Psycho-sexual self help with a side order of violence

Grayson Perry’s graphic novel is introspection at its most terrifyingly candid.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Think back, for a moment, to something you wrote 20 years ago. Perhaps you were a wee young thing scribbling esoteric tales of dragons on the back of some left-over Christmas wrapping paper. Perhaps you were a precocious university student handing in a dissertation. Perhaps you were a novelist, or a journalist, or an avid letter-writer. Perhaps you merely kept diary. Whatever it is, look hard at the page. Capture it in your mind. At best you’re pleased, even tickled by the feather of nostalgia. At worst you wince with embarrassment. The piece of writing has become a time capsule. You are peering down a microscope at your former self. Do you like what you see?

Twenty years ago, Grayson Perry wrote A Cycle of Violence, a graphic novella set in 2023 that has since acquired semi-cult status and which tells the story of a champion cyclist’s decent into moral depravity. The protagonist, Bradley Gaines, is a kind-hearted, multi-Tour de France winning celebrity who succumbs to his “inner demons”, repressed childhood memories that return to haunt him at the height of his success. These demons take the physical shape of Bradley’s abusive mother, who hovers above him like a sadistic ghost tormenting him with insults. “You will not be rid of me through your anger,” she screeches. “I feed on your anger, because I am part of you.”

Bradley’s no match for unaddressed mummy-issues and soon falls victim to the darker side of his nature, giving up cycling and hurtling head-first into a rampage of sexually-motivated violence. He takes to picking up chicks in his mega-fly human-powered hot rod before taking them home, tying them up and macerating them with his manhood. Such liaisons often end, unsurprisingly, in tragedy.

Originally privately published in a batch of only 300, the 2012 re-issue is the first trade edition of the book. But why go back to it now? Why invite the scrutiny? Many artists might prefer to keep work produced in an experimental, pre-success era locked away in the closet of history – but not Perry. I suppose we shouldn’t be that surprised. This is, after all, the artist fondly known as “the cross-dressing potter”, who has publicly confessed his sexual fantasies (which include transvestitism and humiliation), who has a tendency of naming his ceramic vases things like “Saint Claire 37 wanks across Northern Spain”.

Re-reading, and indeed re-publishing, a piece of work certainly makes for fascinating introspection. The Turner Prize-winning artist professes that at the time of writing things in his life were tough. “In 1992 I had just become a father and was coping with the stresses of caring for a newborn," he writes in the introduction. "I had left art college a decade before and my career had not yet taken off. I was horribly insecure and, maybe, a touch bitter. I was certainly less self reflective, I expressed myself with little impulse control.”

He adds:

The physicality of parenting relationships reignites very primal somatic memories. Looking after a child cannot help but take us back to our own childhood. Again and again I feel I am, like many artists, lashed to a wheel that forces me to constantly recycle my biography, each version coloured a little differently.

It’s very easy to read the novella as exactly that – a fantastical rehashing of the artist's own history. Born and raised in Essex, Perry’s childhood was marred by his mother’s affair with the milkman and his father’s subsequent abandonment of the family. The milkman, who eventually became Perry’s stepfather, was often violent. As a teenager he went to live with his real father. He also began compulsively cross-dressing. Upon his stepmother’s discovery of this “addiction”, Grayson was sent back to live with his mother and chaotic stepfather.

Armed with this knowledge, the childhood of Bradley Gaines becomes a funhouse mirror – distorting Perry’s own reality to theatrical heights. Bradley’s mother is a “vain woman” who gives birth to Bradley in a pair of stilettos and is fond of referring to him as a “mistake”. Bradley’s father is a gentle, woolly jumper-wearing  car mechanic fond of “wholesome snacks”. One day his mother meets Gary, a high-octane motor head with great hair, and soon Mother files for divorce from Father on the grounds he is “bloody boring” and “a complete fucking wimp.”

Young Bradley is thrust into a parallel childhood universe from hell that revolves around watching his mother and stepfather wanking each other off, getting slapped for throwing up in Gary’s awesome car, and being called a “pathetic pouf” whenever he cries. Mother even puts him in a dress as punishment for acting like such a “girl” about life. As readers, we soon come to realise that at the root of Bradley’s future “psycho-sexual” transgressions is a childhood spent deploring all things feminine - from his own mother to the girlishness inside him that he is forced to condemn. As a full-grown “real man”, Bradley’s cock becomes the singular proof that he is not a woman. It also becomes his weapon for attacking the feminine aura he finds so alluring, and ultimately so unacceptable.

Analyse that

One of the most interesting things about Grayson Perry is his long-professed love of therapy. Throughout the years he’s extolled the virtue of the practice, citing his six years of treatment as the “flowering” of his artistic practice, even jokily remarking that it may have been what won him the Turner prize in 2003. He’s married to a psychotherapist, Philippa, and has called therapy “a clear eyed way of the looking at the world”, and often discusses his work with respect to a pre/post therapy division. “In my art pre-therapy, I was leaking madly about my issues,” he told the Guardian last March. “Now I do it with awareness.” A Cycle of Violence, as noted in the introduction, is a typically pre-therapy piece:

I gave this little book to my therapist in the first few weeks of our work together. Maybe I thought it would be a helpful window into my mind.

It might be easy, then, to dismiss this book as a sexed up exercise in self-reflection. Indeed, in many ways it is so ludicrous that it almost loses credibility. Even the author struggles with some of the more brutal pages: “It is the sadomasochistic content of cycle of violence that leaves me feeling uncomfortable today,” he writes. “Re-reading the work I feel now like a boring social worker visiting a family problem.”

But to dismiss it as entirely Freudian drivel would be a mistake. From the sticky recesses of these lurid pages, something authentic emerges as Perry’s little book begins to tackle genuine issues of sexual identity. Beneath all the blood and bicycles and nipple clamps, there is substance here.

The most important question the book asks is: Where does our sexual identity come from? Sex is everywhere in Bradley’s world. His own derangement is played out in a brilliantly witty visual landscape. From phallic shaped bicycles seats to aprons adored with vulvas, Bradley’s sexual mania is a claustrophobic reality that closes tighter and tighter like a kinky fist. Sexuality is an exaggerated, ominous force. Bradley’s penis is an over-sized truncheon. Similarly, the vagina is an angry orifice, drawn as a yawning chasm of despair waiting to gnaw at pleasure like a set of rabid molars. Sex is no safety net but rather a brutal game of gender politics. Love scenes take on the appearance of a duel, two exaggerated genitalia battling for dominance.

Cycle of Violence can be read as an examination of sexual archetypes. Women come in two varieties: big busted and nurturing, or lusty and manipulative. Men are either weak victims or well-hung winners. Within the pre-established fantasy world of the novel we can dismiss Perry’s characters as absurd. But in the real world, such archetypes haunt us in much more subtle forms. I doubt there are many who do not feel the tension between “masculine energy” and “feminine energy” raging inside them. Is it any wonder that Bradley ends up so imbalanced? Is it any wonder we’re all so confused? For a more nuanced exploration of these ideas, you could read Jung’s didactic of the anima and the animus (in which he describes the "fundamentally unconscious" gender counterpart that exists within each of us). But Perry’s rather un-nuanced investigation of the sexual dialogue is, in a way, equally compelling. It uncovers the truth we'd find peering into our own mind if all the self-censoring were removed.

In the end, it's therapeutic intervention that comes to Bradley's rescue. With the help of an experimental unit for the psycho-sexually disturbed and a nudist healer named Rufus, our hero faces up to his “many painful and deeply scaring memories” and accepts his inherent male-female duality. “You mean I can be a cry baby sissy?” Bradley asks tearfully during an around-the-campfire feelings sharing session. “Hell yes,” replies Rufus. “But remember you’re a man whose crying Brad, so that makes crying manly.”

A Cycle of Violence is disturbing, offensive, poignant, wholly original and very, very weird. But ultimately, it is unashamedly honest, and this makes it very brave. Not often do we see sexual identity discussed in all its messy, confused, candid glory – even less often do we see it dredged from the past in a public way by an artist at the very height of his career. If I were Grayson Perry, I’d look back on this one proudly. And maybe wince a little, too.

A Cycle of Violence by Grayson Perry is released by Atlas Press.

 

Bradley's repressive mother comes back to haunt him in Grayson Perry's "A Cycle of Violence"

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era