‘We’re all pretending to be something we’re not’ – Tofu Landing by Evan Maloney

It was inevitable that the myth of Pete Doherty would be made the centre of a novel, and Tofu Landing has done it. However, it’s been done in a decidedly ambivalent way. Tristan Russell, an indie rock star, the greatest poet since Byron (according to ’NME’), and magnet to teenage groupies moves into a flat in Bethnal Green. The Posse, a group of wannabe artists, actors and drug dealers share the flat. Another new member of the Posse is Declan Twist. After suffering a brain injury he has lost all passion for life, happy to drift along and he falls into working as a film critic (on an unwatched television channel, and he also writes reviews for a gay magazine despite being straight).  The novel revolves around the east London art scene in 2000. Each character clings to art for a meaning for their lives, finding in it the expression that their own inarticulacy denies them. But celebrity always trumps art. And drugs trump art. It is Tristan’s fame that draws them, but drugs are the common factor in their friendship: “how quickly one builds up friendship structures when drugs are the cement binding them together.”

Maloney has considerable fun with the art scene and Tristan’s pretensions, while Declan, the fictional critic, is at least a honest critic and he silently mocks the delusions that are at the heart of the Posse, the belief that they are artists (“We’re all pretending to be something we’re not”), when their art rests on language, “Words can do anything. They can make you believe anything, and most of the time they’re just bullshit”, the same language they use to build the friendships that do not survive the hangovers. A honest critic is the only person who can see through the modern art chancers that populate the flat (and this novel).

The east London art scene colliding with a Pete Doherty figure (who flees a party when one of the guests falls to his death) is easy material for satire. It is to Maloney’s credit that he doesn’t take this easier route but creates a nuanced and intriguing character in Declan Twist. Declan’s uncertainty about his life keeps him tied to the Posse, while his love of art means that he sees through the pretension all around him. The witty and acerbic descriptions of clubs, youth television and nights spent getting high together (and the sex that results) are vividly told, everything rings true, it’s a compelling novel.

Compelling until the final thirty pages, when a novel revolving around art suddenly turns inwards at breakneck speed: Declan discovers meditation, he meets a beautiful woman in the National Gallery (who turns out to be a Polish doctor on holiday in London), falls in love, a few pages later he’s moving to Poland (and a page later suddenly has children). It’s all wrapped up with the haste of someone pelting along behind Usain Bolt, and disappointedly undermines an otherwise interesting, amusing and often insightful novel about frustrated ambitions and artists whose real talent is for self-promotion.

Any Cop?: Well-realised description of London art scenesters who trail in the wake of a tabloid-friendly rock star, that suddenly makes a dash for the finishing line and takes all the fun out of the previous 200 pages.

James Doyle

 

One comment

  1. Although I agree wholeheartedly with most of this review, I disagree with the opinion on the ending.

    SPOILER ALERT

    Although I agree with most of this review, I disagree with the opinion on the ending. It’s interesting, the reviewer reckons it’s a book about art. I don’t think that. To me it’s a book about people which happens to be set in the artistic community. The art stuff is just the web that links the people together, it’s not intrinsically the crux of the book itself. To me (of course this is all just my opinion) the book could just as successfully have been set in the scientific community (for example). OK, it would have needed a few changes but the art angle, while really interesting and well-done, isn’t the crux of the book. And it’s Declan’s whole detachment from the people around him, while still being the only one who truly has any real artistic insight, that makes the ending work for me. It’s Declan’s insight into art which, through the first part of the book, makes me think that there is some deeper feeling lurking beneath his surface. So it’s not a surprise to me when that is suddenly awakened, first by meditating lady, and secondly by his wife. And, for me, it’s definitely not a surprise that the whole awakening happens so quickly. To voice a cliche, he was a bit like a simmering volcano that just needed the right nudge.

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