Joseph Patrick Larkin – The Arcade of Cruelty

The Arcade of Cruelty, by Joseph "J.P." Larkin

The Arcade of Cruelty, by Joseph "J.P." Larkin

I’ve reviewed a fair mix of self-published books in my time. They included a few gems but quite often they were frankly fucking awful genre novels, written by people who evidently didn’t read widely. As such I stopped accepting them for review. For some reason, in 2008, I accepted for review The Arcade of Cruelty, a book which sounded like an oddball collection of self-hating diatribes and darkly humorous artwork. About three months later, after I’d all but forgotten about it, a copy arrived in the post – sent from the US via the cheapest international tariff available, a very sensible move as it’s a huge, weighty book.

Since then it’s sat on my shelves as I’ve not really known what to do with it. I’ll be frank: it’s more of a vanity project than any of those terrible SF books I’ve read have been, even the ones that middle-aged men had been dreaming up since their university days (oh, I loved those press releases, let me tell you). You see, it’s more like a scrapbook than anything else, albeit one that’s 250 glossy, high-quality and colour printed pages. It’s also sub-titled “A Tender Cry For Help in Words and Pictures”. There’s a lot of self-deprecatory humour in this book, although most of the time it’s much more generous with the self-loathing than it is with the funnies.

It breaks down into a number of discernible sections, after a dedication (with a small portrait) to an ex, “even though she’s kind of a cunt”. There’s a lot of hilarious misogyny here and this is just scraping the surface. There’s a fake foreword written by a “Mrs Simon Ray” (no, me either). I suppose it does a passable job justifying the existence of the book and introducing the reader to their, uh, host. Then there’s a joke biography. The conceit of The Arcade of Cruelty, you see, is that its author is dead, and this is a collection of ‘early works’ gathered together in tribute (in the way that the lesser descendants of great writers enjoy raping their legacies for cash).

Then there’s 25 pages of defaced (in the author’s youth) school photos with captions mocking both the original subjects and defacements. After that there’s a few pages of early comics and sketches; the sort of thing you’d find in the notebook of any high-school student with a modicum of artistic talent. Then there’s the reprint of a pretentious but vaguely interesting xeroxed (photocopied, non-American readers) booklet plus a few other monotype prints. And then the fun really starts with pages and pages of portrait-based comic strips, which start out as mostly blocks of Courier type teenage angst and slowly evolve into really, really bad jokes. At least the accompanying subtitles – these are present all the way through – acknowledge this. Later there are some strips about the artist’s first girlfriend, and slightly disturbing drawings and jokes about girls who rejected him, and various other subjects like assholes and cellphones, and then some monotypes from the author’s art school where the subtitles, probably for lack of anything else to say, are just pornographic shit.

There’s a chapter of collages from teenage “beat-off binders”! From this I learned that other teenagers collected cut-outs from underwear catalogues. Glad it wasn’t just me.

After this there are a tonne more sketchbook excerpts, which are better than the earlier excerpts but not by much. Some of them are mildly politically acerbic and various others are efforts by the artist to grapple with his response to 9/11; half of them mock the event, and others mourn it, and some are accurate cultural commentary. This is probably the most emotionally complex part of the collection, if you put aside the field day a trained psychologist could have with the whole book.

The most positive thing you can say about this book is that it was brave of its author to publish something that so brutally lays bare his neuroses, petty jealousies and misanthropy. It’s nothing if not honest, although no doubt it’s intensely skewed by the author’s apparent self-loathing, even masked as it is in self-deprecation and weak humour. But it’s not something that is going to be of interest to anyone who is not 1.) the author, 2.) a friend or family member of the author who is already aware he’s kind of fucked up, or 3.) if you think a sort of fake post-mortem scrapbook autobiography is an interesting book despite not being very good.

At one point, the book’s author-cum-narrator writes: “Enjoy, you sorry sack of shit. Oh, and don’t forget to go fuck yourself.”

Suits me fine. I’ve no problem with attempts at offending me, but it’s harder to bother with something that doesn’t make me laugh as it’s doing it. A single Anal Cunt song is funnier than pretty much this entire book. I will, however, keep the book around as a deeply weird conversation piece. And here’s a pull-quote for the book: “Thanks for this extreme cultural oddity, Joseph Larkin, and all the best with your fucked-up life.”

Also-Ran

P.S. Also-Ran doesn’t seem to mention this book anywhere on the site any more, and seems to be a record label now. I don’t know any of the bands on there, but the links page points to some rad bands, so… cool, I guess.

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