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.