Who is Oscar Babel?

Baret Magarian, The Fabrications

Pleasure Boat Studio, 444pp, $19.95, ISBN 9780912887494

reviewed by Jamie Mackay

Who is Oscar Babel?

This refrain from Baret Magarian’s mind-bending debut has been stuck in my head for weeks now, replaying itself in the myriad of accents, guises and disguises it adopts throughout the novel. At first it seems to be a simple question posed by a writer about his new character, but it soon mutates into the PR brainchild of a media mogul, a hushed whisper in a crowd, an intimate utterance of self-interrogation and a whole variety of other distortions. Double, triple, infinite meanings abound in this philosophical book, which self-consciously revels in its status as what the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco famously called an ‘open text.’

The plot follows the somewhat ambiguous relationship between Bloch, a washed-out and, as it transpires, severely ill writer, and his woebegone friend, Oscar, a failed painter who works as a cinema projectionist and occasional life model. Bloch, looking for inspiration for his new book, decides to write a story about Oscar and his possible glories, both to break his own writer’s block – note the pun – and to motivate his rather depressed companion. At this point a magical element enters the narrative as Bloch’s story, in a sort of inverse Dorian Gray transfiguration, starts to come true in ‘real life.’

Things escalate rapidly. Bloch soon vanishes from public life, dissolving into skin and bone, while Oscar, by contrast, is catapulted from isolated self-loathing into the celebrity limelight, becoming, as his author’s pages dictate, a John Lennon-like quasi-religious sex icon, ‘a spiritual teacher, a guru . . . born aloft on the wings of the mass-turbating-media.’ Guided by his avaricious agent Ryan Rees, Oscar enters a world of sleaze and inexplicable decadence. His fragile identity quickly seems to dissolve in this image-saturated environment, and in turn the author(s) of the ever-present question – who is Oscar Babel? – seem to shift with him.

At one point, at the height of his fame, Oscar’s face is projected on Westminster Cathedral, and the lines between him as a character in a novel, as Bloch’s mouthpiece in the story within the novel, as Reese’s guinea pig, finally break down: ‘As he watched from this shrouded spot, it seemed to him the face he was staring at was not his; the face up there was really that of an actor’s who resembled him, an expert mimic perfectly able to reproduce his facial expressions.’ Is Oscar real at all? we begin to ask. Is his celebrity image more ‘real’ than reality? What reality? Is he, in fact, nothing but a ghost of Bloch’s feverish imagination, a dutiful automaton programmed by Reese?

The setting is contemporary London, but just as Oscar is multiple and divided, so too, we quickly discover, is this version of the city. This is no realistic map of the oft-narrated British capital but a Foucauldian heterotopia, made up, amongst other things, of gothic streets, art deco cinemas and anonymous liminal hotel rooms. This could easily be overwhelming, a crude smudge of colours devoid of form, but Magarian’s world has a fauvist brightness that burns through, with the clarity of an imagist poem. ‘Colours and faces faded into a vague impression that nestled on his retina,’ he writes, probing the boundaries between prose and landscape. Meanwhile Oscar’s beloved Najette, an accomplished, ‘pure’ artist, looks deeply at those around her, ‘framing the scene in her mind as a painting.’

The Fabrications, it should be clear by now, is a novel of ideas over sentimental tropes, and while the plot follows a deceptively simple linearity, it is better read as an allegory of sex and death, bodies and souls than a chronological realist tale. The characters, by extension, might be seen as archetypes: Bloch as God, Reese as the devil, Oscar as a Jesus-like figure. The anonymous public, meanwhile, remains a rhinoceros-like herd rampaging around a ‘wine-splattered world,’ unleashing its own angels and demons in moments of extreme eroticism and violence. There’s an orgy in a park followed immediately by a riot; Eros and Thanatos flirting in a primitive devolution of postmodern society.

This idiosyncratic, highly symmetrical mirroring is where the novel is at its most profound. It falters, precisely as a result of this, when it obsesses over the superficial. As Oscar whizzes towards the limelight, drinking cocktail after cocktail in a pastiche of the art world and its vapid partying, it all becomes a little passé, clearly intended to establish a Fellini-like grotesque but ending up more like Paolo Sorrentino, that other, more banal, imitator. Occasionally this thinly veiled score-settling compromises the story world. At one point Magarian alludes to a certain ‘Rebecca Murdeck,’ which might seem a smart little nod to the real-life media but comes across instead as smarmy, shattering the illusion of what is otherwise an oneiric fantasy. The journalists and critics are exaggeratedly debauched to the point of tedium, though this is redeemed somewhat by smart journalistic parodies in the style of a cynical commentariat. ‘I am the cynic par excellence,’ confesses a fictional Guardian writer in a hilarious mock-up column.

The Fabrications’ satirical moments are best when they avoid bitterness, and there are some gems, such as the interlude in which a gay fortune teller hires a woman to act as his partner during a dinner with his parents: ‘”Oh, you call him Alexi too? I thought it was only his mother.”’ It’s a bizarrely trashy subplot, well handled and a lot of fun, like an episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls filtered through a modernist poetry machine. There’s a wonderful deviation to ‘a small and utterly inconsequential town in Surrey’ which ‘boasted one or two Indian restaurants and very little else,’ whose train station, ‘with its promise of passage to the outside world’ is probably ‘its most alluring feature.’ Not to mention a marvellous slapstick escape scene involving a boom lift.

In these moments and in its more serious reflections, The Fabrications embraces the weirdness in its soul. The narrative is peppered with thought-provoking similes: ‘petals like a small jellyfish uprooted from its home and frozen,’ ‘fingers slotted together like lattice,’ ‘London wound down like a gigantic spring.’ This is Magarian’s authentic poetic voice, and it’s strangely addictive, articulated with a shamelessly exotic accent. As the plot approaches its climax, there’s a wonderful ‘dissolving’ narrative that reflects Bloch’s anorexia. It’s a great crescendo of melancholy, desperation, a clamorous stream of consciousness, punctuated with intimate bodily motifs, reminiscent of Beckett: ‘Born again. Time fits in pocket. I’m a molecule. No flesh, just bone and tendon. Done it. Don’t exist anymore. Love that burns makes clean the pus, the oily woundedness.’

If Magarian’s fragmented, frenzied, almost schizoid characterisation and scenography can be occasionally jarring, in tension with the empathic power we might expect from a novel, these final moments confirm without doubt that he is an author in total control of his subjects. At its heart this is a work of poetry and philosophy, and its profound engagement with words and ideas more than makes up for its occasional narrative defects.
Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to VICE, the New Statesman, and Il Manifesto among others, and author of The Invention of Sicily, which is forthcoming from Verso.