Modern art is questioned, assessed and given a brutal analysis in A Nasty Piece of Work which sees literary agent Jonathan Urich handed the opportunity of a lifetime to repair his rapidly deteriorating reputation and become rich at the same time. It’s the setting for a dip into the mind of a seedy man who fantasises about a work colleague he’ll never be close to while frantically crying out for a hit novel to help realise his dreams. This mystery thriller tosses morals aside as the art world does, as the title suggests, get nasty.
The desperation in Urich’s life is clear: he is deeply unsatisfied, unable to think for himself and reliant on a coke addiction to see him through life’s trials. If ever there was a man you’d fear would become a burden, this is him. Caught up in a working life where success is to be able to spot talent before it’s fully recognised, he’s in the wrong job. Unable to satisfy his own needs, Urich turns down the novelists with the bright futures and leaves them to co-workers such as hated rival Monty Carn who is vying for the attentions of Cynthia — the girl he desperately wants but fails to attract even a hint of interest. When an opportunity arises to publish the first written work of famed modern artist Sime Hunst, Urich has only one real option — to do whatever he can to make it a hit, and take the risks which go with it.
An entertaining example of the potential grimy underbelly of free thinkers.
Graham Bendel’s novel offers an entertaining example of the potential grimy underbelly of free thinkers, those who appear bohemian on the outside yet use this exterior to mask their dubious internal desires. Urich, out of his depth among these people with big ideas he can’t comprehend, struggles to know what to do when placed in uncomfortable situations, and before long finds himself at a loss as to what is the right course of action. He makes for an unlikely anti-hero, and one that you can’t help but root for getting deeper and deeper into trouble as he throws caution to the wind in his pursuit for both Cynthis and his fortune. By no means a pleasant trip, Bendel deals with the darkest reaches of desire and unscrupulous behaviour, yet veers on the side of black humour rather than let seriousness consume his words to retain a sense of being part of a game amid the bleakness.
While much of A Nasty Piece of Work is a digestible, if unsettling, to-the-point read, it also brings into question how much modern art is simply a potentially laughable idea discussed in terms which make it sound much smarter than it really is, or, worse, the plaything of a handful of people with which to play with others who should know better than to just go along with what they say. It’s twisting nature towards the end does threaten to undermine the mystery so carefully constructed around Hunst’s manuscript and is saved by a revelatory conclusion in-keeping with the critique of modern art. You won’t find likeable characters in A Nasty Piece of Work, just figures of distrust, men of shady dealings and a central character low on self-esteem. They make for a compelling read, but you may not like what you find yourself drawn to, and that’s the real expertise of Bendel’s writing: you wouldn’t go the places yourself, but you want Urich and co to push themselves into the pits of human nature so you can experience it at a distance.