A byword is commonly associated to Boy Parts, Eliza Clarke's debut novel:
I scan my bookshelf. I look at my Goodreads account. It is sad, but true: the furthest north I have been in literary terms is Leicester, via the Adrian Mole series. Boy Parts' main character Irina Sturges would probably count it as London.
Oh, Irina. You grip me by the heart with your long-fingered, acrylic-tipped-hands.
Something about this novel feels familiar yet mysterious. The main character and I speak the same language, shop at the same supermarket chain, laugh at the same queerbaiting Hackney art shows, grew up heavily online in the 2000s. On the other hand, while reading it I ended up with search engine queries like 'Newcastle average rent' (How can she afford a house and a studio?), 'Geordie accent what does it sound like', 'salo 120 days of sodom', 'youngest turner prize' and 'bleach blood residue'. Boy Parts feels hashtag-relatable for the audience that regularly captures images of themselves and others and displays them for the world to see, the audience that tries on roles and characters in and out of bed, but then spins this relatability and familiarness into a funhouse mirror.
In the vein of Alissa Nutting's Tampa, Ottessa Mosfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation or dare I say, Gone Girl, Boy Parts is a spit-out-your-tea, young, English twist on the ‘pretty girls behaving badly’ novel. We all love to hate and hate to love female characters who are definitely attractive, and even worse, know it. I actually highlighted every time Irina mentions someone looking at her chest. It's not a rare occurrence.
"I can't imagine a jury taking against me either; people always conflate beauty with goodness. I'm more Mae West than Rose."
Irina, the anti-heroine and unreliable narrator, is a tall, ginger Priscilla Presley lookalike from Newcastle. A 28-year-old with a MA in Fine Arts, she works some hungover shifts in a city centre bar, where an altercation with a patron gives her by law a six-week sabbatical. This was no regular bar brawl—the attacker discovered explicit photos of her teenage son taken by Irina (she always asks for ID, but alas, he gave his older brother's). You see, boredly mixing Old Fashioneds for London transplants isn't the only way she makes money, and snorting various powders in Bigg Market toilets isn't the only way she gets her kicks: she collects increasingly shocking horror films and hunts down men with unconventional looks ("I'm a broad church," she says) to pose as models for her photography. She then sells the prints to anonymous big spenders with a taste for naked male flesh.
All this hard work finally pays off when it lands her a spot at a trendy London art gallery, which forces her—and us, the wide-eyed readers—to sort through her boxes with all of her art and memories attached. As every little celluloid bit of her unravels, questions popped into my head: on art, on consent, on bad things happening to bad people, on beauty. Would I feel the same way if genders were reversed?
“'This is also where I met Flo; where I caught the social equivalent of a nasty case of herpes, if you will.'”
Flo, birth name Lauren, the quintessential pretty-but-unlikable-novel-protagonist's best friend, is the novel's other unreliable narrator. Loyal, helpful, insecure, unpopular with men, not unlike My Year of Rest and Relaxation's Reva. In a tumblresque blog embarrassingly named ‘therabbitheartedgirl’, Flo fills the gaps for the reader: her past with Irina, her relationship insecurities, Irina's drug-fuelled mishaps. One can't help but feel a certain empathy with Flo—and a lingering disgust in thinking we may have all been her at some point, followed by shaking our heads and thinking we're probably Irina, who everyone either wants to sleep with or be. Maybe we're just Eddie from Tesco: soft, pliable, in awe of her beauty and talent.
"I can't really help if it things just bother me less than they bother other people."
In Boy Parts, men take the visual roles normally reserved for women—dress in silk teddies, lick their pink-glossed lips, make bedroom eyes at the camera. If and when Irina appears in her own photography, is it always in an active role—sticking, poking, scratching. Apt behaviour for a character that is never passive, or at least, will never admit to: from her art school beginnings to the very last page Irina—or Rini to her social hanger-ons and narcissistic mum— takes great delight in stirring feelings in other people, and never the other way around. Friends, lovers, models, university tutors, art critics, the adorable lad from Tesco who she may or may not actually have feelings for, you, yes, you the reader, all melt into goo for hers truly to poke with a stick. Increasingly desensitised to violence by her extreme cinema and trauma, she puts a stiletto to the proverbial pedal three quarters of the way through, finally merging together all the little kinks in the story line that made you do a double-take into a spiral of a finale that leaves you feeling like your book and brain are glitching. The comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis seem apt: Irina is one sick chick and Eliza Clark delivers it with a side of slick Keeping Up With The Kardashians references (gluten-free, of course).
In one word, the novel just feels brave. It feels like it gave me something I never knew I needed to read about. And if Shakespeare could invent entire words, I am sure that in 2020 we can print lmao and post-woke economy. If Mr Darcy sent letters to Elizabeth, surely Eddie from Tesco can send a WhatsApp message.
The author had no way of knowing her debut novel would come out at the tail-end of a pandemic, her entire reader base itching for a bump of an unknown substance in the toilets of an All Bar One, wearing dresses that destroy entire marine ecosystems when washed. Thank goodness it did.
Read if: you want helpful life tips on curing hangovers, removing the stench of fags from your hair, making a salade niçoise in a bag, chopping cocaine with a National Insurance card, and gaslighting every one around you;
Do not read if: you are squeamish or easily offended by the word cunt.
By Eliza Clark
297 pages. 2020.