Zach Savich

Near the end of Alex Kovacs’s charming and eclectic first novel, The Currency of Paper, hero Maximilian Sacheverell Hollingsworth converts a warehouse in East London into the Museum of Contemporary Life. Like many of Maximilian’s public artworks, the Museum attempts to inspire cultural insight through its presentation of ephemera: here you will finds objects ordinary (“umbrella racks, fire extinguishers, plastic spoons”) and rare (“ear trumpets from provincial towns in Scandinavia”), mannequins whose clothes change with the times, banal street photography, live surveillance footage, and a screen showing “continually evolving estimations of the population of the entire world.” When the Museum is completed, Maximilian abandons it, enjoying the belief that “a number of peculiar movements of fate” will cause “a team of dedicated individuals” to discover the Museum and save it from neglect. The Currency of Paper is rich with this kind of whimsical and optimistic futilism: whether Maximilian is compiling messages he finds on discarded napkins or leaving mysterious talismans in strangers’ pockets, his works aver his faith in the “mystical properties of art,” which can provide “transcendent experiences, occasions that could prove entirely transformative for any individual.”

This novel can be seen as one such work: it’s easy to imagine a version of The Currency of Paper that would merely play out its concept (“here’s an episodic compendium of imaginary artworks,” a blurb would say), in which Maximilian serves as a conduit for fanciful inventions, demonstrations of the author’s cleverness. And yes, this is a fanciful novel, packed with wit and delight, and, yes, it questions the role of imagination in daily life—qualities enough to recommend it—but Kovacs also offers an astute portrait of life in twentieth-century London. In this depiction, Kovacs often employs the swiftness and gravity of fable while avoiding pedantic allegory (at one point the book dismisses allegory as “Latin lessons in badly heated rooms”). Maximilian is at once a capaciously pliable figure, like many characters in Kafka, and a man we come to care for: he feels uneasily close to the derelicts napping in the library; his effort to live as art, within strict constraints, is shattered at age fifty-six by his first love affair; and he worries that his monumental interest in the trivial might amount to “an act that was tantamount to yawning.” Through its singular conceit, The Currency of Paper avoids the dutiful conventions of much fictional realism, while offering many moments of humane and realistic insight.

Perhaps, in giving this praise, I’ve been enchanted by the psychic incursion that Maximilian believes art should cause. As in the work of Andre Breton, Guy Debord, and others who sought to make art of the everyday, Maximilian’s goals for such incursions are explicitly political. The Museum of Contemporary Life, like all of his activities, is funded by his skill as a counterfeiter. This financial situation, which provides Maximilian with limitless resources (at one point, he buys a space station for Egypt), is at once a convenient plot device and central to the novel’s critique of capitalism, since few performances of shared imagination exceed those of currency. To oppose the “self-sacrifice” and “mortification” produced by labor, as announced in an epigraph from Marx, Maximilian’s projects include industrial sabotage, the opening of a “free shop,” and his arranging for “many thousands of harmonicas, snooker chalks, zips, balloons, nail clippers,” and other products to be exchanged among bewildered suppliers.

These activities are generally mild, supporting a mood of genial highjinks more than toothy revolution, but the novel’s more overt politicism is its most affecting. We learn that the fourth floor of the Museum of Contemporary Life, for example, has been reserved for an exhibit documenting “the reign of the Conservative Party since it had first obtained a definitive stranglehold upon the political system at the 1979 General Election under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.” The next six pages of the novel are devoted to scathingly straightforward reportage of that history, of legislation that supported abusive practices in banking and the weakening of unions, of reduced social security, of unconscionable arms dealing and the disenfranchisement of workers. This act of preservation reminds one that communal imagination impacts more than individual consciousness, and its formal role in the novel is thrilling. By shifting into fleet exposition, Kovacs shows that even fanciful fiction isn’t excused from the news; the imposition of history helps to save the novel from escapism, since it foregrounds the values one should wish to escape.

Maximilian also operates an employment agency through which he hires people to perform unusual acts, and he builds a giant sculpture of found objects, and he has artistic sex with prostitutes (one routine involves thousands of caterpillars), and he mails cryptic postcards to strangers, and he does a lot of other things that follow from his faith that “it remains perennially possible to educate and inspire understanding,” to “present people with the knowledge that they possess the power to mould their own consciousness.” Many of the novel’s actions—all of which carry a date, as in a catalogue from an exhibition—are ascribed to the 1960s and '70s, and it’s easy to feel that their interest in adjusting consciousness and opposing conformity are quaint, byproducts of an earlier time. The short chapters' titles, in relation, recall the experimental intertitles one sees in New Wave cinema: “Instruction Booklet Discovered Inside a Large Box,” “How to Celebrate with Equanimity,” “The Pleasures of Examining Ice,” “Occurrences of an Afternoon of Leisure.” The effects of artistic sedition have typically been negligible—one sweatshop built for every flower painted on a shoe, wars started while we laugh at a culture-jamming website—and one could read The Currency of Paper as a lament, not for an age of action, but for the belief that whimsy can be radical, if only in private, if only for a moment.

There’s futility in this view, and nostalgia, and one could argue that it serves capitalism just fine when radicals oppose it solely through minor spectacles. But Kovacs’s novel also demonstrates that imaginative agitation can incite versions of reality that are more mindful and just. Though this vision is provocative and deeply optimistic, Kovacs is too good a novelist to idealize it; The Currency of Paper shows us the comedy, sadness, and sustaining illusions at the heart of anyone who hopes to “transcend the fact of death” through brief instances of art.

Zach Savich teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His latest book of poems, Century Swept Brutal, is forthcoming from Black Ocean. 

The Currency of Paper
Alex Kovacs
Dalkey Archive Press, July 2013
$15.50 paperback, ISBN: 9781564788573
318 pages