The Currency of Paper by Alex Kovacs: How capitalism affects art

A fascinating and funny dissection of the relationship between art and commerce.

Alex Kovacs’ debut, The Currency of Paper, is a novel of ideas: it incorporates both a range of perspectives on the nature of work and the possibilities of art, and a variety of projects that arise from the mind of its eccentric protagonist, Maximilian Sacheverell Hollingsworth. Published by Dalkey Archive Press under its British Literature Series, The Currency of Paper opens with Karl Marx’s quote about alienation from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which explains that ‘forced labour’ does not ‘develop freely [the worker’s] physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind’. In its first chapters, Maximilian, estranged from his aristocratic family and feeling obliged to ‘escape the obscene working conditions that prevail in the free-market system’, plans his entire life in a single day at a Dagenham print works, aiming to secure his freedom by counterfeiting money.

Kovacs alternates chapters that detail Maximilian’s private or anonymous schemes, conducted across London, with documents about or by him, including his essays and aphorisms, the chords and lyrics to the only song he writes, and the instructions for a board game that he invents. Kovacs contrasts the enormity of Maximilian’s most ambitious creations with the crushing minutiae of jobs, which fuels a kind of mania: most of his conflicts are with himself or his abstract notions of society, with little human contact for most of the novel. The Currency of Paper is frequently comic, its humour springing from Kovacs’ dry observation of the gap between Maximilian’s intentions and their reception: its funniest scene comes when he holds his first conversation in fifteen years, being disappointed by his failure to transform a man called Trevor’s life as they talk in a Bromley-by-Bow pub. To Maximilian, its rarity makes such a discussion deeply significant; Kovacs highlights Trevor’s indifference by closing with a swift outline of Trevor’s subsequent quiet family life.

Maximilian keeps searching for beauty in everyday life, especially in the transient products of consumer capitalism: a chapter where he becomes obsessed with collecting paper (but not cloth) napkins, finding something transcendent in the miniature writings and drawings on them, is amongst the most charming, Kovacs allowing the reader to share the thrill of Maximilian’s hermetic discoveries. Dilettante Maximilian struggles to find the right scale for his work, but his refusal to engage directly with wider society means that his revolutionary dreams fall short: he must settle for pranks on corporate directors, covertly promotion of unions and small businesses, or anti-Thatcher exhibitions that he will not allow to open until after his death, when they will not be topical.

Followed from 1951 to 1999, Maximilian’s underlying concerns and interests rise slowly, as the recluse realises the impossibility of extricating himself, even if he is unaware of how his neighbours speculate on what he does in his bungalow. Throughout, he tentatively allows himself to interact with others, socially and sexually, before retreating back into his art.: ultimately, he remains an enigma, Kovacs refusing to end The Currency of Paper like Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B. S. Johnson, clearly a strong influence, in which former book-keeper Malry’s scheme of balancing of every wrong (debit) that he feels the world does him with an act of revenge (credit) is terminated by Malry’s arbitrary death of cancer.

Inspired by Situationist ideas about aesthetics and politics without ever naming them, Kovacs’ novel slots into a recognisable Modernist and post-Modernist tradition that takes in Georges Pérec’s detached summaries of varied existences in Life: A User’s Manual and his Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, where Pérec tried to record everything he saw in the Place Saint Sulpice over three days. It also recalls Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, with its central character similarly freed to create certain happenings through the acquisition of a large sum of money, and Kovacs’ unemotional descriptions of Maximilian’s idiosyncratic activities reinforce this affinity. The novel’s fragmented structure lends it commonality with Lars Iyer’s Spurious trilogy, drawn from blog posts, as well as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be with its emails, letters and transcriptions, and Ben Marcus’s collection of short experiments in The Age of Wire and String.

Occasionally didactic, The Currency of Paper works best when asking how capitalism affects art, considering Maximilian’s freedom from the competiveness and egotism that the economic system encourages amongst producers, and thinking about who gets to make it. Maximilian’s liberation comes from an individual process, necessarily outlawed, before he attempts to fund collective activity that would radically change post-war Britain. Kovacs puts one man’s mind at war with the machinations of a whole world with considerable subtlety, intellectual ambition and wit: as a result, making this a promising first novel, which announces an intriguing new voice in British avant-garde fiction.

Factory workers at the gates in Dagenham. Image: Getty

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump