The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes is a novel of pain and isolation. It is also an innovative novel about modernity, dealing not just with the trappings of the modern world but the questions that that world provokes: questions as wide-ranging as the nature of celebrity, the meaning and importance of modern art, the implications of the internet age, and the desire for immortality in a secular era.
The chief narrator, Dan, is a graphic artist who, like people the world over, has become obsessed with Agnieszka, a young Polish woman whose accidental death was caught on camera and published on YouTube. Agnieska has become an icon: websites and internet forums obsessively explore every aspect of her life, death and celebrity, and people who never knew her in life feel a deep connection with her in death. In a parallel with real-life celebrity culture, we are left to question why Agnieszka’s image, uniquely, can provoke such interest and adoration, while other images and people, who are perhaps more deserving of our attention, are overlooked or forgotten.
For Dan, though, this is more than idle speculation. His daughter, Emma, has gone missing, and he wonders why, in contrast to Agnieszka, Emma has been largely ignored. Wrestling with his grief over Emma’s loss, Dan is drawn into a murky world of online communities, modern art, BDSM, and a physicist’s unorthodox theories. A potent brew, but the overriding theme and feel of the novel is that of pain – “the only blade sharp enough to cut through the infinite nothings between every living thing and every other living thing” – which is evoked with visceral intensity. And this in turn ties up with another major theme: that of our dissociation from the world, and our attempts to reconnect with it. In our disconnected state, perhaps pain is the only real and certain thing there is.
This is a genuinely strange novel – and I mean that in the best possible sense. With its narrative shifts, peculiar dreamlike sequences, and lack of a neatly tied-up ending, it frequently took me out of my comfort zone while I was reading. This is no bad thing; I like to be challenged. I can’t confidently claim to have understood The Man Who…, but somehow that seems irrelevant – understood or not, it’s compelling. Holloway offers us no easy explanations, and perhaps that is the point. You have to become part of the narrative and make sense of it yourself, and it says something for Holloway that he trusts his readers to do so. It’s like an invitation to step into the book, to stop being the passive reader and become a participant. Who can resist an invitation like this?
To download this brilliant novel, click here to download in a format of your choice, or here. The latter link takes you to a free PDF – Dan asks only that readers who want to and can afford it make a donation via PayPal.