Reviews > Published on September 17th, 2015

Bookshots: 'Benchere in Wonderland' by Steven Gillis

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Benchere in Wonderland

Who wrote it?

This is a book with a message – and in a world where a Picasso can sell for 179 million dollars it’s a message worth thinking about.

Steven Gillis, author and co-founder of Dzanc Books. Benchere in Wonderland is his seventh book.

Plot in a Box:

Architect and sculptor Michael Benchere attempts to recover from bereavement by erecting a steel masterpiece in the Kalahari Desert.

Invent a new title for this book:

Sculpture Club

Read this if you like:

Any of the charming, skew whiff fiction of the kind Dzanc Books specializes in.

Meet the book’s lead:

Michael Benchere, world famous architect laid low by the death of his wife and muse, Marti.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Benchere is large, messy and given to howling unexpectedly. Nick Nolte would be the obvious choice.

Setting: would you want to live there?

Most of the action takes place in the Kalahari Desert. Absolutely I would live there.

What was your favorite sentence?

Art is possibility.

The Verdict:

Does art have a point? Michael Benchere, creator of heroic Angel of the North type installations, thinks that art just is. He makes it. People look at it. What they choose to do with it – buy it, sell it, use it to foment political protest – is up to them. So long as the consumers of his art don’t attempt to foist their interpretation of it on him, he’s good.

Which turns out to be a problem, because amongst the people he has gathered in his camp in the Kalahari are the Munds, owners of a chain of econo-lodges. Their interpretation of Benchere’s art comes festooned with dollar signs and they are not going to allow a golden opportunity to monetize his installation slip by without a fight. And they are not the only ones inspired by his creation. Local people set up camp nearby, attracted by the foreigners. More worryingly, word of the giant metal structure spreads to neighboring countries, all wracked by unstable and mostly corrupt governments. The work becomes a focal point for protest. The unstable and corrupt governments are not pleased by this. Not one bit.

That’s the set up, and in less capable or disciplined hands this story could have ended up collapsing under the weight of its themes. But Gillis keeps it tight, focusing on Benchere who is engagingly free of self-importance and hard not to love. Benchere might be a little willfully oblivious to the forces his work unleashes, but he’s also the kind of guy who when offered the chance to make a profit by bringing luxury goods to the Kalahari for onward sale, swaps that for the opportunity to smuggle in his dog. Gillis also writes with economy and verve, a bit the way Benchere makes his art. This is a book with a message – and in a world where a Picasso can sell for 179 million dollars it’s a message worth thinking about – but one delivered with lightness and impeccable flair.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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