Book Review: Mickey the Mimic – Kirk Lake
(Ink Monkey Books) eBook £2.99
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
I finished reading Mickey the Mimic just before going to sleep. When I awoke I hadn’t quite realised the extent to which the story had stayed with me until a few hours later when I had to telephone the author, Kirk Lake. The call went to answerphone and suddenly my head filled with scenarios from the book, and since as the jacket copy says it’s, “a neo-noir narrative of black comedy and casual violence”, my imagination did rather run away with me, or from me, screaming. Before I realised that I was conflating Lake with his protagonist, Mickey Dallow, and that another cup of coffee might be needed to sort out the fact from the fiction. In fact, my parallel universe moment is entirely appropriate both to the themes of the book and Lake’s adept telling of the story.
Duality, duplicity, what is real and what is fake, who is reliable and who is unreliable, including the narrator, and whether knowing for sure would be a help or a hindrance are central to Mickey the Mimic.
Set in London in the 1990s amidst the rise of Cool Britannia, Britart and Britpop, Lake has intermingled artists, pop stars, models, artworks and events, both real and imaginary into Mickey’s world. Mickey is both a prodigiously talented artist, but equally unable to express his own original creativity on paper or canvas. His nickname, Mickey the Mimic, dates from childhood, at first applying to his talent for impressions and then from art school onwards to his innate ability to perfectly replicate the works of other artists. Which sounds very happy-go-lucky, and seemingly is, until he meets Audrey:
“I was certain that Audrey was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She looked like Tippi Hedren in The Birds painted by Gil Evgren […] only this Tippi had brown hair and was wearing jeans and a Cure t-shirt. I wasn’t sure about the t-shirt but everything else worked for me.”
As a reader, in the knowledge of how the novel mixes life and art, one wants to shake Mickey and say, the Cure t-shirt is the least of your worries. Falling for a woman who looks like an actress who on-screen was one of Hitchcock’s ice blondes (manipulative, passionate, sometimes criminal women who make the leading men fall madly in love with them, whilst also bringing danger and complication to their lives) and who said that her off-screen relationship with the director, who was 30 plus years her senior, was characterised by him being “too possessive and too demanding, I can’t be possessed by anyone”, brings foreboding aplenty.
But sadly Mickey can’t hear the readers. Throughout the year of their MA course they live in each other’s pockets and are inseparable. But Audrey’s increasingly vociferous and insistent urgings that Mickey take off the mask of mimicry and reveal and produce his own creative work, the destabilising effect this has on him, and his increasingly obsessive feelings for her, build up to the collapse of their relationship. Although the final blow is delivered fittingly at the MA final show when Mickey unveils his artwork directly opposite Audrey’s and it is a double of her work, a perfect reproduction.
A particular instance of how successful and fun Lake’s mixing of real people and imaginary characters in the art and music scenes around Mickey and Audrey (in addition to how it evocatively explores the nature of the art scene at the time) comes in the form of Mickey’s post-MA job working for the artist, Matt Caine. He is Damien Hirst’s great rival, covering everything in his trademark stripes, in riposte to Hirst’s spots, pre-selling, for vast amounts, the ideas for artworks sketched on napkins or cigarette packets, and then having his assistants, Mickey and Stephanie, do the actual creating and painting of the work. When Caine decides that his pinstripe period is over, the two create one last huge canvas for him: “when we’d finished it,” Mickey recounts, “we both decided it was the best work Caine had ever painted”.
The idea of Caine works so well, much as I alluded to in the first paragraph, that I fell into the enjoyable and also slightly disconcerting duality of knowing that Hirst didn’t have a replica rival called Matt Caine, but liking the idea that there was someone matching him spot for spot, stripe by stripe, so much so that I started to seriously doubt whom I knew to be real or fake… Google beckoned. Although by then I fully expected Damien Hirst to be the make-believe character…
When Audrey the ice brunette re-enters Mickey’s life it is with her French gangster lover, Lionel, in tow: a man 30 plus years her senior who is particularly possessive and demanding of her – foreboding come to fruition. They set about manipulating Mickey, who is still very much in love with Audrey, into their plan to fake a Picasso. But first as an initiation, ostensibly they say for them to decide whether he is the right man for the job or not, they commission him to paint a version of Gustave Courbet’s painting, L’Origine du monde, with Audrey as the model. The painting is a close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman, lying on a bed with her legs spread.
As Lake says in the Q&A included at the end of the book, “for the female model to pose for such an explicit portrait, at the request of one man in order to manipulate another man, requires a degree of complicity in the manipulation on her part. Otherwise it’s just misogynistic fantasy. I was more interested in the noir character of the femme fatale. Audrey is ultimately the most devious character but also probably the most intelligent. Not that it helps her that much.”
Indeed, ultimately the painting doesn’t help any of the trio ‘very much’, as from the moment Mickey starts the first sketches they are all caught in a highly destructive trajectory, that culminates in the book’s surprising, but certainly, and wonderfully, Hitchcockian twist at the end.
To still be engaged with a book the day after reading it, as per the beginning of this review, says so much about the quality of Lake’s writing, in addition to his seamless ability to both draw one far further into the plot and characters than one realised, and also to create such an engaging and enjoyable hyperreality. Mickey the Mimic is also a book that once I’d read it (and worked out what my real life was again), I thought, I’d really like to read it again. Which in many ways is the best review one can give a book.