Art Books In Conversation
RICHARD VINE with David Ebony
(Titan Books, London, 2016)
(Hard Case Crime, New York, 2016)
An art-world murder mystery, SoHo Sins is the first novel from Richard Vine, Art in America’s Managing Editor and an expert in the field of contemporary Chinese art. SoHo Sins is a noir-style crime-story set in the New York art world of the late 1980s and early ’90s. The story surrounds the murder of Amanda Oliver, the wife of Philip Oliver, an eccentric media mogul and a major collector of contemporary art. The book features vivid portraits of the prime murder suspects, and the detectives in pursuit of them. The story is told from the point of view of Jackson Wyeth, a successful, world-weary SoHo art dealer.
Vine’s efforts are in line with the longstanding phenomenon of art critics (and artists) writing crime fiction: Iain Pears in Britain, John Canaday (former New York Times critic) years ago here, and these days Christopher Finch, Carter Ratcliff, Jonathan Santlofer—even Irving Sandler, who has a manuscript in development.
The following conversation (conducted partly by email, partly by phone) between Vine and his longtime colleague David Ebony offers insight into the novelist’s way of thinking, the crime-novel genre, art-world politics, and the state of art today.
David Ebony (Rail): I don’t read much fiction lately—usually I read things that are somehow related to the art I’m writing about. So the fact that I got sucked into the story and swept up by the characters in SoHo Sins is a big compliment. There are some beautifully written passages like “There was a chord shift in the Glass composition, a major alteration in the flat aural horizon.”
Highlights of the book for me were other non-fiction passages: your descriptions of Henry Darger paintings and exhibitions, for instance, and the vivid Ron Athey and Bob Flanagan performances, which I also witnessed in person. And your representation of SoHo back then is also remarkable—and evocative.
The character renderings are strong, making the personalities all the more disturbing at times. I wonder how closely the main characters are based on real-life people you have known or met? Are Philip Oliver, Amanda, and the others, based on art-world people? How much of Jackson (or Jack) Wyeth is you?
Richard Vine: There are only two characters transcribed directly from life, and they’re not ones you named. One is Sammy the wannabe mobster, whom I knew long ago in Chicago, and the other is the Viking, based unabashedly on my Icelandic sculptor friend Gudjon Bjarnason. (Or three “real” characters, actually, if we count the Viking’s daughter singing on tape.) All the rest are the usual mishmash of observation and imagination, with elements of various people transposed from one to the other, fragmented and recombined. How could a guy of my generation resist, for example, making a villain of a handsome young video artist? One of the great pleasures of fiction, for readers and writers alike, is the chance to ask, “What is it like to look, feel, think, dress, talk, and act as someone else—as many other people?”
As for the narrator, I suppose you could say that Jack is all me, but Richard Vine is not all Jack. There’s a pretty obvious splitting of the authorial self here into the two complementary but contending halves named Jack and Hogan [an ex-Marine private detective]—both worldly and cynical, to be sure, but in far different ways, for different reasons, with different results.
Wong Kit Yi, the young artist to whom the book is dedicated, may have had the most perceptive response: “Oh, I see, you’re all the characters. And they’re all you. How funny.”
Rail: For me, the most disturbing character of all (perhaps because I’m gay?) is Philip’s daughter, Melissa. I found that her underage seductress persona thinly masks a terrorizing spoiled brat. Jail bait, indeed. Jack’s physical attraction to her was troubling, as I’m sure it was intended to be. But I guess we’ll never know her true nature for sure. Or will there be SoHo Sins II?
Vine: More ambiguity there, I’m afraid. I originally projected an ongoing series of Jack and Hogan adventures. But the Hard Case Crime publisher was hesitant to tamper with a story he felt is “already complete,” with that large time-jump at the conclusion of SoHo Sins. In any case, he has encouraged me to write instead about the infamous Kent State University killings that I witnessed in 1970. I’m now doing so with ever deepening and broadening results. After that, will Jack and Hogan return in another story? I can’t say.
You’re tougher than I am on little Melissa. I find her to be equal parts charming and frightening. Ideally, readers will sympathize with her, despite her narcissism, throughout most—perhaps all—of the strange experiences that Jack and others subject her to.
Rail: I am curious as to what attracted you to the crime novel genre for your first novel? Were you always an avid reader of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and so on?
Vine: It may sound crazy at first, but I find the detective genre a perfect metaphor for the intellectual life—or, more grandly still, for the human mind in the world. It’s really the Enlightenment project, isn’t it? Finding darkness, evil, and mystery all about—then, while sticking solely to the facts, to evidence tested and validly reasoned about—making one’s way to a simple but vastly illuminating knowledge. One may regret finding truth, in the end, but that’s the bargain. It’s better than being duped.
I toy with that convention in SoHo Sins, leaving elements of doubt and uncertainty at the conclusion, and a narrator stuck in a situation that is far from being transformed—by reason or sacrifice or anything else. The book is a noir fiction in Otto Penzler’s sense of the term: the product of a world unredeemed and probably unredeemable. After Kafka and Beckett, it’s a bit difficult to see crime detection, scientific inquiry, or anything else as an escape from the darker facts of the human condition. If anything, crime novels—especially the cynical-guy variety that I traffic in—serve as a grim confirmation. As the experimental novelist John Barth once put it: “Self knowledge is always bad news.”
I mention Barth because, long ago, I did a University of Chicago Ph.D. in contemporary American fiction, with a dissertation titled “John Barth and the Literature of Exhaustion.” It examined Barth’s own novelistic output in light of the notion, espoused in his 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” that everything that productively can be done in narrative fiction has been done already. Hence, the only way forward—apart from self-protective ignorance—is to use the old proven forms, knowingly and strategically, for new ends. I’d like to think that SoHo Sins does exactly that, taking on some rather serious issues (artistic values, infidelity, the exploitation of innocence, even religious faith), while also providing readers with an engaging and—yes—entertaining experience every step of the way.
I don’t read a large amount of crime fiction these days, only an occasional John D. MacDonald, Benjamin Black, Thomas H. Cook, or Qiu Xiaolong. But during one year of my life—1979 – 80, when I was teaching modern British novel at the University of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, with nothing but 400 miles of desert in every direction—I sampled the genre pretty widely: Agatha Christie, Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout, Mickey Spillane, Patricia Cornwell, Dashiell Hammett, Dick Francis, James M. Cain, and others. Later I took a workshop course with Sara Paretsky. But, first and last, there is always Raymond Chandler, who brought poetic inflection to a form otherwise known for an astonishing concision of structure and language.
Rail: I understand the aim was for suspense, but I was filled more with upset and alarm in the sections about the process of making kiddie porn films. That Jackson would even consider leading Melissa into the scary position of appearing on the set of “Virgin Sacrifice” is very disturbing. What if something had gone wrong with the plan—the girl could have been abducted and carted off to another unknown location?
Vine: I’m glad to hear you were upset, since the whole point of the subplot was to make the presence of evil palpable. Too often the murder victim in crime fiction is just a token that sets the game in motion. But I wanted readers to feel the reality of perversion, of sin. So I asked myself, “What, in today’s world, is a menace more disturbing than murder?”
Secondly, I wanted to remind myself and everyone else just how thin the membrane is that separates each of us from illicit urges and personal transgression. “We’re all the type,” the private detective Hogan says. Sadly, I think the real world supports his view. Hence the need for ethical rules and self-vigilance, for a code like the one held by that disabused ex-Marine, imperfectly applied though it may be.
Rail: Finally, it is a bit unsettling that the depictions of the art world are relentlessly disparaging throughout the novel—art world denizens almost universally come across as greedy and shallow creeps, and the dealers, including Jack, are all shady, if not crooks. Since you have devoted such a great part of your career to the art world, I wondered if you personally find no redeeming qualities at all in art, and in the contemporary art world? Do you agree with Melissa, who says that art is “for the rich, and it doesn’t mean anything.”
Vine: Well, you know the old saying: “No one wants to read a book about a happy family.” Formally, when you adopt the mode of crime fiction—especially noir crime fiction—you adopt the premises of that fictive universe: in this case, the dire conviction that human beings are, by their animal birth, a pretty rotten bunch, worthy of pity only because they try to do their best, even though they are all condemned to death in advance. The narrator, much less the author, dare not exempt himself from those judgments.
Now, the art world you and I know may be filled with honest, good-hearted souls, earnestly making their art and curating their shows and writing their essays with the best of all possible motives. But once you begin to “investigate” that art world, a number of other factors—and other players—soon come into view. SoHo Sins, you might say, is a lament not for the art world that was, or is, but the art world that is rapidly emerging. By now, its corruption by unregulated wealth is almost complete; this book simply imaginatively extends present trends in the time-honored fashion of Orwell’s 1984. My projection goes into the immediate past rather than the immediate future, but that reversal of vectors is just an amusing bit of game-play to help highlight the present.
An argument could be made that the art world today, ultimately dependent as it is on the buying decisions of a few super-rich individuals, is fatally tainted throughout. (Artnet.com reports a new financial scam almost every week.) Do some further digging, and the facts soon reveal that no one can become that rich, or maintain that level of inherited wealth, without being a moral criminal. Such disproportionate lucre is accumulated either through activities that are literally illegal or through the utterly unconscionable exploitation of employees, stockholders, taxpayers, and customers—an economic crime and a moral one.