Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tragic trajectory

Touching From A Distance, Deborah Curtis' book about her late husband Ian, couldn't have been bestowed with a much more apt title. It's not a memoir, in that the focus is on someone other than the author, but neither is it a conventional biography, which would imply at least the pretence of a dispassionate relationship with its subject, as well as assiduous research. What the title acknowledges is that she was never really in intimate connection with him, and that even that relation became more tenuous as they were further estranged.

It's worth pondering, then, what value the book holds. If you come to it wanting an insight into Joy Division and their brief success, then you'll be disappointed - as the author makes clear, she found herself increasingly deliberately and hurtfully excluded from their world. The band plus their manager Rob Gretton and label boss Tony Wilson closed ranks to such an extent that Curtis' affair with Annik Honore could be open knowledge to those within the inner circle, but a secret to those outside, like his wife. When she does mention the music, the writing is flat, lacking the vibrancy that such passages might have in the hands of an experienced music writer.

Likewise, though, if you come to the book expecting revelations about Curtis' state of mind and inner torment, then you're likely to be disappointed too. Deborah Curtis maintains he was so good at shutting others out that only she was really able to see the tragic trajectory he was on, others (including Annik) being unable or unwilling to step in and help. But even then she appears to concede - perhaps more implicitly than explicitly - that even she never really knew what was going on in his head, that he was a solipsist who locked himself up to even those closest to him.

What we do learn about him is mostly negative: his self-obsession (albeit partly innocent, unable to connect to others), his complete hopelessness with organisation and money, his shirking of paternal responsibilities, his jealously possessive attitude towards his girlfriend/wife. In this, and in some of the more positive finer details, lie the book's merits - it unpicks the legend, it demythologises the myth, it indicates that this universally revered figure could actually be quite pathetic, and indeed that he was a young man with a wife and infant child, thereby underlining the very human collateral impact that his suicide would have.

Not that such demythologising is all so grim. On the contrary, there are several mentions in the book of tour japes and hi-jinx, childish tricks and acts of vandalism that hardly seem to square with the common perception of Joy Division as the gloomy harbingers of post-punk doom.

And yet what remains at the end - and what is brought out even more powerfully by Anton Corbijn in Control, the film of the book, than by Deborah Curtis' prose - is the sheer horror of the act towards which the reader knows the narrative is inexorably moving. Her discovery of the body, and later of Iggy Pop's The Idiot still spinning on the turntable, is enough to ensure that Curtis' final decision cannot be seen as romantic or courageous, but as cowardly and devastating.

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