Blue Ruin by Hari Kunzru: Never mind the art, show us the money

Cover image for Blue Ruin by Hari KunzruI snapped up Hari Kunzru’s Blue Ruin on NetGalley, attracted by its art theme. I’ve read and enjoyed several of his previous novels including White Tears which explored racism through the New York music scene. His new novel’s set in 2020, just months after the pandemic had much of the world in lockdown including an artist and his wife holed up on a wealthy collector’s New York country estate together with their gallerist.

She looked glossy to me, radiant with the kind of health that’s made of yoga and massage and raw juices and money. Once upon a time our bodies had cleaved together. They had looked right, they had matched.

Jay’s been sleeping in his car, asked to leave the flophouse where he’d been living when he becomes infected. He lives hand to mouth, delivering groceries to households in lockdown, barely speaking to anyone. When he pulls up outside a palatial house, he’s astonished to see the woman he once loved who left him for his best friend. Jay and Rob were at art school together in 1990s London, Rob later becoming renowned for the kind of splashy artworks beloved by the rich looking for an investment to show off to their friends. Alice studied at the Courtauld, escaping her rich Parisian relatives and their expectations. Jay had been besotted with Alice, their relationship eventually spiralling into an orgy of self-destruction until Alice walked out. While Rob’s career took off, riding the Britart wave, Jay turned to performance pieces, picked up by niche magazines, touring small European galleries until his final three-part work saw him disappear into obscurity. When Jay collapses at Alice’s feet, she hides him in an outbuilding until he’s discovered. Things come to a head when Rob’s gallerist reveals his scheme to rescue them from financial ruin leading to a dramatic climax.

There are reasons for an artist to take credit for their work, mostly to do with money. Few of these reasons add anything to the experience of the art itself. 

Kunzru’s novel is a witty, absorbing exploration of the ‘90s Britart phenomenon when anything produced by the likes of Damien Hirst and co fetched exorbitant prices. He captures the paranoia of the early pandemic days vividly – disinfection of vegetables, code words to be given before a delivery’s accepted – taken to extremes by Marshal, the New York City gallerist patrolling the estate, tooled up, who turns out to be a huge fan of Jay’s performance work, thrilled at his appearance and mortified at nearly shooting him. Themes of social inequality and racism are lightly woven through Jay’s narrative which shifts between the present and the ’90s. There’s no neat ending to this enjoyable novel, packed with erudite knowledge of the art world, although Jay does bring one phase of his life to a finish; it’s almost as if the whole experience was a covid fever dream.

Scribner Books London ‎9781398528918 272 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

18 thoughts on “Blue Ruin by Hari Kunzru: Never mind the art, show us the money”

  1. I’ve surprisingly not read any Kunzru. I love art world novels and it would be good to read on not set in NYC, so this sounds like a good place to start!

  2. I LOVE Kunzru and obviously this really appeals (art world!). Also, I have it on my Netgalley shelf. I am now VERY tempted to swap out one of my planned 20 Books reads for this one….

  3. He’s such a great writer, isn’t he? My favourite is still White Tears, but I enjoyed the look at the art world in this one too, which is surprising given my feelings about most modern art!

  4. I’ve never read Kunzru though I do mean to try him, with the art theme, this seems a good place to start–the weaving in of the covid elements seems to add additional layers to the themes explored. Thanks for reviewing this 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Mallika. It’s an interesting exploration of money and art which, inevitably, have been long been intertwined, but Britart seemed to take it to extremes.

  5. He’s on my list of contenders for a start-to-finish readthrough (I think I’ve only read one, but maybe two?). So smart and engaging, the kind of writer you’re sure you want to reread (or, at least, that rereading would be worthwhile). You’ve only made me want to do this more than ever now.

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