The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
which was enough for his purpose
For some Americans, Suede may ring a bell, but for many, they were simply a little too queer to catch on in the masculine nineties, so some context may be needed before we carry on.
In junk-shop blouses and tattered trousers, Suede burst onto the British music scene in ‘92 before they even had a record out, some strange synthesis of glam rock, poverty, and club drugs. And, as would be appropriate for a band whose bassist went on to write an excellent crime novel, their first single opens by begging “won’t someone give me a gun?” But while Americans may love their second amendment, they’re less tolerant of their fellow man, which may explain why the single, carrying on to ask “he writes the line, wrote right down my spine ‘oh…do you believe in love there?’”, didn’t catch on with the macho American public.
Suede continued to have a brilliant, and at times chaotic, career, but this essay is not about Suede, or at least not totally about Suede. It is about Mat Osman, bassist and founding member of the band and an artist who has, with his debut novel The Ruins, shown himself to have a natural talent for finding the driving force for works of art regardless of medium.
Now, as a devotee of both Raymond Chandler and an adherent of glammed-up, strung-out Brits with guitars, when I learned that Osman was writing a crime novel, I felt incredibly vindicated. And, having read that novel, I am happy to say that the vindication was perfectly justified.
Let me explain.
A well agreed upon maxim is that good crime fiction should hold a mirror up to society, a mirror that reflects the ugliness of that world it captures. It also goes without saying that good crime fiction should have inordinate amounts of sleaze involved. In Suede, Osman’s bass lines are propulsive, shaping the sordid songs beneath which they lurk (see “Whipsnade”, “Heroine”). In The Ruins, Osman’s capacity to synthesize disparate details (bootlegged Beach Boys recordings, occult practice, model building, designer clothing, the complexities of child care) is a brilliant motor for his narrative, one that captures the ugliness in the music world but more pressingly reflects upon the ugliness each of us is capable of when we strive desperately to capture what we want—indifferent to any casualties we may leave along the way.
The Ruins is the story of Adam Kussgarten, a London recluse who learns that his twin brother, Brandon Kussgarten, a manipulative extrovert and could-have-been-rockstar, was gunned down only blocks from Adam’s flat—a notable detail as Brandon had been living in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles at that point for years. Like a bug circling the drain, Adam finds himself drawn into and drowning in Brandon’s world, a world of debts-owed, friends double-crossed, and drugs and glamor—or at least the promise and potential to rub shoulders with either—as he and his brother’s widow, Rae, attempt to make sense of Brandon’s final days. Why was he in London, why had he abandoned his wife and child, where did he come across all that cash hidden in his hotel room? Dressed as his dead brother, and passing himself off as such to a myriad of strangers (Raymond Chandler: “Me, I was the nastiness now”), Adam and Rae spend hours over the course of the novel shining on the other’s computer screen via Skype, analyzing every detail of their only ghostly connection: the dead man who spent his life lying to both of them.
As you may have guessed (the twin thing being the tip off), Osman is interested in mirroring, in doubling. For every chapter Adam narrates, Brandon gets a turn with Adam diligently copying out Brandon’s post-mortem notes for the reader to dissect. And even before he took on the role of impersonating his dead brother, Adam was a man focused on the double, obsessively building a sprawling and intricate model-city within the entirety of his cramped London flat. Umbrage, as he has named it, is Adam’s life, a world he has created and whose myths he has written, and in Umbrage, we learn that there is “just one place in the city where mirrors are allowed, The Carousel. It sits in Dromedare Squared, draped for the majority of the time in velvet, but Umbragians do their best not to look at it even in its shroud, as if the hidden mirrors still exerted some photonic pull.”
And for these imagined citizens, Umbragians, as Adam calls them, when confronted with their own reflection in the mirror, an unnatural sight, one for which they have no precedent, they can come to only one realization: “You are a stranger.”
Perhaps, then, I should have opened this piece with Arthur Rimbaud’s famous declaration: “Je est un autre” (I is an other). It’s an apt declaration for the work Osman does in The Ruins, building up and breaking down characters identities as they fragment and crash into one another like pinballs bursting from the machine. But it really is John Ashbery, despite all his tranquility, who encapsulates Osman’s project of identity building in that declaration “The glass chose to reflect only what he saw/which was enough for his purpose”. Osman’s characters are less interested in embracing the I as Other than they are in crafting themselves in the image of that Other. Brandon, we learn, has spent a lifetime preparing to impersonate the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Adam, in an uncanny attempt to integrate himself into Brandon’s fractured family, spends hours attempting to perfect his impersonation of his brother. For both men, it is only when the illusion they have created is falling apart that they attempt anything that might approximate empathy, cleaving in different directions to reach out to an Other as a last ditch effort. But both are too self-absorbed to get to the heart of the other—that they get the reflected image right is just good enough, or at least it is for a time.
For Osman, this nesting-doll of a novel comes down not to the nature of identity, but to its purpose. Of what is conveyed when one’s hair is parted as opposed to tousled, of what donning a suit achieves when it is powder blue as opposed to standard grey. Of what one accomplishes by gazing into that mirror in which you see both yourself and someone else, or the potential for someone else, and you attempt to create that someone by gazing longer than feels natural. The Ruins seems to say sure, when you step outside and walk down the London streets in that powder blue suit, you might convince an acquaintance, or a stranger, that you are who you claim to be—but how long before the con is up? Before there are cracks in the mirror? And who will it be that finds you out?
And so I should return to my original assertion: that the publication of The Ruins left me with a feeling of vindication. When I sat down to write about The Ruins, I had set myself the constraint that I would not mention Suede. Osman, after all, is his own artist and the novel shows him to be equally comfortable on his own as in a group. I should let this accomplishment stand separate from the band, I thought to myself. But having read The Ruins, Suede was so obviously an ideal gestation period for Osman-the-author, one as steeped in music business excess as his novel and one as invested in persona building as he is.
There is a case to be made, I think, for a connection between those attracted to the grandeur of rock ‘n’ roll, its darker crevices and its world-building capacities, and those attracted to crime fiction—itself a genre of little more than shadowy corners and masks. Both forms are rejections of cultural norms (the pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll is, as Richard Hell says, “I don’t give a fuck if somebody says I’m a jerk; I’m deliberately removing myself from them”), both are over the top in their flamboyance, in their flaunting of the rules, their violence. And in The Ruins, Osman manages to articulate so naturally the connections between rock ‘n’ roll and the crime novel—two of the rare mediums that let us attempt to show just what it is about a society that creates outsiders, grave discomforts, flaws that we can only perceive when they appear in the mirror.
Conley Lowrance: Along with his wife, cats, and dog, he lives on the second floor behind an unmarked door. His poetry has been published in Bombay Gin, the Stockholm Review of Literature, Noble/Gas Qtrly, and the Glasgow Review of Books, among others. He believes that crime and Surrealism remain the way forward.