While attending the Saboteur Awards 2017, I discovered the intriguingly titled humorous novella Portrait of the Artist as a Viable Alternative to Death. With its James Joyce parody title and the author, Ross McCleary, standing in the crowd dressed as a panda, it was impossible to resist. Experimenting with font size, bold typography, second person voice, motifs of violence, mortality, solipsism and a great surfeit of meta-conceits, Portrait of the Artist as a Viable Alternative to Death is an analysis of what it means to be an artist—in that sense, it has continuity with Joyce. A single conceit, or formulae, structures the book. Each paragraph, separated from its predecessor by a hard break, begins ‘He says[…]’ and proceeds to a statement of some insight from the titular artist, speaking directly to ‘you’ the reader. It has a mesmeric quality: ‘He says it only rains when he takes an Ordinance Survey Map in the shower with him.’
As the narrative builds, it becomes clear that McCleary is not only offering up a book of comic aphorisms. Rather, he is interested in the narcissism of art, ‘He says he can identify people he has never spoken to, and never will, by the way they look. Their features are less complex, less detailed. Their looks are, he says, more repetitious. Their faces have fewer blemishes, fewer contours. Their eyes are less engaged. He says this is because, like Non-Playable Characters in video games, they aren’t fully realised as people.’ The singular third person male pronoun gradually becomes more and more pathological; destroying the lives of his family members in increasingly abstract performance pieces. If there is a trend away from the jubilant meta meaninglessness of postmodernism to a more desperate, sadder, but interrogative post-irony—think of the switch from South Park to Rick and Morty—this book catches a zeitgeist. It is funny, but it also refuses the copout of cheap nihilism.