Jacob Wren has his own shelf at Montréal’s Drawn & Quarterly
On Monday, André Forget dissected Polyamorous Love Song by Jacob Wren. Today on The Town Crier, Domenica Martinello adds her opinion in our first ever double feature review.
The characters in Jacob Wren’s meta mash-up, Polyamorous Love Song don’t mince words when it comes to art and artists. The novel continually contrasts an inflated sense of self-importance with the presence of actual creative merit: “All you want is people to look at you and look at what you do and think you’re special and talented.” It is Paul, a character questioning the validity of repackaging life as art, who delivers this criticism to one of the novel’s numerous narrators—significantly, “a mildly successful mid-career artist” most resembling Jacob Wren himself. This narrator tends to agree; he admits that artists are “not necessarily the most creative or inspired individuals in any given community,” but are “those individuals … most willing to gain personal profit from their unconscious and its emanations, those with the most missionary zeal for the dissemination of their own idiosyncratic perspectives.” For a novel described as “experimental,” “‘avant-garde,” and “confusing,” Wren is pretty clear about what he is doing without the need for self-aggrandizement. It would be impossible or at least dishonest to attempt the illusion of neutrality when trying to deconstruct the sort of ideas the novel puts forth. Instead of trying to create a distance between producer and product, the author implicates himself directly. He is the product. In a work that challenges the legitimacy of exploiting ideas—whether mundane, compelling, or radical—for artistic gain, Wren does not hold himself above the scrutiny of his novel’s probing question: Is art valuable?
Jacob Wren, a Toronto native based out of Montréal, is a multidisciplinary writer, thinker, exhibition-maker, and performance artist. He recently finished a small tour in Toronto, reading alongside Ralph Kolewe, Sue Reynolds, and Paul Vermeersch at the most recent installment of Livewords, as well as at other local literary spots. BookThug suggests that Love Song “will appeal to readers with an interest in the visual arts, theatre, and performance of all types.” The beauty of Wren’s novel, however, is that it is not only for readers who already contextualize or consume “performance” as an artistic act. Implying that it is meant for this audience does not fully articulate the strange feeling the novel can have on readers precisely because they have not had the chance to consider the types of performances Wren presents us with. The inevitability of performance, whether framed artistically or not, is an unsettling presence throughout the novel. When a character only referred to as Filmmaker A gets into a lover’s quarrel with her partner Silvia, Silvia lashes out, “If this was one of your projects, one of your films … then you’d really be paying attention. Then you’d know what the fuck I was talking about.” To which Filmmaker A startlingly replies, “This is the film.” Silvia’s sincere emotional reactions have suddenly transformed into something else, into an artwork that does not require her awareness or even her willingness to engage. Despite the saturation of sex and violence, the novel’s more disconcerting qualities stem from the uncanny realization that, whether we are interested in it or not, our lives are enacted through various complex modes of performativity.
When the unnamed narrator, the same one chastised by Paul, gestures toward a more unsullied sincerity in his “nagging feeling that one’s unconscious should not be exploited for artistic ends,” even this possibility is thwarted as the plot almost immediately reappropriates a dream into a new narrative thread. Dreams aren’t sacred territory, as every dream-character “simply represents different aspects of the self” that are then acted out through the unconscious. As dreams become tenuous and interchangeable with reality, so does the definition of what exactly constitutes an “artist.” The view from within Wren’s own product, through the lens of his particular “idiosyncratic perspective,” asserts that artists are not just painters, sculptors, writers, and dancers. A German barber in New York giving ridiculous haircuts out of resentment toward his rich bohemian clients is “art,” for example, though the barber himself is no “artist.” The bohemians adorned with the terrible haircuts are the artists, attention-seeking and naive enough to frame the barber’s botched job as an inspired artistic gesture. When it comes to value, especially in this case, the more incomprehensible, the better. An artist can be writing a novel about dreams, walking around with an unfortunate haircut, or rebranding their lives to the masses. Are artists special only for their willingness to cannibalize themselves and their surroundings for the sake of being looked at? Wren, for one, isn’t afraid of performing all these roles, exposing himself gnawing on his own arm in an attempt to destabilize his own authority.
Every narrative voice in Polyamorous Love Song lacks stable authority; the Wren-like narrator who has presumably written parts of the book later shows up chained to a radiator from another character’s point of view. A privately recounted dream inexplicably becomes the plot of another character’s novel, which is then interspersed into the novel proper. The character named Filmmaker A invents a new style of filmmaking that forgoes filming altogether and consists of performing in real-time. While this so-called New Filmmaking is first touted as a dynamic rejuvenation of an older art form, crafting the moments in anyone’s life into something valuable, moving, or entertaining, it eventually deadens every otherwise authentic experience with a performatively pervasive echo of “it’s just a movie.” To combat the growing ennui, a hyper-sexual group of New Filmmakers take pills to suppress jealousy and remember phone numbers, facilitating elaborate romps and orgies with strangers.
Jacob Wren lives in Montréal
Existing alongside the New Filmmaking, as a sort of counterbalance, is The Mascot Front, a group of violent guerrilla revolutionaries with vague aims and comically furry costumes, whose horrific political persecution is never fully clarified. I found the murkiness surrounding the Mascot Front to be an intentional, even allegorical, parallel to questions concerning artists, their value, and their place in the world. Here are a group of people, perhaps odd or silly looking, giving up their lives (quite literally in the case of the Mascots) for what they believe to be a great and noble cause. People are fascinated and enchanted by the Mascot Front because their lives seem to hold more meaning; against all odds, they are following through with something they are truly passionate about. In the words of a Bear Mascot, “[they’re] just trying to live another way,” voluntarily taking the bloodstained path less followed. The New Filmmakers idolize the Mascots because what they’re doing, at the risk of death, seems so “real.” Yet the aims, goals, and ultimate purpose of both the artists in the novel and the Mascots are vague, their trials and adversity overwhelming. Since there is nothing preventing both parties from stopping at any time, their crusade seems to lack any real value.
I have to disagree, however, with critics who cannot read traces of Wren’s avant-gardism as a form of uncanny cultural realism. In his write-up for The Winnipeg Review, Keith Cadieux claims, “Those looking for a coherent narrative set in a believable world with identifiable character motivations won’t find it here.” Yet the eerie magic of Love Song is its capacity, against all odds and attempts at alienation, to make the reader invest in a cast of well-wrought characters with compelling drives and desires. An epic war waged by vigilantes in fuzzy costumes may seem over the top, but coming across the occasional mention of Mascot groups or Furries conventions in the media never fails to unsettle me now. And even in a novel oozing with sexual encounters that seem hyperbolic and, at times, dangerous, Wren’s vision is surprisingly progressive when it would be so easy to fall into heteronormativity. There are both male and female revolutionaries and male and female artists, people couple freely without much concern for gender, the distinction between gay and straight is arbitrary at best, and consent is always mandatory:
It was an unspoken rule … that men were allowed to be sexually aggressive towards men, and women were allowed to be sexually aggressive towards men, but men were not allowed to be sexually aggressive towards women. This was one of the many ways we tried to keep things safe. Of course anyone could say no at any time … a “no” had to be immediately respected.
If this is a portrait of a world that is truly unbelievable, then maybe we can comb through Wren’s dreamscape a little more closely for cues that could signal healthier, safer behaviours in our own culture.
Revisiting the question of value, do we tend to view it in increasingly distorted, detrimental ways? Click-bait culture would have us believe that being looked at is enough; contemporary art would have us believe that looking is enough, as long as the context is right. While the promise of sex and violence may make good dust jacket fodder, not a moment of it is unearned in Polyamorous Love Song. Jacob Wren’s dreamy, decentred novel uses stark artifice to deconstruct a seemingly sincere cultural performance. Is art valuable? It’s hard to say. But ideas and dreams surely are, which may very well be the same thing.