I have heard conceptual art referred to, by someone who is otherwise by no means an aesthetic stick-in-the-mud, as “toilet art”: that is, art that is made up of concepts that can be dreamed up while sitting on the loo. And here is a whole book of them: 533 ideas for artworks, in numbered paragraphs. Some of them are a few pages long, others only a line or two. An example of one of the shorter ones, no 529: “A Philip K Dick story is written in reverse. The last sentence is the first, the second to last is the second, and so on, right up to the first sentence, which is the last.” Or, better, no 471: “Schopenhauer‘s The Art of Being Right is read in the tone of a televised soccer commentary.”
This might sound like an almost incredibly irritating piece of whimsy, a kind of affront to the very idea of a novel. So why is it, instead, such a delight to read, so full of surprises, so many unexpected moments of laughter, reverie and delight?
Well, for a start, I hope we can now agree that the definitions of what constitutes a novel are now stretched so thinly that we don’t have to accept that every book filed on the “fiction” shelves has to have a plot, or characters, or a beginning, middle and end. And this is a beautifully thought-provoking work. The blurb at the back hedges its bets by saying it is both a “lampoon” of conceptual art and “an exemplar of its charms at their best”; it’s right to do so. Some of the works imagined are silly, some tiresome, but almost all of them have the quality of a wish, a poignancy that comes from having been imagined but not enacted.