by HJ Hampson
My debut novel, The Vanity Game, was released today. It’s a dark comedy about a premiership footballer who becomes embroiled in the doings of a shady cartel of gangsters – a satire on celebrity culture.
If The Vanity Game was a picture it would Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych: a coloured set of Marilyn prints juxtaposed with a matching monochrome set. The coloured set is perfect, but on the monochrome set Marilyn’s face is obliterated by leaking ink and fades out to blankness towards the end of the canvas. It’s creepy, and you can’t help but think of Marilyn the person being obliterated, (by drugs or the CIA, whichever you choose to believe), but the image of Marilyn, the perfect, blonde, busty Hollywood girl, living on – her end is unimaginable. The repetition of the image leads to it becoming far removed from the original source; it’s reduced to a design.
Fame, death and identity are key themes in The Vanity Game, and, although I was obviously influenced by other Noirish writers, I think it is the work of Andy Warhol that influenced me the most.
I’ve been obsessed with him since I was about fifteen. I’m not sure if my fascination with fame and death and violence came before my Warhol obsession, or whether my Warhol obsession led to my dark fascinations. I guess it’s cooler to say he corrupted me.
Of course, everyone’s familiar with Andy’s screen prints and even if you think pictures of soup cans and Brillo boxes are modern art nonsense, it’s hard to argue that he has not had a huge influence on modern culture, modern art and graphic design. You can even get iPhone apps that turn photos of your face into garishly coloured pictures that ape the Warhol style. And I’ve always thought Big Brother and other reality TV shows owe a little to Andy. He, after all, was the first one create ‘superstars’ from people that came into his studio off the street. Ok, perhaps that’s not the greatest contribution to the modern age, but I’ve always found reality TV kind of fascinating. It’s certainly helped me to justify why I watch X Factor as well.
But fame and death… Andy’s work was dark. It was noirer than Café Noir biscuits dipped in treacle. The people he chose for many of his screen prints portraits were chosen for specific reasons. Marilyn Monroe, of course, being the ultimate tragic star. Then there are his portraits of Jackie O, based on photographs taken just before the assassination of her husband and at his funeral – what better image illustrates the collision of fame and death than glamorous Jackie looking forlorn at JFK’s funeral. And the intrusive nature of the picture also says something about our obsession with the famous, something which can send the famous crazy, or send us crazy in the case of Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Andy Warhol made stars of killers and other criminals when he created the mural Thirteen Most Wanted Men – images of the most wanted criminals in New York at the time for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. The mural was objected to, for debatable reasons, and painted over before the fair opened, but by creating art work from these mug shots, Andy elevated the subjects to superstars. There is a similarity between the mug shot and the screen test after all and was he suggesting these men could be wanted in more than the criminal sense? How often does the public accept someone is famous because their image is displayed in the public realm? A cursory flip through any ‘sleb magazine will offer up a plethora of ‘stars’ who seem to be only famous for being in the pages of the magazine. They are portrayed as ‘wanted’ but only because the magazine decides it to be so. But really, these are just images, and who knows what lies behind the image, whether it be dark or banal as hell?
And I was always intrigued by Warhol’s disaster series, perhaps his most overtly dark work: screen prints of car crashes, suicides and riots, and, most memorably for me, the Tuna Fish Disaster – a screen print of a newspaper story about two women who died from botulism contracted from tinned tuna. Evidently when Andy said ‘everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes’ he didn’t necessarily restrict this to the living.
And what of the Electric Chair series – the grainy image of the deserted execution device? Or the Gun prints – a detailed screen print of the gun Valerie Solanas almost murdered him with?
What I think Andy Warhol did was make death and violence sexy. Not glamorising it, just looking at it with a clinical coolness. I’m sure this is what many noir/ crime writers seek to do as well, and many do it successfully. I’ve always said Andy would be my specialist subject on Mastermind, but I’ve never had the guts to apply and probably would fail in the general knowledge, so I guess you could say that The Vanity Game is my humble tribute to Andy. Who knows, perhaps it will give me my fifteen minutes of fame, preferably while I am still alive.
I’m a novelist and screenwriter living in London. My debut novel, The Vanity Game, is out now, published by Blasted Heath. It’s a darkly comedic tale of a footballer who gets involved with a dodgy criminal ring.
I’m from up north originally: a place called Runcorn, which is an industrialised new town on the banks of the river Mersey. There is a giant chemical plant there which Friends of the Earth once described as the filthiest in Europe. I think that was before the USSR dissolved so they probably weren’t including eastern Europe, but still. To paraphrase Robert Duvall, I love the smell of sulphur in the morning. It reminds me of home.
Anyway, nowadays I like writing dark, sometimes violent and never soppy fiction and screenplays.