Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Blue Ruin, by Hari Kunzru: Does Money Lessen Art?

Hari Kunzru is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Each of his last three novels -- White Tears, Red Pill, and this one, his latest, Blue Ruin (no, I don't think the colors thing is a coincidence) -- I've started with a little hesitation. But each time I've been absolutely floored, really loved each one. 

For my money, Kunzru is one of the best capital L capital F Literary Fiction writers working today. Especially in the case of Blue Ruin, and in contrast to many Serious Literary Fiction novels, Kunzru's books about art are not pretentious and stuffy. They're as entertaining as they are intellectually engaging, going about tackling their Big Important Questions.

In Blue Ruin, the Big Important Questions are these: Should art be a commercial enterprise? That is, does money changing hands lessen art and/or artist? Further, what are the boundaries between art and life? Are they even boundaries at all? 

These big questions are framed around a plot that takes place during the early days of the pandemic. A grocery delivery driver named Jay makes a delivery at a remote New York compound in the woods. The person who placed the grocery order just happens to be Alice, a woman with whom Jay had a torrid affair in London in the late 1990s, as he was coming up in the London art world. 

Is this a coincidence? Or part of a bigger story/plot? You see, Alice wound up leaving Jay for Jay's former friend Rob, a fellow artist. Is Jay still bitter? Is he hellbent on revenge?

We learn the backstory of the young artists' time in London, of Alice and Jay's fraught, often drug-fueled relationship, and Rob and Jay's divergent paths as artists. Each part of this novel is so carefully constructed -- revealing each bit of backstory right when it'll have the most impact on our understanding of what's happening in the present. Will Jay and Rob reconcile? Will Jay steal Alice back from Rob? What's the deal with the douchey conspiracy-theory-minded gallerist named Marshal?

I LOVED this book! Kunzru is so adept at tautness -- maximum impact in minimum pages. I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book for days. A favorite of 2024, for sure. 

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