STARRED REVIEW
July 08, 2014

What makes a work of art?

By Will Chancellor

If you've ever wondered whether modern art is trash disguised by critical theory or whether critical theory is trashy modern art, Will Chancellor's debut novel, A Brave Man Seven Stories Tall, may settle the wager. It is a spirited sendup of the frauds found in art, academia and their "liminal" intersections.

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If you've ever wondered whether modern art is trash disguised by critical theory or whether critical theory is trashy modern art, Will Chancellor's debut novel, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, may settle the wager. It is a spirited sendup of the frauds found in art, academia and their "liminal" intersections.

Owen is a precocious student destined for Olympic fame in water polo when he is blinded in one eye. Instead, he heads to Berlin to try his hand as an artist. There he falls under the sway of a brash amalgam of Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei, whose work is as lucrative as it is shameless. Increasingly drug-addled, Owen becomes the involuntary subject of a project simulating the Abu Ghraib photos during its American tenure.

Meanwhile Owen's father, Joseph, a traditional but unknown scholar, seizes an opportunity to travel to Athens to be the opening act for the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Chancellor offers a "formula for the new public intellectual,” which includes "say something outlandish seemingly at random” especially "against global capitalism.”  Joseph rises well above the occasion when a rumination on the film Scarface and its lessons for anti-capitalists culminates in a vast riot that puts Joseph on a terrorist watch list.

Chancellor writes in the established tradition of the American absurd, from Pynchon and Gaddis (who mocked Art in V and The Recognitions) to DeLillo and Foster Wallace (who mocked the ivory tower in White Noise and Infinite Jest). Chancellor may be swinging for the former pair, but lands firmly, and thereby accessibly, in the latter. His language is often bracing and his references to "late Heidegger" et al. will please aspiring or ashamed philosophy students.  But he is rarely esoteric for esoterica's sake, eschewing the obfuscating "cult of the difficult" he otherwise lampoons.

But is it art? Or Art? Marcel Duchamp suggested that art is whatever appears in a gallery. So is this a novel or something in a "novel"? Liminalism suggests it may be somewhere in between.

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A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

By Will Chancellor
Harper
ISBN 9780062280008

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