Saturday, May 18, 2024

Hari Kunzru’s ‘Blue Ruin’ examines love and relationships during lockdown

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Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel “White Tears” explored cultural appropriation and toxic White arrogance in a ghost story that took his main characters on a road trip through American blues and history; in 2021’s “Red Pill,” he delved into alt-right paranoia in the Trump era and our sense of reality as the protagonist traveled to Europe and back in a search for himself. 

Kunzru’s new novel, “Blue Ruin,” as the title colorfully suggests, is loosely connected to the other books thematically, but it’s a far different book. It’s more tightly constructed; except for a flashback to London 20 years ago, nearly the entire novel takes place on an estate in upstate New York during the 2020 lockdown. (The author will be appearing with Rachel Kushner at Skylight Books on Tuesday, May 14, its day of release.)

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At the novel’s start, Jay, the protagonist is a beaten-down man suffering from COVID’s aftermath, delivering groceries to the wealthy and sleeping in his car. But when he brings food to that estate, it turns out to be the temporary hideout of people he used to know: Alice, the woman he loved 20 years earlier, and Rob, a friend who had whisked Alice away from her destructive relationship with Jay. Along with them, is another couple, Marshall, an art dealer, and his much younger girlfriend, Nicole. 

Jay’s presence ignites a rapid unraveling and reassessing in all the characters’ lives, and art plays a central role. While Jay initially seems like a nobody, we learn that after Alice left him he created some of his finest conceptual art, becoming something of a legend when he seemingly disappeared – at least from the art world.

“Those kinds of gestures interest me,” Kunzru said recently in a video interview from his Brooklyn home. “And I wanted to see what would happen if somebody pushed it beyond a certain point.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Were you setting out to write a COVID novel?

I didn’t want to write a novel about COVID so much as I wanted to write a book, which used all the weird social conventions COVID forced on us – the isolation, distancing between people, masking, and judging our level of risk. You’d find yourselves in situations where your sense of the situation and someone else’s sense of the situation were wildly divergent. 

I was thinking about these characters and themes before the pandemic. For a long time, I thought the book would be about the aftermath of a young artist dying and everybody having to pick up the pieces of what he had meant to them. It didn’t work in the way I wanted it to. And then the pandemic happened and I realized that I could place these characters in this enclosed world. 

I wanted to write a romance, Big R, with the conventions of an old form of narrative. It doesn’t have the breaks and digressions that had characterized a lot of my other work. There’s basically one place, there’s a very limited group of people. Without the flashback to London, you could almost imagine it as a play. 

The characters have left the real world of the city and have come to this Enchanted Forest, a place that’s apart from the world; there are lovers in various combinations having assignations under the trees. So there’s a kind of a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” thing.

Q. But in a very dark way.

Absolutely. “Blue Ruin” is calmer and less paranoid book than “Red Pill,” but the world outside is extremely paranoid and stressful. 

Q. It’s still pretty paranoid. Not only is one character toting an AR-15 and spouting COVID conspiracy theories, but I’ve seen comments online that question some characters’ motivations and the plot itself. Did you want readers to think that and do you like the idea that “Red Pill” now how has “Blue Ruin” readers disoriented? 

I am maybe more innocent than readers take me for. But I’m quite pleased by that. I certainly want people to think of Jay as an ambiguous figure, as somebody who conceivably could have an agenda. His arrival there was a coincidence as I’ve written it, but he’s somebody who I think would be capable of orchestrating something like that. 

Q. There are issues of class, race and feeling like an outsider. How much did you want the book to be about art, money and these other issues? 

Jay and Rob and Alice all have sets of values that have very much to do with their class background, and in Jay’s case, the racial issues, too. 

The art world fascinates me because of the ways it disavows certain things while being saturated in them. I’ve been to my share of gallery dinners where the rich collector wants access to a particular kind of gritty, marginal creative life, and the artist wants to get paid, but there’s this dance and everybody has to pretend that that’s not what’s going on. 

The fiction of the art world is that real art takes place without thought for money – the real artistic gesture is something that is in no way conditioned by economics. And the reality is, of course, that it’s obsessed with money. I don’t think that invalidates art, But I’m interested in the ways that that dance takes place. I’m always interested in the negotiation of those boundaries. 

Q. Jay has mixed feelings about his self-worth and the art world, which undermine him both in life and work.

He’s involved in some sort of battle about purity and a certain set of ideas about a relationship to the world and to established power and to society. There’s an idealism in him about art and about what it is to be an artist that ultimately makes it impossible for him to pragmatically exist in the art world and almost in the world itself. I’ve used elements of myself as a young person to paint some of his idealism and frustration and kind of self-sabotage.  

Q. Jay’s confusion over his sense of self prompts art about borders and boundaries. Where did that come from? 

My interest in this goes back a very long way, into childhood, asking who I am. My father’s Indian, my mother’s English. I grew up in a traditional English environment in many ways, and I stuck out and had to explain myself and that became kind of irritating.

So the idea of not being fully on one side of a border or thinking of yourself or your existence crossing borders is a sort of frame that I’ve had for a long time, and it kind of turns up in all my stuff one way or another. 

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