With his novel The Marriage of Reason & Squalor, as well as his art, Jack Chapman works to make his audiences uncomfortable.
It's rare to meet a writer surprised that someone has bothered to read their book. Jake Chapman is the exception. One half of the Chapman Brothers, two of the most successful of the Young British Artists, he's familiar with controversy. Over the course of a prolific career, the Turner Prize-nominated brothers have constructed scenes from Nazi torture camps, doctored a set of original Goya etchings and "prettified" some of Hitler's watercolours.
When we meet to discuss his latest literary offering, The Marriage of Reason & Squalor, he is quick to announce that he is a very bad writer. "Writing," he says, "is the hobby that art was before it became a job." His East London studio is a peculiar melting pot. Downstairs, a group of artists makes Nazi models, while upstairs is a recreation of Tracey Emin's Tent. The space is packed with quirky objects and scenes of visually minute graphic violence.
In spite of the work's content, the atmosphere is warm, friendly and relaxed. The group is presided over by the Chapmans' dog, a Staffordshire bull terrier called Kylie. Being one of the most celebrated contemporary artists of your generation comes with pressure and expectation, but it also grants Chapman a certain freedom. He possesses a disarmingly ambivalent regard for his audience. "I think because I've been making work with my brother for so long and it's gone beyond the point where we realise that it's no longer a joke and our artistic licence isn't going to be revoked, I've got the confidence to do whatever I want without the fear of thinking it has to be judged by any particular audience," Chapman says.
In his first work of fiction, Chapman introduces the dubious heroine Chlamydia Love. Given a tropical island by her fiancé, she develops a grudging adoration for its real owner, the enigmatic best-selling author, Helmut Mandragorass. A battle between her fiancé and Mandragorass ensues, for ownership of the island and, ultimately, for Chlamydia's love. Chapman reduces the romantic novel to an unrecognisable skeleton (which is itself a challenge), and deliberately drains the genre of its usual colour, pathos and dimension.
In addition to the difficulties the audience may face are the difficulties faced by the publisher. For an artist championed by Charles Saatchi, Chapman is not a great seller. The book, he says, is not a good read. "It has a narrative, but the metaphors and descriptions are all tweaked to overkill so it intentionally produces friction. It's not the kind of book you'd read to satiate your desire or to lose yourself in. It's very aggressive. In a sense, it's simply a kind of literary analogue for the work, so for me to switch from making art to writing is quite simple. The writing of the book and making of the art serve the same purpose, which is to be irritating."
Irritating it might be, but Chapman's art is also shocking, convulsive and multifaceted. Hell (2003) has proved to be a work that keeps on giving, not just in terms of its most recent incarnation, F****** Hell, created after the original was destroyed in London's 2004 Momart warehouse fire, but in the sense that viewers can always see something in it - a detail, expression or act - that they hadn't seen before. Looking is difficult when the subject is so horrific, but it is only through repeatedly viewings that new elements can be found.
In Chapman's writing, too, there exists a range of substance and allusion that is not immediately obvious. The linear structure is cloaked behind deliberately obtuse, impenetrable language so that the reader loses what little thread of continuity Chapman has spun. Re-reading the book - just like repeatedly looking at his art - is key to the project. Both are painful. If a sentence usually works by offering a proposition to readers that helps them get to the next sentence, then Chapman's sentences are anything but usual. "Every sentence in my book departs and then withers," he says. "You offer the reader a certain expectation that they'll get something for their toils but really at the end of every sentence it's a slap in the face. The extended, cack-handed metaphors undermine the proposition. It's a way of trying to write a book that's on the boundaries of intelligibility, and it's not so much about punishing the reader as punishing language. The language is being used as a weapon against itself," he says.
So would this book have been published had its author not been an art world heavyweight? Probably not. But the book demonstrates the fact that it takes a very good writer to write a very bad book. Throwing the viewer or reader into strange, debilitating states is central to Chapman's artistic and literary work. He is interested in the act of reading and the idea that a reader's desire to be entertained or stimulated by content can be switched off and replaced by a feeling of hard work, labour and boredom.
"I quite like the idea that if you add 'plus' instead of 'and', you start to tongue-tie the reader or the reader starts to get asphyxiated by these extended descriptions or these descriptions that just don't work. If you produce a car you want it to run smoothly, but I guess there's a counter-culture where if you make a car you probably want the wheels to fall off. This is the kind of literature I'm interested in, stuff that acts upon you not only intellectually but physiologically.
"My brother read it and said it sounded like it was written by an autistic robot," he says. "All human empathy has been squeezed out of it. The characters are reprehensible, disgusting people, but at the same time, they're not really even people. They're kind of things that exist within the premises of language that you'd identify as being somehow human-like. But not human-like enough to empathise with. All the characters are very superficial, very flat."
Elsewhere in the book, and perhaps most comically, Chapman includes the responses he got from publishing houses after he sent off a fake manuscript written by one of his characters. He insists, however, that he didn't intend to deride the literary world. "It's not so much a critique of an institution," he says, "as a vivisection of language. Critique is too institutionally mature. For me, a critique is a secondary kind of institution. To critique a dominant institution is only to surreptitiously reinvent its power at a different level."
While remaining somewhat anterior to the literary scene, Chapman agreed to give a talk at this year's Hay Festival. This finds its literary manifestation towards the end of the Marriage of Reason & Squalor, as two of the protagonists are brought together in a tent in the Welsh countryside. Chapman admits to finding the whole thing peculiar. "I thought Hay was hilarious," he says. "People sitting in deck chairs, reading. I'm suspicious of a festival dedicated to reading - something which you do intimately on your own. When you go to Starbucks, you see hundreds of people reading. In Borders, you find a coffee shop with dozens of people sat around with books. Reading has become a public event. I don't think Hay should have bookstalls. They shouldn't sell books. My brother said the funniest thing: that it looked like everyone had dropped their parents off in Hay and then gone to Glastonbury."
Chapman's biggest regret in the book is including illustrations inspired by the island setting. "I wouldn't use them again," he says. "It was a pacifying ploy. I was placating ... not the publisher, but a reader who would think: 'I can't be bothered. This is just impossible.' "The thing about writing a book like mine," he says, "is that there are only going to be a certain bunch of people who would really want to waste their time reading it."