By Derek Parsons
Harper, July 2014
Will Chancellor’s debut novel, A Brace Man Seven Storeys Tall, has already been aligned with William Gaddis’ masterpiece The Recognitions, as well as Thomas Pynchon’s V. But, while these comparisons are certainly flattering, they create insurmountable expectations. Chancellor shouldn’t fret, though. A Brave Man certainly shares ideas with these books: the relentless and manic appearance of coincidence, the skewering of the latest art scene and inevitable hanger-ons, and ultimately the questioning of what truly constitutes art. Above all else, these are the things that define A Brave Man, and which Chancellor appears most comfortable writing about. It’s when he veers off course, however, that things become awash.
Right from the outset, everything changes for Owen Burr when, in his final collegiate match at Stanford, the Olympics-bound water polo star is blinded in his left eye. His anticipation of that summer’s Athens games immediately mutates into a sense of loathing and listlessness. Owen’s identity had previously been so wrapped up in his athletic persona that he rashly decides to flee to Berlin with a vague, reactionary impulse to become an “Artist.” He meets little resistance from his father, Professor Burr, or just Burr, who is the quintessential, if not somewhat cliché fuddy-duddy academic. A classics professor by trade, Burr is the epitome of obsolescence; he is a man of esoteric inclinations and abstractions, not action, momentum, or agency. But Burr will ultimately spurn his lethargy when, in an attempt to lure Owen from his hiding hole, he gives an impassioned speech at the Parthenon about Scarface and his theory of Liminalism that devolves into an anarchist riot. No worries, though, Jean Baudrillard is there to save the day.
Upon arriving in Berlin, Owen has the serendipitous fortune to cross paths with Kurt and his lapdog/associate Hal. Kurt, it turns out, is a very successful and famous conceptual artist. Among his more renowned spectacles was filling the Stedelijk with Ping-Pong balls. Kurt and Hal represent a cynical group of artists primarily concerned with the production of fame—their art functioning merely as a by-product—than the pursuit of the beautiful. In one instance, Hal even scoffs at Owen for asking if another artist’s painting was beautiful, “You’re not embarrassed to use words like that?” Each of Kurt’s performances relies on some kind of theoretical foundation or justification. He is, in a sense, the quintessential rebel artist. His performances are designed to challenge an accepted idea, however juvenile or childish his experiment may be. Most importantly, Kurt’s philosophy is that art is anything that can be exploited, but only as long as it can be sold. Luckily for Kurt, his manic approach to art—not altogether dissimilar from a mad scientist or perhaps, more appropriately, a corporate R&D lab—is both inspired and prolific enough to generate consistent interest.
Chancellor’s greatest success is his depiction of the competitive, if not vindictive world of artists striving for the meager attention of critics and collectors, an endless game of oneupmanship that can lead to bitter feuds and rivalries, and he perfectly captures the absurdity of their conceptual gamesmanship. The act of the spectacle, removed from any true political context, is transformed into an entirely commercialized product, by which the act of living itself becomes a commodity. For Kurt and his entourage, this means a constant battle, sometimes literally, with other artists to claim territory, as it were, over their lives as artistic productions, and so the evolutionary environment of the arts is exposed as nothing more than a standoff for resources and power, where the artist’s desire to sell himself is limitless. Art is just another capitalist mask.
For a debut that, according to Chancellor, took almost ten years to write and had several “Page 1” rewrites, it is no accident that portions of this novel bristle with assuredness and grandeur, barring the occasional tediousness. For instance, when Owen and Stevie are holed up in the hull of a Rhine riverboat playing the painstaking game of choosing and listening to their respective favorite albums one final time as a dedication of their love and unique circumstance. There is also the somewhat anomalous development in the final third of the novel in which the conceptual backbone of both Owen’s and Burr’s narratives dissolves away in favor of a more conventional and muddled father-son story. It raises the question of whether Chancellor might have been stuck too long on an idea, too preoccupied with a narrative germ that, as it grew and grew, may not have ever had a winning solution. In the end it doesn’t matter because A Brave Man is a remarkable, if flawed, debut, and one that immediately asserts Chancellor as a promising new voice with the ambition and talent to take him anywhere.