Mockery from on high: ‘Nations are like big, fascinating characters’
Postmodern pop conceptualist Momus has written a novel that explores America by throwing the Brendan Voyage into reverse
Momus: singer, writer, performance artist. Photograph: Christian Werner
Momus, named after the Greek god of mockery, creates satirical narratives in story and song. Since the late 1980s he has moved between the UK, Paris, New York, Berlin and Tokyo, creating the conceptualised art of an obscure pop star with an eyepatch. Writing hits for Tokyo singer Kahimi Karie in the mid-1990s, he was, briefly, big in Japan.
He now lives in Osaka, and has written a novel called UnAmerica. The story is a reversal of the St Brendan Voyage to the new world. God allocates a mission to a lowly sports-shop employee: to recruit a team to set sail and undiscover America, for it has become the opposite of what the Almighty intended.
“I tried to fill the book with all the unAmerican things I could, from Krafkwerk to Euripides, yet situate them in this little town in South Carolina,” says Momus. “The effect is deliberately alienating. But, in a larger sense, it’s what America is supposed to do: absorb new people and new ideas and make them American. This novel follows on directly from my books about Scotland and Japan. Nations are like big characters to me – I find them fascinating.”
Momus has given a prefix to a powerful nation, changing the landmass name and how it serves as an adjective for its people. “America invented UnAmerica when it drummed up the House UnAmerican Activities in 1938. Up to that point, there was the idea that America had been a global principle: you could be electively American wherever you were in the world, and then head there as an immigrant,” he says.
“But with the House Committee, there were enemies within, people who were inwardly unAmerican. It’s a kind of paranoid, totalitarian inversion of the former generosity . . . America is empty, a big Rorschach blot you can read what you like into.”
He finds Japan a polar opposite, as people prefer the minute to the large, and accept blame before apportioning it. “They have safe and functional public spaces, they zoom around on bicycles and don’t have an ounce of flab. As with all their other imports, the Japanese have defanged America, made it harmless. They have a lot to teach us about how to resist in an ultra-polite yet passive-aggressive way. Failing to speak English is just one aspect of it.”
Throughout his career, Momus has been something of a media guerrilla. His weapons range from instruments to audiovisual mod cons, and he was an early adopter of the internet. His real name is Nick Currie and he was born in Paisley, Scotland. He is a singer, writer and performance artist, and since 1989, when he sprang from the ashes of Josef K-peopled band The Happy Family, he has released some 30 albums.
His website is a warren of sound, images and conceptual landmines. Playful anachronisms and folkloric invention are his cornerstones. On Folktronic (2001), he built songs around notions such as Kinsey and Jean Michel Jarre visiting Wild West hicksvilles. A line from one, Robocowboys, goes: “We’ve got Texas Instruments.”
UnAmerica is propelled by gleeful anecdotes about the US’s worst excesses. One tale reveals the sequential loss of limbs of a security guard; another explores the idea of a “fake wig”. Chapters set up farcical stories that get demolished in the telling. The reader is returned to a satisfied zero. And then it’s time to go again. “I think studying literature at university put me off for a long time. When I finally did start writing books, I came at it from performance art. One of the rules for my performances was that nothing was allowed to be prepared: I was interested in the moment when zero becomes one, when nothing becomes something.”
Some chapters have the flavour of Kurt Vonnegut’s wry sidetracks. “My fiction is meta-fiction. A lot of the time I’m mocking the things I dislike about books,” he says. “I always hate how you have to remember complicated family relationships in those big 19th-century family sagas. So my Book of Jokes has this running gag about how a man might be his own uncle.”
In the novel, a woman’s offspring increase line by line to hit 20. What is he exploring here – the accuracy of transcription, the reliability of the narrator, the realism and relevance of quantities? “I like to parody the way our need for meaning in stories makes us impose these geometric grids on the messiness of life. By exaggerating that, I try and show how childish it is. As long as you can keep the narrative going, you can charm, and if you can charm you can survive.”
UnAmerica is published by Penny-Ante Editions
FIVE MOMUS MOMENTS: PUNCTURING POMPOSITY
- Stars Forever: an album written to pay a legal bill. For £1,000, he would write you a song. Momus fans including Jeff Koons became Medicis.
- His namesake: “Momus is a critic of the other gods. He sees through their pretensions and punctures their pomposity. He lives on Mount Olympus, then he’s kicked off. He’s an insider, then he’s an outsider, spilling the beans, betraying the powerful. He wears a mask but he also unmasks.”
- September shows: a night of Howard Devoto songs followed by a night of Bowie.
- I Was a Maoist Intellectual (in the Music Industry): a pop song that sketches the ability of culture to render threats harmless.
- A line from UnAmerica: “Snow is the coldest of grains.”