Richard: cultural vanishing points and a post-punk Archimboldi

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Last week saw the paperback release of Richard by Ben Myers (here from Amazon). I rarely talk about books, even more rarely ones with a mainstream publisher (Picador), so this is sort of a special occasion.

So why break my duck for Richard? Well, both it, and its author, Ben Myers, have been working away at my subconscious for some time now. Pretty much ever since I wrote a bit of a diatribe against Brutalism well over a year back. And against this book. I was very proud of my puffery at the time. Like a poor souffle, I’ve been slowly deflating ever since as I realised first that I’d misread Brutalism (whcih is full not of the slick blankness I’d seen in it but the raw emotional honesty I’ve spent years arguing for), and second that whatever stick I’d latched onto with Myers and Richard, I was holding the wrong end of it.

Richard is a fictionalisation of the last few days of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, tortured genius, voice of the misunderstood (how appropriate), and putatively enrolled in the 27 club when he went missing in 1995, his car found abandoned by a suicide black spot near the River Severn.

That was where and when Richard crossed into the realm of myth. Now I love the Manics, and Everything Must Go was one of the soundtracks of my student days, so Richey Edwards is one of the cultural imagos around which my work circles. I will confess I never identified with him the way many do. For me that particular place in my creative heart will always belong to Kurt Cobain. But he is a figure of fascination, so this book is a must read.

It’s that fascination I want to talk about, that crossing into mythology. Because I sense that’s where, for those who have a problem with what Ben has done, the problem lies. What elevates Edwards from tragic to mythic is precisely the mystery of his last days. Such vacuums form like back holes at the centre of communities, allowing everyone room for their own speculations, permitting rivalries, arguments, but ultimately the knowledge that all are simply fellow seekers (a theme I explored to its limit in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes and its central mystery of the dead woman’s indecipherable last words). This puts Myers in an impossible position. He is both compelled to put forward his opinion, and yet by doing so in a form as seemingly authoritative as a book, his contribution to the communal-seeking seems to set itself apart. Something which asks important questions about the way crowds communicate in an online age, questions about the perceived privilege of certain media, certain forms, about chips on shoulders (how dare a book think it’s more than a bulletin board comment?), about the structures and dynamics of communities, and the way things accrete in the dust clouds around these black holes.

And a final observation. The more I think about that car beside the Severn, the more I find myself thinking of 2666, of the fascination of vanishing points and black holes. Richard seems to me to be the Archimboldi of British post punk 30-somethings. That car is scarred into our psyche like the point in the desert where Archimboldi disappears, crossing over for the Critics of “The Part About the Critics” from object of critical theory to the pivot for their personal psychic structure.

It is essential for the community that has buit up that the black hole of mystery remains at its centre (what would have happened to the critics if they had tracked Archimboldi down!?! Well, the unravelling of the structure of the one great book of the 21st century for a start). And that is what lies at the heart of people’s wariness of Myers’ novel. It threatens to dissolve life-sustaining sutures. And yet the community is also nourished by the process of communal-seeking, and if we see Richard as a highly articulate, deeply personal contribution to that process, then we see not only is it not a threat, it’s an essential part of keeping a community from festering.

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