THE BEST thing about this book is its title, and even that is a retouched reference to Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel, a skit on the dodgy art scene of the day which was later made into a rather good film starring Alec Guinness.
Laura Gascoigne offers us comedy, intrigue, murder and even a half-hearted love interest as she strives to hold our interest in the rapacious world of modern art dealership and price-fixing.
But these separate elements don’t really cohere. Jostling and elbowing each other like distracted viewers at some overpriced exhibition, they obstruct enjoyment and severely challenge patience.
That the art sector encompasses well-meaning artists and dedicated collectors at one end and the hypercapitalism of international investors and art institutions at the other who regulate the supply and price of big-named output, reflecting insurance and investment and not intrinsic artistic values, is hardly revelatory. But Gascoigne’s misconceived efforts to connect the two in such a short book is a failure.
The book’s protagonist Patrick Phelan is an amiable and financially challenged artist, honourably committed to securing his ex-wife’s future through both teaching art and increasingly painting to order in the style of various 19th and 20th-century painters by his less-thanhonest son Marty.
Marty is the shaky bridge between his “sheddist” father, his Tebbit-like neighbour and his various enthusiastic students and the shadowy Russian Orlovsky — the novel faithfully channels the meme of the Slavic threat — various Machiavellian curators, critics, journalists and a rozzer from the Met’s art fraud squad.
With the exception of Phelan, there is not enough weight given to characterisation and so most of the main players are two-dimensional stick men and women.
Gascoigne could have created a more compelling and dramatic read had she focussed on the collusion between politics and big business in the art markets as an expression of the true nature of global finance capitalism.
She hasn’t, and the reader is left asking the question: “What’s the pointillism?” An ennervating read.