‘What we could be if we dared’

Charlie Fox, This Young Monster

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 280pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781910695357

reviewed by Leonora Craig Cohen

Charlie Fox has such good taste, one could forgive him almost anything. This Young Monster is a long, extremely erudite rant about the connections between queerness, monstrosity and the creative drive, with a particular focus on photography and film. Increasingly of interest to academics and cultural critics, the monster is a multivalent symbol for societal rejection, ambiguous identity, and the physical horror of adolescence, among other things. As JJ Cohen put it in Monster Culture (Seven Theses), ‘These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place.’ This book asks: ‘what’s it like to be a monster and what kind of art does such an identification demand you make?’

Fox goes gambolling through modernity, pausing to point out the similarities between prodigies like Rimbaud, Fassbinder and Diane Arbus and performing feats like the passage that describes The Legend of Leigh Bowery by way of Oscar Wilde, René Magritte and ‘Bryan Ferry in a roast-duck-and-éclair-diet’. His title, taken from A Clockwork Orange, is a clue to the linguistic brio and occasional ultraviolence that lie within. Viddy ‘Anyone seeking a lesson in what a glorious, uh, disorientating “thing” (sometimes you don’t know to call it) the greatest art can be should fire up the footage of The Fall performing ‘Big New Prinz’ with the Michael Clark Company in 1988.’ We learn that monster artists are rebels and troublemakers, ‘what we could be if we dared’. Their art is disquieting, boundary-pushing and often visceral, beyond mimsy considerations of prettiness and charm.

The writing style is a mixture between academic jargon (‘vampires frequently act as spectral metaphors embodying the effects of heroin addiction’), jokey referentiality (‘they look as if they’ve just breezed in from Jay Gatsby’s mansion in West Egg’), and 21st-century vernacular like ‘bae’. This high-camp heteroglossia is perfect for a work discussing the connections between Nabokov and turn-of-the-century American freak shows. Particularly affecting are the occasional moments of autobiographical confession, such as ‘I was repeatedly told off for drawing myself as a vampire, a werewolf or witch in class.’ However, the passages sometimes cut off randomly, as if Fox is panting after his spatial-temporal gymnastics through the vast realms of the alternative canon. On one page we might find interesting observations about the difficulty of being Kevin Dillon, German Expressionist influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, and the significance of family in Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust series, but none of these feel quite finished, even if they are loosely linked by the theme of brotherhood. It’s better when he slows down a little – the discussions of Fassbinder’s oeuvre are among the best parts of the book because of the level of detail in Fox’s analysis. This Young Monster seems to be partly about the experience of rejection and making your own world out of the work of other illustrious rejects. This reader longed to reassure him that she was listening, so the near-constant thematic somersaults weren’t really necessary.

The structure is also designed to make sure we pay attention. There are self-contained essays on Buster Keaton and Leigh Bowery, interspersed with more free-form meditations on adolescence as depicted by Larry Clark, Gus Van Sant and Harmony Korine. The collection begins with a letter to ‘Monster’, which ends with a delightful postscript acknowledging the importance of the epistolary tradition in Gothic literature. There are also two semi-fictional sections, one voiced by ‘Alice’ and the other a kind of chamber play, whose principals are named Hermione and Klaus. He excuses this with reference to Trump et al: ‘. . . distorting my own voice until (hopefully) I kind of vanished was sometimes just a strategy for dealing with this brand of beastliness.’ But Fox’s real voice is so distinctive and engaging that the decision to submerge it underneath Alice’s eternally-youthful lassitude detracted from the work. Klaus and Hermione’s voices differ little from Fox’s and from each other’s. Furthermore, while it’s fitting that a book celebrating drag artists should have a go at some female impersonation of its own, these forays highlight some of This Young Monster’s other shortcomings. There are two female ‘characters’ but few female artists get discussed in the same depth as male ones – I counted Diane Arbus, Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Anne Carson and Alex Bag. Fox lists almost no ethnic minority artists – whither Basquiat? It’s also baffling that the moment of consummation in the chamber play should be so resolutely heterosexual.

The sections complement one another, but don’t really build into an argument about the primacy of youth, or indeed monstrosity. To be fair, any criticism levelled at the book regarding style and structure can be dismissed with a retort that this is a book about monstrosity, and form follows function. What’s harder to forget is that if genius is a kind of monstrosity, and like other mutations, appears seemingly at random, so why do only white men get to be enfants terribles? There must be other ways to be a genius that don’t involve pimping out Udo Kier and stabbing Verlaine.

When is monstrosity just a performance by people whose bodies aren’t so immediately visually coded as innately monstrous? It would have been interesting to see a more critical take from him on the Difficult Genius myth. A lot of the men he lists are those who were privileged enough to behave badly and still have their work celebrated, but who were still cut off before their time by (arguably homophobia-induced) addiction problems and the AIDS crisis: ‘These early deaths, ready to be interpreted as illustrations of martyrdom if all this magnificence and risk is taken into account, can also be seen as tradition.’ To Bury Your Gays is indeed a Western tradition, but does an artist have to be difficult and doomed to be magnificent?

Despite its indulgence of the geniuses’ foibles, the book is riotously good fun. It’s a testament to Fox’s persuasive powers that the links between Leigh Bowery and Stephen Tennant or Alexander McQueen and Anne Carson seem obvious, once he has pointed them out. Hopefully, this book, with its message that ‘ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of [your] invention – that’s heroic’ and treasure trove of lists, arranged neatly at the back, will appeal to younger, questioning readers, as well as those of us more established in our monsterdom. Vive Charlie Fox, le freak c’est chic!