‘The Art of the Fall’ (Review)

Canadian publishers QC Fiction pride themselves on doing things differently (c.f. the short-story collection I Never Talk About It), and their latest release is another step off the well-worn fiction-in-translation path.  It’s a venture into drama, with a translation of a play exploring the connection between art and money, supply and demand, and the dark arts of making a profit from the misfortune of others.  At its heart lies a question of ethics: is it possible to stay true to your art when a little compromise might make you rich and famous?  Let’s find out…

The Art of the Fall (translated by Danielle Le Saux-Farmer, review copy courtesy of the publisher – see the end of the post for a full list of credited writers) is a play inspired by the 2008 collapse of Lehmann Brothers, a global financial services company that went under at the start of the GFC.  The events are examined by focusing on three main characters: Alice Leblanc, a Canadian artist whose career has hit a dead end; Laurence Ducharme, a friend of Alice’s who works as a broker at Lehman Brothers in London; and Greg Monroe, a financial wizard who makes money betting on company collapses.  The three come together when Alice gets the chance of a residency in London, and as the financial world crashes and burns, Alice and Greg form an unlikely relationship between two very different people.

Sadly, their time together is fairly brief.  When Alice realises just how Greg makes his money, she turns her back on him, using her anger, and the memory of her relationship, to inspire her new project.  With Laurence’s help, this is the start of a new stage in her career, but she’s about to learn that integrity is a hindrance to anyone looking to hit it big.  If you want to be a success, you need to learn to compromise, and avoiding a set-back in your career may mean accepting a fall into a moral abyss.

When I first received this book, I wasn’t entirely convinced, both because of the topic of the financial crisis and the fact that it was a play, not a novel.  However, once I got started, I found it intriguing, and the fact that it’s a fairly quick read didn’t hurt either.  While the play does provides insights into what went down in 2008, its focus is far more on the art side of the title.  The title is meant to be taken literally, with
the art being that which is produced in times of disaster (although an alternate reading of the best way to fail is also possible!).

The financial side of the story, as you might expect, isn’t an easy topic to get across, with the need to ensure the audience understands obscure financial products such as CDOs (Collateralised Debt Obligations).  The writers get around this by having certain ideas explained by minor characters (baristas, waitresses), who break the fourth wall and use clever metaphors to bring us up to speed, whether that involves using the make-up of pumpkin spice lattes to demonstrate good and bad debt or bringing out trays of shot glasses to represent debt-to-asset ratio.  It’s a strategy that works well, and when Lehmann Brothers goes down, we (kind of) understand why.

Of course, it’s the art we’re most interested in, though, and one of the pivotal scenes in The Art of the Fall is Sotheby’s auction of work by Damien Hirst – on the very day of the collapse.  With Lehman Brothers still crumbling outside, we follow Alice and Laurence into a room full of people with a vested interest in making sure prices stay high, introducing our theme of the connection between art and high finance:

Greg: Why do people buy art?  Some for the love of art.  Others because they believe it’s a good investment.  Others to climb the social ladder.  Everyone has their reasons.

Alice: And so why do you, Greg, buy art?

Greg: Out of love, obviously!

Alice: You’re such a bad liar
p.99 (QC Fiction, 2020)

Nevertheless, Alice has to face up to a sobering truth; the price of art has little to do with any intrinsic quality.  As with most financial products, an artist’s success depends on supply and demand, and the will of the market.

One way to approach The Art of the Fall is as Alice’s voyage of discovery.  She’s thirty-four years old at the start of the piece, but in art terms that’s ancient, and she’s already considered to have squandered her early promise.  Her early installations were large affairs using copper, but:

Alice: Now, demand from China and speculation have brought copper prices to an all-time high of $8,700 a ton.  So, I turned to working on smaller pieces, but I seem to have lost the momentum I had working on larger ones. (p.15)

Yes, market forces in action once more.  Later, even more salt is rubbed into her wounds when she attends an art show in New York.  The title?  Younger than Jesus.  Ouch…

It’s her relationship with Greg that kickstarts her career again, with his connections helping her to attend shows and meet new people.  Once she dumps him, she uses her anger to inspire her work and become famous by means of her revenge installation, where she puts her relationship on display for the public.  But is her anger towards Greg justified?  Yes, his money may come from gambling on other people’s misery, but you do wonder which of the two is actually exploiting other people more.

In an afterword by Jean-Philippe Joubert (one of the writers) entitled The Art of the Fall as Documentary Fiction’ (translated by Robin Philpot), we learn more about the inspiration for Greg and Alice.  Her revenge installation (charmingly titled Fuck Wall Street) contains several nods to real-life artists’ work, including Tracy Emin’s notorious My Bed.  In addition, as invented as it might sound, it turns out that Hirst’s auction really did happen on the same day as thousands of people were losing their jobs, and their homes.  Sometimes fiction is just no match for reality 😉

As is usually the case, reading the script is no substitute for watching the play, but The Art of the Fall is enjoyable nonetheless.  While taking us into the world of finance, it’s less about business than the perils of keeping your integrity in the art world.  As Alice learns, nobody is immune to the contamination contact with money brings, and there’s only one thing we can take for granted.  What goes up will inevitably come down – it’s all about getting out at the right time…

The credited writers are:

Véronique Côté – Jean-Michel Girouard – Jean-Philipe Joubert
Simon Lepage – Danielle LeSaux-Farmer – Marianne Marceau
Olivier Normand – Pascale Renaud-Hébert

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