Luke Sutherland. Venus as a Boy.
Black Scottish novelist and pan-European indie-pop-star Luke Sutherland may be new to the ears and eyes of an American or African American audience. This unfamiliarity is particularly the case for those who conceive of race and post-rock experimentalism as an incongruent mix not unlike a modern day myth of racial and sexual violence, and a quasi-pagan transcendence set in the drug-addled, post-imperial demimonde of Glasgow and London's Soho. Where his musical reputation is based on that former mix of seeming incongruities, his new novel Venus as a Boy tells the tale of this latter context. This is a world where the main character D. (Desiree when in drag, or Cupid when lost in heart-aching reminiscences of his home in Scotland's far; flung Orkney Islands) finds himself a prostitute in thrall to a pimp and former Nazi skinhead, himself a Rumanian exile from Ceausescu's fascist regime busy seeking his own convoluted path to redemption.
This London, D. tells us, is "a city chock-full of folk from places that've failed them." Here he services Kurdish immigrants, bohemian Web designers, and an assortment of characters, all refugees of a sort from and within the new Europe. It is from a brothel that D. furiously writes this story. Furiously because s/he is slowly turning to gold, insides first and then the skin, flaking off into a filament precious enough to repay all of her debts but not valuable enough to sanctify his horrible past of racial violence and sexual victimization. But this is not even half the story despite the novel's brevity; and the rest of it is told with a macabre wit, a breezy romanticism, and a casual yet blatant rejection of not just racial and sexual boundaries, but also epistemological ones.
Yet despite his stylistic uniqueness and his still fresh presence within the American literary and cultural context, in the E. U., Sutherland is a critic's darling, straddling the worlds of pop and the avant-garde. His renown is due partly to a legacy of influential bands ranging from the legendary Long Fin Killie (which wed strong social criticism and lyrical tenderness to the carnage of a post-alternative rock sound-scape), to his stint in Scotland's most respected rock band Mogwai. It extends also to Bows, his praised "electronica'-flavored project, and to his most recent work as Music A.M., a collaboration with the innovative and highly influential German electronic experimentalists To Rococo Rot. This list, by the way, understates: were this a music review, one would have to mention his current work with musical collectives in Denmark and France and wonder how he could possibly find the time to have written three novels, the first of which, Jellyroll (1998), was short-listed for the prestigious Whitbread prize. The current rush of critical praise has come primarily from these novels that chart out an alternately magical and terrifying European social world where the collision of multiple histories and cultural experiences challenge and transcend any mode of representation and any ideologically driven perspective. Jellyroll, for example, featured the misadventures of a drugged-out and nearly psychotic band of Scottish jazz musicians touring the Highlands with their new member: a black saxophonist as out of place in Scotland as it may read here in print. Hilarious, bleak, shocking, and wonderfully bizarre, his portrait of contemporary Scotland's racial politics functioned primarily to explore the mania of collapse engendered by both misogyny and machismo. Sutherland's second novel, Sweetmeat (2002), went even further into the realm of the unprecedented and broke into the realm of the fabulous--as in, the realm of the urban fable. This novel features the obese, black French head chef of a trendy London restaurant and describes how told tales of the magical, the fantastic, and the supernatural begin to intrude on the realities of the equally eccentric kitchen staff.
Venus as a Boy is Sutherland's first novel to appear in the United States, and suggests that in a black European literary world dominated by the staggering achievement of Zadie Smith and a contemporary Scottish literary landscape still adjusting itself to the impact of Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting), the writing of Luke Sutherland straddles them both. Reading this novel, one clearly understands that any perceived differences or oppositions between Smith and Welsh are merely due to an American ignorance of the complexities of immigration, exile, and sexual ambiguity in a contemporary Europe where the formal dissolution of physical borders has only begun to catch up with the sociocultural borderlessness of its post-imperial decline. Indeed, despite a language much more sparse than Zadie Smith's baroque multiculturalism, Venus as a Boy shares in White Teeth's analysis of post-imperial decline. Via shifting racial and sexual attitudes and a tone that refuses an obsession with cultural authenticity or cliches of resistance, Venus as a Boy manages to be both other to and in dialogue with the static notions of race and sexuality that still characterizes much African American fiction.
Like Smith's, on the one hand, Sutherland's take on race, immigration, and exile is one that exists utterly outside of the all-too-static American binaries of black and white, and instead highlights a world where displacement, alienation, and desire are shared facts of cultural, racial, and sexual identity. On the other hand, Venus as a Boy shares with Welsh's Trainspotting (or The Acid House, Glue, Porno, Ecstasy, or any of his later attempts at recapturing or escaping the brilliance of his generation-defining debut), a commitment to the warts and all representation of fragmented and broken beings existing on the ever-so-stylish social margins. Like Welsh's, these are heroically minor characters who make their claim on history with a gutter-mouthed lyricism in hopes of having themselves saved if not by chemical obliteration, then by the promises of a sexual milieu in which anyone is up for anything at anytime and with anyone else-genders be damned.
But what makes the perspective of Venus as a Boy even more remarkable than its dalliance with both the intensely profane and the characters' obsession with various forms of redemption, is that it is written from the point of view of a racist thug who beat, violated, and humiliated the young Luke Sutherland upon his migration to the Orkney Islands after being adopted by a white English family. It is the imagined life story of one of Sutherland's abusers, one of the mob who in some last final grasp at salvation--or "resurrection," as s/he says--sends his/her final belongings to Sutherland's record company office, complete with minidisks containing the narrative. And the first words heard are these: "I never meant you any harm. In fact I hope once you've heard what I have to say, you'll consider me a friend."
The novel takes the form of a plea for understanding and forgiveness from someone whose acts of violence were rooted in two primary things: first, a sexual ambiguity unwelcome in the roughneck world of working class Scotland; after all, as the mob abused the young Sutherland and his siblings, D. was motivated less by racism than by the desire to impress the lead thug, his/her second true love with whom D. had fallen in love after said thug had violently raped the young girl who was his/her first true love: "Having him so close, after what he'd done to Finola ... it was like ... flying a plane for the first time.... I got near enough to brush my arm up against the cuff of his Wrangler jacket, nigh on ecstasy, because, to top the lot, I was wearing a pair of Finola's knickers under my jeans."
The second motive for D.'s violence is the primary reason behind his/her own victimization. It happens also to be a gift, a curse, and perhaps the novel's strangest and most interesting narrative device. Growing up in the lushly detailed landscape of the Orkney Islands, D. discovers a supernatural ability for sexual pleasure, hence his/her value as a prostitute. More importantly, this talent or ability operates as both a mode of atonement for D.'s sins as well as a quasi-religious self-sacrifice for the sins of others. Sex provides D. with "visions: tunnels of light, orchards, and angels, always angels ... the whole sky sparkling with stars and wings." His/her various sexual partners and customers are in turn gifted with visions of the afterlife, or snatches of communication with the dead as they achieve release--from history, from guilt, from the painful solitude of deracination--in his/her arms.
Through D.'s gift/curse and the terrifying intimacy of social differences, Sutherland finds an extraordinary amount of beauty within his character as well as amidst the incredible violence and epic rootlessness of a new Europe struggling for its own sense of itself and its responsibility for the history of so many others. And in finding this beauty, Venus as a Boy ultimately grants a kind of forgiveness not just to D., but to Sutherland's own past as well as to a Europe forced to contend with more cultural complexity, violence, and beauty than ever before.
University of California, Santa Cruz
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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