Nic Brewer’s debut novel uses body horror as a means of interrogating the artistic process

In his well regarded 2000 work of nonfiction, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King uses office furniture to elucidate one principle of artistic creation he especially values: “[P]ut your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” Surely many tortured artists, from Dostoevsky to Plath to Kurt Cobain might find fault with King’s admonition, though the figure of the lone genius driven to suicide, addiction, or madness in pursuit of a purity of vision has fallen out of favour in recent years. Yet being an artist of any seriousness inevitably incurs costs, and the more focused one is on the intensity and demands of artistic creation, the more one risks imperilling those things we are told we should value above all else: relationships, family, material wealth, peace of mind. Whether the price exacted by the demands of an artistic practice is worth it is something every creator must at some point reckon with.

This dilemma serves as the focal point of Nic Brewer’s debut novel, a book that inverts King’s formula by imagining a world in which an artist’s vitality is literally placed into the service of their creations. The characters in Suture actually flay themselves open to produce their various works of art.

Brewer’s novel follows three central characters, each of whom is devoted to a different kind of creative endeavour. Finn is a visual artist indoctrinated into the practice as a child by her father; to create her art, she cuts open her chest and pulls out her heart, lungs, and other organs, which serve as the raw materials for her work. Once a particular piece is completed, she returns the organs – more or less intact – to their proper places and sews herself up until the next session. Eva is a documentarian who is slowly going blind; her work is created by extracting her eyes and using them to power her camera. Grace is a writer whose work is literally written in her own blood.

Generically, Brewer’s book traffics in the realm of body horror. Readers are put on notice from the opening pages that the allegorical approach to interrogating the practice of artistic creation will not be comfortable:

[Y]ou should have seen it. Have you? An empty eye socket? It’s disgusting. Everyone thinks it’s going to be black, but they don’t remember the blood. It crusts under the eye patch after a while, this ring of scabby brown right where your makeup would smudge. Clumping the eyelashes. And the eyelid sags dreadfully, with the extra weight of the blood, the eyelashes. Into the concavity, a little wrinkly, too soft without the eye there to support it. But if you lift it up out of the way, the inside is more white than anything. A slick white with smears of bright red. Not like when you bleed; brighter. Almost translucent. Shiny. It’s not dark at all in the socket – it’s eerily light. Light and wet.

The speaker here is Eva, who is recalling her “edgy undergraduate thesis,” a film of naked women reading police reports and sipping peppermint tea, the images projected onto the side of a police station. The spectacle – “these twenty-foot-tall cunts and bushes” counterpointed by the police officers’ “appropriately phallic” batons – results in Eva’s arrest and becomes her most notorious artistic achievement, something for which she expresses a certain remorse: “I love what we did … but I wish it didn’t show up on every list of great feminist film projects. They have all been feminist, you know?”

Photo: Becca Lemire Photography

This marks only the first instance in which Brewer’s characters will be confronted with the repercussions of their creations – in this case, the reality of the artist’s inability to control how their work will be received by the public at large. Elsewhere, Brewer lampoons negative critical responses that do not consider either the toll the work’s production takes on the artist or their own internal contradictions. “I would recommend adjusting your lungs a little bit for your future pieces; they are a little bit rough and unruly,” reads one professor’s response to a school assignment Finn creates. The following assignment is returned with a diametrically opposed reaction: “Lungs are a bit smooth and the veins and arteries from your heart are very generic.” The first piece receives a grade of 89, the second a 94. (An earlier assignment, which the prof deems “great work,” merits only a 72.) The arbitrariness here speaks to a lack of understanding about the rigours of artistic process combined with an incoherent aesthetic on the part of the grading prof.

Grace, meanwhile, is so stung by the tepid reception her second novel garners – one online reviewer calls it “passive, empty, and thick” and assesses it “the year’s biggest flop” – that she steals another writer’s blood as a means of injecting some new energy into her next work. The artistic theft pays off: her third book “subverts every expectation in a tour de force” while also demonstrating a writer capable of “completely chang[ing] her style, so beautifully, so flawlessly.” Brewer burlesques the self-satisfaction of a critic incapable of detecting the deceit that drives the new novel, the energy of which is literally the product of another writer’s lifeblood.

While Grace is busy putting one over on her readers, she is also engaged in sabotaging her relationship to the saintly Olu, a man who is presented as beyond all reproach, the polar opposite of the self-loathing, deeply insecure novelist.

These satirical, biting elements pervade the first two thirds of Brewer’s novel and result in a provocative reading experience that recalls the outré grotesqueries of a writer such as Christine Miscione or the art of Floria Sigismondi. Which makes it all the more deflating when the novel more or less jettisons the Grand Guignol in its final section, in favour of more fashionable self-care advocacy and an attempt to provide an avenue to a more deeply felt personal life absent the requirement to tear oneself open in the service of art.

The final section before the epilogue finds Finn trying to support her non-binary child, Paige, a drummer in a punk band who uses her arm bones as drumsticks. The two bond at a café called Arts N Cats, the “irresistible charm” of which is tied up in its three respect-based rules of conduct. Grace, meanwhile, pens a note of remorse to Olu, an act that smacks of nothing so much as a twelve-step program’s directive to make amends to those one has harmed. And Eva, now almost totally blind, finds solace in her partner, Dev.

It is no small matter that each of the three central characters has put their artistic practice behind them or, in Grace’s case, to one side. She returns home at the end, sits at her desk, and contemplates her word processor and a pistol while wondering “if today would be the day.” Whether this might refer to her returning to her craft or picking up the pistol and putting it to her temple is an open question; what is perfectly clear is that the sacrifices she has made for her art have left her bereft and alone.

Eva, Finn, and Grace seem to have come to a recognition by the novel’s close that their glory days are behind them, and that the demands of a sustained artistic practice – with all the damage it accrues – are too steep to pay. Eva is hobbled by her blindness, which cruelly prevents her from pursuing her filmmaking, though the novel implies that her comfortable home life with Dev is sufficient to make up for what she has lost. And Finn’s attempts to support her child while also striving to shield them from the most harmful aspects of their passion is suggestive of a possible third way.

Ultimately, it is Grace ’s story that is given perhaps the most honest conclusion. Perched on her chair, word processor and gun arrayed in front of her, she evinces a tableau that asks a terrible question about how one might respond to the driving impulse to create. Is life a support-system for art or, as King has it, is it the other way around? That this question goes largely unanswered for Grace is indicative of the precarity of existential choices facing those who decide to devote their lives to the terrible, terrifying prospect of making art.

Nic Brewer’s debut novel uses body horror as a means of interrogating the artistic process
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