Rating 5 stars
Book 5 in my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge, a substitution in the original list.
I find it hard to believe that Boy Parts is Eliza Clark’s debut novel. It’s confident, fiercely funny and its chattiness belies the darkness at its heart.
Not since Chuck Pahlaniuk have I felt so delighted to be entertained by the vagaries of human nature. Not since James Kelman has a writer captured so well for me the hard edge of working class play and working class survival. Not since the translation of Virginie Despante’s Vernon Subutex trilogy into English have I been so pleased to meet a character that is so grotesquely charming.
Clark spears many things in the novel – the mundanity of the Art School process, the gentrification of working class culture, the modern need to be visible and the way that need encourages some people to consent to things they really don’t want to consent to, the tragedy of emotional dysfunction.
I’m about twice Clark’s age. Some of the trappings of being a 20-something at the start of that part of life defined by responsibility and our relationship to it are the same, but my generation was the last for whom our promised future largely delivered, free of the levels of debt that burden people today, not quite as trammelled by questions of who we are and what we’re for. The cynical, clinical divide hadn’t opened up for us in quite the same way. I’m a tourist in the world Clark conjures.
Clark’s writing is mordant. In Irina, she captures the nihilism of a generation that came of age during the endgame of capitalism. Boredom is a state of being. There is no pleasure in anything. There is only the moment and how to endure it.
Irina works in a bar. She parties hard. We first meet her swallowing down a bilious hangover on her way to work. At the bar, she’s assaulted first by an entitled city boy and then within minutes by an irate mother. The latter gifts her some paid time off work.
Irina is also a photographer. She has a particular style, inspired by extreme cinema, and a particular clientele for her work. She scouts men in the street, on the bus, at the supermarket. Her scouting technique put me in mind of Laura in Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin.
Irina has one close friend, Flo, and various hangers on. The way Irina tells it, Flo is an STD she can’t shake off. They each navigate the world behind a mask. Irina is the ice cold sneering artist, better than anyone else, disdainful of the trivialities of their lives. Flo blogs her every thought and encounter, trying to be a poster girl for confused bisexuality. They could be unlikeable, but they’re funny. Irina in particular. As her Art School tutors kept telling her when critiquing her work, she’s cruel. And sometimes, a particular type of cruelty can be hilarious. Waspish, bitchy snarking. The pricking of the pompous self-inflation of entitled egos.
If every artist’s question is “Do you understand?”, Irina could be an anti-artist. On some levels she doesn’t care if people understand, almost prefers it that they don’t. But when she’s invited to submit work to an exhibition that covers her current work and how she got there, Irina takes time selecting which of her early works she’ll include, curating her image, showing that she cares about that, at least.
Through her archive, we learn about Irina’s past, through Irina’s distorted lens.
To everyone but Irina, her past is traumatic. To her, she was in control the entire time and has been in control ever since. It could be easy to believe her, that she sought out an experience and used it to form the person she is now, but for the signs that she’s not in control. Her persona is a challenge to men who don’t like to feel insignificant. The danger of believing you’re in control and can handle any situation is that occasionally control passes to someone uglier than you in a fight.
The person she has turned herself into is capable of anything. What she does is not pretty, but it makes for compelling reading. There’s violence, but it’s cartoonish. As Irina often describes herself, it’s extra. Extreme. Hard to believe. Maybe I’ve watched too many horror films. Maybe Irina has too. There’s a hint that none of this is real.
Irina’s nihilism takes her to dark places, through portals opened up by her monumental drug consumption.
The monumental drug consumption, the filling in of gaps in a largely blacked out past, the hallucinations in moments of wounded animal defence all hint at the rot at Irina’s core. But Irina lies about all kinds of things, so how can we trust what she tells us?
Irina’s not a sex worker, but she reminded me of the women in the recent Louis Theroux documentary, Selling Sex. She has the same resolute belief that her life is a series of choices she has made, that she controls, and that any past trauma she has internalised is really nothing to do with it. She’s monstrous like the characters in the HBO show Succession. Not to be reductive about it, but they’re all driven by trauma, too.
Irina doesn’t do relationships. No kissing on the lips. Friends with benefits sex. Dumping people the instant they refer to her as their girlfriend. During the course of the novel, she meets two men who are interested in her, self-deprecating about themselves, and shocked by her relationship to sex. In a rom-com they’d win the day, cracking her shell, rehabilitating her. In Boy Parts, there’s no rehabilitation.
It’s been a while since I devoured a book within 24 hours. Clark’s debut gripped me, and was everything I thought it would be since I first read the blurb on her publisher’s website. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more from Clark in the future.