The Made-Up Man: Joseph Scapellato

★★★

It has been much too long, hasn’t it? It wasn’t meant to be this way: when the lockdown started in London, back in March, I thought this would be the perfect time for reading and blogging. Yes, I thought I’d finally get round to ploughing through Proust. Instead, I’ve spent seven months in a one-bedroom room flat (save a few days here and there), on furlough, with a steadily dwindling sense of purpose and intellectual capacity. It turns out that, when you have nothing to do, it becomes increasingly hard to do anything at all. And I was one of the lucky ones: having my partner here with me has been a joy throughout. But it has still been immensely hard. This is the longest gap in my blogging since I started writing The Idle Woman in 2011 and I’m sorry for that. I even forgot the blog’s birthday back in July! But things are, hopefully, on the mend now. I’m returning to work in just over a week, and am looking forward to honing my mind again because, quite frankly, it feels like unformed putty at the moment. And I need to write. I’ve been genuinely lost without this blog over the last few months. Feeling unable to focus on reading, unable to write a blog post, has deprived me of some of the most joyous hobbies in my life. Writing this blog brings me contentment, discipline and, crucially at the moment, contact with you lovely people out there in the ether. In an ideal world, I’d be taking up the reins again with a post about a staggeringly brilliant book (for which, see Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi). I have more complex feelings about The Made-Up Man, but come along with me and we’ll see if we can thrash out an opinion about it somewhere on the way.

Stanley has come to Prague at the invitation of his uncle, to flat-sit for a few days. He’s fleeing his life in Chicago, hoping that a new place, a new context, might give him a valuable new perspective on his troubles. And yet this isn’t exactly a holiday. From the moment he arrives, Stanley is defensive and on-edge, because his uncle’s invitation isn’t as benign as it appears. His uncle Lech is an artist, the guiding light of a group of eccentric performance artists, and the mastermind of a series of immersive works that frequently slip across the ethical borderline into exploitation and humiliation. In coming to Prague, Stanley has agreed to act as the lynchpin for a new, daring work that will push his uncle’s work ever further into the grey area between art and life. For the next three days, Stanley knows that Lech’s troupe of misfits will be targeting him: seeking ways to draw him into their story; trying to shape his experience and force his actions into the line of their plot. Needless to say, Stanley has other intentions. From the moment he meets the first of his uncle’s ‘representatives’ at the airport, he does all he can to ignore the whole wretched circus. But are we really capable of choosing to be non-participants in a plot which revolves around us?

Scapellato’s book presents itself as ‘absurdist noir’, and could be summarised, reductively, as Kafka with mimes. Everywhere Stanley goes, his uncle’s cronies are on his tail, setting up awkward encounters, confronting him with performances of episodes from his own life, taking on the roles of his family and friends, and leaving disturbing chalk outlines of those he loves in the foyer of his apartment. He’s surrounded by things that he knows to be absurd, but which seem to appear normal to everyone else. As Stanley tries harder and harder to avoid this artwork based on his own existence, he finds himself forced into ever more extreme behaviour. Is there an element of the old saying: that you can never outrun yourself? Certainly, there’s a correlation between the discombobulation of Stanley’s experiences in Prague and the gradual disintegration of his sense of self – but is his uncle’s plan causing this disintegration or revealing it?

At first, Stanley is pretty confident that he knows who he is: his self-knowledge is strong enough to identify a disturbing void at the centre of himself that is not ‘him’. But what is it? As we follow Stanley through his time in Prague, and through the ruminations it inspires, we see that in fact he has been dancing on the edge of disintegration for some time. He has a series of failed relationships; he has subconsciously sabotaged his chosen career as an archaeologist. It turns out that he would have been better off trying to excavate his own psyche. He has spent his whole life trying to force himself into a mould that doesn’t quite fit, inventing himself. Indeed, Stanley’s ‘self’ seems to be just as unconvincing a creation as the roles taken on by his uncle’s artist friends in Prague. Everyone is playing a role. Some are just more conscious of it than others. And has Stanley’s uncle set up this Prague art project in order to humiliate his confused, flailing nephew, or to free him? To allow him, through the chaos of the absurd, to finally perceive something true about life – something that might just give Stanley the chance to discover who he is?

I enjoyed the idea behind the book, and the frequent homages to film noir (in fact, I thought it might work well as a film itself), but elements of the execution jarred with me. The story is structured in chapters of varying length, whose headings – which loyally describe Stanley’s actions in the third person – are sometimes longer and more involved than the chapter itself. They have an air of wallowing in their own cleverness. The ending is abrupt and, to me at least, rather unsatisfying, but perhaps that’s what I should have expected from a book in this genre. The characterisation isn’t all that strong, and what we do learn about the characters doesn’t make them particularly engaging. Even supposedly important characters – such as Stanley’s (ex?) girlfriend T – are never developed beyond mere sketches, though I suppose you could argue that this underlines the solipsistic nature of Stanley’s existence. Is he so lost in himself that he’s unable truly to perceive anyone else except as an extension of his own experience? I feel that there are interesting points for discussion here. Maybe this is better as a book-club book rather than something to read by yourself, at a time which in many ways is more absurd than anything an author could create?

If you have the patience for something along the lines of ‘Kafka with mimes in Prague’, then by all means have a go at this. Although it didn’t quite hit the mark with me, I can’t shake off the feeling that that’s the fault of the reader rather than the author. It has flair and creativity, and I wish I’d known about it when I went to Prague a couple of years ago, because it would certainly have given that trip a quirky literary flavour. But unfortunately, at this particular moment in time, it was more of a task than a pleasure to read.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

8 thoughts on “The Made-Up Man: Joseph Scapellato

  1. Kerstin says:

    I missed your posts! 🙂 I do get where you are coming from though – I ended up being much less motivated to do things since the lockdown as well. So much for using all that extra time productively… Glad you are getting your mojo back now, and happy you are getting back to work, though I guess it will still be strange!

    By the way, I thought immediately of you when I saw the title of Susanna Clarke’s new book, and will put it on my TBR list after your glowing endorsement, though I had my issues with her previous one, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which felt like something I should like, but somehow I got bogged down in it and never finished it…

    • The Idle Woman says:

      And let’s not even start on how fit I was going to get! 😂 Instead I’ve just cooked my way from cover to cover of our favourite cookbook, so we’ve been eating well at least…

      Yes, do give Piranesi a go. Obviously I’m biased, because Piranesi in any shape or form is self-evidently awesome, but this book really is a very special and unusual thing. Best to come at it entirely free of preconceptions.

  2. Kathryn says:

    I’m not sure I do have the patience for ‘Kafka with mimes in Prague’ but just wanted to say that I discovered your blog during lockdown and have found so many wonderful recommendations. My reading list during what promises to be a deeply tedious winter in London has gone through the roof. You’ve inspired and rejuvenated my reading, even if you haven’t been in the right headspace to read as much yourself, so thank you!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thank you so much for this lovely comment, Kathryn, and I’m glad to have been of assistance! 😉 Great to have another Londoner around as well. What are your top book tips for London? Always keen to hear about people’s favourite bookshops and otherwise literary haunts 😊

  3. Helen says:

    Sorry to hear you’ve been having a hard time this year. I was on furlough myself for five months, so I can sympathise and I completely understand that feeling of having all the time in the world to do things but not feeling motivated to actually do them. I hope your return to work goes well. I was back in the office for about six weeks before someone tested positive and the decision was made to let us all work from home for a while, but at least now I have work to keep me occupied through the day!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Huge sympathies to a fellow furloughee! Yet I note that you still managed to be amazingly prolific with your posts throughout lockdown, so I bow down before a master of self-discipline. Gosh, that must have been so frustrating, to be back at work and then… not back. I hope your colleague has recovered and is well again. We’re not being allowed back into the office very much, just a couple of days a week, but at least I have a way to work from home the rest of the time. It just makes such a difference to have things to think about, and a wider sense of accountability 😊

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