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The Perfect Architect

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Architects are characterised as little more than gormless buffoons in Jayne Joso’s new novel, finds Jay Merrick

Perfect Architect, Jayne Joso, Alcemi, 2011, £8.99

In our age of nervous irony and statements expressed as querulous questions, it is only to be expected that a novel entitled Perfect Architectwould have very little to do with architecture. Jayne Joso has treated her subject matter as a casual pick-and-mix operation, in which a suitably febrile romance – Tolstoyan passions and prismatic Nabokovian longings are verboten nowadays – is extruded through a filter of fashionably arty characters and ideas.   

Joso’s story is a collage of conversations, letters and interior monologues. It seems at times to be formally ambitious, at others merely a languidly assembled treatment for a wannabe film script. The book’s tone oscillates between satire, a delicate comedy of manners and standard-issue, whiskey and cigarette-scented chick lit. It is not quite any of these things, though this is presumably deliberate: the Times Literary Supplement noted that “nothing much happens” in Joso’s first book, Soothing Music for Stray Cats, but wondered whether it might emerge as “one of the great eccentric London novels”.

That self-consciously quirky groove continues in Perfect Architect, in which Gaia, the youngish widow of a great architect, begins a correspondence with his unofficial, Mrs Madrigal-ish aunt, Selene – earth and moon in conjunction, as it were. Selene encourages Gaia to ‘move on’. Her advice boils down to getting a new >> house built, going to Italy, and having therapeutic sex. Gaia duly invites the four other architectural superstars of her late husband’s generation to enter a design competition for the house.

Joso’s characterisations of her designers and their ideas are beyond either hilarity, or even heavily elasticised ironic possibility. Four very typical examples of their manners will suffice. The superstar American architect, Ralph Coover: ‘Shit, I never been asked to design something as iddy-biddy as a house before. Hell, I build big! This darn competition thing, well… it’s making me nervous. That’s women for yer, that’s why I steer clear of ’em mostly.’ Edwin Ray, the ‘intellectual’ English architect: ‘We will make it using concrete, maybe translucent… but also glass… yes, a musical phrase. And the notes themselves informing other elements. The violin! Yes!’

And here’s the Just One Cornetto, ready-to-rut Italian, Alessandro Cannizzaro: ‘Corbusier, he was a cheeky guy, once he painted some kind of mural on the walls of [Eileen Gray’s] home, without asking! He is someone I admire for sure, but that was too much!’

There is also a significant postman, who, perhaps amazingly, isn’t also a tap-dancing chimney-sweep: ‘Wha-z-up?…Beg yo-ur pardon?… I don’t know wh…da… say.’

Joso has attempted a charmingly imperfect love story. Alas, apart from Gaia and Selene in letter-writing mode, the novel’s voices, actions and ideas are strikingly two-dimensional. The architects seem so intellectually and emotionally gormless that one suspects Joso of having forgotten to mention that they’d all been lobotomised following a rash communal dare in the bar of the Architectural Association two decades earlier.

Does it matter that architects and architecture are presented in this way fictionally?

Not at all. And it may well be that Joso’s portrayal of her subject is accurate in terms of its popular perception – ideal ground for a writer interested in a fiction of loose ends, emotional haverings and musings uttered either gently or as stark verbal burlesques. It’s a pity that the seams of properly engaging, thoughtful writing are almost entirely restricted to the letters between Gaia and Selene. In these, Joso shows a much more interesting and impressive literary quality.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic for The Independent


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