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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear