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The night of his cancellation, Oli does not sleep. He is unable to stop reading the posts calling for him to be stripped of prizes, fellowships, his honorary doctorate. That he could handle; it was nothing new, there had always been critics. Since Neanderthals first started carving tchotchkes out of their enemies’ skulls, there had been creatives and a class dedicated to hating them. You can be sure that when Michelangelo unveiled the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel there was some cardinal up the back complaining that God was too big and Adam’s dick too small.

Now total strangers on the internet are saying that Oli’s dick is too small, his ego too large. That he is washed up, overrated, overweight. These ad hominem attacks are the ones that really sting. He never meant to hurt anyone—never has, as far as he can recall.

The comments escalate through the night, growing more vicious and visceral. At some point, everyone in Australia who hates him goes to sleep, but then Europe wakes up and hates him too, and then so does America. The harshest criticisms come from there, for reasons that baffle him. Who are all these Americans? The college kids with clear-skinned politics calling him racist, misogynistic, homosexual, homophobic.

At some point, everyone in Australia who hates him goes to sleep, but then Europe wakes up and hates him too.

People who have never entered an art gallery suddenly have long, eloquent, sixteen-tweet threads of critical theory to share. An account with an American flag and MAGA hashtags offers to fly across the world and ‘curb stomp’ him. Oli has to google what this means and touches his chin sympathetically as he watches a YouTube explainer. Why would anyone do this to him? How do they even know who he is?

They don’t, of course. By the time the rage has circled the world once, the context has collapsed from under the story. Nobody is angry about his disrespecting the ANZACS or his piracy of First Nations identity and culture, but sleuths have taken screenshots of his old social media posts and tossed them onto the bonfire too. Quotes from decade-old interviews are unearthed, bisected, reframed and recycled. Oli is finding out in real time that the internet is holy scripture—somewhere in there, anyone can find something to back up what they need to believe. The image of himself he sees reflected is grotesque. The Oli Darling that travels the world tonight is a fiction—a man made entirely of recently clutched straws.

But Oli, wired for addiction by biology and long practise, finds it impossible to get offline. He searches for different iterations of his name, his initials, misspellings. Again and again, his thumbs reflexively call up the apps that, as early as this morning, were a well from which he drew unlimited affirmation. Now the well is poisoned, but that doesn’t stop him visiting it again and again.

As day begins to break in Australia, he braces for the wave of inevitable newspaper editorials. No matter how denuded and balkanised, it’s the editorialists who are keeping legacy media alive. The culture writers, who condescend to the sports writers, who in turn think the political writers venal and corrupt, who hold a special loathing for the professional feminists, who hate the misogynists, the greatest of which is the sole, undying, unlovely media baron who owns everybody else, and who the public hates nearly as much as he despises his public—all of them in endless conflict with no common ground, except for this morning, when they all think Oli Darling a cunt.

No matter how denuded and balkanised, it’s the editorialists who are keeping legacy media alive.

Oli is reading all about it when the wi-fi drops out. The internet in this old house, perched by the seaside, has always been shabby. Feeling only half-flayed and unsatisfied, Oli wanders out to the back of the garden, holding his phone skywards to try to pick up a signal.

The garden is a rambling, overgrown folly; the rose bushes and grapevines stripped raw by ocean winds, fighting a losing war against the saltbush creeping in from the dunes. His search for reception takes him out to the very edge of the property, which terminates in a clifftop, twenty metres above the wild surf coast. The sheer red-stone cliff had been half the reason he’d rented this place, imagining himself setting up an easel at the cliff ’s edge and painting landscapes to unwind when he felt uninspired.

That hadn’t worked out—a bitter wind blew in from the ocean that made working outside impractical—but still, he spent a lot of time on that cliff face. At high tide, he loved to watch the waves dash against the rock and explode into foam, the barest spritz reaching him up above, kissing his feet as he dangled them into space.

At low tide, the sea peels back to reveal a long spit of granite, worn smooth by millennia of pounding waves. Some nights he takes a six-pack of beer out here to drink and watch the sun go down, pitching the bottles into the dark to hear them shatter on the rock below. On bad days, it helps him feel like he’s achieved something.

Now, leaning out over the precipice, one queasy eye on the rocks below, he manages to find a signal. There, on the homepage of the newspaper that should have been running the Paperman’s profile this morning, he finds that it’s been hastily but carefully reframed from a hard-won puff piece to a subtle hatchet job. Oli would like to think his own words abridged, rearranged, strung into a hangman’s noose, but in truth they are more or less what he said, to the letter. Accompanying the article is a cartoon of him as an effete bushranger, pissing on the grave of a fallen soldier. At least the legacy media, with their stately patina of racism, do not have an issue with his shameless cultural appropriation.

Enough, enough. Oli goes back inside, shuts the phone off and slams it inside a drawer in his studio, where he is safe from it and the zeitgeist. In the studio, at least, he can control his image.

In the studio, at least, he can control his image.

 

He returns to an unfinished self-portrait in which he is bug-eyed, gaunt, screaming. He works with a palette knife, mixing the paint with the steel and then slapping it to the canvas. His mood begins to lift as the work takes shape; the strokes are loose, energetic. But then the knife slips, and his momentum punches it right through the painting. In one hot, impulsive burst he sends the knife clattering across the room. Oli wrenches the frame from its easel and takes it outside. He drags the broken canvas through the garden, down to the cliff ’s edge, and off. For one easy, cathartic moment it hangs suspended on the breeze, then tumbles down and lands face up on the jagged rocks at the water’s edge.

For a terrible moment it lies there, and Oli and his portrait stare each other down. It seems to be taunting him. But then a wave rolls in and the tide whisks it away.

‘Good,’ he grunts with satisfaction. ‘Off you fuck now.’

This is an edited extract from Appreciation by Liam Pieper (Penguin Random House), available now at your local independent bookseller.

Take a peek into the writing routine of author Liam Pieper in our latest instalment of Show Your Working.