Jake Chapman on Romance Novels

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The enfant terrible of art discusses injecting some surreal gore into the infamously cloying Mills and Boon genre

“Someone said to me the other day, why pick on romance novels – it’s an easy victim, isn’t it? And I said well, if you’re going to pick a fight with someone it’s always going to be someone with a limp. I just like the idea of romance as a genre, where human emotions are most precarious in a sense. You can imagine the people who read romance novels being somehow emotionally fragile and needing somewhere to offload their empathetic sense of compassion with characters and identify with them and really feel something for them. It was an obvious place to gravitate towards if you have a misanthropic hatred of people. I mean I think Mills and Boon was just an armature for how I did all sorts of other things, a very handy vehicle to carry a whole lot of other luggage. [Romance] is so present in crap TV and crap literature, but I did do a little bit of research. I pretty much started from the beginning and worked my way through; it wasn’t difficult to imagine. I suppose in some sense I did morph into Barbara Cartland. What a horrible thought.”

Jake Chapman is speaking in Oslo, not long before his four-part televisual debut, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, is beamed out to viewers on the new Sky Arts channel. He is here for the unveiling of his and brother Dinos’ 2014 sculpture Sturm und Drang, a riot of mangled skeletons and joke shop props at the picturesque Ekeberg Sculpture Park. It’s a new addition to the rolling natural haven, which was given to the city by Norwegian businessman Christian Ringnes and is dotted with works by the likes of James Turrell, Louise Bourgeois and Salvador Dalí. It was on a walk in Ekeberg that Edvard Munch, looking out over the city and the Oslofjord below, had the inspiration to paint his famous study of existential angst, The Scream, and so it is a fitting place to meet Chapman, who, together with Dinos, has made a career marrying the frightening, desperate and grotesque with their singular brand of absurdist humour.

The series is adapted from Chapman’s 2008 novel The Marriage of Reason & Squalor, which injected a stream of bile and a heady dose of black humour into the maligned romance genre – Will Self affectionately wrote that it made his eyes bleed. Chapman made merry with Mills and Boon's tired tropes and clichés, from the love triangle to the tropical setting, seeming to mine more from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the series, rising star Sophie Kennedy Clark plays the novel’s disturbed heroine Chlamydia Love – “It’s Greek for ‘contagiously popular’” – who is sent to a tropical island by her wealthy fiancé in the run-up to their wedding. Atop a volcano overlooking steaming jungle, she meets the reclusive and misshapen author Helmut Mandragorass (played by Jake Chapman’s old friend Rhys Ifans), who quickly poses a threat to the upcoming nuptials. Folding Chapman’s own artworks into the phantasmagoria, and featuring a score by Dinos, it makes for a refreshingly surreal intervention into the TV schedules. “I watch all sorts of bits on TV really,” says Chapman. “I watch it kind of because it is a moronic data flow. It gives you a good cross section at any one time of what humans are up to.” 

The Marriage of Reason and Squalor starts tonight on Sky Arts at 9pm. Sturm und Drang is at Ekeberg Sculpture Park, Oslo.