her first single on Cherry’s birthday. It wasn’t actually Cherry on the single, she was never going to be able to sing, they hired a backing singer and concentrated on teaching Cherry how to dance and lip sync ahead of the lucrative tours organised to cash in on the record (p.20). Together, Janet and Maury developed a special look to establish Cherry’s brand:

‘The BLS brand’, Maury called it – barely legal slut, the essential ingredient being an air of insouciant fuckability. (p.279)

But as a result of all this, Cherry (‘a simpleton, shallow as a thimble’, p.281), at the age of 22, has developed a major drug habit. More accurately, she scarfs down whatever is on the table, be it alcohol, pills or powders, even birdseed! The narrative opens as Cherry’s lying on the floor of a premier room at the luxury Stefano hotel, throwing up (again), worried over by her team, her mother, a young actor she spent the early evening with, her pair of identical twins PR advisers, Lila and Lucy Lark (backstory p.172), and her tough minder, Lev, formerly of the Israeli Mossad. They’re all waiting for the private paramedics to arrive, take Cherry to a private hospital and pump her stomach. Again.

It’s such a recurrent problem that Cherry’s team have a tried and tested procedure in place. For some time they have been using a body double, a lookalike, an actress who is the spitting image of Cherry, to fill in for her, to make public appearances, to attend celebrity parties and so on, when the real Cherry is either in intensive care or at one of her many visits to a rehab clinic.

This double is named Ann DeLusia, aged 24 (p.212), an aspiring actress. She gets fed up sometimes by being at Cherry’s mother’s beck and call, but the pay is good, $800 a week (p.100).

The other character we’re introduced to early on is a paparazzo, Claude ‘Bang’ Abbott, 44 (p.316), a fat, unhygienic slob, but a very good photographer with deep experience in newspaper work (‘back in the day when newspapers mattered’, p.25) before he switched to the more lucrative career of snapping celebrities’ unguarded moments.

Bang got a hot tip about Cherry’s latest overdose from hotel staff, but was then fooled into following and photographing Ann, the lookalike, who was brought out the back of the hotel on a gurney, rather than the real Cherry who was smuggled out the front into a nondescript car. Only as he closes the ambulance doors, does the paramedic reveal that Bang has been ‘had’, much to his irritation.

Bang is convinced that pretty soon Cherry is going to do an Elvis and expire on the john, overdose or generally ‘buy the farm’ i.e. die young – and he wants to have built up a portfolio of photos of the teen star in all possible states of wastage so that he’ll be in a position to bring out an entire coffee table book recording her sorry descent. Think Marilyn. He’ll make a fortune, be able to retire. That’s the plan. Wasted Cherry is his pension.

Pause to assess

So, as usual, Hiaasen is extremely effective at introducing us very quickly to quite a gallery of characters, each drawn with swift precise descriptions, so that within 40 or so pages an entire corrupt and rancid world has been vividly depicted.

As to the subject matter, regular readers of my blog know that I got progressively more disillusioned by the novels of William Gibson as he turned his back on his science fiction roots and wrote longer and longer books which aspire to be thrillers but also feature characters from fictional rock bands, thrillers in which the lead characters wear ‘cool’ leather jackets, ripped t-shirts and shades. Gibson’s early science fiction novels are strange and mind-expanding, while his later ‘thrillers’, especially in their tiresome depictions of the cool world of rock bands, are lame and clichéd.

So I am, in theory, bored of novels set in the shallow, cynical, drug-addled world of pop stars and celebrities and so, in theory, ought to dislike this one, too. Not only do I have a general aversion to this milieu, but Hiaasen has already set one novel in the corrupt world of contemporary music, Basket Case, centring on the murder of a leading rock star who, it turns out, was done in by his scheming wife. It’s a little disappointing that Hiaasen has resorted to covering the same territory twice in the space of just four novels.

On the other hand, it is still a Hiaasen novel, which means that even when it has hints of being a retread, it is outrageously funny. Instead of Gibson’s po-faced and pretentious world, Hiaasen’s savagely amoral frolics skip along at a cracking pace, the dialogue is razor sharp, the characters continually taking your breath away with their stunning amorality.

Unexpected alliances, arguments and double crosses come thick and fast. It is, in other words, continuously shocking and surprising and very entertaining. The characters aren’t rude, they are off-the-scale amoral, cynical, manipulative, grotesquely threatening and violent.

Take the moment when Maury, frustrated at Cherry’s behaviour, has treated himself to a quiet night in, and invites three underage prostitutes round to tie him to his bed and take turns spanking him with badminton rackets. That’s when he gets a phone call from Chemo, the grotesque bodyguard he’s hired to find Cherry when she disappears (again). Hence Chemo’s call, except Chemo announces that now he’s found the errant pop star, he’s not going to return her unless he gets more money, not least because she taunted him (Chemo) about his grim appearance. Hence the call:

Chemo said, ‘You wanna see her alive, then double my pay.’
‘Unfuckingbelievable.’
‘She called me “Waffle Face”. Normally I’d kill a person for that. Normally I’d stick a frog gig up their nostrils and yank their tongue out by the roots.’ (p.117)

It’s a kind of peak Hiaasen moment: the rancid pedophile agent being tied down and whipped by pubescent girls having to negotiate with a 6 foot nine freak hitman about the ransom for a drug-addled, talentless celebrity.

Presumably there are, somewhere in America, a few people who aren’t cynical, amoral, criminal, corrupt and violent scumbags, who don’t instantly resort to fury and physical violence whenever their slightest whim or plan is thwarted. Presumably. Somewhere. But not in Carl Hiaasen’s novels.

Plot developments

As a result of the Stefano hotel meltdown, Cherry is sent to rehab, again and Janet tells Ann DaLusia she can take a few days off, so she drives down to Florida which she’s always wanted to see. She takes the Card Bridge route onto Key Largo and is whizzing round a corner when she sees a man standing in the middle of the road, swerves and goes careening off the road, through a stand of trees and crashes into a creek. Oops.

Anna wakes up to find herself being tended by Skink, SKINK, Hiaasen’s most popular recurring character, the semi-deranged former Florida governor-turned-eco-vigilante, complete with plastic shower cap, long grey braids and dazzling smile.

As in each of the books he appears in, the author gives us a slightly new version of Skink’s backstory as well as a variation on his motivation, namely the depthless outrage he feels at the rape of the wild countryside he grew up in:

The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – transformed by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous. (p.197)

But it doesn’t do to sentimentalise Skink. He is a violent vigilante. At one point he’s hiding out under a pier down on a beach late at night and happens to hear two men manhandling a drunk woman down onto the sand and then knocking her down with a view to raping her. Skink moves in and the paramedics who are later called to the scene are impressed to discover that each of the men has a compound fracture in every limb (p.239). Skink did that, not just beat them up but carefully broke their bones. We are told that from time to time he eats the pets of disagreeable people (p.262). He ties up a Haitian cabbie and steals his cab when it suits him (p.264). He is not a sweetheart. He is genuinely dangerous.

Having pulled her from her crashed car, Skink takes her off to his remote camp in the forest, tends to Ann’s light injuries and feeds her some roadkill alligator tail, which isn’t as disgusting as she first fears. But when she asks to be taken back to civilisation, Skink explains that first she has to help him with his latest scam. This is to hold up a bus full of corrupt and wealthy investors who are engaged in yet another of the countless crooked and environmentally ruinous property developments which Hiaasen’s novels are full of.

Skink tells Ann to step into the road and flag down the bus carrying the developers from the airport to a private hotel facility. Then he leaps out of the bushes and onto the bus terrorises them with a gun, and tying the most corrupt of them, Jackie Sebago, to a tree with a sea urchin stuffed down his pants and rammed into his ‘nutsack’.

By the time the cops arrive, Ann is ready with her story that her car crashed then she doesn’t remember anything till stumbling onto the bus. The cops believe her, let her go, and Ann returns to civilisation pretty dazed by this weird encounter.

Meanwhile, at the Rainbow Bend rehab centre Cherry has met Methane Drudge, drummer with fictional band the Poon Pilots (p.51) (shades of William Gibson and fictional rock bands with lame names).

Together they break out of the rehab grounds, scrambling over the five foot wall. Methane twists his ankle landing, and limps badly as he follows Cherry to the road. Here they discover a car parked and Cherry knocks on the window. The electric window winds down to reveal none other than Cherry’s fanatical paparazzo devotee, Bang Abbott, who is amazed at Cherry’s sudden apparition and staggered when she asks him to drive her to the airport. There is some typically brutal comedy when lame Methane knocks on the back door window asking to be admitted to the car but Cherry blithely tells Abbott to drive off and leave him behind.

Not only that but when they get to the airport and she whistles up her private jet, Cherry impulsively invites Abbott onto the plane to accompany her. So the excited fat man grabs his several cases of expensive cameras and jogs up the steps. And not only that, but half way across America (flying from California to Florida) bored, Cherry whips off her jeans and straddles him, presumably pulling out his pecker, because they have sex. It only last for four minutes but leaves Abbott seriously dazed and confused. (Women on top, riding a man in the ‘cowgirl position’, is Hiaasen’s favourite fictional sexual position, it recurs in most of the novels, most memorably enacted by Dr Rosa Campesino on a steel mortuary table in Bad Monkey.)

This brief intimacy doesn’t stop Abbott, when Cherry falls asleep, getting his camera out and knocking off some shots of Cherry lying asleep and snoring and unbuttoned and sprawled across her plane seat. These will prove excellent photos for the photo-biography he’s planning of her decline and fall.

However, all this comes to naught because, when they land in Miami, her chauffeur-driven car is waiting, the driver loads all the bags, including all Abbott’s cameras, and then, just as with Methane, she simply drives off before Abbott can get into the car, leaving Abbott stamping and fuming on the airport tarmac. Later, with an actor she’s picked up at an upscale nightclub, she reviews Abbott’s photos and blithely deletes them one by one.

Meanwhile, there is a significant development on the bodyguard front. The novel opens with young Cherry being bodyguarded by a tough goon named Lev, who is ex-Mossad. But goaded by Cherry’s mom one too many times, he quits, thus giving her manager, Maury Lykes, a headache about finding a replacement. Luckily he knows a country and western star, Presley Aaron, who went way off the rails for a period of addiction but turned his life around and is now fit and buff and recording again. The turnaround was managed by his brothers who hired a tough minder to guard him. It is this minder which Maury now hires to look after Cherry. She needs some tough love.

And as soon as Maury and Janet Bunterman are introduced to him in a nightclub, the seasoned Hiaasen reader immediately realises that Cherry’s new bodyguard is none other than the freakish sociopath nicknamed ‘Chemo‘ who we first met in novel 3 of the series, 1989’s Skin Tight.

Chemo, as you might imagine with Hiaasen, has a very detailed and freakish backstory (summarised on page 252 ff.). Suffice to say that Chemo stands 6 foot 9 inches tall, his face was fried in a freak accident during some minor plastic surgery (the dermatologist had a stroke and instead of excising a small growth, ended up applying the electric doodad across his whole face so that his face now looks like a bowl of rice krispies). Which explains why Chemo is in a permanently very bad mood. Most bizarre of all, after he had his hand bitten off by a barracuda in Skin Tight, he replaced it not with a prosthetic attachment, but with a battery-powered strimmer or weed whacker as the Americans call it.

Comedy

All this and more has been conveyed in less than the first hundred pages. The forms of Hiaasen’s comedy can be categorised into half a dozen or so levels or types:

Plots

Most obvious is the overall shape of the plots where grotesque and preposterous, farcically improbable events take place, such as the body double actress getting caught up in Skink’s hijacking of a coach full of property investors.

Characters

The characters themselves are often so grotesque as to be funny in themselves, such as the famously strong but half-deranged eco-vigilante Skink or the strimmer-handed, beanpole bodyguard Chemo. Although it is noticeable that this pair, the most garish and entertaining of all the characters in the book, were invented decades earlier (in 1987 and 1989, respectively).

Universal corruption

On a less extreme level, it is funny the way the narrator describes the semi-criminal or immoral activities of his characters, activities which most of us would regard as beyond the pale, but which the narrator mentions with a deliberate casualness designed to emphasise the rancid, rotten, corrupt and immoral culture he is dissecting. Such as the throwaway remark that Maury Lykes is not only a successful pop impresario but has a ‘criminal fondness for underage girls’ (p.20) and the later scene, only a few paragraphs long, in which he arranges for three underage girls who he’s promised parts in his next show, to come to his house, tied him with parachute cords to his bed and take turns spanking him with badminton rackets to the sound of the Disney track, ‘We’re all in this together‘ (p.116). That really is a standout scene.

On a quieter note, it is so casually said you barely notice it when Cherry tells the young actor Tanner Dane Keefe that he wants her to accompany her on her upcoming tour because: ‘I don’t like screwing strangers, especially roadies.’ (p.119) The implication being that, obviously, she has to be screwing someone, almost continuously, right, she’d just prefer if it was someone she knew or liked. That level of moral abandonment.

Compared to that level of debauchery it seems fairly bland, but nonetheless way out of most people’s orbit of experience, when the narrator explains that Janet put ups with her husband, Ned’s, long-standing bisexual affair with another married couple, a) because he’s good with Cherry’s earnings and b) because she herself ‘is sweatily involved’ with her 30-year-old tennis coach (p.68).

Everyone in Hiaasen novels is unfaithful. In fact it’s not clear that the idea of faithfulness exists any more. Why get married if you don’t want to have affairs?

Amorality

All the characters casually demonstrate the most breath-taking cynicism, putting into words ideas and collocations of incident and intention which are way beyond the average person’s experience:

Chemo was the first convicted murderer that Maury Lykes had ever put on the payroll, and he hoped the man understood the concept of boundaries. (p.116)

The comedy extends from what you could call high-level cynicism, through a hierarchy of criminality and casual amorality, down to the more gutter level of sheer venomous abuse, which all these horrible people routinely treat each other to:

Lev said, ‘I hope you get cancer of the schlong. I hope it falls off in your hand.’ (p.30)

It made me laugh because it’s so outrageous, and that summarises Hiaasen’s schtick in a phrase. These novels are outrageous festivals of amorality, horribleness and insult.

Seething narrator

Vituperation isn’t limited to the characters. The narrator himself boils with rage at the corrupt and scuzzy world around him. Within pages of starting reading the reader is forced to acclimatise to Hiaasen’s super-cynical attitude and abrasive phraseology. As a tiny example he doesn’t refer to Miami International airport but to ‘the clusterfuck known as Miami International’ (p.27), conveying three levels of implication:

  1. dropping the ‘airport’ because he assumes the reader is hip enough to get the reference
  2. letting the reader know his attitude to Florida’s ‘advanced’ i.e. heavily polluting and environmentally destructive infrastructure
  3. signalling that he isn’t shy about using latest American vernacular = there’s going to be a lot of swearing

So, there is comic entertainment to be enjoyed at multiple levels:

  • plot
  • character
  • the narrator’s seething cynicism
  • his characters’ cynical attitude
  • their whip-smart repartee
  • or plain old abuse

Silly nightclub names

It is a typical minor running gag running through his books that Hiaasen – not, we suspect, a great fan of cocaine-fuelled nightclubs full of drug dealers, crooked lawyers and property developers – gives comic names to the fictional nightclubs which appear in his novels.

Skin Tight featured a club named ‘the Gay Bidet’ where a whole series of ludicrously named punk bands performed and where Chemo, incidentally, worked part-time as a bouncer. Strip Tease featured a strip joint which changes its name from ‘The Eager Beaver’ to ‘Tickled Pink’, and in other books there’s the club named ‘Lube’. In the same spirit, in this novel Cherry meets young Tanner Dane Keefe at a South Beach nightclub named ‘Abscess’ (p.118), which brought a smile to my lips.

Later on, we are taken to a gimmicky nightclub named ‘Club Ortho’ where everyone has to wear a cast and pretend to have a broken bone (p.244). In the second half the fictional nightclub named ‘Pubes’ gets namechecked and in fact provides the setting for the rather feeble shooting of Abbott, which more or less ends the main narrative (see below).

As it happens, William Gibson also has a fondness for silly nightclubs, in his case less notable for their names than for their ‘wacky’ gimmicks, such as the bubblegum-themed bar or the Kafka-themed club or the restaurant with a full-sized replica Russian tank parked in the middle, The Western World. It is characteristic that Gibson’s comic bar ideas are strained and pretentious whereas Hiaasen’s are gleefully obscene. I go for glee every time.

More plot

Abbott wants his cameras back and wants access to Cherry. Therefore he stakes out the hotel Cherry has checked into and waits till Cherry exits the hotel and gets into the waiting limousine. He cleverly hijacks this by getting a bellhop to drop a load of cases in front of the car, blocking its way, so that the chauffeur and Chemo the bodyguard get out to angrily help the bellhop pile them back onto a luggage trolley, only to hear the limo reverse and skid off with Abbott at the wheel. So far, so clever except that… it is not Cherry in the limo but Ann the body double!

The central part of the novel will be built around this mistake, with Abbott at first not knowing what to do with the body double and then contacting Janet Bunterman offering to return Ann in one piece in exchange for one day with Cherry. (They worry that he’s a pervert but we know it’s not for sex purposes but in order to take a massive portfolio of photos which he can use when, as he expects, she ‘buys the farm’ i.e. dies).

Negotiations are then carried out between Abbott and Chemo, representing the Bunterman family and the manager, Maury, Abbott having first drugged Ann and locked her up in the boot of a hire car.

In fact there’s a whole sequence of meetings between the two men, with Chemo then reporting back Abbott’s demands to his employers, who carefully weigh the options. One option they consider is to let Ann die since, when she is returned a) she’s unlikely to want to continue the job b) if she spills the beans her story will go bigger in the press than Cherry’s comeback album and tour, so she represents a financial threat to all of them.

Now, when Skink released Ann, he gave her his mobile number and, during a moment to herself in a motel toilet, Ann manages to phone Skink and tell him she’s been kidnapped. Skink, though old enough to be her father, had taken a liking to Ann during their couple of days together in the wild Everglades, and so now he sets out on a quest to track her down and release her.

I expected this whole situation would lead up to a mega-violent confrontation but it doesn’t, instead it’s something of an anti-climax. The Buntermans eventually agree to Abbott’s terms, namely that Abbott gets a whole day with Cherry in Keefe’s house (which is on the detached, millionaire enclave of Star Island, which gives the novel its title) to do a serious photoshoot, all under the watchful eye of the baleful Chemo. In the end, all pretty reasonable and non-violent.

Nonetheless, on the way towards this event, the plot at moments feels like the Maltese Falcon, with increasingly complex double crosses all round: without telling Janet Maury pays Chemo to kill Abbott, but Abbott persuades Chemo they can make a fortune by selling the camera full of great fashion photos Abbott has just taken (Abbott is genuinely a good photographer). Meanwhile Abbott, while he had kidnapped Ann, took a load of photos of her with her hair over her face so she looks like Cherry, handcuffed to a bathroom sink, apparently shooting up with a syringe, and he’s gotten in touch with the editor of a tabloid newspaper with a view to selling them.

It all gets very convoluted, a pell-mell of crosses and double crosses, and yet I became steadily more detached, and a bit bored.  Maury tells Chemo to kill Abbott. Then to kill Ann. But Skink has by this time tracked down Ann and become her de facto bodyguard. Anyway, Chemo’s come to admire her spunky attitude. He thinks she’s a ‘pisser’, which is a term of praise.

The climax of the book is disappointing by Hiaasen’s standards. Cherry slips out of the house where she’s being kept to dry out before her upcoming tour and new album release and goes to the legendary nightclub Pubes. Here Ann is waiting for her and confronts her with what she intends to be the dazzling revelation that she, Ann, has been the spoilt little girl’s double for all these years and her parents never even told her.

But Cherry doesn’t respond with a sudden epiphany, a realisation of how shallow her existence is and a determination to turn her life around. She just attacks Ann, knocks her to the dancefloor (they’re in a nightclub) and starts feebly pummeling her until Chemo wades in, picks her up and takes her away.

Skink had come to the club with Ann (Ann had bought him a swanky suit and persuaded him to cut off his long grey braids) and he now picks her up and leaves with her.

Abbott is also at the club and furious with himself because he missed the shot of Cherry being carried out by Chemo. But then Ann calls out to him amid the scrum of paparazzi and he is just about to take her photo when a hired killer in the crowd takes out a gun and shoots him in the ass.

What? Why? Because in the complexity of the second half of the plot, Abbott had forgotten to pay off one of the many narcs and contacts he employs to routinely tip him off about celebs at hotels and bars. He has hundreds of them, he always owes them little sums of money, they’re calling and hassling him all the time, and he has been a little busy involved in a kidnapping scam. All this explains why he’s persistently ignored the calls of one contact in particular, and this guy has gotten so irritated that he’s hired a hitman to shoot Abbott.

So that’s the (rather thin) explanation for this climactic shooting except that… the man fails. They aren’t standing yards apart which would allow for a clean shot, they are smothered together in a heaving crowd and so the man only manages to shoot Abbott in the buttock. The shot disperses the crowd, including the hitman. Abbott is taken to hospital, the bullet removed, the damage to his big guts repaired. It’s all rather… inconsequential.

Tying up loose ends

Cherry’s album flops and the tour doesn’t sell out, so she changes her name and moves into TV. Ann works on a new career. Abbott returns to papping. With the revival of the property market, Chemo gives up being a gun for hire and returns to his former career selling mortgages (broad Hiaasian satire at the type of person who sells mortgages i.e. deranged murderers).

Skink disappears back into the boondocks, though it’s worth emphasising that the novel contains a distinct strand about a detective who has become interested in him. Remember Jackie Sebago the crooked property developer from the start of the book, whose coach Skink hijacks and down whose pants he stuffs a sea urchin? Well, one of the investors in his property development, a no-nonsense crim named Shea, insists he wants his money back and when Sebago is unable to return it ($850,000) because he’s spent it, Shea hires a hitman who kills Sebago by shooting him through the chest with a speargun.

The point being that the cops scour the locality of the murder and stumble across Skink’s camp in the outback. Detective Riley pieces together scattered appearances by Skink: holding up the coach, a speedboat is stolen from nearby; the testimony of the drunk woman who was saved from rape by a scruffy stranger on the beach; a man of the same description seizing the little pet dog out of the arms of a woman in a hotel lobby who was describing how her husband and friends clubbed some dolphins to death; and so on.

Riley gets so far as tracking Skink down to the Miami hotel where he’s staying with Ann, solely in the capacity of her protector. But as Detective Riley interviews, the couple Skink gives blissfully, surreally oblique answers and the cop doesn’t get anywhere. He’s looked up Skink’s record on computer and knows he served in Vietnam. He knows Skink now lives out in the woods not harming anyone. Well, unless they’re scumbags like Jackie Sebago. Detective Riley decides there’s no case against Skink, no evidence, and leaves town wishing him well.

This investigation-of-Skink storyline starts out being quite threatening, as if Skink might actually be arrested, but then becomes amusing but so inconsequential I wondered whether it was setting itself up for some kind of sequel. Will Detective Riley appear in subsequent novels and become Skink’s pursuer?

In this it’s a little like the other storylines, which all fizzle out. Cherry survives, Chemo survives, Ann survives, Skink survives and Abbott survives. They all go their separate ways. Is that it? Bit disappointing…

The banalisation of sex and drugs and guns

1. Sex

Fifty years ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a generation of idealists thought that, if we only took all our clothes off, acknowledged our sexuality, forsook sexual jealousy and indulged in free love, the world would become a better place. The results, like any great social change, were complex and mixed. Without doubt many millions of people experienced genuine personal liberation and the breaking  of taboos around gender and sexuality have been transformative.

On the other hand, the notion that simply getting naked and having sex changes or improves society has been roundly disproved. Arguably, the opposite has happened, and this novel contains numerous instances tending to indicate the way sex has ceased to have any special moral or psychological significance and become utterly debased, a bodily function with as much glamour or spiritual significance as having a crap.

Cherry is in one sense an embodiment of the complete degradation of sex to an empty transaction. She straddles and rides fat Abbott to orgasm because she’s bored. She whines to the young actor Keefe that she wants him to come on tour so she can fuck him instead of having to fuck the roadies, the implication being that she has to fuck someone on a daily, almost hourly basis. We are told that she got round her tough Israeli bodyguard, Lev, by fellating him on a regular basis or letting him ‘bone’ her with a platinum stud through the head of his penis. To get a room service boy at the Stefano to smuggle in drugs to her room (after Chemo has been made her bodyguard with strict instructions to keep her clean) Cherry offers the boy a blowjob.

In Hiaasen’s American sex has become a form of currency, just another version of the cash nexus.

And it isn’t just Cherry for whom sex is a mindless addiction. Abbott, aroused by remembering the mile high shag with Cherry, gets an erection while sitting in his car and whines that the steering wheel is getting in the way, so he shuffles over to the passenger seat to have a wank.

Knocking one off, squeezing one out, wanking, is as casual a business as wiping your nose, and as empty of meaning. From keeping close tabs on her, Chemo gets to know that when she has no-one to fellate or to bone her, Cherry sets her iphone to vibrate and puts it against her crotch so each incoming text or call stimulates her pussy (p.372).

At the bourgeois end of the spectrum, we learn that Cherry’s parents’ marriage is a purely business arrangement: her father has a long standing menage-a-trois with a Danish couple, the sophisticated Jorgensens, while her mom is boffing her tennis coach. So far, so normal, for American marriages.

At the other, more extreme end of the spectrum, we learn that the young actor Tana Dane Keefe has a part in the latest Tarantino movie where he plays a necrophiliac, ‘a corpse-diddling longboarder’ (p.205). It all reminds me of the old rugby song, ‘Bestiality’s best, boys, bestiality’s best.’

The trouble with this kind of thing, with the adolescent urge to shock, is that eventually there’s nowhere left to go. It is possible to hollow out human existence, the meaning of human life, entirely, until it’s completely empty. This is why I despise Tarantino and his ilk. It’s slavery for laughs, it’s murder for entertainment, it’s the death of any attempt to maintain manners, respect and subtlety. It is an insult to the human spirit. But hey, it wins Oscars!

So an infinitely more liberated approach to sex than was conceivable for most people in the 1960s has not led to a happier society or happier individuals, has it? Instead of being the road to freedom that the sexual liberationists imagined, sex has turned out to be just one more dead end, one more rut which only confirms our bad habits and bad decisions.

Relying on sex for a ‘fulfilled’ life is like relying on alcohol or any other drug. Sex has become just another activity like drinking or playing cards which is sometimes meaningful and significant but is mostly humdrum and often just a habit, a potentially smelly, selfish or disease-spreading habit. For the most part, for most of the scumbag characters in Hiaasen’s novels, sex has been emptied of any sacral or numinous meaning that it once had.

Hence the superficially funny but ultimately sad set of phrases which hip Americans have developed  to categorise different types of fuck, the mercy fuck, the sport fuck and the speed fuck (p.338). Fucks are now as coolly categorised and named as brands of handbag.

2. Drugs

Something similar for drugs. It’s a long time since the hippies recommended that we turn on, tune in and drop out. Since then we went through the cocaine wave of the 1970s, the crack cocaine wave of the 1980s, and for the last few decades America has been enjoying the growing tide of the opioid epidemic.

Cherry and her buddies are symptomatic of a generation which has no reservations whatsoever about drugs and so has become greedily, selfishly addicted to whatever it can get its hands on. Thus Cherry quite literally swallows any pills available, including at one mildly comic moment, a handful of dog de-worming pills, doggie laxatives (p.370).

In Cherry and young Tanner Dane Keefe’s hands drug culture has just become a pointless addiction, and their readiness to take anything, anything at all to get off their faces, is about as spiritual or psychologically enlightening as sitting in a pool of your own vomit stuffing your face with Big Macs.

Thus Cherry bribes the room service boy to bring her every illicit substance he can get his hands on and this adds up to: Zanax, tramadol, Ecstacy, Bayer gelcaps, Ex-Lax, banana nut Cheerios and a bottle of Stoli vodka (p.317) all of which she proceeds to swallow, vomiting copiously some time later.

3. Guns

Something similar is true of guns, by which I mean that, in stories like this, shooting people is just an everyday activity which some people do as casually as drinking a beer or having a wank. Shooting someone, like taking drugs or casual sex, has (not for all, but for a fair percentage of the characters) been emptied of any particular meaning.

This really came home in the scenes where Abbott has kidnapped Ann. He asks about her nose, which got hit during the kidnap, asks to borrow headache pills, discusses Cherry’s personality, threatens to shoot her, takes her into a MacDonalds for a meal, explains the realities of life as a paparazzo, threatens to shoot her. It’s just another topic of conversation thrown in among other rather humdrum chats. ‘Pass the ketchup. Oh yeah, if I can’t get the ransom for you, I’ll have to kill you, OK.’ It has ceased to register as a big deal.

In one of the hotels where Abbott is keeping Ann hostage, they actually have a tussle over his gun which Ann grabs hold of, and in their half-assed struggle, the gun accidentally goes off and shoots the tip of Abbott’s forefinger off, the one he uses to press the shutter on his camera, which is vital to his career.

It is remarkable how neither of the characters are particularly upset about this and neither is the author. Not only does it typify the casual approach to guns and gun injuries, it demonstrates something else as well. In previous novels something really grotesque would have happened to Abbott for him having been the baddie all the way through, but in this one, it’s as if Hiaasen can’t be bothered to come up with anything really macabre. The climax of the novel is that the bumbling kidnapper gets shot in the bum.

The casual way modern Americans think about shooting and killing is demonstrated in the closing stretches of the novel where Cherry’s manager, Maury, first of all considers letting Abbott kill the kidnapped Ann, then pays Chemo to kill Abbott, then (when he doesn’t), orders him to kill Ann.

Nothing personal, it’s all purely business, these are just tactics to protect Cherry’s ‘brand’ and not jeopardise the upcoming tour and CD release. In this world, killing people is a legitimate business strategy.

My point is that the threats to kill someone come quite casually in among a range of other humdrum conversational topics; that the activity of shooting someone either to wound or kill them; have become utterly banal and empty and meaningless, as trivial as offering them a cigarette or holding a door open for them or blowing their head off.

Bang Abbott shook his head. ‘Unbelievable. I may have to shoot the fucker.’ (p.257)

Maybe shoot the fucker. Maybe not. Meh. Whatever.

Repetition

I can’t help noticing that this novel repeats several ideas or tropes from previous books. The entire notion of satirising the music industry had previously formed the basis of novel 9 in the series, Basket Case. Admittedly, that was about grown-up rock and adult rock stars whereas this novel is about the distinct and different teenybop market and focuses on a stroppy teenage pop star. But still, it’s fundamentally about the same glossy, empty, pop music-fashion-nightclubbing scene.

The return of Skink and Chemo can either be seen as the welcome reprise of old favourites or… as a sign that Hiaasen was running out of ideas for the kinds of grotesque characters which infested his earlier fiction. Any way you cook it, Chemo is a straight retread from an earlier, much more imaginatively varied and powerful novel.

What crystallised this sense of repetition was when I read in chapter 12 that Cherry’s two PR people, the twins Lucy and Lila Lark, had a long-burning ambition to have plastic surgery in order to be transformed into completely identical twins. The thing is, this is very similar to the storyline in Sick Puppy about the two leggy East European ‘models’ Katya and Tish who are housed, fed and watered by the slimy ex-drug smuggling property developer Robert Clapley because he wants to use plastic surgery to turn them into an identical pair of Barbie dolls. Or, as he puts it with typically Hiaasenesque crudeness:

‘How often in a guy’s lifetime does he have a chance to get sucked off by two semi-identical six-foot dolls?’ (p.137)

Feels like the same basic idea.

And there’s another repeat of an earlier book: Chemo becomes so incensed by airhead Cherry’s repetition of the same limited lexicon, that he retrieves a cattle prod he bought soon after leaving prison, and gives her electric shocks every time she says ‘like’, ‘awesome’, ‘sweet’, ‘sick’, ‘totally’, ‘hot’ and ‘dude’ (p.301). Quite quickly he has to only gesture towards the prong and she corrects herself.

This is pretty funny, and an apt satire on the spread of airhead Legally Blonde lexicon among America’s teens, but we’ve been here before. In Stormy Weather Skink hijacks a couple of newly-weds and fits the asinine husband with a dog-training electric collar. Every time he steps out of line Skink inflicts a massive electric shock which knocks the husband unconscious. Quite quickly the husband anticipates the shocks, eventually falling and rolling on the floor before Skink’s even administered a shock.

Same basic idea. Just saying that, as I read on, I had a disconcerting sense of these repetitions and echoes which, when combined with the lame-ass ending, couldn’t but help suggesting a falling off in Hiaasen’s fertility.

The decline and fall of American journalism

Another recurring theme is Hiaasen’s laments for the decline of old-style journalism, which have featured in many of his novels and, taken together, form an interesting commentary on the decline and fall of American journalism. Early on the narrator laments a time:

Back in the day when newspapers mattered. (p.25)

As I’ve read Hiaasen’s novels through the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s, many aspects of the society he describes have changed (more drugs, more explicit sex, the internet) but one of these threads is his comments on how journalism and the newspaper industry have changed over that period, consistently for the worse.

The early comments (and because the first novel features a star journalist, his managing editor and other journalists in a busy Miami newspaper, it is stuffed with them) are idealistic. Hiaasen thinks it is journalism’s place to hold corrupt politicians and business-people to account. In the 1990s he laments the advent of accountants who reshaped many American newspapers into money-making machines by cutting back on actual journalism and replacing it with features, competitions and prizes.

Thus Basket Case is narrated by a down-on-his-luck journalist Jack Tagger who boils over with contempt for the ‘smooth yuppie’ Race Maggad III who has bought the traditional, old-school newspaper he (Jack) works for and is only interested in it as a money-making machine. For Jack there’s still something worth fighting for in the idea of a civic-minded journalism which serves its community.

But by the time we come to this novel, in 2010, the fat paparazzo, Bang Abbott, is dealing with hard-nosed editors who are themselves having a hard time competing with the internet. The internet presents two threats:

  1. It is immediate, unlike the creaking, 24-hour delay of hard copy newspapers.
  2. And it is democratic, in the sense that absolutely anyone can photograph or take a video of a newsworthy event and upload it in seconds and it will have gone viral before a journalist has even uncapped their pen or turned on their laptop.

It’s a tiny but interesting detail that the editor of the magazine (National Eye) which is the best customer for Abbott’s sleazy paparazzo photos, is not American but Australian, and that he learned his trade on Fleet Street – the implication being that the British press is much more hard-nosed, business-like and ethic-free than US journalism (pages 106 to 111). Certainly we in Britain have to be reminded from time to time just what corrupt scumbags a lot of our journalism is (e.g. the phone hacking scandal).

Obviously, in the 11 years since this novel came out in 2010, things have got significantly worse for newspapers everywhere and the press in America now faces an existential crisis.

I wonder whether Hiaasen’s laments about the death of journalism continue in his more recent books…

Final thought

In terms of satire, Sick Puppy is maybe Hiaasen’s most effective novel because it really explains the workings of corrupt property development and politicians, and the precise way both interact, doing behind the scenes deals, creaming off money, the arrangements whereby all the politicians involved get payoffs and backhanders, and how the tax-paying public are dazzled by the handful of civic amenities which are used to disguise all of this. The novel is festooned with Hiaasen’s trademark grotesquery and violence and macabre deaths and so on, but it also contains this genuinely fascinating deep dive into how this kind of corruption really works.

By contrast, Star Island is, on the face of it, a satire on the discrepancy between the squeaky clean world of teen pop stars and the reality of drug addiction, nymphomania and bulimia. You could also argue it contains a parallel satire about the gutter values of tabloid newspapers or celebrity magazines, with their endless appetite for photos of celebs in embarrassing or squalid situations and so on.

And yet, it doesn’t dig deep. A leading pop start turns out not to be able to sing and to be a nightmare of drugs and sex. Hmm. Tell me something I didn’t already know. Ditto paparazzi. Everyone knows those magazines are trash and the paps who cater for them are reptiles. I remember Spitting Image satirising tabloid journalists as pigs in suits back in the 1980s.

That’s why I don’t like fiction about these subjects, whether by William Gibson or Carl Hiaasen – simply because the subjects feel old and tired and over-familiar right from the start.


Credit

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010. All references are to the 2012 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art @ Barbican

This is a fabulous exhibition, packed with wonderful paintings, photos, films, drawings, posters and all kinds of memorabilia connected with a dozen or so avant-garde and trend-setting nightclubs around the world from the 1880s to the 1960s, And as well as all the lovely works and ideas and stories, it raises a number of questions, which I’ll address at the end of this review…

First the clubs and their stories. The Barbican exhibition space is laid out not as ‘rooms’ but as successive alcoves or spaces running off the first floor gallery, from which you look down onto the ground floor which can be divided up into various areas, or opened up to make one through-space (as they did for the Lee Krasner exhibition).

There are eight of these room-sized alcoves upstairs, and in this exhibition each one tells the story of one or two famous nightclubs which became a focus for artists, or was designed and decorated by artists, in various countries from the 1880s onwards…

Paris

The Chat Noir nightclub was the most famous of the new generation of nightclubs which opened in the Montmartre region of Paris in the 1880s. The darkened interior combined Gothic, Neo-Classical and Japanese features, in fact it contained so many artworks some people nicknamed it the Louvre of Montmartre.

Reopening of the Chat Noir Cabaret by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1896) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1885 a shadow theatre was installed on the Chat Noir’s third floor in a room hung with drawings by Edgar Degas, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Here artist Henri Riviere and collaborators staged what ended up being a series of 40 increasingly elaborate shadow plays. The exhibition features photos and drawings of the Chat Noir, along with some fabulous posters, and a big display case of some of the elaborately designed zinc silhouettes used in the plays, explaining how they were made, what characters they represent, along with some of the books, kind of novelisations of the plays they staged, including music and illustrations

The shadow theatre’s owner Rodolphe Salis took it on an international tour in the 1890s, inspiring a generation if avant-garde artists.

Meanwhile, the strange and dramatic dances of Loïe Fuller staged at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s were trail-blazing experiments in costume, light and movement. Fuller held long sticks attached to swathes of fabric to enormously increase the swirling effects of her dances. She was a real innovator who set up a laboratory to experiment with spectacular effects.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured her performances in a series of delicately hand-coloured lithographs, she inspired early film-makers like Edison and Lumiere brothers, and the alcove devoted to her also has a set of huge and very evocative posters by the great poster-maker of the era, Jules Chéret.

Folies Bergers by Jules Chéret

Vienna

The Cabaret Fledermaus was opened in Vienna in 1907 by the Wiener Werkstätte. It is a total art work in which every element – chairs, tables, light hanging, stairs and the brightly coloured tiled walls – each tile featuring a unique fantastical motif – were designed to create an overwhelming effect. Joseph Hoffmann designed the overall concept and commissioned the Wiener Keramik workshop to produce the tiles.  The club hosted satirical plays, poetry readings, avant-garde dance and a variety of musical events, including a performance of The Speckled Egg by the 21-year-old Oskar Kokoschka, a puppet show based on an Indian folk tale – the exhibition includes the fragile, original hand-made puppets.

Postcard showing the Interior view of the bar at the Cabaret Fledermaus (1907) Collection of Leonard A. Lauder

London

Not to be left behind, some London artists banded together to set up The Cave of the Golden Calf in 1912, an underground haunt in Soho set up by Frida Uhl Strindberg. It was located in ‘a dingy basement below a cloth merchant’s warehouse just off Regent Street, where her artist friends Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, and Eric Gill contributed to the futurist and Russian ballet-inspired art that covered the club’s interiors. It was also, apparently, possibly the first ‘gay bar’ in the modern sense and was certainly conceived by its creator, as an avant-garde and artistic venture.

This section included designs for the interior by British artists Spencer Gore and Eric Gill, as well as Wyndham Lewis’s highly stylised programmes for the eclectic performance evenings. I came across Wyndham Lewis at school and have never stopped loving his savage angular art, either satirising English society or brutally conveying the reality of the Great War, which he saw from the front as a bombardier. For me his programme designs were the best thing in this section.

Study for a mural decoration for the Cave of the Golden Calf by Spencer Gore (1912) © Tate, London 2019

Zurich

Zurich during the war is famous as the birthplace of the Cabaret Voltaire (1916), which in its short existence (February to July 1916) hosted far-out Dada events and happenings in a deliberately absurdist environment. The exhibition includes samples of absurdist sound poetry and fantastical masks that deconstruct body and language, as used in the anarchic performances of original Dadaists Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Marcel Janco. Later Jean Arp recalled ‘pandemonium in an overcrowded, flamboyant room’ with works by Picasso or Arp hanging on the wall while Hennings sang anti-war songs there were puppet shows, improvised dances, African drums, and booming ‘poetry without words’ was yelled through a megaphone by people wearing silly costumes. This is a 1960s reconstruction:

Rome

The curators select two clubs from the post-war period in Rome which demonstrated the hold of the dynamic new art movement of Futurism in Italy in the 1920s.

In 1921 Futurist artist Giacomo Balla was commissioned by Ugo Paladini to create a Futurist nightclub and the result was Bal Tic Tac, which used Futurist angular design to create a wonderfully colour-saturated designs for the club’s interior. The exterior of the building was sensible neo-classical, the interior deliberately undermined this with brightly coloured interlacing shapes meant to capture the movement of dancers. It was one of the first places in Rome to promote the new American jazz music. A sign on the door read, ‘If you don’t drink champagne – go away!’

Also in the same room is a display devoted to drawings and furnishings for Fortunato Depero’s spectacular inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922) which occupied three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell. Depero’s flamboyant tapestry writhes with dancing demons, expressing the club’s motto ‘Tutti all’inferno!!! (Everyone to hell!!!)’.

Black and White Little Devils: Dance of the Devils by Fortunato Depero (1922) © DACS 2019. Archivo Depero, Rovereto. Courtesy Mart – Archivio Fotografico e Mediateca

Weimar Germany

After Paris in the Belle Epoque, probably the most famous era of nightclubs was in Weimar Germany between the wars, the exhibition doesn’t disappoint, with a selection of paintings and drawings of decadent German nightclubs by the likes of George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, Grosz – as usual – for me at any rate, emerging as the star among the men.

But, living in the era when we do, the exhibition goes out of its way to promote the work of ‘often overlooked female artists’, such as Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler.

Jeanne Mammen is really good. Her drawings and paintings are recognisably from the same time and place as the guys, but feel a little softer, more rounded, her figures are a little more like humans and less like the porcine animals of Grosz or Dix. Also her use of colour, particularly watercolour, the colours washing or dribbling or spilling over to create colour and life and action and depth. She depicted almost only women, many set in overtly lesbian nightclubs, in fact some of the wonderful pictures here were illustrations to a 1931 book titled A Guide To Depraved Berlin.

She Represents by Jenna Mammen (1928) published in Simplicissimus magazine Volume 32, Number 47

One of the most purely beautiful paintings in the exhibition is Karl Hofer’s iconic portrait of a couple of Tiller Girls, the Tiller Girls being dancers who did high-precision, high-kicking routines.

Tiller Girls by Karl Hofer (before 1927) Kunsthalle Emden – Stiftung Henri und Eske Nannen © Elke Walford, Fotowerkstatt Hamburg

Interestingly, a social theorist write in the same year this was painted, 1927, that the uncanny precision and interchangeability of the girls mirrored the large-scale mechanical methods of manufacturing which were then coming in and capturing people’s imaginations: ‘the hands of the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls’.

Strasbourg

Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp worked together to create the L’Aubette (1926–28), conceived as the ultimate ‘deconstruction of architecture’, a highly modernist, strict, functional design, with bold geometric abstraction as its guiding principle. The vast building housed a cinema-ballroom, bar, tearoom, billiards room, restaurant and more, each designed as immersive environments.

The Ciné-bal at Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, designed by Theo van Doesburg (1926-28) Image: Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut

Harlem

During World War One a Great Migration began of African-Americans from the Deep South to escape segregation, poverty and violent racism. They came north, to northern cities like Chicago and New York, and brought with them new music and sounds, specifically jazz. In New York many settled in the uptown Harlem district which underwent a great artistic flowering of music, poetry, dance, art and more, which eventually became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition includes a fascinating street map of Harlem (by E. Simms Campbell) which shows all the different nightclubs and the types of jazz to be found there. The most evocative thing here is the movie made around Duke Ellington’s jazz suite, Symphony In Black, which was intended to convey a panorama of African-American life.

All the static artefacts struggle to compete with the evocativeness of a) the music and b) some of the scenes from the movie. But what comes close is the fabulous silhouette art of Aaron Douglas who is represented by paintings and prints and illustrations to a book of blues lyrics by Langston Hughes. Vivid, beautifully crisp and rhythmic, it’s no wonder the curators chose one of his images as the exhibition poster.

Dance by Aaron Douglas (1930) © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

I’d like to know a lot more about Douglas, every one of the half dozen or so images on show here are excellent. They also made me realise the black and white silhouette art of Kara Walker, the contemporary Afro-American artists, is not as original as I thought it was.

So far all these settings and stories and artists have been European and American, part of a familiar narrative of Euro-American modernism which most of us are pretty familiar with. But this huge exhibition has a few surprises in store. First, the non-Western subjects.

Mexico City

Two and a half thousand miles south of New York City is Mexico City. Here, in the aftermath of the prolonged Mexican Revolution, in the early 1920s, a radical new art movement emerged named Estridentismo which sought to overthrow established bourgeois modes and create a new poetry which combined the folk fiction of the peasants with the reality of urban life in the big cities. How to unite rural peasants and urban workers – it was Lenin’s problem, Mao’s problem, Guevara’s problem, and the founders of the movement – Ramón Alva de la Canal, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán Cueto – discussed this and much more at the Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café) in Mexico City.

One of them came up with the characteristically inane motto: ‘Chopin to the electric chair!’ (characteristic for the post-war era of anti-bourgeois rhetoric)

Well, the twentieth century was to send many poets, painters, composers and musicians to the gulag, to the death camp and the execution cell, so in a roundabout way they got their wish.

El Café de Nadie by Ramón Alva de la Canal (c. 1970) © DACS, 2019. Courtesy Private Collection

Later in the 1920s, some of the group plus new members set up the ¡30-30! group (named after a popular rifle cartridge) with a socialist agenda of bringing art to the masses, and they organised lots of exhibitions and events in 1928 to 30. In January 1929 they staged an ambitious interactive exhibition-cum-event in a large carpa or low-cost tent used for travelling circuses. The Carpa Amaro event featured many woodprints, a deliberately cheap, affordable form.

The exhibition includes photos of these young firebrands, alongside a case of handmade masks made by German Cueto, and then a wall of thirty or so of the woodcuts which featured in the carpa exhibition by artists such as Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma and Fermin Revueltas Sanchez, ranging in subject matter from revolutionary leaders to suckling pigs via many portraits of working people.

Viva el 30-30 by Fernando Leal (1928)

Nigeria

Then to my surprise there is a whole section about Nigeria, specifically about the highly influential Mbari Artists and Writers Club, founded in the early 1960s in Nigeria.

The exhibition focuses on two of the club’s key locations, in Ibadan and Osogbo, describing how they were founded as laboratories for postcolonial artistic experimentation, providing a platform for a dazzling range of activities – including open-air dance and theatre performances, featuring ground breaking Yoruba operas by Duro Ladipo and Fela Kuti’s Afro-jazz; poetry and literature readings; experimental art workshops; and pioneering exhibitions by African and international artists such as Colette Omogbai, Twins Seven-Seven, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Uche Okeke.

There were some striking paintings here, I appreciated the swirling designs of Twins Seven-Seven but was drawn to the three works by Ibrahim (later discovering these are talismanic pieces of post-colonial African art).

Self-Portrait of Suffering by Ibrahim El-Salahi (1961) Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany © Ibrahim El-Salahi

There was a very interesting film playing, Art In A Changing Society made back in 1964 by Francis Speed and Ulli Beier, which was a TV documentary-style introduction to the art and architecture, design and dance and music of post-colonial Nigeria but which I cannot, alas, find on the internet.

Tehran

Lastly, and most unexpected of all, we come to Tehran in 1966 where the club Rasht 29 emerged as a creative space for avant-garde painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers to meet and discuss. There were spontaneous performances and works by artists like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram hung in the lounge while a soundtrack including Led Zeppelin and the Beatles played constantly.

Best of the works here were the three or four works by Parviz Tanalovi, who incorporated industrial leftovers and detritus into picture sculptures i.e picture sized and shaped objects, which hang on a wall, but which come out of the picture frame into three dimensions. Apparently many of his works incorporate a grille which looks to me like the symbol of a prison but apparently refers to the traditional design of a saqqakhaneh, the ‘sacred commemorative water fountains’ which gave their name to the artistic movement they all belonged to Saqqakhaneh.

Heech and Hands by Parviz Tanavoli (1964) Collection Parviz Tanavoli © Parviz Tanavoli


1. Including the non-Western clubs

As you can see, it’s a lot to take in. I find it hard to keep in mind all of the aspects of Modernism across Europe and the States – bringing in new non-Western countries is a brave and admirable move – it is good to  learn about Ibrahim El-Salahi and Parviz Tanalovi, in particular.

But it begs quite a few questions:

1. Why do we get to see so very little non-Western art in all our major art galleries. Mexico, Nigeria, Iran – these are all major countries with huge populations and long cultural heritages. Yet you only rarely hear anything about them.

2. Do they really fit into this exhibition? Not only was the Western stuff unified by coming from a common European artistic heritage, but it was unified in date as well, showing the flow of thought from the late-nineteenth century through the Great War and into the inter-war period: it covers the period roughly described as Modernism. Whereas the Nigeria and Tehran stuff suddenly leaps into the 1960s, a completely different period with a completely different vibe.

So not only do I know next to nothing about Nigerian or Persian traditional art, but I am not told anything about Nigerian or Iranian art of the 1900s, 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s to help put the sudden focus in the clubs of the 1960s in focus.

2. Recreating the nightclub vibe

There is one massive aspect of the show I haven’t mentioned yet – which is that, having processed through the historical exhibition and display up on the balcony, the visitor then goes back down to the ground floor and discovers that, in the central gallery space, the curators have recreated some of the art clubs which we’ve been reading about. Specifically, there is:

  • Chat Noir a white room with 7 or 8 of the big metal stencils fromt he Chat Noir hanging from the ceiling and slowly rotating in the mild breeze and throwing shadows on the wall, all to the contemporaneous music of Debussy and Satie – a very calm, peaceful, meditative room
  • Cabaret Fledermaus a striking reconstruction of the Viennese nightclub in which the walls and bar are studded with brightly coloured tiles

Recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, Vienna, 1907

  • L’Aubette a reconstruction of L’Aubette, the semi-industrial, architectural complex in Strasbourg, complete with cinema projection running a series of contemporary films, including Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin and Metropolis

Recreation of the cinema-ballroom L’Aubette by Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp

  • Mbari Clubs and a nice space set off from the corridor by a barrier or wall made out of sculpted patterns in a Nigerian style, inside which was playing a video of Nigerian youths dancing

You can see that a great deal or time, trouble and expense has gone into recreating each of these ‘zones’. But.. The most obvious thing about most nightclubs is, or was, that they were traditionally subterranean, smoky, often very noisy and very cramped and packed environments, in which people are drinking too much and laughing and joking and often having to shout over the very loud music, and laughing and going off to the bogs or stopping for a snog on the stars or chatting up the barmaid or barman, and asking someone for a light. They are/were places of intense hectic human interaction.

It was an ambitious, maybe quixotic notion, to try and recreate all that human bustle, noise, sweat and booziness in… the uniquely silent, white, perfectly scrubbed and essentially sterile environment of the modern art gallery. Nothing could really have been more dead than the Mbari Clubs little zone, completely empty when I walked in, admired the Yoruba wall paintings, and walked out again. Or the loving recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, beautiful coloured tiles and all, and utterly empty and utterly silent when I walked through it.

Conclusions

This is a fascinating insight into an enduringly interesting subject, a subject which has inspired all manner of artists across numerous countries and periods.

In fact, maybe you could think of The Nightclub as being an entire genre, a very twentieth century genre, as The Nude or The Landscape were for previous centuries.

And I admire the way the curators have made it so multinational, showing the same impulse at work across multiple cultures and continents.

Like previous Barbican shows it is so packed as to be overwhelming, bringing together over 350 works rarely seen in the UK, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films and archival material.

And yet I was really perplexed by the recreations. The young woman who took my ticket explained that they have been having music evenings, with live bands playing. Maybe that helps, maybe that lifts it a bit. But it was eerie walking through perfect recreations of places which were meant to be temples to human interaction in all its smelly, sweaty, boozy, smoke-ridden, music-drowned glory but were now empty and silent – turned, quite literally, into museum pieces.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beach life one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery has turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French joint with expresso machine, but a down at heel, fly-blown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking Brandenburg cakes.

You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or just sit and chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus you’ll find a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thailand, the Soviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely:

  • gender (meaning all women are oppressed)
  • diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed)
  • same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed)
  • imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed)
  • and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed)

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire oeuvre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


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