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Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction
 1623564220, 9781623564223

Table of contents :
List of Contributors
Introduction • Erich Hertz and Jeff rey Roessner
Part 1: Negotiating Pop Styles
1 More Than Zero: Post-Punk Ideology (and Its Rejection) in Bret Easton Ellis • Matthew Luter
2 “Consistently Original, Perennially Unheard Of”: Punk, Margin, and Mainstream in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom • Mark Bresnan
3 A Novel Idea for a Soundtrack: Tim Winton’s Dirt Music • Tanya Dalziell
4 “Where the Beat Sounds the Same”: American Psycho and the Cultural Capital of Pop Music • Carl F. Miller
5 Playing (in) Seattle: Grunge as a Narrative Soundscape in Mark Lindquist’s Never Mind Nirvana • Fiorenzo Iuliano
Part 2: Gendering Rock and Jazz
6 Masculinity and Jazz in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, Jim Crace’s All That Follows, and Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Trilogy • Aidan Byrne and Nicola Allen
7 Queer Time, Queer Space, and Queer Edge in Lynn Breedlove’s Godspeed • Joseph P. Fisher
8 The Popular Music Experiments of Rick Moody’s Connecticut WASPs in The Ice Storm • Zachary Snider
9 “Every song ends”: Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad • Danica van de Velde
Part 3: Sounding Race and Nation
10 “It’s Me or the . . . Eggplant”: Pleasure, Politics, and Prince in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album • Eric Berlatsky
11 Rock Music as Cosmopolitan Touchstone in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet • Tim Gauthier
12 Music Consumption and the Remix of Self in Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor • John Joseph Hess
13 Static Signals: Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah • Elena Machado Sáez
Part 4: Making Pop Art
14 Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen • Benjamin J. Robertson
15 “To See the World in a Liner Note”: The Limits of Song in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude • Christopher González
16 Unrest and Silence: The Faithless Music of the Contemporary British Novel • Will May
17 The Rock Star’s Responsibility: Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen • D. Quentin Miller
Music in Contemporary Fiction: Select Bibliography

Citation preview

Write in Tune


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction Edited by Erich Hertz and Jeffrey Roessner



Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc 1385 Broadway New York NY 10018 USA

50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP UK

www.bloomsbury.com Bloomsbury is a registered trade mark of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published 2014 © Erich Hertz, Jeffrey Roessner, and Contributors 2014 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the author. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Write in tune : contemporary music in fiction / edited by Erich Hertz and Jeffrey Roessner. pages cm Summary: “Focusing on Anglo-American novels of the past two decades, Write in Tune explores the dynamic intersection between popular music and fiction”—Provided by publisher. ISBN 978-1-62356-422-3 (hardback) 1. American fiction–20th century–History and criticism. 2. American fiction–21st century– History and criticism. 3. English fiction–20th century–History and criticism. 4. English fiction–21st century–History and criticism. 5. Music and literature–United States–History– 20th century. 6. Music and literature–United States–History–21st century. 7. Music and literature–Great Britain–History–20th century. 8. Music and literature–Great Britain– History–21st century. 9. Music in literature. 10. Music and literature. I. Hertz, Erich, editor of publication. II. Roessner, Jeffrey, editor of publication. PS374.M87W75 2013 813’.5093578–dc23 2013049426 ISBN HB: 978-1-6235-6422-3 ePub: 978-1-6235-6145-1 ePDF: 978-1-6235-6506-0 Typeset by RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, Suffolk, UK


Contents List of Contributors Acknowledgments Introduction Erich Hertz and Jeffrey Roessner

vii xi 1

Part 1 Negotiating Pop Styles 1 2 3 4 5

More Than Zero: Post-Punk Ideology (and Its Rejection) in Bret Easton Ellis Matthew Luter “Consistently Original, Perennially Unheard Of ”: Punk, Margin, and Mainstream in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom Mark Bresnan A Novel Idea for a Soundtrack: Tim Winton’s Dirt Music Tanya Dalziell “Where the Beat Sounds the Same”: American Psycho and the Cultural Capital of Pop Music Carl F. Miller Playing (in) Seattle: Grunge as a Narrative Soundscape in Mark Lindquist’s Never Mind Nirvana Fiorenzo Iuliano

19 31 43 55 69

Part 2 Gendering Rock and Jazz 6 7 8 9

Masculinity and Jazz in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, Jim Crace’s All That Follows, and Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Trilogy Aidan Byrne and Nicola Allen Queer Time, Queer Space, and Queer Edge in Lynn Breedlove’s Godspeed Joseph P. Fisher The Popular Music Experiments of Rick Moody’s Connecticut WASPs in The Ice Storm Zachary Snider “Every song ends”: Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad Danica van de Velde

85 99 111 123

Part 3 Sounding Race and Nation 10 “It’s Me or the . . . Eggplant”: Pleasure, Politics, and Prince in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album Eric Berlatsky


11 Rock Music as Cosmopolitan Touchstone in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet Tim Gauthier





12 Music Consumption and the Remix of Self in Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor John Joseph Hess


13 Static Signals: Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah Elena Machado Sáez


Part 4 Making Pop Art 14 Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen Benjamin J. Robertson 15 “To See the World in a Liner Note”: The Limits of Song in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude Christopher González 16 Unrest and Silence: The Faithless Music of the Contemporary British Novel Will May 17 The Rock Star’s Responsibility: Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen D. Quentin Miller


Music in Contemporary Fiction: Select Bibliography Index


213 227 241


List of Contributors Nicola Allen is a lifelong fan of Alan Plater. She teaches and researches in the English department at the University of Wolverhampton, UK, and her recent publications include a monograph on marginality in contemporary British fiction, a chapter on H. P. Lovecraft and modernism, and an article on shaven-headed women in the fiction of Jim Crace. Eric Berlatsky is Associate Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Real, The True, and the Told: Postmodern Historical Narrative and the Ethics of Representation (Ohio State University Press, 2011) and the editor of Alan Moore: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). He has also published essays on narrative frames, Julian Barnes, Charles Dickens, Paul Auster, and Superman. He teaches literary theory, 20th-century British and postcolonial literatures, and comics. In his spare time, he listens to Prince (. . . and the Beatles . . . and David Bowie . . ., etc.). Mark Bresnan is Assistant Professor of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. His scholarship examines the representation of popular culture in the work of contemporary American writers, with particular emphasis on sports and music. His other publications include essays on David Foster Wallace and Eric Rolfe Greenberg. Before joining the faculty at Marymount Manhattan, Mark taught at New York University, St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and the University of Iowa, where he earned a PhD in English. Aidan Byrne is a Senior Lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. He has recently published on Welsh-language travel writing, 1930s’ political fiction, and the poetry of R. S. Thomas. He is currently researching pan-Celtic science fiction and politicians’ novels. Tanya Dalziell is Professor in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. She is the coeditor, with Karen Welberry, of Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave (Ashgate, 2009) and more recently, with Paul Genoni, of Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935–2012 (Monash University Publishing, 2013). She has also published on music and modernism, with a particular interest in the writings of Mina Loy, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. Joseph P. Fisher holds a PhD in English from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., where he works as a learning specialist in the Office of Disability Support Services. Joe also teaches in the university’s College of Professional Studies and vii


List of Contributors

at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus. Additionally, he coedited, with Brian Flota, The Politics of Post-9/11 Music: Sound, Trauma, and the Music Industry in the Time of Terror (Ashgate, 2011). He is also a staff blogger for the website PopMatters. Joe’s current research explores the connections between late 20th-century disability activism and the ethos of Western punk music. Tim Gauthier is Director of the Interdisciplinary Degree Programs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In addition to peer-reviewed publications, he is the author of Narrative Desire and Historical Reparations: A. S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie (Routledge, 2006). His latest project, provisionally titled 9/11 Fiction, Empathy, and the Ethics of Cosmopolitanism, examines the role of fictional works as artifacts that dramatize responses to the altered local and global circumstances brought about on September 11. Recent publications include an article on French fiction and 9/11 in Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature and another on McEwan’s Saturday, appearing in College Literature. Christopher González is Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University– Commerce, where he teaches 20th- and 21st-century literatures of the United States. He received his PhD from the Ohio State University, specializing in narrative theory and Latino/a narrative across media. He is currently finishing up a book on the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Junot Díaz. He also serves as the managing editor of Philip Roth Studies, and has recently published or has forthcoming essays on the comics artists Wilfred Santiago and Jaime Hernandez, filmmakers Alex Rivera and Robert Rodriguez, and novelists Edward P. Jones and Philip Roth. Erich Hertz is Associate Professor of English at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, where his primary research interests are in the relation between aesthetic form and culture in contemporary literature, music, and film. He has published work on contemporary Scottish fiction, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, the turntablism of Philip Jeck, surrealism, and the depictions of post-punk in contemporary film. John Joseph Hess earned his BA in English and American Literature and Language at Harvard and his MA and PhD in English Literature at the University of Notre Dame. His research interests include the intersections between entertainment and 21stcentury American fiction, American literature since 1945, the novel, modernism, postmodernism, and film and media studies. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crossing Boundaries in Graphic Narrative: Essays on Forms, Series, and Genres (McFarland, 2012), the Journal of South Texas English Studies, and Michael Chabon’s America: Magical Words, Secret Worlds, and Sacred Spaces (Scarecrow, 2014). Fiorenzo Iuliano holds a PhD in Cultural Studies and works as a Lecturer in American literature at the University of Cagliari, Italy. His research interests include contemporary American fiction and graphic novels, cultural studies, and theories of the body and corporeality. He recently authored a book on the representation of the body in

List of Contributors


American fiction of the 1990s and a monograph on the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. He is currently researching the cultural scene of Seattle in the 1990s. Matthew Luter earned his PhD in English from the University of North Carolina, where he specialized in contemporary American fiction and Southern literature. His articles have appeared in Genre, Critique, and Mississippi Quarterly. He is now at work on the manuscript for Understanding Jonathan Lethem, a book under contract at the University of South Carolina Press’s Understanding Contemporary American Literature series. He taught American literature, Southern studies, and first-year writing at Davidson College, North Carolina, and is now on the English faculty at the Webb School of Knoxville, Tennessee. Elena Machado Sáez is an Associate Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University. She is coauthor of The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), which has received positive reviews in Anthurium, Camino Real, Centro, MELUS, Latino(a) Research Review, Latino Studies, and Sargasso. Selections from Machado Sáez’s current manuscript, The Market Aesthetics of Caribbean Diasporic Historical Fiction, have appeared in the journals Anthurium and Contemporary Literature. The book analyzes historical fictions by Julia Alvarez, Dionne Brand, David Chariandy, Michelle Cliff, Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Marlon James, Andrea Levy, Ana Menéndez, and Monique Roffey as part of a global literary trend that troubles the relationship between ethnic writers and their audiences. Will May is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Southampton, UK. Publications include Stevie Smith and Authorship (Oxford University Press, 2010) and Postwar Literature: 1950 to 1990 (Pearson Longman, 2010). Will has also worked extensively as a choral composer and librettist, and has had several works performed on BBC Radio 3. Carl F. Miller (PhD, University of Florida) is an Assistant Professor of English at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Florida, where his primary research interests are in 20thcentury comparative literature, critical theory, and children’s literature. He has other recent publications on the influence of the Cold War in the 1980s graphic novel, the significance of philosophical ethics in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!, and the postcapitalist dystopia in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. D. Quentin Miller, Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, has had published a book on John Updike, another on contemporary prison literature, and two on James Baldwin; his most recent book is “A Criminal Power”: James Baldwin and the Law (Ohio State University Press, 2012). He is the editor or coeditor of three college textbooks: The Generation of Ideas (Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004), Connections: Literature for Composition (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), and The Heath Anthology of American Literature (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). He has published articles on contemporary American writers as well as original fiction and is currently working on The Routledge Introduction to African American Literature (Routledge, 2014).


List of Contributors

Benjamin J. Robertson is an instructor in the English Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches classes on American literature, media studies, baseball, and elves. His writing has appeared in the journals Configurations, Science Fiction Studies, and Amodern, among other places. The essay included in the present volume is part of a long-term project on the generic. Jeffrey Roessner is Professor of English at Mercyhurst University, Pennsylvania, where he serves as Dean of the Arts and Humanities and teaches contemporary literature and creative writing. His primary research interests include historical fiction and cultural studies, and he has published essays on Peter Ackroyd, Angela Carter, and the Beatles, among others. His recent work includes articles on rock mockumentaries, the post-confessional lyricism of R.E.M., and protest music in the wake of 9/11. He has also published a book on songwriting, Creative Guitar: Writing and Playing Rock Songs with Originality (Mel Bay Publications, 2009). Zachary Snider recently moved to New England to write novels and occasionally teach, after serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor of writing at Manhattan College, New York City, and teaching writing courses for New York University for six years. His PhD is in creative writing, focusing on postmodern fiction and the social novel, but, because he did his degree in “Old England,” he most often ends up teaching British literature courses in the States. Snider formerly worked as an entertainment journalist across Europe and now happily has career multiple personality disorder. Danica van de Velde recently completed her doctoral thesis on the representation of intimate space in the cinema of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai at the University of Western Australia, where she teaches film, literature, and gender studies in the English and Cultural Studies department. Her areas of specialization are transnational cinema and literature, with a specific focus on the intersections of urban space, architecture, memory, and desire. Her work has been published in Semi-Detached: Writing, Representation and Criticism in Architecture (Uro Media, 2012) and Home: Concepts, Constructions and Contexts (forthcoming, 2014), as well as a variety of print and online publications.

Acknowledgments The authors would like to express their deep gratitude to a number of people who made this volume possible. Thanks to Haaris Naqvi, our chief editor at Bloomsbury, and assistant editor Laura Murray for all of their guidance and careful attention to this manuscript as it made its way to press. Thanks also to Phil Belfiore, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Mercyhurst College, for his unstinting support of scholarship and for countless conversations about music (although he will never talk Jeff out of his vinyl record collection), and to Karen Meyer in the Office for Academic Affairs for all kinds of academic assistance. A special thanks also to the Faculty Research Committee at Mercyhurst, who awarded research contracts that allowed focused attention on this project. Additional thanks go to Janet Shideler, Siena College’s Dean of the School of Liberal Arts, for her constant backing of research in the form of conference support and research release time. Finally, our deepest appreciation to Tricia and Christy, who have been there for so many discussions of music, and who continue to support us in numberless ways.


Introduction Erich Hertz and Jeffrey Roessner

Articulating the effects of music with language is fraught with difficulty. As Kierkegaard puts it in Either/Or (1843): Music always expresses the immediate in its immediacy; it is for this reason, too, that music shows itself, first and last in relation to language. . . . Language involves reflection, and cannot, therefore, express the immediate. Reflection destroys the immediate, and hence it is impossible to express the musical in language.1

Or, more recently, according to the witticism variously attributed to Elvis Costello and Martin Mull: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”2 The joke works in part because it hits home: most of us can recall feeble attempts to describe a favorite piece of music to someone who hasn’t heard it. Such frustrated conversations inevitably lead to playing the song in question, as if to say, “Listen, this is what I was trying to tell you about.” Musicians especially appreciate the skepticism about capturing sound in language because it’s really aimed at the most despicable, tone-deaf audience imaginable: unfavorable music critics. Despite the intuitive appeal of the saying, however, it hinges on a contradiction. Although mocking the notion that you can render musical effects in words, it in fact deploys figurative language (a simile) to express a very clear idea about music—namely, that our rapturous experience of sound remains a decidedly private and mysterious event. Even surrounded by thousands of other fans at a concert, we remain trapped listening inside our own heads. Consequently, and in spite of the limitations of language, it seems the only way to come close to representing the experience of music is through another art form. Since the 1960s, fiction writers in particular have embraced the challenge of encoding their response to music in words. Indeed, the range of novels that reference contemporary music is stunning, from the pervasive allusions in Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, to the subtle intertextual negotiations in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s Watchmen, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The emergence of such an important subgenre, populated as it is with major figures both within and outside the Anglo-American tradition, begs for scrutiny. Initially, of course, we might be tempted to say that the rise 1


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

of the pop music novel simply mirrors the emergence of the counterculture in the 1950s and 1960s: we simply had to wait until the young music fans of that era grew up and started writing fiction. But the larger story here involves a seismic shift as both the literal sound and the cultural resonance of music were transformed by postmodernism and its collapsing of boundaries between low and high art. If there is a startling historical correspondence between the pronouncements that both rock and the novel are “dead,”3 one way to understand these deaths is as a drive to bracket off artistic periods that were animated by their participation with an authentic culture that is seen to no longer exist. These deaths are also stippled with an appeal to the moment when art was real, as opposed to the many ways that commercialization or the pure mimicking of past forms produce an art that lacks a certain critical force.4 Write in Tune aims to chart this moment by presenting readings that both delve into the individual work of art as a passionate response to music and map an uncharted cultural territory suffused with sound. *



In his highly influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin helps us start to understand the radical shift in the meaning of popular music in the 20th century. Writing specifically about film, Benjamin contends that the medium has a revolutionary potential because of its capacity to reach mass audiences. On the way toward establishing his claim, he delineates and historicizes the role of art since the Greeks. For Benjamin, the 20th century is particularly marked and transformed by the rise of art to be exhibited and to reach many people simultaneously. By meeting “the recipient in his or her own situation,” the work of art “actualizes that which is reproduced” and assaults the mystical aura of authenticity and ritual that has traditionally accompanied aesthetic experiences.5 Benjamin contends that “the social significance of film . . . in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” (Benjamin, 104). If something was lost in not experiencing the “original” artwork, something was gained by democratizing art so that its reception was not limited by one’s social class.6 If movie theaters served as the medium for shared viewing of drama, phonographs, and particularly radio, infused 20th-century culture with music on a previously unimaginable scale. Although radio began broadcasting music to a mass audience before WWII, we really only recognize the profound ubiquity of pop music in the postwar era. The confluence of newly perfected technology (FM broadcasts, for example), the birth of the 45 rpm record (introduced in 1949), and the boom in youth culture and marketing laid the foundation for a revolution in when and how people heard music.7 For example, the number of records sold in the United States rose dramatically, from 214 million in 1952 to 511 million in 1958—coincidentally, the same year that Billboard introduced the Hot 100 and the Recording Industry Association of America began awarding gold records for sales of 500,000 copies.8 As it reached the point of saturation, popular music since the end of WWII became a



cultural signifier with unprecedented reach. Whereas a classical performance generally requires a quiet setting and an attentive listener, pop music has come to serve as the foreground through which people filter the world or as the ubiquitous background of everyday life, heard in every context from shopping at the mall to enjoying live entertainment at local festivals to viewing half-time performances at the Super Bowl: indeed, rock music in particular has become synonymous with popular music for many, and it is nearly inescapable.9 Because of its ubiquity, post-WWII pop music has accrued meaning well beyond the high art associations of opera or other classical genres, and its significance is inextricably bound to its identity as a product. When something “new” is inexorably desired or produced and pushed, its shelf life is often short. Partly because of such commodity logic, pop music has come to define decades, ultimately even parsing them into early, mid, and late periods. Even though there has been a significant shift in listening habits in the last decade, it is safe to say that most people growing up between the 1950s and the 2000s will have a cultural background defined by the appearance of certain pop songs. Regardless of whether or not one actually likes the songs, they serve as the soundtrack of the time. And the evocative power of music goes well beyond these personal associations. Any regular moviegoer will recognize that a carefully chosen song is a filmic shortcut to evoking time and setting, even if it’s not within the viewer’s own experience: before any visual information is given, for example, “Turn Turn Turn” by The Byrds immediately alerts the audience that something about the politics and time of the late 1960s is at stake. Contemporary fiction writers recognize the power of songs to evoke these times and spaces, and deploy them to explore various articulations of personal identity in relation to cultural systems.10 If, on the one hand, pop music often serves as colorful wallpaper, it also offers a mode of understanding one’s place in contemporary culture and defining the distinct cultural groups that comprise it. As Hanif Kureishi claims in his introduction to The Faber Book of Pop, “It’s strange how long the disposable stuff can last and how often it may return. Funny, too, how much it can tell us about a particular period, as if it’s easily forgotten things that we most need to recover.”11 The item produced for mass consumption is heard in personal and social contexts—say, at high school dances or wedding receptions or at the beach in summer—and then perhaps neglected until it’s heard again, as it returns on the radio or television sutured to a particular social and political era. The songs thus become part of the means through which we understand ourselves within a particular cultural moment. In tracing the significance of pop music culture, what is at stake as well is an aesthetic argument about the intellectual worth of mass-distributed art. If something is created for mass consumption, so the argument goes, it functions as mere entertainment rather than high art. And the inverse holds true as well: high art is exclusive, demanding, and often obscure, and thus not usually circulated to a wide audience.12 This particular stage in the development of aesthetics found pithy expression in the work of 19thcentury critic and writer Walter Pater, who famously declared that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.”13 Pater wasn’t referring to dance hall music, of course. Rather, he was emphasizing the artist’s quest for a decontextualized, ahistorical


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

aesthetic effect, which achieves purity insofar as it exists outside time and space. In the early 20th century, modernist literature bore the full fruit of this line of thinking, especially in T. S. Eliot’s vision of a grand pantheon of literature that has a “simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”; in Eliot’s vision, “The existing monuments [the great works of European art from Homer on] form an ideal order among themselves,” and a writer’s task is to join that rarefied pantheon.14 This tradition of rarefied aesthetics proved so influential that it shaped the debate surrounding music and literature through much of the 20th century, for how can something be art when it looks so much like entertainment? The assumptions behind this question perhaps account for why most treatments of literature and music concern 19th-century or early 20th-century literature and opera or classical music: only serious music demands serious thinking. Indeed, the furrow-browed dismissal of pop culture meant that, for a very long time, interdisciplinary studies of music and literature essentially have been translation studies: in other words, the main questions have been, “How can a writer capture the ‘art’ of great music through magniloquent language, or, conversely, how can classical music attempt to evoke the character of great literature?”15 T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets perfectly exemplifies this approach, as Eliot attempts to embody, in elliptical, symbol-heavy language, the grand seriousness and profound strains of Beethoven’s late string quartets—works that many believe to be among the greatest musical achievements of Western culture. Arising from such aesthetic principles, traditional music and literature studies unsurprisingly had almost nothing to say when confronted with rock and roll culture and its decidedly un-sonorous assault on the canon of high art.16 As Chuck Berry succinctly put it, over the amplified stabs of his famous double-stopped guitar lines, “Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.” If it’s true that pop music should be something that one just feels, that explaining “You Really Got Me” in intellectual terms is already to have missed the point, it is nonetheless the cultural associations that get pinned to pop songs that make them so indispensible. While the arguments about what was proper to “art” raged into midcentury (and beyond), pop music was exploring and illuminating aspects of society not often seen as the providence of serious or proper literature. As more and more writers began to collapse the high and low art distinctions, pop music became a particularly salient site for the exploration of identity.17 How do you define your identity in terms of the musical commodities you consume? Do you embrace what’s popular in order to merge with the crowd, or resist it to stand out? Popular music easily becomes a contested cultural space, in which hating the right music is as important as liking the right music. These choices are culturally relative and sensitive to the pressures of time and place as well as market forces and local fan cultures. A wrong choice within a particular subculture could make the difference between social acceptance and ostracism, between fitting in and being outed. More, the absorption of pop music into fiction in the last 50 years marks an important development in the history of the novel and its relationship to its own status as an art object. Even though it might not have been taken seriously as an art form in many places in the academy, pop music and the questions it raises saturate the imaginations of contemporary fiction writers as diverse



as Don DeLillo, Bret Easton Ellis, Hanif Kureishi, Jennine Capó Crucet, and Colson Whitehead. These writers recognize the way music reflects our gaze and allow us to ask crucial questions about how we construct our heavily mediated selves in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. One important work that signaled a new direction for music in fiction was Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. This 1987 novel traces the exploits of destitute young Dubliners who ground their musical identity in black American soul. From its very first pages, the work establishes musical taste as an essential marker of identity, with the band’s impresario, Jimmy Rabbitte, set up as the ultimate arbiter of style. Indeed, at once both product and master of the gushing font of pop consumer culture, Jimmy attains mystical status for his knowledge: You’d never see Jimmy coming home from town without a new album or a 12-inch or at least a 7-inch single. Jimmy ate Melody Maker and the NME every week and Hot Press every two weeks. He listened to Dave Fanning and John Peel. . . . Jimmy knew what was what. Jimmy knew what was new, what was new but wouldn’t be for long and what was going to be new. Jimmy had “Relax” before anyone had heard of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and he’d started slagging them months before anyone realized they were no good.18

From his superior vantage, Jimmy decides that his fledgling band immediately needs to kick out its synth player, recruit a number of other local musicians, and begin to play Dublin Soul—a hybrid of authentic black American music, largely from the 1960s, and Irish working class culture. To sell his vision to the band, Jimmy lays out a compelling argument about why they all want to be in a band in the first place: “Yis want to be different, isn’t tha’ it? Yis want to do somethin’ with yourselves, isn’t tha’ it? . . . Yis don’t want to end up like . . . these tossers here” (Doyle, 6). In other words it’s not about money or girls—though the male members of the fledgling band agree those would be good, too—it’s about creating a sense of dignity, purpose, and identity for themselves. Although these ambitions could apply to virtually any young band, they take on special urgency given the impoverished context of their lives in Dublin. Alan Parker’s film version of the novel does a particularly good job of recording their tenuous economic status. In his analysis of the film’s miseen-scène, Don Kunz sees the Dublin depicted here as a “war zone,” noting the “ugly, gray project housing,” the “backyards crammed with laundry being aired in public,” “the streets and alleys filled with trash or crowded with shabbily dressed citizens. Smoky fires and the screams of dirty children throwing rocks, fighting, and chasing one another amid the debris of wrecked cars and overflowing trashcans add a frantic and desperate excitement.”19 For Kunz, all these visual cues underscore “how trapped the Irish are by unemployment, poverty, and ill-temper” (Kunz, 55). In Doyle’s imaginative world, such despair evokes multiple responses from his characters, including their classic Irish comic sensibility and their profanity-filled slang.20 But it also provides both the drive to transcend these dire circumstances and the inspiration for identifying with dispossessed African Americans.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Multiple complications frustrate the band’s ascent, of course. The Irish–soul hybrid never quite works in the novel, as the band adds some lyrical references to Dublin in “Night Train,” but not much else to signal their Irish contribution. Essentially, they become a fairly adept cover band, performing faithful versions of soul tunes with Irish accents. Moreover, the band members themselves acknowledge the enormous cultural division separating them from the original soul performers. The racial implications of this divide become especially apparent in Alan Parker’s film version. At one point, Jimmy sits the band down to inspire them with a video of James Brown performing his classic “Please, Please, Please.” The ultimate showman, Brown struts and jives on the stage, and seems to strain himself to the point of breaking as he wrenches the song from his sinews. Close-ups of him show a shiny, sweat-slicked, and very obviously black face. Parker then cuts to the pimpled, pasty face of one of the Irish band members, who asks incredulously, “You don’t think . . . well, like, maybe we’re a little white for that kind of thing?”21 His thickly accented pronunciation of white (“whoite”) underscores the irony. Jimmy has a retort, of course. He argues that the meaning of soul, particularly derived from its working class origins, transcends race: as downtrodden Irishmen, they are in utter solidarity with the plight of African Americans. But his very terms of comparison belie Jimmy’s ignorance: in the novel, he baldly equates the band members with black Americans, using terms that no white U.S. musician would voice in this context. In urging the band to don an identity as a soul band, Jimmy explains, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe. . . . An’ Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland. . . . An’ the northside Dubliners are the niggers o’ Dublin.—Say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud” (Doyle, 9).22 (Tellingly, Parker’s film elides the troubling language, substituting the unremarkable “blacks” for the epithet.) In their destitution, in the squalor of the streets, in the subterranean economy encouraged by the welfare state, the young Irishmen are cornered, with very little vision of a way out—except the one that Jimmy, their stylistic Svengali, dreams up and convinces them to adopt. Ironically, as the band’s frequent bafflement at Jimmy’s tutelage suggests, their “soul” is imposed on them, rather than reflecting some innate sense of themselves or pride in their local culture. They repeat stereotypes about African Americans (“That’s alrigh’ for the blackies, Jimmy.—They’ve got bigger gooters than us” (Doyle, 38)), and attempt haphazardly to enact Jimmy’s vision of politics: Jimmy tells Outspan, for example, that he has to change his name because it represents South African oranges (picked by black prisoners), thus it’s “racialist” (Doyle, 46). Jimmy can’t even get his terms of offense straight, and, as Outspan points out, “I don’t make anyone pick fuckin’ oranges!” (Doyle, 46). And later, when Jimmy catches someone smoking hash, he furiously reminds them that they are a soul band that has political principles. But when the drummer asks if he can smoke after rehearsal, Jimmy says, “Yeah, sure. No problem” (Doyle, 75). The band members try on their “black” soul identity as an ill-fitting suit, one taken so far out of cultural context that the affronts seem laughable rather than offensive. Their identity is comically temporary: not even skin deep.23 By engaging such crucial issues concerning racial identity, The Commitments raises perhaps the central problem in the politics of postmodern style and a key issue in contemporary fiction. Yes, the band gains some sense of self through appropriating



black American style, including the repertoire, the clothes, and the attitude of the original musicians (it’s worth remembering that, along with sex and politics, soul is “dignity” (Doyle, 41)—and that may be the one point of identification between the Irish and African Americans left uncomplicated by the narrative). But as we move to the end of the novel, the band starts to fray for many of the usual reasons—not least because the older trumpeter has become involved with all three of the young female backing singers. But the supposedly unified commitment to soul also unravels. The sax player, Dean, decides that he wants to express himself by playing jazz: he sports a new haircut, new clothes, and an individualist approach to soloing that undercuts the band’s cohesive, populist approach. The singer, Deco, feels pulled by the lure of fame and moves on to pursue a solo career. In these instances, we might simply fault the band members, who have reneged on their commitment. But even Jimmy decides to abandon his vision. As the novel concludes, he’s gathered with three of the former Commitments to lay out a plan for his next band. After playing them The Byrds’ version of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” he imagines their career trajectory: the first two albums will be “real country-punk” (Doyle, 163). Why this direction? Soul wasn’t right for Ireland, he tells them, but country punk is: “You’ve got to remember tha’ half the country is fuckin’ farmers. This is the type o’ stuff they all listen to.—Only they listen to it at the wrong speed” (Doyle, 164). Doyle astutely renders the play of style in postmodern culture, as artists go looking for the newest hybrid that will delight as it unsettles.24 Underscoring the slippery nature of identity, the novel’s closing leaves us with important questions: was the band’s commitment to soul then a strategic form of politics? Did it offer these down-and-very-close-to-out Irish kids a means of forming an effective, ad hoc identity, one that allowed them to address particular needs within their unique social and historical setting? In this sense, we could read the play of style in the novel as a classic example of ironic recontextualization, as defined by Linda Hutcheon: in her reading of postmodern fiction, she recuperates parody as a political gesture, defining it as “repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signaling of difference at the very heart of similarity.”25 From this vantage, we would say that of course the Commitments know that they aren’t black and that they cannot simply equate their situation to that of African Americans from another generation. In fact, it is just such “critical distance” that allows them to use soul to intervene strategically in a more contemporary Irish context. Rather than escaping from or erasing history, the appropriation of soul as a style both acknowledges the past meaning of the music and redeploys it in a novel way. If we entertain Hutcheon’s notion that “irony may be the only way we can be serious today” (Hutcheon, 39), it would be a mistake to dismiss the band’s performative identity as the result of ignorance or mere opportunism. Rather, it reflects a savvy reading of culture that generates new forms of critical engagement. In particular, the irony here confers a sense of freedom: when soul ceases to empower the band in the present moment, they move on to adopt another style, to don another temporary suit for performing.26 Identity becomes free-floating signifier, an artistic variable that can be endlessly revised based on circumstance. Of course, we might well take a more critical view of this casual attitude toward style. Given the ease with which Jimmy and the band casually don and doff their soul


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

skins (something obviously impossible for their black idols), does such playful appropriation erase history and ignore important racial and social distinctions?27 This question takes on particular import as Jimmy ultimately disavows his own earlier agenda: he tells the band, “No fuckin’ politics this time either” (Doyle, 164). From this point of view, we might argue that the band simply exploited black music for its own self-promotion: they neither understand nor appreciate the history of the genre so closely identified with African Americans.28 And no matter how oppressed their working class neighborhood might be or how awfully tragic the history of Ireland, they personally were never denied the right to vote, never were shot with water cannons, never had police dogs set upon them as they struggled for basic civil rights. From this point of view, late capitalism has done its job of fully commodifying all markers of identity: in this critical take on postmodern culture, you buy your identity and discard it like yesterday’s no-longer-fashionable clothes when you get bored or your band breaks up. Doyle’s genius here is that he doesn’t answer the thorny questions he raises for readers regarding the politics of artistic style. Rather, he eloquently poses them, challenging us to decide how we feel about the way we simultaneously use and are used by popular culture in our quest to define ourselves. Mirroring the questions of identity raised in The Commitments, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995) crucially interrogates pop music as the locus for exploring self and how one positions oneself in contemporary culture in relation to the question of art. Although the pop/rock musician who creates such art had already figured as a character in such important novels as Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street (1973), Hornby’s work is arguably the most important novel about the consumption of such music and how that music can be understood as fundamental to the construction of one’s identity.29 Early in the novel, Rob Fleming, a 30-something record store clerk ruminating on the recent departure of his long-time girlfriend, Laura, wonders about the profound self-reflexivity of gauging one’s attitudes about love and life when those attitudes have been filtered and enforced by the narrative structures of pop music: What came first—the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person? People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don’t know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they’ve been listening to the sad songs longer than they’ve been living the unhappy lives.30

It isn’t just that pop music turns out to be the salve for the broken heart or perhaps the fuel for the anger; Rob makes the case for a kind of circularity where one might be destined for a broken heart precisely because of the way pop music has trained us to



identify and think about love in certain ways.31 And Hornby’s novel is loaded with metaphors for this kind of endless spinning. As Mikko Keskinen notes: “That Rob hopes to start again, rather than anew, seems to suggest, in the context of his audiophile interests, an inevitable replay of the same record. Playing the record, the matrix of Rob’s love life, implies being stuck in the same groove, no matter how well it is cleaned.”32 This circularity is something that Rob is supposed to overcome by the novel’s end, as Hornby structures the narrative so that Rob’s self-reflexive obsession with music reflects his inability to move past his music-tainted nostalgia for the past and into proper maturity—as always, evinced in the novel’s narrative drive toward what Stanley Cavell has elsewhere called a comedy of remarriage.33 In the end, Rob moves beyond his self-obsessions and learns how to forgo his circular vision of misery, to put his girlfriend Laura’s desires in front of his own, and to become half of a proper couple again—this time with a future.34 At least, that’s one way to read the 30-something Bildungsroman structure of the novel, and is certainly a reading that Stephen Frears’s film adaptation (2000) reinforces by giving viewers an unambiguous romantic ending, replete with Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” in case we had doubts about the couple’s future. But to treat the novel as a romantic comedy in which the recordcollecting male has to grow up out of his obsessions is to discount the many insights into our relationship with pop culture that Hornby relates through Rob. If it’s true that Rob and his mates are ultimately supposed to learn the lesson that it’s not what you like, but what you are like that matters, the novel never successfully shakes its seductive opening gambit that there is no going back after we’ve breathed in the oxygen of popular culture, that it shapes us and directs us in ways that are inseparable from our sense of self. Granted, such an evolution of self to greater or lesser degree depends on the level of obsession, but Rob’s philosophical and romantic quandaries are never quite overcome. Indeed, in a key moment in the novel (filmed, but oddly edited out of the final cut of the film), Rob goes to visit a woman’s home because she has some records that she wants to sell. It turns out that the records are not hers, but, rather, her husband’s—an obviously devout record collector. He has run off to Spain with one of her daughter’s friends, and she wants to sell them at the lowest price possible to spite him. It’s a crucial scene for a couple of reasons. First, this moment reflects back on Rob’s own situation with Laura: he is, obviously, a record collector as well and his partner has left him for what seem like similar reasons. At one point, the wife says that her husband called himself a musician, but that “he just sponges off me and sits around on his fat arse staring at record labels” (Hornby, 79). This is similar to what we intimate throughout the beginning of the novel as part of the reason for Laura’s departure. More importantly, though, the scene reveals that, for Rob, the collection itself speaks for the man’s values. While he can certainly hear what sounds like a troubling scenario, he nonetheless insists on paying full value for the collections—a funny backwards negotiation ensues as he argues to pay more while she argues to get less. Ultimately, he refuses to purchase one of the most amazing record collections he’s ever seen because he won’t pay that little for it. Even though he makes off with one Otis Redding single that he pays much


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

more for than she asks, he winds up asking himself: “[H]ow come I ended up siding with the bad guy, the man who’s left his wife and taken himself off to Spain with some nymphette? . . . All I can see is that guy’s face when he gets his pathetic check through the mail and I can’t help but feel desperately, painfully sorry for him” (Hornby, 80). On one hand, this is a moment of self-reflection for Rob about what his own collection means to him versus his own partner’s feelings; on the other, this is a question not just about monetary value, but about moral justice. Even though he notes his unease with siding “with the bad guy,” this is one of the key moments of the novel where Rob equates the accretion and curation of pop culture with moral value. How can he be a bad guy with a collection like that? Something is askew and Rob cannot square the possibility that such a collection could be curated by someone without moral values. It is with these stakes that the novel tilts its hand to reveal the ways that moral value and aesthetic judgment are conflated in Rob’s view of the world. This maneuver bolsters threads laid out in Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction (1984) insofar as pop music itself becomes the space for Rob and his record store cohorts to distinguish with righteous zeal those who have good taste and those who accept the bourgeois aesthetics of mainstream music. If Bourdieu’s main claim is that taste is something that is created and wholly manufactured by cultural elites in order to keep a certain order to social classes, then the way that Rob deploys his ideas about the role of musical taste is a productive corollary for understanding how Rob comes to see his own taste as the moral and aesthetic judgment of his particular socioeconomic cohort. Hence, there is value to being an expert in something with such high stakes.35 Despite the recent spate of new popular music departments (especially in the UK), Hornby’s novel itself testifies to what kinds of knowledge are considered valuable precisely because of their status as either high or low art objects. Rob is no less a scholar of pop music than an English professor of literature, but one of those sets of knowledge is more highly prized because of its association with high art. And if Rob’s expertise already breaks down these high and low art distinctions that are so characteristic of postmodern works, then Hornby’s novel makes a strong case for taking such “low art” very seriously. And this is why, in the novel at least, we cannot see the ending as an abandonment or shaming of Rob’s expertise in the name of re-coupling and growing up. To begin: it doesn’t seem at all unambiguous that Rob and Laura, even if temporarily together, will continue on without Rob falling into some of the same spirals that we see him spin in throughout the novel. The novel is a study of stasis: even the treasured Sid James Experience album that is finally sold, an indicator that things might move forward, is returned soon after (Hornby, 53). Rather, what seems important to emphasize is the way Rob renews how he sees music rather than grows out of what it means to him. Here is the moment, the last lines of the novel, that he realizes what music means to Laura when he is DJing and plays a particular song that she likes: “When Laura hears the opening bars she spins round and grins and makes several thumbs-up signs, and I start to compile in my head a compilation tape for her, something that’s full of stuff she’s heard of, and full of stuff she’d play. Tonight, for the first time ever, I can sort of see how it’s done” (Hornby, 323). It is, certainly, a move away from Rob’s self-centered view,



but this is also a song that Rob likes; it still fits within his aesthetic judgment and one can be sure that, if Rob gets around to making that tape, it won’t include the Donald Fagen or Junior Wells albums she gave back to him (Hornby, 211), but it also certainly won’t include songs that Rob—even though he’s “grown up”—finds distasteful. Instead, the emphasis should be placed on Rob’s recognition that music is as much about community and communication as it is about obsessive self-reflection. He met Laura as a DJ, as a person who listens to and watches others communicate through music, and now he’s seemingly regained her by DJing again—intimating that his need for and recognition of communication has returned. *



As evidenced in the complex narrativizing of music culture in Doyle’s The Commitments and Hornby’s High Fidelity, no genre of pop music—despite the use of “pop” as a pejorative by the high art crowd—has ever carried a stable and universal meaning, or at least not for long. Write in Tune aims to explore how some of these meanings are configured by reading music-saturated fiction in various contexts, from the consumer frenzy of 1980s America to the media-saturated markets of Latinidad, to rural western Australia, to postcolonial England. Along the way, the book reckons with key themes: the struggle for individuation inside a mass consumer culture; the power of local or regional music to create scenes; the ability of broadly commercial music to marginalize those local scenes; the ways that music can provide a filter through which certain groups understand themselves within society; and the nostalgia evoked by music that rekindles aspirations or reminds us of our younger selves and our failures. The novels consider how popular music can serve immigrants as a way into or out of a national culture, remind us of and sometimes help enforce expectations for our gender roles, and even reflect—as the most highly valued cultural productions do—on their own function as art. In their various ways, then, the essays in this volume all grapple with the promises music whispers into the ears of listeners, the way it ensnares us with stereotypes or beguiles us with dreams of who we might be—if we only heed the tune.

Notes 1 Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 68. 2 See Anthony DeCurtis’s take on this simile in his foreword to Reading Rock and Roll: “[I]t suggests virtues that rock writing should achieve. Rock criticism should take inspirations from its subject but at the same time be completely distinct from it. It should aspire to a similar level of artistic achievement. It should be sensual, physical, and smart. And ultimately it should be able to stand on its own terms without requiring the stature or notoriety of its subject to justify itself ” (Anthony DeCurtis, viii). 3 See Kevin J. H. Dettmar’s Is Rock Dead?, which explores issues surrounding the many pronouncements of rock ’n’ roll’s demise, but also links those discussions to similar


4 5 6

7 8 9

10 11 12 13 14 15



Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction ones being had about literature. See also Richard Middleton’s “The ‘Problem’ of Popular Music,” in which he delineates the culture wars regarding music during the postmodern era. The best example of this reading of postmodern art is still Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” 104. While Benjamin saw revolutionary potential in the technological reproduction of art, the 20th century also brought the commercialization and industrialization of producing art to be reproduced. See Simon Frith’s excellent “The Industrialization of Music.” See Marc Fisher’s Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation. New York, NY: Random House, 2007. Rachlin, The Encyclopedia of the Music Business, 316. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey found that 65 percent of Americans say they listen to rock “sometimes” or “often,” making it the first choice of music for two-thirds of listeners and well ahead of other genres, including country, rap, jazz, R&B, and classical. The study goes on to note that the only age group that does not rate rock first as the genre of choice is adults over 65. See Paul Taylor and Richard Morin, “Forty Years after Woodstock, a Gentler Generation Gap.” For an important reading of the role of gender politics in pop music, see Angela McRobbie’s “Settling Accounts with Subcultures: A Feminist Critique.” Kureishi and Savage, The Faber Book of Pop, xix–xx. See Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, in which he argues that these high and low art distinctions are maintained primarily as a mode of social class domination. Pater, “The School of Gorgione,” 106. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 14, 15. Calvin Brown’s Music and Literature—A Comparison of the Arts devotes chapters to sonata and rondo forms and literary leitmotivs, for example, while editors Jean-Pierre Barricelli, Joseph Gibaldi, and Estellat Lauter, in Teaching Literature and Other Arts, include a section on music and literature that offers model classes focusing on works by Mozart, Wagner, Thomas Mann, and Shakespeare, with only cursory reference to Bob Dylan and the tradition of “political” song. Although we might be tempted to think that the state of literary music studies has changed, particularly with the advent of “melopoietics” as a distinctive name for this field of study in the 1980s, the major scholars in the area still generally eschew pop music. Barricelli’s Melopoiesis, for example, contains discussion of figures such as Zweig, Mazzini, Balzac, Proust, and Wagner—with only one chapter devoted to a contemporary writer, concerning Beethoven and Anthony Burgess. For his part, Stephen Benson directly claims that his book Literary Music is “concerned with the representation of music, Western art music in particular, in contemporary fiction and theory” (Benson, 3). Only Gerry Smyth, in part two of his Music in Contemporary British Fiction, has offered focused attention to the cultural questions surrounding popular music: though interested mainly in questions regarding musical genres and the genres of fiction, he does consider broad themes such as history, nostalgia, silence, and love in a number of recent British novels. Tricia Rose has done important work in illuminating how music can foster and ground a sense of racial identity in her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America.



18 Doyle, The Commitments, 2–3. 19 Kunz, “Alan Parker’s Adaptation of The Commitments,” 54–55. 20 For a reading of how the subversive language of the text (the cursing, the humor, the representation of music on the page, and even the sparseness of Doyle’s narration) can be read as a response to English colonial discourse, see Lorraine Piroux, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” 21 The Commitments, directed by Alan Parker. 22 This quotation has become the subject of a contentious debate in Irish postcolonial studies. See Lorraine Piroux, “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” for a reading that supports a complex vision of postcolonial identity: Piroux argues that, rather than relying on essentialist notions of Irish identity grounded in tradition and myth, Doyle’s novel “re-invent[s] identity as an on-going process of hybridization” to undermine colonialist discourse. Conversely, calling Jimmy “a most dubious harbinger of postcolonial solidarity,” Lisa McGonigle argues that the “concept of ‘Dublin Soul’ is systematically derided . . . throughout the novel” and that “Jimmy’s political pretensions are a source of comedy within the text and are dispensed with a great deal of authorial irony” (McGonigle, 170). It is worth noting that McGonigle ignores all evidence to the contrary: the band dresses and performs the music with a sincerity hardly undercut by their verbal irony. 23 We might note here as well that Jimmy judges potential band members on one quality: their influences (Doyle, 21). 24 Jimmy’s stylistic vision here is perhaps more prescient than his concept of Dublin soul. “Cowpunk” emerged as subgenre in the United States in the early 1980s, with bands such as Jason and the Scorchers, The Blasters, and The Rave-Ups playing precisely the kind of hybrid of country and punk that Jimmy describes. 25 Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, 26. 26 As Mary McGlynn notes, the fact that “ ‘soul,’ initially a catchword for all things the Commitments deemed desirable, is replaced by, ‘country punk’, may imply that, for the Commitments, a doctrine or a philosophy is basically a vacant vessel to be filled with whatever you want, a statement that problematizes Jimmy’s postcolonial rhetoric as well” (McGlynn, 246). 27 For an extended analysis of the purported but ultimately futile political engagement of the narrative (in both novel and film), see Timothy Taylor, “Living in a Postcolonial World: Class and Soul in The Commitments.” For a reading of Doyle’s narrative against the backdrop of American popular culture and globalized capitalism, see M. Keith Booker, “Late Capitalism Comes to Dublin: ‘American’ Popular Culture in the Novels of Roddy Doyle.” 28 For a point of comparison, we might look to the severe criticism of white English musicians in the 1960s who embarked on careers as British bluesmen, adopting the attitudes and music (particularly the guitar styles) of black Americans. Eric Clapton has been singled out for particular censure in this regard. See George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, and Ulrich Adelt, “Trying to Find an Identity: Eric Clapton’s Changing Conception of ‘Blackness.’ ” 29 Indeed, this has been suggested by Kevin J. H. Dettmar in “ ‘High Fidelity’: The Use and Misuse of Music for Life,” B11. 30 Hornby, High Fidelity, 24–25.


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31 As Dettmar notes: “The novel is an intelligent investigation of what happens when your life is ‘scored’ by rock ’n’ roll—how its narratives are incorporated into the deep structure of a rock fan’s life” (Dettmar, B11). 32 Keskinen, “Single, Long-Playing, and Compilations,” 5. 33 See Cavell’s work on films from the 1930s and 1940s in Pursuits of Happiness: The Comedies of Remarriage. 34 Scott Stalcup reads Rob’s obsession with music as a kind of addiction that can be paralleled with Mark Renton’s heroin addiction in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993): “[Rob’s] own life is so bankrupt he has to borrow scenarios from Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Pop cultural allusions run rampant in High Fidelity as that is the high, the addiction of Rob Fleming and his fellow addicts” (Stalcup, 124). While Stalcup sees Rob’s obsessions in this negative light of “bankrupt” ideas, I would instead turn toward thinking through the opening ideas with which Rob begins his narrative. There is a profound way that pop culture has affected the very way we look at the world—and this has little to do with whether Rob has an addiction to music that he must overcome. 35 Barry Faulk makes a good case for the class issues at stake in High Fidelity: “Clearly, rock appreciation is demanding and melancholy work, which serves to isolate its adepts from an untutored mass. Thus formulated, the popular can then be wielded as a weapon in the distinctly late-modern class war: it empowers by shaming and excluding the novice” (Faulk, 154).

Bibliography Adelt, Ulrich. “Trying to Find an Identity: Eric Clapton’s Changing Conception of ‘Blackness.’ ” Popular Music and Society 31, no. 4 (Oct. 2008): 433–52. Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. Melopoiesis: Approaches to the Study of Literature and Music. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1988. Barricelli, Jean-Pierre, Joseph Gibaldi, and Estellat Lauter, eds. Teaching Literature and Other Arts. New York, NY: MLA, 1990. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” In Selected Writings. Volume 3: 1935–38, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 101–33. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. Benson, Stephen. Literary Music: Writing Music in Contemporary Fiction. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. Booker, M. Keith. “Late Capitalism Comes to Dublin: ‘American’ Popular Culture in the Novels of Roddy Doyle.” Ariel 28, no. 3 (July 1997): 27–45. Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction, translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. Brown, Calvin S. Music and Literature—A Comparison of the Arts. New York, NY: Thompson, 2008. Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Comedies of Remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. The Commitments. Directed by Alan Parker. Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox, 1991. DVD.



DeCurtis, Anthony. “Foreword: Dancing About Architecture.” In Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics, edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar and William Richey, vii–x. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999. Dettmar, Kevin J. H. “High Fidelity: the Use and Misuse of Music for Life.” Chronicle of Higher Education 46, no. 33 (April 21, 2000): B11–B12. ———. Is Rock Dead? New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. Doyle, Roddy. The Commitments. New York, NY: Vintage, 1987. Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In Selected Essays, 13–22. London: Faber, 1999. Faulk, Barry. “Love and Lists in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.” Cultural Critique 66 (Spring 2007): 153–76. Fisher, Marc. Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation. New York, NY: Random House, 2007. Frith, Simon. “The Industrialization of Music.” In The Popular Music Studies Reader, edited by Andy Bennett, Barry Shank, and Jason Toynbee, 231–38. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. High Fidelity. Directed by Stephen Frears. Los Angeles, CA: Touchstone, 2000. DVD. Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity. New York, NY: Riverhead, 1995. Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York, NY: Routledge, 1988. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodern or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990. Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or. New York, NY: Penguin, 2004. Keskinen, Mikko. “Single, Long-Playing, and Compilation: The Formats of Audio and Amorousness in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.” Critique 47, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 3–21. Kunz, Don. “Alan Parker’s Adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments.” Literature Film Quarterly 29, no. 1 (2001): 53–7. Kureishi, Hanif, and Jon Savage, eds. The Faber Book of Pop. London, England: Faber & Faber, 2002. Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University, 2006. McGlynn, Mary. “Why Jimmy Wears a Suit: White, Black, and Working Class in The Commitments.” Studies in the Novel 36, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 232–50. McGonigle, Lisa. “Rednecks and Southsiders Need Not Apply.” Irish Studies Review 13, no. 2 (2005): 163–73. McRobbie, Angela. “Settling Accounts with Subcultures: A Feminist Critique.” In On the Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, 66–80. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1990. Middleton, Richard. “The ‘Problem’ of Popular Music.” In Musical Belongings: Selected Essays. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. Pater, Walter. “The School of Gorgione.” In The Renaissance, 102–22, edited by Donald L. Hill, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Piroux, Lorraine. “I’m Black and I’m Proud: Re-inventing Irishness in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments.” College Literature 25, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 45–58. Rachlin, Harvey. The Encyclopedia of the Music Business. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1981.


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Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan/New England University Press, 1994. Smyth, Gerry. Music in Contemporary British Fiction: Listening to the Novel. London, England: Palgrave, 2008. Stalcup, Scott. “Trainspotting, High Fidelity, and the Diction of Addiction.” Studies in Popular Culture 30, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 119–35. Taylor, Paul and Richard Morin, “Forty Years after Woodstock, a Gentler Generation Gap.” Pew Research Center. Last modified August 12, 2009. http://www.pewsocialtrends. org/2009/08/12/forty-years-after-woodstockbra-gentler-generation-gap/. Taylor, Timothy D. “Living in a Postcolonial World: Class and Soul in The Commitments.” Irish Studies Review 6, no. 3 (1998): 291–302.

Part One

Negotiating Pop Styles




More Than Zero Post-Punk Ideology (and Its Rejection) in Bret Easton Ellis Matthew Luter

More than any other literary fiction of its time, Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel Less Than Zero (1985) revels not only in the presence of pop music in its characters’ sun-soaked lives, but also in the variety of artifacts and discourses that surround being part of a local music scene. Ellis isn’t just writing about MTV-era new wave and a particularly privileged set of young listeners here; he’s writing about Los Angeles music, and L.A. post-punk of the early 1980s at that. While at home over Christmas break from a small Northeastern college, Ellis’s main character Clay finds himself drawn back into his old friends’ lifestyle of casual sex, drug use, and pornography, and all the while, of-themoment music and discussion of it stays prominent. Less Than Zero places great emphasis not on “rock and roll” as an idea or an expressive form in a general way, but on a localized scene, a fairly specific set of rock subgenres, and a highly present-minded set of characters from a particular cultural milieu. As a result, Ellis’s novel depicts a particular set of ideological concerns, questions them, and, via Clay’s decisions in the book’s final pages, winds up rejecting a dominant ideology of superficial, privileged self-indulgence—at least in part. While many critics have discussed the presence of rock music in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, most such writing about this sun-soaked novel of the privileged young has approached rock as an uncomplicated, monolithic, and destructive phenomenon. We should be unsurprised, most of the book’s earliest reviews suggest, that these infantile Los Angelenos seem callous and cold-blooded, given that they assault their ears with this dreck. Instead, I will propose here that reading Ellis’s use of post-punk and early alternative rock (alt-rock) in a more ideologically sophisticated manner— alongside the work of pop critic/historians such as Michael Azerrad and Simon Reynolds as well as sociologist of youth culture Dick Hebdige—reveals that musical allusions in Ellis’s novel are more than background noise. Those references are also ideological signifiers, as many artists mentioned by Ellis’s characters produce work that incorporates (usually leftist) political discourse. Consequently, I argue that we cannot read these characters as naïvely apolitical—they 19


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consistently expose themselves to ideological argument, albeit through KROQ and not Nightline. For example, many have observed that the novel takes its title from an Elvis Costello song, but few have investigated the significance of the song’s antifascist lyrics. Similarly, references to the L.A. punk band X permeate the novel, including a description of the song “Los Angeles” that seems to spur the novel’s narrator to leave town in the book’s final pages. Close attention to that song, like others that these characters mention (and still others that they reject, or recall enjoying only retrospectively), will illuminate these characters’ worldview. I acknowledge that Ellis’s characters are rarely aware of just how politically nuanced this music is, but, crucially, Ellis is keenly aware of these nuances. As a result, musical references are intentionally chosen in order to reveal authorial judgments of these characters. Instead of dismissing appearances of pop music in Less Than Zero as irrelevant or beneath comment, I propose that taking seriously the embedded meanings of this deliberately catalogued music leads to a fuller understanding of just what this novel and its characters are choosing to embrace and to reject. We must not assume that a novel lacks ideological depth simply because most of its characters lack that depth. *



Existing criticism of Less Than Zero has been perceptive with regard to form, but, I would argue, less so with regard to content. Both contemporary reviews of Ellis’s novel and later criticism frequently compare the book’s form to the aesthetics of quick-cut 1980s television, but they don’t necessarily mean it as a compliment. In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani refers to the book’s “fast-paced, video-like clips,”1 while an unsigned New Republic review claims that, “Reading it is like watching MTV,” pointing out the novel’s “brief, videoesque vignettes,” each “[w]ritten in the inarticulate style of a petulant suburban punk.”2 Less dismissively, in a landmark critical essay on television’s influence on 1980s fiction, Cecelia Tichi uses Less Than Zero as a prime example of a novel that values what she calls “flow” over linear narrative. Works like Ellis’s “do not begin; they simply start, as if turned on or come upon.”3 As a result, she argues, “readers are made to feel that, instead of a beginning, there is a point of entry” (Tichi, 121). Consequently, reading the famously fragmented Less Than Zero, with its sudden chapter openings and endings and abrupt entrances and exits of minor characters, bears less resemblance to the traditional realist novel than it does to that distinctly cable-era mode of TV viewing, channel surfing. But as much as characters in Less Than Zero are depicted watching television— usually MTV—they spend even more time listening to music, discussing it, noticing who’s wearing which band’s T-shirt, and figuring out what act is playing where and when. All of this information is deeply tied to its place and time. In response, Alan Bilton contends that, as Less Than Zero has aged, it “has also become increasingly abstract” (Bilton, 201): If you don’t recognize the logo or the label, then the signs no longer signify anything (beyond being badges of pure consumerism) floating free across the

Post-Punk Ideology (and Its Rejection) in Bret Easton Ellis


page. With each passing year, the work becomes more weightless, intangible, evacuated of meaning.4

If Bilton is right, he is correct only in a quite limited way; I would counter that his claim is true only for the reader who is uninterested in the politics of the popular. Less Than Zero can still be read fruitfully by someone who doesn’t recognize every band name in the book, an assertion to which anyone who has taught the novel to students born well after its publication can attest. But there is a cohesive and developing ideology attached to Ellis’s specific uses of musical signifiers throughout the text, and in order to fully grasp that ideological meaning, a reader must accept that those signifiers are singularly and intentionally selected by the author. In other words, what Bilton doesn’t fully acknowledge is that not all namedrops of rock bands are created equal. Reading this novel as profoundly ideologically motivated, then, requires letting go of some rather stereotypical (and not particularly enlightening) ways of approaching rock music in literary criticism. In other words, if we approach, say, the two epigraphs of the novel—lyrics from Led Zeppelin and from X—with knowledge that, while both are rock bands, broadly speaking, the two artists represent quite different things to Ellis’s characters, then we wind up seeing cultural forces in conflict that are both more subtle and more critically revelatory than any easy contrast between “literature” and “pop,” or “rock” and “non-rock.” For example: a footnote in Peter Freese’s article on Less Than Zero reads, “Among the numerous rock singers and bands referred to in the novel the following were identified as actually existing.”5 Granted, Freese’s essay appeared well before the early-1990s entry of so-called “alternative” music into the mainstream or the ability to track down data about any band via the web, and, he allows, “the traditional literary critic has a hard time unraveling the significance of rock lyrics” (Freese, 69). But an unperceptive comment like Freese’s highlights how this novel—and, for that matter, any number of other pop-centric texts—benefits from criticism attuned to the subtle ideological, aesthetic, and political meanings of even the most banal-seeming artifacts of youth culture. And it helps to recognize that nearly all popular culture, but youth culture in particular, moves fast: indeed, Clay describes his promo poster for Trust as advertising for “an old Elvis Costello record,” one released way back in 1981, a whole four years prior to the novel’s publication (Ellis, 11). In reading Less Than Zero well, one must be prepared to explicate these references usefully; otherwise, it becomes all too easy to make unfounded assumptions about how those characters respond to and use the music they consume. Moreover, such assumptions lead to stereotypes regarding how damaging the music allegedly is. Freese also refers to Ellis’s quick mention of “The Earthquake Song” by the Little Girls, a (basically harmless) minor local hit by a bubble-gummy girl group, as “hilariously tasteless” and surprisingly not “the author’s outrageous invention” (Freese, 86). He also offers a catalog of song titles mentioned in the novel that imply violence, pornography, or doomed romance, but to readers who know the music well, most of his examples appear rather innocuous (Freese, 78). Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf ” or Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” to Ellis’s characters and to loads of nostalgic listeners alike,


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are just good dance tracks. Yes, the Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered” gets namechecked, but when literary critics engage in apocalyptic hand-wringing over the content of the music that these kids seem to dig, they sometimes lose sight of the fact— not, I would hasten to add, lost on many listeners to this music—that, for instance, the Clash might actually be . . . you know, anti-murder. (I’d apply the same line of thinking to X’s “Sex and Dying in High Society” and “Adult Books,” also noted by name elsewhere in the text.) Moralizing critics also run the risk of sounding like the alarmist televangelists Clay describes with ridicule: “two guys, priests, preachers maybe, on the screen, forty, maybe forty-five, wearing business suits and ties, pink-tinted sunglasses, talking about Led Zeppelin records, saying that, if they’re played backwards, they ‘possess alarming passages about the devil’ ” (Ellis, 87). Freese, like so many others, gets right that Ellis mimics the aesthetic of MTV. But his take on the music of Less Than Zero is marred by its treatment of rock as a monolithic phenomenon; he offers unchecked suspicion of the surely deleterious effect of this music—at best, trashy and, at worst, immoral—on these young people, but pays little attention to why Ellis may have chosen a particular piece of music for a particular purpose. Of course, to dismiss the importance of pop music by painting it with such a broad brush is also to ignore how ideologically sophisticated it can be. Much critical writing about punk and post-punk music acknowledges this complexity. As Michael Azerrad puts it in his landmark study of American early alt-rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life, “doing an end run around the Powers That Be will always have an inherent ideological spin.”6 He’s referring specifically to indie bands’ decisions to embrace punk-era, do-ityourself aesthetics and reject alignment with major labels, but I would suggest that his claim could apply to a wide variety of tactics musicians use to position themselves intentionally outside of the mainstream, whether on a major label or not. Simon Reynolds, in Rip It Up and Start Again, agrees, extending Azerrad’s claim about the ideology of DIY creativity to include more overtly political positions. Writing particularly about British post-punk, Reynolds argues that the music “tapped into the political zeitgeist. Especially in the three years from 1978–80 . . . Britain saw a resurgence of far-Right and neo-fascist parties, both in electoral politics and in the bloody form of street violence.”7 As a result, much post-punk exists in an “increasingly out-of-sync relationship with the broader culture, which was veering toward the Right” (Reynolds, 7). Combine the anti-corporate stance of the DIY aesthetic and post-punk’s natural outsider status with a growing sense—both in Thatcher’s UK and Reagan’s USA—that the world at large is turning conservative, and post-punk begins to appear a distinctly leftist musical force. That said, Reynolds argues that post-punk is too ideologically crafty—or sophisticated—to be aligned stridently with a single position. Many post-punk bands, he notes, “abandoned tell-it-like-it-is denunciation for lyrics that exposed and dramatized the mechanisms of power in everyday life” (Reynolds, 6). Reynolds locates overtly political content more frequently in music from the slightly earlier punk era, while claiming that post-punk artists “were usually made uncomfortable by calls to solidarity or toeing the party line. They saw the plainspoken demagoguery of overtly politicized musicians of the era . . . as far too literal and unaesthetic, and found their soapbox

Post-Punk Ideology (and Its Rejection) in Bret Easton Ellis


sermonizing both condescending to the listener and, most of the time, a pointless exercise in ‘preaching to the converted’ ” (Reynolds, 6). With all of this in mind, locating the ideology in post-punk music becomes a difficult task, though, as Reynolds rightly points out, in divining the ideology of such conceptually slippery music, it often helps to contrast post-punk with the music (and concurrent beliefs) that preceded it. Pop music from California has frequently depicted an inherent tension between a sun-soaked landscape and an underlying sense of dread. In literature, this theme goes back at least as far as the grotesqueries of Nathanael West’s vision of Hollywood in The Day of the Locust (1939) and re-appears in texts like Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) and oft-cited Ellis influence Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970). Within the body of criticism on Less Than Zero, Graham Caveney explains Ellis’s awareness of California music as a distinct sub-tradition in American pop history, arguing that “representations of the West Coast seem inevitably to combine dark intimations of disaster with the ‘sun, sea and tax revolts’ image of the city and consumer paradise.”8 Despite Caveney’s accurate description of these themes, pre-punk California music reads to Ellis’s characters as ancient history. In contextualizing the early recordings of pioneering hardcore band Black Flag (who, it is important to note, is not mentioned in Less Than Zero), Azerrad describes California circa 1980 thus: “Los Angeles wasn’t a sun-splashed utopia anymore—it was an alienated, smog-choked sprawl rife with racial and class tensions, recession, and stifling boredom” (Azerrad, 22). Sunnier and more idealistic baby-boomer-approved California pop records— songs of peaceful easy feelings and ladies of the canyon from the likes of the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne—epitomize the musical aesthetic against which Clay and his milieu define themselves throughout the novel. Rather consistently, Ellis employs pop music that predates the punk era during scenes in which Clay and his friends have no control over what they hear. The Eagles are background music in the waiting room of an emergency room; near the book’s end, Clay recalls listening to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac in his parents’ car (Ellis, 12, 192). In between, his father plays Bob Seger in the car with him “as if this was some sort of weird gesture of communication” (Ellis, 42). The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac are again playing during an italicized flashback during which Clay learns to drive, but any attempt to read the scene as idyllically nostalgic is frustrated by the image Clay sees of a car on fire as “a Mexican woman was sitting on the curb, on the side of the highway, crying” (Ellis, 75–6). When Clay visits a drug connection named Rip, he notices, “There’s an old, expensively framed poster of The Beach Boys hanging over Rip’s bed and I stare at it trying to remember which one died” (Ellis, 50). In other words, this definitive California band is now a museum piece, something quasi-archival, and Clay’s only relationship to them is a morbid one. Clay later notes, “KROQ is playing old Doors’ songs and War of the Worlds is on channel thirteen,” casting another essential California rock band as something technically available to him but unmistakably of the past, akin to the latenight creature-feature (Ellis, 78). Genuinely positive nostalgia does get attached to two more italicized flashback scenes in which Clay recalls his grandparents, but the music there is entirely non-rock: two standards, “Summer Wind” and “On the Sunny Side of


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the Street”; the implication is that Clay can identify something to enjoy in music of the past if he looks multiple generations back, but not if he stops at the music of his parents’ youth (Ellis, 145–64). For further demonstration of how Ellis positions older music as irrelevant to Clay, consider Less Than Zero’s twin epigraphs, both taken from pop songs. From “The Have Nots,” a standout track on X’s third record Under the Big Black Sun (1982), Ellis borrows the line, “This is the game that moves as you play.” From the rock-radio classic “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin comes, “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West” (Ellis, 7). These lines are juxtaposed in the strictest sense of the word. We should take them to be a bit ironic, as Ellis deliberately sets the two lines against each other; they must not be read as simply two pieces of two pop songs. Clay and his friends associate boomer-era classic rock mainstays such as Led Zep with the past—after all, they’re things that can be enjoyed, maybe a bit ironically, but with the distance of retrospection or even slumming. X, on the other hand, is a local band, and, crucially, a current one. The contrast gets even clearer for informed readers who know the X song. In the liner notes to a re-release of Under the Big Black Sun, Kristine McKenna calls it “an ode to working-class bars that took root while the band was stranded in the middle of nowhere in Iowa.”9 The song’s characters are literally have-nots, blue-collar taverngoers unlike Ellis’s champagne-swigging rich kids; for the reader who knows this, the quotation is simultaneously apt (in its emphasis on instability) and ironic (in locating that instability only in the world of the less privileged). However, in contrast with Led Zeppelin’s dewy-eyed mysticism, there’s something in the X song’s clear-eyed fatalism that appears to connect with the novel’s characters. (After all, X and its members get mentioned throughout the novel, while Led Zeppelin is never heard from again in the book.) Stewart Mason writes of “The Have Nots,” “The song’s end, when John Doe and Exene Cervenka are spitting out the names of taverns in a stream of consciousness blur akin to driving too fast down a neon-lit strip, has the sort of gritty urban poetry producer Ray Manzarek’s old dead buddy Jim Morrison never could have managed.”10 In this description, Mason links X’s lyrics to Tichi’s idea of “flow” while contrasting X with the L.A. rock of the 1960s. In other words, Ellis uses these two quotations to introduce the book as being a study in contrasts. Welcome to the world of X, our author-guide tells us, a borderline-nihilistic L.A. the rules of which will never get spelled out for you. And on the way in, kiss goodbye the classic rock you know and its hippie-era sloganeering: the feeling Clay gets when he looks to the west—back home and away from college—is one of dread. Of course, no discussion of the use of pop allusions in Less Than Zero is complete without considering the novel’s title: Ellis borrows the title of a key track from British new-waver Elvis Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True (1977). The song, Costello recalls, was “written after seeing the despicable Oswald Mosley being interviewed on BBC television. The former leader of the British Union of Fascists seemed unrepentant about his poisonous actions of the 1930s. The song was more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument.”11 In describing the song, in which a young couple sees Mosley on television while they make out on the sofa at her parents’ house, rock critic Dave Marsh writes, “the singer is only dimly aware that Mosley’s being on TV helps

Post-Punk Ideology (and Its Rejection) in Bret Easton Ellis


explain his own unemployment and lack of housing.”12 Marsh asserts that to ignore the political implications of the song and its title is to miss the point entirely: “This isn’t something I made up. This is what Elvis Costello is singing about. It is something no one would have thought to sing before 1977, and it is a way of thinking that no one who takes pop music seriously can avoid [now]” (Marsh, 142). Marsh’s implication is that this song, a key intertext of Ellis’s novel, has intensely ideological meaning that must be taken into account in any satisfactory discussion of it. Nicki Sahlin, like many critics, reads the song’s presence as pointing to a set of existential dilemmas that Ellis’s characters must face, a “confrontation with absolute nothingness.”13 It’s a valid reading, but one that removes the immediate political meaning from Costello’s lyrics and, I would argue, Ellis’s novel. Freese asserts that Costello depicts “the very atmosphere of a world violently out of joint and drifting towards ultimate chaos,” making Ellis’s choice of title “a programmatic statement which places the book within the wider context of a youthful punk and rock revolt” (Freese, 83). Although Freese rightly emphasizes the important theme of revolution, it’s crucial to recognize that the revolt Costello has in mind—and that Ellis appropriates, at least in the title—is a resistance to oppressive political action in the form of fascism, not just to some ill-defined status quo. Indeed, fascism casts an unlikely but long shadow over Less Than Zero and, for that matter, punk and post-punk music more generally. Reynolds explains that the highly influential Manchester post-punk band Joy Division took their name from a term for women “kept as sex slaves for German troops”; recalls that Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxie and the Banshees “in her early days wore a swastika”; and describes National Front members showing up at post-punk gigs seemingly for no reason other than to pick fights and abuse performers, both verbally and physically (Reynolds, 111, 360, 64–5). Dick Hebdige suggests, though, that fascist imagery appears in punk style largely as a provocation, a set of signifiers intentionally dissociated from their intended meanings: “The punks were not generally sympathetic to the parties of the extreme right. . . . We must resort, then, to the most obvious of explanations—that the swastika was worn because it was guaranteed to shock.”14 Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of the New York punk scene seems to concur, discussing use of the swastika for shock value by members of the Ramones and the Dead Boys.15 At least initially, one striking image in Less Than Zero appears to concur with Hebdige’s argument that fascist imagery doesn’t always connote oppressive beliefs. In one of many party scenes, a friend of Clay’s describes her new house. “She tells us that the house is pretty old,” Clay narrates, “that the guy who owned it before was a Nazi. On the patios, there are these huge pots holding small trees with swastikas painted on them. ‘They’re called Nazi pots,’ Kim says” (Ellis, 79). Later in the novel, Clay notes at the same residence, “The house is still not furnished yet and as I walk out to the pool, I pass the Nazi pots” (Ellis, 146). Even if Hebdige is right that punk style evacuated fascist imagery of its political meaning in order to shock, the nonchalance with which Kim describes the “Nazi pots”—and the fact that they’re still on display fairly prominently when Clay visits the house a second time—should give readers pause. While Hebdige suggests that shocking imagery may be curiously apolitical when employed solely for


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shocking effect, one has to wonder why Kim draws attention to the swastikas when no immediate intent to shock is visible. A few pages later, fascist overtones come into sharper view at another party scene at which people watch a gruesome snuff film that may or may not be real but which disgusts Clay. Before the screening, Clay observes: There are mostly young boys in the house and they seem to be in every room and they all look the same: thin, tan bodies, short blonde hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices, and then I start to wonder if I look exactly like them. (Ellis, 152)

Empty male beauty gets further emphasized at the novel’s end, as Clay’s girlfriend Blair tells him,“You’re a beautiful boy, Clay, but that’s about it” (Ellis, 204). Blair unintentionally echoes the language of an earlier scene in which their friend Julian, who has become a gigolo to support his drug habit, is told by a client, “you’re a very beautiful boy . . . and here, that’s all that matters” (Ellis, 175). In each case, a particularly idealized male bodily form—and one that seems particularly Aryan at that—is made a desirable norm, one so inescapable that Clay feels implicated by resemblance even as he hopes to break free of his milieu’s conformity. Naturally, then, Ellis’s suggestion that it’s impossible for Clay to escape this decadent circle works to demonstrates the extent to which Clay isn’t as fully rebellious as he (or as readers) may prefer, and the extent to which his milieu actually isn’t ideologically post-punk (or ideologically engaged at all) through much of the novel. When actual punks do show up in Less Than Zero, they’re presented as spectacle: Clay describes a partygoer with “really short, spiked blond hair and a Fear T-shirt on and a black leather bracelet strapped to one of his wrists”; elsewhere, he notes punks at a diner “wearing black suits and sunglasses,” “one with a Billy Idol button pinned to his lapel” (Ellis, 50, 61). By comparison, Clay’s knowledge of trendy bands isn’t so much a performance yet of any subcultural identity or ideology as it is a prelude to rebellion, if that. More likely, it only bears the appearance of rebellion, dressed up in ways that may seem to strike back at the mainstream but remain basically acceptable to these rich kids’ complicit parents (and, by extension, the parent culture). Clay may know the right band names and take the right fashion cues, but, indeed, he “always finds himself . . . unable to identify completely”16 with nonconformists around him. We know from Hebdige that subcultural style regularly functions as ideological comment on class, history, and present politics: “[t]he raw material of history could be seen refracted, held and ‘handled’ in the line of a mod’s jacket, in the soles on a teddy boy’s shoes,” he explains (Hebdige, 78). And, as a result, subcultures define themselves through conspicuous consumption—or the lack thereof. Within punk subculture, for instance, “certain types of consumption are conspicuously refused”—say, listening to mainstream Top 40 radio—“and it is through the distinctive rituals of consumption, through style, that the subculture at once reveals its ‘secret’ identity and communicates its forbidden meanings” (Hebdige, 103). But, for Clay’s friends, conspicuous consumption doesn’t

Post-Punk Ideology (and Its Rejection) in Bret Easton Ellis


mean DIY creativity in the form of ripping their own T-shirts; it means getting their parents to take them to Spago. By the conclusion of Less Than Zero, though, conformity is no longer the default position for Clay, at least to a point. To see the evident, albeit tentative, beginnings of some broadening of Clay’s horizons and rejection of conformity, we must return to specific pieces of music within the novel. Near the novel’s end, Clay recalls: The week before I leave, I listen to a song by an L.A. composer about the city. I would listen to the song over and over, ignoring the rest of the album. It wasn’t that I liked the song so much; it was more that it confused me and I would try to decipher it. For instance, I wanted to know why the bum in the song was on his knees. Someone told me that the bum was so grateful to be in the city instead of somewhere else. I told this person that I thought he missed the point and the person told me, in a tone I found slightly conspiratorial, “No, dude . . . I don’t think so.” (Ellis, 193)

The song, of course, is Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” a slick critique of self-satisfied, affluent yuppiedom masquerading as a chamber-of-commerce-ready anthem. Only 15 pages before another song about the city will convince Clay that it’s time to get out of town, he’s finally learning to listen closely to even the most banal-seeming popular culture, ready to “decipher” its barely concealed messages and even, if halfheartedly, defend his interpretation of them. True, Clay hasn’t yet become a fully political thinker—and he owns up to ignoring the rest of Trouble in Paradise (1983), the Newman record that also contains as clear a musical opposition to apartheid as anything that came out of more overtly political pop bands in England—but he’s clearly ready to take the blinders off. They come off more fully in the book’s final pages. Clay narrates: There was a song I heard when I was in Los Angeles by a local group. The song was called “Los Angeles” and the words and images were so harsh and bitter that the song would reverberate in my mind for days. The images, I later found out, were personal and no one I knew shared them. The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. (Ellis, 207)

Several important things are happening here. First, the song is “Los Angeles,” from the album of the same name (1980) by the L.A. band X, referenced throughout the book. The song’s focal character “had to get out” of the city, apparently due in large part to her disdain for “every Mexican that gave her a lotta shit / every homosexual and the idle rich,” among others, and by song’s end, we’re told, “she bought a Glock on Hollywood Boulevard the day she left.”17 But what’s crucial here is that, for the first time, Clay is aligning himself in some way with a piece of music that critiques his own milieu. Like many X listeners, I read the


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

song as a critique of its main character’s worldview, especially her racism, not as anything close to an endorsement of it. More importantly, Clay has for the first time here developed his own mental images to accompany a piece of pop music. Yes, it’s a bit old hat by now to critique MTV for stealing from listeners the ability to create their own imagined visuals to accompany their experiences of music. That said, given the omnipresence of music video in this novel, Clay’s act of imagination here, however gruesome, must be read as an act of individual will and individual interpretation. He’s listening to current pop music, interpreting it, letting it alter his worldview, however slightly, and then basing an action on it: he leaves town, apparently to get away from people like the song’s character or from his own imagination’s “teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun” (Ellis, 208). Annesley is correct only to a point in arguing that, at the book’s end, “mass cultural allusions provide Clay’s ‘only point of reference’ [and] it is popular culture that gives Clay a way of understanding his situation” (Annesley, 99). What’s key here is that the ultimate points of reference are images of Clay’s own creation. They’re not the images of the song’s lyrics at all, and as a result, they can be read as a creative and critical act, however small. Having established Clay’s limited act of creation complete, though, my argument about the complexities of the music that Ellis references does not require the conclusion that this book’s well-heeled and well-tanned postadolescents must be more politically astute than once thought. The characters’ apparent rejection of interest in the subtexts of this music may well reveal unkind truths about their shallowness; indeed, major California bands of the day with unmistakably overt leftist politics (e.g., the Minutemen, the Dead Kennedys, or Black Flag, whose song titles alone frequently make their intent clear) have no presence in the novel, as their relatively unconcealed (and embarrassingly earnest) stances would be out of place in the record collections of these often frivolous characters. Of course, we must remember that the presence of characters who remain uninterested in ideology by no means indicates that the novel itself is equally uninterested in the world outside Rodeo Drive. If we do conclude that Less Than Zero is about people who care for little more than their next coke fix, we should not do so by assuming that their world offers no viewpoint at all onto weightier concerns. Yes, Clay and his friends may only see glimpses, at first, of the ideological underpinnings of elements of daily life that they now take for granted, but any personal awakening to such complexities must begin from an accessible entry point. Ellis reminds us—and critics of contemporary fiction should take note—that, for many listeners like Clay, pop music is that entry point.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5

Kakutani, “The Young and Ugly.” Review of Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis, 42. Tichi, “Television and Recent American Fiction,” 121. Bilton, An Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction, 201. Freese, “Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero: Entropy in the ‘MTV Novel’?,” 86.

Post-Punk Ideology (and Its Rejection) in Bret Easton Ellis


6 Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991, 6. 7 Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984, 7. 8 Caveney, “Notes Degree Zero,” in Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s Blank Generation Fiction, 125. 9 McKenna, liner notes to Under the Big Black Sun. 10 Mason, review of The Have Nots. 11 Costello, liner notes to My Aim Is True. 12 Marsh, The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, 142. 13 Sahlin, “ ‘But This Road Doesn’t Go Anywhere’: The Existential Dilemma in Less Than Zero,” 38. 14 Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, 117. 15 McNeil and McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, 234–239. 16 Annesley, Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel, 102. 17 X, “Los Angeles.”

Bibliography Annesley, James. Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 2001. Bilton, Alan. An Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2003. Caveney, Graham. “Notes Degree Zero.” In Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s Blank Generation Fiction, edited by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, 123–9. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1994. Costello, Elvis. Liner notes to My Aim Is True, by Elvis Costello. Rhino 74285. CD. 2001. Ellis, Bret Easton. Less Than Zero. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Freese, Peter. “Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero: Entropy in the ‘MTV Novel’?” In Modes of Narrative: Approaches to American, Canadian and British Fiction, edited by Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte, 68–87. Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen and Neumann, 1990. Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 1979. Reprint. London, England: Routledge, 1988. Kakutani, Michiko. “The Young and Ugly,” review of Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis, New York Times June 8, 1985, I32. Marsh, Dave. The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. 1989. New York, NY: Da Capo, 1999. Mason, Stewart. Review of “The Have Nots,” by X. AllMusic. Accessed August, 20, 2013. http://www.allmusic.com/song/the-have-nots-mt0035231155. McKenna, Kristine. Liner notes to Under the Big Black Sun, by X. Rhino 74372. CD. 2001. McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. 1996. Reprint. New York, NY: Grove Press, 2006. Review of Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis, New Republic, June 10, 1985: 42.


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Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984. New York, NY: Penguin, 2006. Sahlin, Nicki. “ ‘But This Road Doesn’t Go Anywhere’: The Existential Dilemma in Less Than Zero.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 33, no. 1 (1991): 23–42. Tichi, Cecelia. “Television and Recent American Fiction.” American Literary History 1, no. 1 (1989): 110–30. X. “Los Angeles.” Los Angeles. Rhino 74370. CD. 1980.


“Consistently Original, Perennially Unheard Of ” Punk, Margin, and Mainstream in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom Mark Bresnan

While they each have their quirks and idiosyncrasies, most of the characters in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom should feel familiar to readers of his early work, especially The Corrections (2001). In fact, most of the members of the Berglund family have fairly clear analogues in the Lamberts, the family at the center of Franzen’s 2001 novel. Environmental activist Walter Berglund’s earnest moralism recalls the stern ethos of Alfred Lambert, while his son Joey’s exploits in military profiteering echo Chip Lambert’s escapades in international finance. Walter’s wife Patty, whose autobiography constitutes most of the novel’s opening third, turns to alcohol to numb her growing sense of isolation from her own family; like Gary Lambert, she feels both manipulated and betrayed by her children. Freedom’s depiction of the Berglunds’ Ramsey Hill neighborhood in St. Paul is more grounded in the history of urban renewal than The Corrections’ representation of the fictional city of St. Jude, but it clearly recalls the earlier novel’s Philadelphia scenes as well as the detailed exploration of St. Louis in The Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen’s 1988 debut. Most of Freedom takes place in a world of white, upper middle-class, urban strivers, professionals who have graduated from elite colleges, whose lives are secular but deeply informed by protestant morality—a world also inhabited by Franzen himself. Punk musician Richard Katz, however, seems to come from a vastly different culture. Early in Freedom, Patty Berglund steps outside of what she refers to as “Jockworld” into a very different space: Jay’s Longhorn Bar, a hub of the punk music scene in late-1970s Minneapolis. Patty is there to see a friend of a friend perform with his band, the Traumatics; she is less interested in Buzzcocks, the band they are opening for.1 Patty is drawn to front man Richard Katz’s performance, but finds the Traumatics’ actual music unlistenable: “The noise was just unbearable. Richard and the other two Traumatics were screaming into their microphones, I hate sunshine! I hate sunshine!, and Patty, who rather liked sunshine, brought her basketball skills to bear on making an immediate escape” (Franzen, Freedom, 72–3). Freedom offers a convincing portrayal of the Traumatics as part of the British-inspired punk and post-punk scene; Franzen 31


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gets all the references right, sending Katz to attend a Magazine show in Chicago and choosing Minneapolis venues that reflect the Traumatics’ gentle rise and fall: first, the Longhorn; then, the 7th Street Entry; and, finally, a show for 30 people at the 400 Bar. These settings are more than period detail; instead, they are evidence of the novel’s fascination with and reflection on the ethos of punk culture, as personified by Richard Katz. Throughout Freedom, Katz must wrestle with what music scholars Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor identify as the “series of paradoxes” that are at the core of punk: “[I]t hymned authenticity but relied heavily on simulation in its performance; it aspired to success on its own terms but glamorized failure; its do-it-yourself aspect raised the issue of how to take and keep control in a genre that glorified the individual against the corporate machine; and it presented itself both as a simple negation and as something far more knowing.”2 These paradoxes echo the preoccupations that have shaped Jonathan Franzen’s fiction and nonfiction. They also inform his public persona: the interviews, readings, and media appearances in which he has discussed his work and exhaustively analyzed the relationship between the individual author and the reading public. As he wrote in his 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream” (later republished as “Why Bother?”), much of his early career was defined by an inner conflict “between a feeling that I should Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream, and my desire to write about the things closest to me, to lose myself in the characters and locales I loved.”3 While it may seem ridiculous to compare the famously bespectacled and bird-watching author to figures like Katz and Johnny Rotten, Franzen has long shared those musicians’ anxiety about remaining authentic in the face of a corporate entertainment culture that repackages individualism and rebellion as consumer goods. While his hesitation to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2001 is the most famous example, during the same time period Franzen also explicitly invoked the paranoia about selling out that often infects independent musicians. In an interview with Dave Weich that discussed the publicity generated by The Corrections, Franzen joked that “Now I’ve signed a big label deal and I’m playing stadiums, how good can I be?”4 As the interview continues, though, Franzen resists the equation of music and fiction, suggesting that certain musicians may somehow be immune from the pressures of the mainstream in a way that literary writers can never be: “It’s hard to think of a major label Mekons recording, for example. It’s impossible because they would never do it. But I’m with you, I don’t think the same applies to fiction” (Franzen, “Jonathan Franzen Uncorrected”). In this essay, I argue that Franzen has rethought the relationship between music and literary fiction in a way that helps him negotiate several of the anxieties and ambivalences that have persisted throughout his career. In the narrative of Richard Katz’s transformation from punk iconoclast to acoustic singer–songwriter, Franzen complicates several key binaries that inform the discourses of both popular music and literary fiction: high/low culture, margin/mainstream, and authentic/fake. If Katz is an avatar of his author, then he is a critically constructed one, a vehicle through which Franzen can critique and transcend the self-consciousness about his cultural status that dominated much of his writing and public discourse in the nine years between The Corrections and Freedom. As Colin Hutchinson persuasively argues, Franzen’s pre-

Punk, Margin, and Mainstream in Freedom


Freedom work is “torn between multiple discourses: between the libertarian legacy of the 1960s’ counterculture and the communitarian renaissance response to Reaganism in the 1980s and ’90s; between the experimental and realist literary practices; between a radical and pragmatic political outlook; and between a rejection of, and a persistent adherence to, traditional distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.”5 Freedom, of course, does not “solve” these problems, and similar tensions will undoubtedly continue to manifest themselves in Franzen’s future work. But through Freedom’s deep engagement with the discourses of punk and independent music, Franzen establishes a perspective on the relationship between the artist and mainstream culture that is both more nuanced and more accepting than the outlook offered by his earlier work. In a stark departure, Franzen expresses a newfound comfort with his status in mainstream culture by satirizing the same emphasis on authenticity and independence he used to espouse. Popular music has long held a fascination for Franzen, often as a point of contrast with the comparatively un-influential field of literary fiction. In “Perchance to Dream,” Franzen invokes the popularity of grunge as he expresses nostalgia for the literary culture of late 19th-century America: “A century ago, the novel was the preeminent medium of social instruction. A new book by William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that today a new Pearl Jam release inspires.”6 This “fever” stands in stark contrast to the tepid response that greeted The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), both of which he had conceived of as the sort of social novel that engaged in cultural instruction and critique. Writing from a position of creative malaise and despair, Franzen writes that his “biggest surprise” was “the failure of my culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture. I’d intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum” (Franzen, “Perchance to Dream,” 37–8). Several critics have noted that “Perchance to Dream” places the reading public in an impossible situation. As Jeremy Green writes, “Here, as in the case of Oprah’s Book Club, the problem of agency hovers unresolved between the roles of citizen and consumer. In the Book Club, such roles are conflated, and citizenship must be reckoned with as spectacle rather than deliberative agency; in Franzen’s essay, the retreat from the role of the consumer opens up the possibility only of an imaginary citizenship of privatized ideas and sensations, even as the success hankered for throughout suggests the reintroduction of a consumerist imaginary, though one dictated autonomously by the writer.”7 Franzen would later implicitly acknowledge this bind in the Weich interview, again talking about independent music fans: “That’s one of the perverse, not to say fetishistic, responses to the obliteratively ubiquitous presence of buying in our lives: to say, ‘I don’t buy the popular stuff, I buy the small label stuff,’ as if that makes you any less of a consumer. But I’m somewhat guilty of it myself, and it follows a pattern” (Franzen, “Jonathan Franzen Uncorrected”). In Richard Katz, Franzen has created a character through which he can dramatize and analyze the contradictory patterns into which the cultural response to independent music falls. The emphasis on the intense consumerism that pervades even the most marginal music subcultures is explicitly echoed in Katz’s interview with Zachary, “a Stuy High senior and hipster-in-training and apparently something of a guitarist” for


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

whom Katz has evident disdain (Franzen, Freedom, 194). In the novel’s opening section, “Good Neighbors,” Katz and the Traumatics exemplify the sort of uncontaminated and authentic artistry that punk culture valorized, playing short, loud, and combative songs willingly pitched to a small but devoted coterie of fans. However, the interview takes place at the beginning of Freedom’s second section (“2004”), at which point Katz’s new alternative country (alt-country) band Walnut Surprise has released a Grammynominated album and toured the world for a year and half, a development that has supplied Katz with a large amount of income but an even greater sense of anxiety: “Though Nameless Lake and the newly kindled consumer interest in old Traumatics recordings had brought him more money than his previous twenty years of work combined, he’d managed to blow every dime of it in his quest to relocate the self he’d misplaced. The most traumatic events ever to befall the longtime front man of the Traumatics had been (1) receiving a Grammy nomination, (2) hearing his music played on National Public Radio [NPR], and (3) deducing, from December sales figures, that Nameless Lake had made the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households. The Grammy nomination had been a particularly disorienting embarrassment” (Franzen, Freedom, 192). While certainly comic and pathetic, Katz’s shame can also be understood in the context of his roots in punk culture. As Barker and Taylor argue in Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, punk’s appeal, for both fans and musicians, was rooted in its “commands to keep it real, make it raw, do it yourself, and be against everything.”8 In releasing an album of acoustic love songs that is embraced by everything to which punk culture stands in opposition, Katz has “misplaced” his identity, and his interview with Zachary represents one attempt to relocate and reestablish his punk bona fides. In the interview, Katz responds to a series of generic questions by veering from sneering condescension (“It’s great to hear the word ‘revolution’ again”) to intentional absurdity (“The sansculotte style was what really changed the world”) to political nihilism (“What I’ve been trying to say is that we already are perfectly Republican role models”) (Franzen, Freedom, 200–2). Katz’s aggression implicitly recalls his love for the D. H. Pennebaker documentary Dont Look Back, which he watched repeatedly in college, focused on the scene in which Bob Dylan humiliates Donovan “purely for the pleasure of being an asshole” (Franzen, Freedom, 132). But Katz’s pleasure is not so pure, and after the interview, he walks to the train station “under a familiar cloud of post-interview remorse. He wasn’t worried about having given offense; his business was giving offense. He was worried about having sounded pathetic—too transparently the washed-up talent whose only recourse was to trash his betters” (Franzen, Freedom, 203). Katz’s assertion that Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop have become little more than “manufacturers of wintergreen Chiclets”—and his post-interview misgivings—recall Franzen’s much-publicized hesitations about appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show’s Book Club to promote his 2001 novel The Corrections. Franzen initially agreed to participate and appear on the show, but quickly began to bristle about the nature of the feature (the show’s producers wanted to film him at his parents’ house, which he

Punk, Margin, and Mainstream in Freedom


considered emblematic of a reductive reading of the novel)9 and about the nature of the Club (which he felt was too powerful, marginalized important novels, and, most famously, marked his work as unsuitable for a male audience). Never one to hide his belief in the value of highbrow literature, Franzen complained in the Weich interview that Oprah had “picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, onedimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight” (Franzen, “Jonathan Franzen Uncorrected”). Winfrey rescinded her invitation, and the event made national and international news. It’s tempting, then, to read Katz as a thinly disguised and perhaps wishfully constructed alter ego of Franzen’s, a singularly authentic artist beset on all sides by the pressures of a middlebrow mainstream culture. Perhaps Franzen sees punk and independent music culture as a place to escape the challenges generated by the commercial success of The Corrections; rather than worry about one’s relationship to the mainstream, why not discard it altogether, creating work for a small but devoted audience and being recognized by marginal but vocal critics? Why not try to come up with a different model for publishing and marketing—a literary analogue for the independent record labels with which Richard Katz works, the type of publishing house that would never think of encouraging its writers to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show? Of course, the unique cultural positions of music and fiction do not map so neatly onto each other, and the publication, marketing, and reception of Freedom complicate any easy separation between mainstream and margin or literature and mass-market fiction. Franzen’s fourth novel garnered reviews in every outlet that reviews literary fiction—The New York Times reviewed it twice, with a Sam Tanenhaus essay on the cover of The Sunday Book Review and a review by Michiko Kakutani in the daily edition. It debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover fiction and remained in the top ten for several months; unlike listmates Stieg Larsson and John Grisham, Franzen was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award. President Obama famously requested and received an advance copy a week before the release date; a spokesman reported he found it “entertaining.”10 Franzen graced the cover of Time magazine and finally appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Many reviewers read this attention in conjunction with the novel’s fairly conventional form and deduced that Franzen was no longer trying to write the sort of serious literature he so often invoked in his essays and interviews. In his review, Tanenhaus wrote that Freedom had none of the “literary flourishes” that he thought diminished The Corrections;11 in the London Review of Books, James Lever complained that the novel was too middlebrow, comparing it to Richard Katz’s Grammy-winning album and claiming that “this book is Nameless Lake.”12 To paraphrase Franzen: now that he’s been on the cover of Time magazine, how good can he be? It is notable, then, how thoroughly Freedom’s narrative complicates and interrogates the notion of artistic authenticity that plays such an important role in the evaluation of both literature and music. As represented in the novel, the cultures of punk rock, in particular, and independent music more broadly are enabled by patronage and obsessed with cults of personality, and authenticity is less a defining element of punk music than a paralyzing and arbitrary ideal. The Traumatics’ arc is almost banal in its familiarity:


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Katz moves to the East Coast after college, and after three years off, he reunites with his bassist Herrera and his girlfriend and backup singer Molly Tremain to record and release three albums: Greetings from the Bottom of the Mine Shaft, In Case You Hadn’t Noticed, and Reactionary Splendor, the first two garnering little attention or sales and the third (“released by a less-tiny label”) is mentioned on top-ten year-end lists by a few magazines (Franzen, Freedom, 138–9). This small measure of success is less a reflection of the band’s artistry than a product of cultural patronage; Katz enjoys years of critical adulation, the novel reveals, in part because Tremain’s mother is an arts editor at The New York Times. As Patty Berglund wryly comments in the autobiography that constitutes most of the novel’s first third, Katz’s relationship with Tremain is the “fact that may explain why the Traumatics, despite record sales in the low four digits and audiences in the high two digits, had received several full write-ups in the Times (‘Consistently Original, Perennially Unheard Of,’ ‘Undaunted by Indifference, the Traumatics Soldier on’)” (Franzen, Freedom, 143). This personal connection to the critical apparatus is augmented by the tenuous (and vaguely literary-sounding) notion that the Traumatics will somehow prove to be “important”; during a tour played in small and mostly empty clubs, Katz theorizes that “the press had finally concluded that familiarity with the Traumatics was never going to be necessary to anyone’s cultural literacy or street credibility, and so there was no reason to extend him further credit” (Franzen, Freedom, 143). In an additional insult, Katz does not receive freedom in exchange for his lack of commercial success; he is both ignored by mainstream culture and expected to perform a specific and constrictive identity in independent music circles. In his day job, building decks for wealthy Manhattanites in search of a “contact cool” (Franzen, Freedom, 138), Katz is expected to perform the struggling artist persona: “In the eighties and nineties, to avoid undercutting his best selling point as a contractor—the fact that he was making unpopular music deserving of financial support—Katz had been all but required to behave unprofessionally. His bread-andbutter clientele had been Tribeca artists and movie people who’d given him food and sometimes drugs and would have questioned his commitment if he’d shown up for work before midafternoon, refrained from hitting on unavailable females, or finished on schedule and within budget” (Franzen, Freedom, 195). This satire of indie music fans pervades the novel, as the mostly white, male, middleclass, and middle-aged fans in Freedom employ their intentionally cultivated tastes to prove their authenticity. When Katz returns to Minneapolis on a Traumatics tour, he spends an afternoon with Patty and Walter Berglund (Richard and Walter were roommates at Macalester College). In one sense, we might consider Walter the ideal fan, a stand-in for Franzen’s engaged reader. While Franzen is clearly concerned about the “technological consumerism” he first labeled in “Perchance to Dream,” his desire for mutual engagement trumps all. As he explains in a 2010 interview, “novelists nowadays have a responsibility—whether or not my contemporaries are actually living up to it— to make books really, really compelling. To make you want to turn off your phone and walk away from your Internet connection and go spend some time in another place.”13 In similar fashion, while Walter’s personal history with Richard explains his initial interest in the band, he remains committed to and engaged with their work for decades,

Punk, Margin, and Mainstream in Freedom


and he eagerly advocates for their superiority over popular mainstream acts: “On the way home to Ramsey Hill, in the family Volvo, Walter raved about the excellences of Insanely Happy and the debased taste of an American public that turned about by the millions for Dave Matthews Band and didn’t even know that Richard Katz existed” (Franzen, Freedom, 145). This suspicion of the mainstream echoes ideas that Franzen has articulated throughout much of his career. In The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick convincingly argues that Franzen and several other contemporary white male authors have drawn much of their literary credibility from writing about their own marginality in a culture that they claim either doesn’t read enough books or that reads the wrong kind of books: “Marginality thus becomes, in a literary culture obsessed with fragmentation and decentering, a paradoxical source of return to dominance, a melodrama of beset white manhood. . . . one need not be dead to benefit from the pomp of an ongoing funeral” (Fitzpatrick, 233). Fitzpatrick also calls attention to the racial and gender dynamics of the Franzen/Oprah Winfrey incident, noting that “this battle between the literary and televisual pits a white male literary humanist against a black female producer of mass media, each vying for control of the cultural arena.”14 Indeed, the Traumatics’ last show at the 400 Bar explicitly invokes this image of a dying world of “white male literary humanists”: “After [all-female opening band] the Sick Chelseas finished playing, their late-adolescent friends seeped out of the club and left behind no more than thirty die-hard Traumatics fans—white, male, scruffy, and even less young than they used to be” (Franzen, Freedom, 143). The harsh atonality and volume of the Traumatics’ music recalls what Franzen terms the “contract novel” in his 2002 essay “Mr. Difficult,” a reflection on the work of William Gaddis. In that essay, Franzen explicitly yokes the appeal of difficult fiction with that of independent music; he describes himself after college as “one of those skinny young men in scary glasses and thrift-store clothes whom you see on Boston or Brooklyn subways, young men who look like they possess massive amounts of data about small-label rock bands or avant-garde literature or video technology.”15 But, as in the 400 Bar scene, in which any elegiac mood is undercut by Patty’s narration (“it was hard to imagine any band being good enough to overcome the desolation of the too-small house”),16 in “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen outlines his suspicion of the conflation of obscurity and quality. Of course, he does not want to suggest that difficulty is itself an intrinsic problem, only that it should not stand in the way of a reader’s engagement with the text. “I know the pleasures of a book aren’t always easy,” he writes, but also notes that “As a reader, I seek a direct personal relationship with art” (Franzen, “Mr. Difficult,” 268). Franzen explores this relationship between art and audience repeatedly in his nonfiction; it is perhaps the central preoccupation in all three of his essay collections. His characterization of Walter’s relationship with the Traumatics, then, suggests that Franzen is acutely aware of how easily engagement with difficult, marginal, and obscure art can become a caricature of itself. When Katz visits the Berglunds on one of his many tours through the Midwest, Walter is eager to show off his home and his family, and after the visit, he uses their relationship to impress his friends and neighbors. The visit provides Walter not only time with his old roommate, but also an opportunity “to acquire rich data from Richard about the alternative-music scene, data that Walter


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

would put to good use in the months that followed, buying the records of every artist Richard had mentioned, playing them while he renovated, impressing male neighbors and colleagues who fancied themselves musically hip, and feeling that he had the best of both worlds” (Franzen, Freedom, 139). This desire to straddle two economically and/ or racially distinct worlds, often referred to as “slumming,” is a common phenomenon in music fandom and a frequent topic of critical analysis; a large body of scholarship has shown how jazz, hip hop, and punk have drawn middle- and upper-class music fans into urban spaces throughout the 20th century. Chad Heap traces this desire back to the mid-1880s, arguing that slumming allowed upper-class whites to “emulate the sense of social and sexual freedom they attributed to the [slum] districts’ immigrant and working-class inhabitants” even as they continued to “reconfirm their sense of social superiority.”17 While Heap’s study ends in 1940, Freedom depicts a literal act of slumming that suggests both the enduring power and naïveté of this impulse: Herrera moves out of Jersey City to Bridgeport, Connecticut, because the former has become “too bourgeois” for the bassist. When Herrera is then befallen by a “strange accident” shortly after this move, Katz takes it as a “cosmic sign” to move on to a new project, and the Traumatics officially break up (Franzen, Freedom, 151). In similar fashion, the further the novel travels from the early Traumatics shows, the more punk become a commodity fetish embraced by a narrow, affluent, and influential slice of the public. The mainstream attention Walter garners with Walnut Surprise (the novel mentions coverage in People, Spin, and Entertainment Weekly) prompts this subset of fans to reaffirm the fact that they had always loved the Traumatics, even when they were playing shows to mostly empty clubs: “Michael Stipe and Jeff Tweedy were among the worthies who came forward to endorse Walnut Surprise and confess to having been longtime closet Traumatics listeners. Richard’s scruffy, well-educated white male fans may not have been so young anymore, but quite a few of them were now influential senior arts editors” (Franzen, Freedom, 185). In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu writes that aesthetic taste is “the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference”: “The most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the possessors of legitimate culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated.”18 Katz’s successful crossover from punk to alt-country threatens the rigidity of these separations, which may help explain why Walter is so upset about his former roommate’s mainstream success: “As for Walter, the resentment you feel when your favorite unknown band suddenly goes on everybody’s playlist was multiplied by a thousand” (Franzen, Freedom, 185). Freedom treats this reaction as both pathetic and genuinely sad; Patty, the narrator of this section, knows something that her husband does not: the songs on Walnut Surprise’s Grammy-winning Nameless Lake were all written about a brief affair between Richard and Patty that took place at the Berglunds’ cabin. Walter is an educated, serious, and engaged fan, but he is also a fool who cannot read the many clues that should have made him suspicious about the relationship between his wife and his best friend. Perhaps no aesthetic is as explicit in its performance of contradiction and its attendant anxieties as punk, and Franzen’s scathing satire of middle-aged punk fans

Punk, Margin, and Mainstream in Freedom


reveals how that performance can decay into solipsistic nihilism. In his study of popular music culture in Austin, Texas, Barry Shank explains how rejection of mainstream music was performed and ritualized at Raul’s, a punk club frequented by university students: the ritual “involved screaming the names of hated popular musicians and requesting the most popular songs. Despised music was commercially successful music, hated because it was the music favored by the undifferentiated mass of college students. Punk at Raul’s constructed a pop culture elitism.”19 But this elitism has always been complicated by the punk’s equally powerful impulse toward selfabnegation. Katz’s promise before one of the early Traumatics shows that “his band was going to play every song it knew, and that this would take twenty-five minutes” is one iteration of this impulse—by denigrating the band’s knowledge and musicianship, he implicitly critiques the emphasis on knowledge and musicianship that informs mainstream music culture (Franzen, Freedom, 72). As Shank writes of the atmosphere at Raul’s, “The professional musician, able to provide disinterested renditions of popular songs, was despised” (Shank, 110). But Katz is a skilled musician—he can’t hide his annoyance as his friend Eliza tentatively attempts some guitar chords, and even a nonfan like Patty is able to sense the quality of the collaboration between Katz and his long-time bassist Herrera (Franzen, Freedom, 69, 144). There are many facets, then, to punk’s ambivalence: a rejection of mainstream culture fueled by elitism but also tempered by the performance of self-ridicule. In Katz’s case, these contradictions prove too much to bear. This essay has discussed Katz primarily in terms of his representation in the novel’s first third, in which he plays a major role in the plot. While his fade into the background over the rest of Freedom can be explained with narrative and formal reasons, when he does appear he is miserable and paralyzed by his newfound fame. When he agrees to help Walter with his Free Space movement, an effort to educate Americans on the dangers of overpopulation, he knows he won’t follow through: “In his mind, he was doing nothing more than writing checks on an account with nothing in it” (Franzen, Freedom, 366). The empty account is a marker of Richard’s lack of empathy; in a novel filled by characters who struggle with solipsism, Richard is consumed by it, and in thinking only about his own interests, he ultimately realizes how much he dislikes himself. Yet he is still desperate for attention; when attending a show by alternative band Bright Eyes, Katz finds himself contemplating which would be worse: “to be outed and fawned over or to stand there in middle-aged obscurity” (Franzen, Freedom, 368). Reflecting on a dispute with two fellow train passengers in an earlier scene, he notes that “They didn’t seem to have recognized him, but, if they had, they would surely soon be blogging about what an asshole Richard Katz was” (Franzen, Freedom, 350). Neither Richard nor the novel itself suggests that this would be an unfair claim. Given the novel’s clear interest in punk music, it should not be surprising that Freedom is, in many ways, a book about anger. One of its major plot points hinges on Walter’s angry outburst at a press conference for his environmental trust, a moment that echoes Richard Katz’s Chiclets interview. Walter’s anger stems from his growing awareness that he has, in the terms of music culture, sold out: by depending on a conservative billionaire for funding, his Cerulean Mountain Trust has become little more than a public relations


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

cover for mountaintop removal coal-mining and corrupt military contractor LBI. At a press conference meant to commemorate the opening of a new LBI body-armor plant, Walter has his punk rock moment, building from a wryly sarcastic critique of his benefactors to a rant about overpopulation. “IT IS A PERFECT FUCKING WORLD AS LONG AS YOU DON’T COUNT EVERY OTHER SPECIES IN IT! WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET! A CANCER ON THE PLANET!” yells Walter as he is forcibly pulled away from his microphone; the moment is caught on video and quickly goes viral, drawing interest and enthusiasm for Free Space (Franzen, Freedom, 484). In its bitter humor, his speech echoes the Traumatics’ song “Insanely Happy”; Walter congratulates his audience on the “eight-miles-per-gallon vehicles you’re going to be able to buy and drive as much as you want, now that you’ve joined me as a member of the middle class” while Richard Katz sings, “What tiny little heads up in those big fat SUVs! / My friends, you look insanely happy at the wheel” (Franzen, Freedom, 483, 143). But, while Walter’s anger is certainly justified, it is hardly redemptive, and this brand of impotent rage is a frequent topic in Franzen’s nonfiction, interviews, and speeches, especially in the years leading up to and following the release of Freedom. In his 2011 commencement address at Kenyon College, Franzen discussed his postcollege years as a time in which he “was looking for things to find wrong with the world and reason to hate the people who ran it,” a quest he satisfied, like Walter, in a burgeoning passion for environmental causes.20 But unlike Franzen, who suggests that he needed to “run toward my pain and anger and despair,” meeting and interviewing his political enemies in order to moderate his own “blanket antipathy,” his characters spend most of Freedom resisting these sorts of empathetic gestures (Franzen, Freedom, 13–14). Both Richard and Walter feel so compelled to prove their authenticity outside of mainstream culture that they become profoundly solipsistic, loudly proclaiming their concerns about supposedly global problems while remaining blind to their own selfishness. Ironically, Walter only realizes the emptiness of his fury after he takes what should have been his most liberating action; after a few weeks on the road with the Free Space movement, Walter “was worn out by the road and oppressed by the thought that the country’s ugly rage was no more than an amplified echo of his own anger” (Franzen, Freedom, 494). Richard Katz, on the other hand, only achieves a level of freedom when he steps away from the ethos of punk and discards the rituals of rebellion that had become more repressive than liberating. Making peace with his status as a broadly popular songwriter and performer, he accepts a commission to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and works on scores for a variety of film projects (Franzen, Freedom, 536). In similar fashion, Franzen creates a novel that suggests he has transcended his own discomfort with mainstream acceptance—that he has afforded himself a measure of aesthetic and cultural freedom that he was unwilling to exercise earlier in his career.

Notes 1 Franzen, Freedom, 70. 2 Barker and Taylor, Faking It, 265.

Punk, Margin, and Mainstream in Freedom 3 4 5 6

7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20


Franzen, “Perchance to Dream,” 54. Franzen, “Jonathan Franzen Uncorrected.” Hutchinson, “Jonathan Franzen and the Politics of Disengagement,” 192. Franzen, “Perchance to Dream,” 41. Note that this reference to Pearl Jam was replaced in the republished version of the essay with one to film: “A new book by Thackeray or William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that a late-December film release inspires today.” See Franzen, “Why Bother?” Green, Late Postmodernism, 96. Barker and Taylor, Faking It, 20. See Franzen, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” for a detailed discussion of the segment, which was filmed but never aired. Bosman, “A Book is All the Rage Even before It is Sold.” Tanenhaus, “Peace and War.” Lever, “So Long, Lalitha.” Franzen, interview by Gregg LaGambina. Fitzpatrick, The Anxiety of Obsolescence, 205. Franzen, “Mr. Difficult,” 246. Franzen, Freedom, 144. Heap, Slumming, 113. Also see Dowling, Slumming in New York. Bourdieu, Distinction, 56–7. Shank, Dissonant Identities, 105. Franzen, “Pain Won’t Kill You,” 11.

Bibliography Barker, Hugh and Yuval Taylor. Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. Bosman, Julie. “A Book is All the Rage Even before It is Sold.” New York Times, August 27, 2010, C3. Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. Dowling, Robert. Slumming in New York: From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006. Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. ———. Farther Away. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. ———. Freedom. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. ———. How to Be Alone. New York, NY: Picador, 2003. ———. Interview by Gregg LaGambina. The A.V. Club. Last modified September 1, 2010. http://www.avclub.com/articles/jonathan-franzen,44716. ———. “Jonathan Franzen Uncorrected.” Interview by Dave Weich. Powells.com. Last modified October 4, 2001. http://www.powells.com/authors/franzen. ———. “Meet Me in St. Louis.” In How to Be Alone, 286–302. New York, NY: Picador, 2003. ———. “Mr. Difficult.” In How to Be Alone, 238–69. New York, NY: Picador, 2003.


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———. “Pain Won’t Kill You.” In Farther Away, 5–14. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. ———. “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels.” Harper’s, April 1996, 35–54. ———. Strong Motion. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992. ———. The Twenty-Seventh City. New York, NY: Picador, 1988. ———. “Why Bother?” In How to Be Alone, 55–97. New York, NY: Picador, 2003. Green, Jeremy. Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Heap, Chad. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885–1940. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Hutchinson, Colin. “Jonathan Franzen and the Politics of Disengagement.” Critique 50, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 191–207. Lever, James. “So Long, Lalitha.” London Review of Books, October 7, 2010, 12–13. Shank, Barry. Dissonant Identities: The Rock ’n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994. Tanenhaus, Sam. “Peace and War.” New York Times Sunday Book Review, August 19, 2010, BR1.


A Novel Idea for a Soundtrack Tim Winton’s Dirt Music Tanya Dalziell

Film soundtracks are now roundly taken for granted, but what is to be made of book soundtracks? In 2001, a two-CD set, Dirt Music: Music for a Novel, was released alongside Tim Winton’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, Dirt Music: A Novel. The novel, at heart, tells a story of a man on the run—from music. This man, Luther Fox, certainly has other troubles he wants to flee; he has inadvertently found himself entangled with a woman, Georgie Jutland, who lives with a local millionaire cray-fisherman with a threatening reputation and from whose craypots he steals, so as a way out, he heads to the northern Australian coastal region. Yet it is from music that Fox is ultimately trying to escape, as part of his “project of forgetting,” because it is linked affectively in memory with the deaths in a car accident of his brother and sister-in-law and their children.1 It was with them that Fox had spent his life growing watermelons and playing music of the kind that finds its place on Disc One of Dirt Music: Music for a Novel. Selected and arranged by Winton and two-time Grammy recipient Lucky Oceans, who also plays on some of the tracks, Disc One contains music that is summed up by Fox, a guitarist: “Anythin [sic] you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity. Dirt music” (Winton, Dirt Music, 95). Broadly, the recorded music on this CD, 20 tracks, takes the form of blues; a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” sits a few tracks along from June Tabor’s lament of a miner painfully dying of asbestos poisoning; other tracks are written and performed by Australian artists such as Matt Taylor and Broderick Smith with enviable reputations as musicians’ musicians. The second disc features music without lyrics, what conventionally might be thought of in shorthand as classical music; in Fox’s terms, it is music that could not be easily played on the modest space a verandah affords. For Disc Two, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra recorded Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” which concludes the CD; the disc opens with the same orchestra performing Peter Sculthorpe’s “Djilile,” a piece that is not uncontroversial in postcolonial Australia, given that it involves an adaptation of an Aboriginal musical piece that was collected by the anthropologist A. P. Elkin and Trevor Jones in northern Australia in the late 1950s. For Winton, it “brings to mind shimmering open spaces. A sense of passage, too.”2 In between, there are pieces by Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, and Bach. 43


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

The relationship between the CD set and the novel is the subject of this chapter, in part (together with an argument about music and mourning, which will be detailed later) because it offers a suggestive entry point into a series of questions about music and the novel—their aesthetic qualities, their social meanings, their mutual impacts and radical differences—that have motored the disciplines and attendant scholarship for some time, and which are possible because the subjects in question are a CD set and a novel that stand in deliberate, but not simple, relation to each other. Most often when scholars have addressed the relationship between music and the novel, there is an understandable concentration on one form or the other; an effort to identify one form at work within the other; an attempt to draw out influences, thematically and formally, that are seen to be either conspicuous or implicit in the texts under investigation.3 Less common, because the instances are so few, is a discussion of the interplay between music and the novel that this chapter proposes in the face of the designed pairing of the novel (Dirt Music) and the CD set (Dirt Music: Music for a Novel). Admittedly, this approach might seem peculiarly redundant. After all, the notes in the CD booklet (notes that can, but not necessarily, frame, authenticate, and give meaning to other components of the package because they are often presented and interpreted as offering insight into the mechanics behind the music production)4 establish a perfectly plausible account of the relationship between the CD set and Dirt Music: A Novel, grounded in modest authorial intention. Claiming “I’m no musicologist. Not even a musician. I’m hardly in touch with the cutting edge of popular music and my classical education is sketchy at best,” Winton positions himself as passionate music enthusiast and relates that, “In the early nineties I began making notes for a novel on the strength of a few fleeting images and a couple of pieces of music” (Winton, Dirt Music: Music for a Novel, 7). On completing the novel, he “had the idea of making a tape for myself of the kinds of music Fox and his family might have played. . . . It was one of those things that grew once it was uttered to others” (Winton, Dirt Music: Music for a Novel, 7). An understatement of sorts—mixtapes turning into Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra recitals is of an order most of us will be unfamiliar with—the origin story of this ostensible backyard project, released on ABC Classics, Australia’s largest classical music label, rests on two ideas of music (as a source of inspiration and that which excites the emotions); sidesteps the issue of the CD set as a marketable product and a vehicle of cross-promotion; and strongly connects the novel with the CD set. Yet, the links between the CD and the novel are not so straightforward. Just how, or if, we are to read and listen to the novel and the CD set together or separately is open to question. The two circulate as discrete objects: the CD set is not tucked into a sleeve in the book. There is no explicit directive from the novel for its readers to listen to the CD; there are no express prompts inserted in the printed text requesting a reader to press “play” on an external device at certain moments in the narrative. On the CD, there are no aural signals—the tinkle of a triangle, say, as there often is in children’s book recordings—to turn the page of the novel at a particular point. It would be quite simple to read the book and not know of the existence of the CD set; the same is not quite true of Dirt Music: Music For a Novel as the title alone gives away that a novel perhaps exists

A Novel Idea for a Soundtrack: Dirt Music


elsewhere, although there would be no harm done in listening to the CD without having read, or without plans to read, Dirt Music. The title of the CD set is also of interest insofar as its subtitle announces a particular relationship between it and the novel. This is music “for” a novel, not “of ” a novel, marking the connections between the two as something different again from what might appear to be their obvious parallel: film music and cinema; or, more precisely, film and music soundtracks. Against the once prevalent idea that film was initially silent (like the novel), film scholars with an interest in music now persuasively argue that “film is a musical medium,”5 and note that music plays an active role in both the thematic and formal aspects of film, as well as in promotional tie-ins with the emergence of the film soundtrack in the 1940s and, more recently, the popularity of compilation scores. Routinely, the soundtrack, a mix of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, mostly music, is now promoted as that which is “of ” the film, that issues “from” the film, even if it precedes a film’s release. In comparison, the novel generally is not a musical medium in the same way as film is now recognized, although there is, of course, a long history of mutual constitution and contestation between music and the written word, poetry particularly, not least in the sense that the vocabulary available to speak of them both shares basic terms such as rhyme and rhythm. Specific to Dirt Music, it cannot be said to “issue” music in the same way as film might be presumed to do (in both diegetic and extra-diegetic guises), but this feature is perhaps an accident of history (and format) only. If Dirt Music had been published at the other end of the same decade and in a digital format, it might have been in the sights of Booktrack, a new company that, according to its publicity, creates a customized soundtrack “that boosts engagement and imagination and makes an e-book come alive through music, sound effects and ambient sound.”6 The e-reader technology offers, ideally, a word by word, line by line, page by page accompaniment of sound, chosen by the reader from a pool of separately recorded tracks, so that the soundtrack for e-books dovetails with the experience of reading itself (like viewing and listening to a film), with the capacity (unlike viewing and listening to a film) to adjust, in accordance with an algorithm, the soundtrack to an individual’s reading pace. Underpinning the conceit, apart from making money, presumably, is the familiar idea that music and sounds carry an emotional charge that adds something to both words (necessarily bereft, requiring “heightening” and “boosting” among other enhancements) and reading, a practice assumed to be otherwise silent and comparatively underwhelming when considered alongside the seamless immersion (whatever this means) the multimedia platform promises. Yet if Dirt Music were to be Booktracked, it would arguably change the relationship the novel has with music, not only in the obvious way—sounds would emanate from reading the screen—but because the CD set that proffers the music does not correspond directly to the written text in the way that the Booktrack enterprise suggests; indeed, it insists on some important differences between them. The CD announces itself not as a soundtrack; rather, it is “Music for a Novel,” with the preposition implying variously that the novel is the recipient and purpose of the CD set, linking the two in a reciprocal but not mirror-like manner.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

It is therefore telling that Dirt Music: Music for a Novel does not feature a Muzak version of “The Girl from Ipanema.” Early in the novel, Fox and Georgie are refused service at a hotel bar because Fox is not suitably attired; to add insult to injury, the music playing in the hotel lift as Fox feels his face “still hot from the shame” is a version of this bossa nova song, a knowing nod, possibly, to its reputation as the example par excellence of elevator music (Winton, Dirt Music, 77). (In the non-existent Booktracked version of Dirt Music, it might be anticipated that “The Girl from Ipanema” would be synchronized to the scene). Yet the music assails Fox; it is “unbearable,” which is quite an accusation to level at innocuous if ubiquitous “background music.” But the point is that music is not in the background at all in this novel. To be sure, the novel is hardly a clear instance of what Werner Wolf has called “musicalization,” wherein a text enacts in writing musical effects.7 It might be argued that the eight-chapter structure of the novel brings to mind the 8-track tape; that the narrative shifts in point of view between Fox and Georgie, and Fox’s flight from home in the outskirts of White Point to northern Australia and the promise of an eventual return, recalls the ABA sonata structure,8 but both readings would be a fair stretch. Music is not obviously foregrounded in form, although there are moments when music and language merge in important ways, as will be argued. Rather, Fox’s response to “The Girl from Ipanema” suggests that some kinds of music are to be valued more than others; that is, that the various turns to music in the narrative are by no means neutral gestures and are bound up with how characters are conceived. In turn, music is integral to the text because it is linked with affect and memory, and is imagined to register realms of experience beyond the reach of language, the very substance of the novel form. To discuss these issues in more detail, I want to qualify what is meant by music, at least in Dirt Music. The novel itself provides clues for this purpose; take, as an example, Beaver, a burly, ex-motorcycle gang member, the operator of the White Point service station, and one of the few characters that comes close to being a friend of sorts to Georgie. At one moment in the novel, he is spied wearing “a Peter Allen tour shirt”; later, Georgie hears him listening to “a forties’ show tune” sung by Ethel Merman (Winton, Dirt Music, 45). These two seemingly casual observations hint at the ways in which music and its wider cultural meanings are recruited and referenced repeatedly in the novel; artists with reputations and styles that tie in, and go beyond, the sound of any music are mentioned, somewhat casually, to mark out identity and value. When the racist, sexist, opportunist, money hungry, and generally unsympathetic inhabitants of White Point, “a personality junkyard” (Winton, Dirt Music, 17), are thought of dismissively by Fox as having “their ZZ Top on the stereo” (Winton, Dirt Music, 60), the idea similarly set up, and drawn on, is that ZZ Top carries meaning that marks out Fox as different from the rest of the White Point community, on whose fringes he literally lives. This division is rehearsed later in the novel as Georgie departs the local pub where the White Pointers are celebrating a particularly large haul of crayfish that will make them a fortune and where “barmaids in g-strings [were] having their tee-shirts sprayed with beer from water pistols” while “the jukebox was killing itself to deliver AC/DC and ZZ Top at the volume required” (Winton, Dirt Music, 339). The narrative here is not disinterested; this music (loud guitar rock music), the means of playing it (at

A Novel Idea for a Soundtrack: Dirt Music


ear-drum-splitting levels made possible by sound technologies), and the locale in which it is broadcast publicly (a crude, exploitative venue) emerge as less than desirable, especially alongside the music with which Fox is associated. Earlier in the narrative, Fox confesses to Georgie that he and his brother, Darkie, and Sally, who would become his sister-in-law, used to practice “to tapes and LPs on the verandah instead of doing homework” and that they tellingly “got hold of bootlegs— Skip James, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie—found a Taj Mahal record at the White Point rubbish dump” (Winton, Dirt Music, 96). The music that Fox is associated with—the blues—is accorded a marginalized status, almost literally underground (in the rubbish dump). Moreover, those who listen to and play it, and truly appreciate it, are singled out as authentic. Music scholarship has usefully pointed out that authenticity, a highly contested term, carries an enduring ideological charge insofar as it is routinely recruited to evaluate, hierarchize, and legitimate various aspects of the music industry.9 In these scenarios, live performance is held up positively in contrast to recorded music; or, musicians creating their own original music are deemed serious or artful in opposition to lip-synching cogs in hit-song factories overseen by profit-driven production companies. Winton’s text shows little interest in replicating these oppositions to forward some idea of authenticity. What matters, what distributes meaning and value, is the twinned idea that some music—namely, the blues and its variants—plays not primarily to the market but to the core of the self. Fox is authenticated as authentic in the act of writing the blues, to draw on Allan Moore’s idea that authenticity is not a matter of binaries but of process, as that which is made and ascribed in the “act of listening.”10 For Moore, the question of music’s authenticity lies with its ascription—hence, with social agency and context—rather than any innate quality or feature that may be thought to reside within it. Moore recognizes the important cultural work it does both in distributing cultural capital and shoring up particular models of subjectivity. In Winton’s novel, the act of writing validates Fox by means of a particular imagining of the blues. For Dirt Music, the blues is a special musical form that gets to the heart of things, that says things that words cannot express; in turn, those characters that recognize this quality are the ones to which the narrative grants a rich inner life and, ultimately, the chance of salvation. It is a curious but not altogether unfamiliar idea of the blues, one that serves the interests of Dirt Music’s romance narratives and the attendant discontents of a white Australian man by sidestepping, even annulling, the historical and cultural contexts of blues music. As George Lipsitz points out in relation to the musician Robert Johnson, “Leaving home for the life of an itinerant musician was not a romantic venture into the lonely life for the artist for him, but rather a way out of the constraints of a racialized class system.”11 For Fox, leaving home for a lonely life in northern Australia is a romantic venture and the blues is a way of returning Fox to an original trauma, one that has nothing at all to do with race or class. That Fox is subjected to an inassimilable traumatic experience helps to explain why Winton’s novel does not spend much of its narrative time addressing music at all. Admittedly, given what has come before, it seems somewhat counterintuitive, if not


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outright ludicrous, to suggest that music is not front and center in the novel. Yet it is because music and affect are entwined in the novel, and because this novel does take an interest in how the novel form, how language, might approach music, that music is not highlighted in an obviously overriding thematic or formal way. Instead, music is largely and deliberately avoided by Fox, as by the narrative, because music, for him, conjures the ghosts of his family for whom he is in mourning. Fox himself is described as a phantom: he lives on the fringes of White Point; he rises early so that no-one in the town can detect his thieving from the craypots. And as he explains in the vernacular to Georgie as she attempts to understand why he stays on in the town following the accident that resulted in his family’s deaths: “I did think about goin north, he said. Just wanted to leave everything and bolt. You know, disappear. I already felt like a ghost. . . . Like I was dead anyway but the news still hadn’t got through to my body” (Winton, Dirt Music, 98). Importantly, Georgie too is imagined in the first pages of the novel as specter-like; she sits in front of the flickering screen of the computer late into the night, looking up to “see her pale and furious face reflected in the window” (Winton, Dirt Music, 3); a few pages later, she is said to have been, in her past, “a sailor of sorts, so she knew exactly what it meant to lose seaway, to be dead in the water. She recognized the sensation only too well. And that spring she had slipped overboard without a sound” (Winton, Dirt Music, 11). It is this slipping into silence that Fox takes seriously and that the narrative itself registers in its hesitancies, its seeming off-handed references to music. Although Dirt Music could be said to be (about) many things—a love story, avaricious capitalism, forgiveness—it is also a work of mourning, with music playing an especial role in the novel’s grappling with how to represent loss thematically and formally. Whereas the novel opens with Georgie in a domestic space, her point of view given extended narrative time, glimpses of Fox are gleaned only through Georgie’s viewing of him at sea and by means of short chapters that have him going about his secret, illicit business of stealing and selling crayfish. Yet when he is eventually shown in his own home, his grief is raw. He moves through “the old timber house room by room. . . . Checking he’s alone, maybe. When he knows he’s alone. Doesn’t want to think about it” (Winton, Dirt Music, 52). Crayons lie on the floor of the children’s bedroom; he violently clutches to his lips the jeans once worn by his sister-in-law, the latter a none too subtle allusion to the repressed, guilty desire he continues to carry and which seems to have been acted out in the distant past by Jim Buckridge, Georgie’s estranged partner with whom she continues to live and who sets out with Georgie to track down Fox in some kind of quest for personal absolution. Moreover, Fox “stumbles into the dented steel guitar and leaves the bastard thing falling in his wake to crash to the floor and ring discord at him on his way down the hall” (Winton, Dirt Music, 53). From that point, music is something Fox attempts to avoid—“You had to put yourself out of reach. Of music first, and also memory because one lived in the other” (Winton, Dirt Music, 374)—albeit unsuccessfully. When hitching a ride with an elderly couple, Horrie and Bess, for instance, Horrie is said to have “Prokofiev or some bloody thing on the tiny tapedeck. It sets his teeth on edge” (Winton, Dirt Music, 248–9); Bess then “asks for Bach. Fox recognizes the tune to an old hymn, and how it eats him. . . . He wills the

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music to end before it fucks him up entirely” (Winton, Dirt Music, 249). What the music conjures is a memory of Fox’s mother—“Her laugh was musical” (Winton, Dirt Music, 360)—and Fox’s childhood “a boy in his shorty pyjamas on the verandah” (Winton, Dirt Music, 249). The past revisits Fox when he hears this music, imagined here in cannibalizing terms (not unlike the zipper on his sister-in-law’s jeans that “bites his lip”) (Winton, Dirt Music, 53). And it is the blues (and its variants) that recall his family, killed on their way to a gig, and which, in its small, fleeting references, haunts the narrative. The blues is accorded this mnemonic role in Dirt Music because it is invested with the (not unproblematic) idea that it is, in a world of ZZ Top and Muzak, a rare instance of authentic, affective expression; that it speaks directly to the emotions of the listener; that it (and those that appreciate the music) is real. Georgie, admitting (like Winton) that she “didn’t know much about music,” nevertheless is “stirred” when she listens at Fox’s house, following his disappearance, to a Chris Whitley record: “[A]ll the words puzzled her and that strange wailing bottleneck guitar took some getting used to” (Winton, Dirt Music, 327). And almost despite himself (the passage takes on a distancing, second-person address), as he fabricates a makeshift shelter on his journey, Fox remembers himself with his young niece, whom he considers “perfect” (Winton, Dirt Music, 105), and nephew, and: . . . the three of you out on the verandah in the evening, feet up on the rail, swinging some smoky J. J. Cale thing, knowing that this was it, you were blessed, that they had real music in them and you could only be glad, for without them you were nothing. Those evenings you knew what was holy. (Winton, Dirt Music, 376).

The children here are rendered innocent, beatific, a memory perhaps assisted by Fox’s reading preference for Wordsworth and Blake. Notwithstanding the novel’s contentious conceptions of the blues discussed earlier, the blues is the nearest thing approximating, inspiring, this “this,” which words seem to fail to capture except falteringly in a pronoun; which gestures towards the transcendental; and which gets at the heart of things. Indeed, this memory on the verandah evokes an earlier memory, of Darkie and Sally making out on a bus as young lovers while Fox lustfully looks on with his “bag crushed to his lap” (Winton, Dirt Music, 376). He feels shame at this memory, but it is when he then comes to chant lines from the gospel song “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” that “the tune takes him off a little way into thoughts of Darkie and Sal. Hard thoughts in pain. Disloyal thoughts” (Winton, Dirt Music, 378). What pains Fox most is the admission, to which the narrative has been culminating, that “[t]he music wasn’t in them. They barely felt it. They just liked playing” (Winton, Dirt Music, 379). Just to underscore this revelation, Fox wonders how it was that, after their first gigs, they could then “drive to the coast with the radio spitting the Ramones” (Winton, Dirt Music, 380). For Fox, the shift from playing music, “striding a bit of bluegrass that has mandolin and guitar calling and answering” (Winton, Dirt Music, 111), to listening to the Ramones spat out from the radio (as the pair then proceeded to have sex on the hood of the car


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while Fox looked on through the windscreen, which might well inform Fox’s later negative appraisal of the Ramones) seems to be a sign of musical infidelity or, at least, an early signal that music, real music, wasn’t ever really “in” them. And because this essential quality is found wanting, they are not the people Fox had thought they were, had wished them to be, so in addition to mourning their loss, he is confronted with the necessity “to mourn his idea of them” (Winton, Dirt Music, 381). And it is to a particular form and making of music that the novel turns to represent that work of mourning: the drone. Fox’s venture north physically enacts that work, even as it goes unrecognized as such by him; he leaves White Point in part to escape the violent wrath of the White Point inhabitants once they discover his poaching, in part to put some distance between himself and Georgie, and in part to get away from his memories. Along the way he suffers, survives by stealing and living off the land, taking only what he needs. This attitude to the environment is in distinct contrast to that exhibited by Jim Buckridge, who enjoys an elevated, proprietorial height over the land and sea: “Jim must feel like the king of all he surveys,” exclaims one character, not entirely in awe of this position (Winton, Dirt Music, 272). By contrast, the music Fox comes to play on the drone is conflated with a notion of harmonious nature so that the patterns he produces are recognized in the patterns of the scallop shell “repeated in the sandy-ribbed bottom and in the fluted shoreline and the sandstone ranges” (Winton, Dirt Music, 403). Notwithstanding this apprehension of “the wilderness” that Fox defines as “The idea of a place to be truly alone in” (Winton, Dirt Music, 294), an understanding that sidesteps the colonial histories that give rise to it and puts “nature” in the service of Fox’s existential desires, this is another idea of dirt music—one originating in “the dirt,” in nature—with which the drone is associated.12 It is the drone that marks the beginning of Fox’s mourning as “within that long, narcotic note there are places to go” (Winton, Dirt Music, 369). At first, the drone is a casual, accidental discovery; on lubricating his fishing reel, “Fox plucks the taut-strung leader tied to the last runner of the rod and hears something like B-flat” (Winton, Dirt Music, 367). This note prompts snatches of memories of his family and a promise of some release from grief: His heart races; it feels dangerous, listening to this, giving in to the sound, but his thumb whacks at the string out of reflex. . . . God knows music will undo you, and yet you’re whacking this thing into a long, gorgeous, monotonous, hypnotic note and it’s not killing you, it’s not driving you into some burning screaming wreck of yourself—listen! (Winton, Dirt Music, 368)

He then stops, suddenly overwhelmed by the apparent power of the drone to affect his inner life: “It’s not memory. It’s something else and it frightens him” (Winton, Dirt Music, 372). What this something else is is not easily put into words, which is why the sound the drone makes is imagined to approach some limit of experience. The novel carries the idea that music gestures towards experiences and intuitions beyond language, with “the bighearted chang of a dreadnought guitar ringing up your arm, in your lap,

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down the heels of your boots” (Winton, Dirt Music, 376). Or perhaps more accurately, it is the “chang”—less the sound than the attempt to represent musical sounds in words—that draws attention to the novel’s interest in music because it is within the gap that seems to exist between the two forms that absence (in terms of loss—his niece “wrapped in his denim jacket, her milky breath upon his face”—and desire—“He sings the gloss of Georgie’s skin, the hot rush of her laugh”) is registered (Winton, Dirt Music, 370, 402). Fox half-recognizes the complex relationship between music, language, and mourning the text establishes when, having made another drone by stringing a piece of wire between two trees and singing in accompaniment, “[t]he music develops a pattern whose order just eludes him. He knows it’s there, feels himself always at the brink of comprehending it” (Winton, Dirt Music, 403). It is this musical “brink of comprehension” that encompasses both incomprehensible loss and the possibility of something other than what Georgie recognizes as “[a]ll that longing for the dead,” which, in the logic of the romance narrative, is another kind of desire: “There were moments when she told herself that he wanted her,” Winton writes (Winton, Dirt Music, 429). Hence, it is not incidental that, when Jim Buckridge and Georgie eventually find the camp Fox has set up, on seeing the drone, Georgie immediately declares, “It’s him” (Winton, Dirt Music, 412), as though Fox and the instrument are interchangeable; it is a conceit that echoes Fox’s own wondering “if he’s the singer or the sung” (Winton, Dirt Music, 403) and repeated descriptions of him as merging with the instrument, “leaning hip and shoulder against the trunk . . . [to] alter the string’s pitch and slur notes gently or wildly” (Winton, Dirt Music, 402). Buckridge’s response to the discovery of the drone is equally telling: when he disinterestedly runs his thumb across the nylon leader, a “dull twang” emanates (Winton, Dirt Music, 412); a little later, he tears down the line in anger. By contrast, when Georgie thumbs the string she produces and hears “Oh. Oh.”—lament and rapture both (Winton, Dirt Music, 413). How could the hypothesized Booktracked version of Dirty Music sonically represent this “Oh. Oh.”? The obvious resource for Booktrack employees is “One,” the 18th track on the first Dirt Music: Music for A Novel CD, composed especially for the largely compilation score and played by Lucky Oceans. As Oceans’ notes to the one-minute track explain, this track comprises “a steel bar slid on one braided nylon string of an African harp-lute” and has, as its prompt, Fox’s making of “an instrument by stringing some fishing line between two trees” to the degree that it “isn’t quite that austere, but it has a purity born of limitations” (Oceans, Dirt Music: Music for a Novel, 15, 16). But, what this option would miss, or at least not emphasize, is how this moment in the text is not so much a sound as an instance of grappling with how to represent in writing an interpretation of, an internalization of, musical sound. It is this dynamic that the CD set enters. The CD set, with its connections to, but express differences from, the novel—its “not quite-ness,” which the novel reciprocates— further highlights the gaps between music and writing that are central to the novel’s concern with mourning and how to represent absence, which Booktracking might otherwise collapse as it renders sound diegetically. The CD set contains no obvious hits or singles, surrounded by fillers; nor is it in the mold of the “concept album,” driven by narrative cohesion or the effort to create a


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self-contained world.13 In this regard, two images that appear in the CD booklet are very interesting: one is a photograph taken through the window of a recording studio, which seems to capture unaware four men and their instruments, arranged in an intimate circle; the other is a posed portrait shot of Tim Winton and Lucky Oceans seemingly working together at an office desk on which rests a computer. The first image, which comes after the portrait photograph in the CD booklet, conjures the notion of a live performance, the original template for recorded music that is also hinted at in the liner notes to Renee Geyer’s contribution to the first CD, a version of Dan Hicks’ “I Scare Myself,” which relate that the track was recorded in “[o]ne take” (Winton and Oceans, Dirt Music: Music for a Novel, 13). Yet at the same time, the portrait photograph implicitly foregrounds the role of people using technology in the making of the CD set, mixed, mastered, as a technological artifact. The CD pulls together from afar various material, and is bound up with sound-recording technologies that permit the creation of music aligned with an ideal of sound rather than only a sound event (as the “one take” would imply).14 And although the division of the set into blues-based music and classical music, A and B sides that recall the LP, its very form, its storage capacity, also means that nearly 63½ minutes of music can be recorded onto the first CD, something that no LP could entertain. Thus, the CD set is positioned at the intersection of many media, including writing, the very substance of the novel with which it is obviously linked; in turn, the novel reaches out to music as it addresses how to represent in narrative form loss and mourning. Dirt Music: A Novel and Dirt Music: Music for a Novel are formally and imaginatively correlative; what new media can and will do to the complex relations between sound and word to which these two texts point is something to anticipate.

Notes 1 Winton, Dirt Music, 103. 2 Winton and Oceans, liner notes to Dirt Music: Music for a Novel, 18. See also Grace Koch, “Music and Land Rights: Archival Recordings as Documentation for Australian Aboriginal Land Claims.” 3 Instances include Daniel Albright, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and Other Arts; Jean-Pierre Barricelli, Melopoiesis: Approaches to the Study of Literature and Music; Stephen Benson, Literary Music: Writing Music in Contemporary Fiction; Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff, eds., The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction; Perry Meisel, The Cowboy and the Dandy: Crossing over from Romanticism to Rock and Roll; Steven Paul Scher, ed., Music and Text: Critical Inquiries; Alan Frederick Shockley, Music in the Words: Musical Form and Counterpoint in the Twentieth-Century Novel; Saadi A. Simawe, ed., Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison; Gerry Smyth, Music in Contemporary British Fiction: Listening to the Novel; Phyllis Weliver, The Figure of Music in NineteenthCentury British Poetry; John Williamson, Words and Music. 4 See Will Straw, “In Memoriam: The Music CD and Its Ends.” 5 Goldmark, Kramer, and Leppert, “Phonoplay: Recasting Film Music,” in Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, 3. See also Julie Hubbert, ed., Celluloid Symphonies: Texts and Contexts in Film Music History; Peter Larsen, Film Music.

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6 Booktrack, “FAQ.” 7 Wolf, The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality. 8 For an account of the sonata-novel form, see Calvin S. Brown, Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts. 9 For example, see Hans Weisethaunet and Ulf Lindberg, “Authenticity Revisited: The Rock Critic and the Changing Real.” 10 Moore, “Authenticity as Authentication,” 210. 11 Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, 125. 12 For another account of music and place in Winton’s novel, see Kylie Crane, “The Beat of the Land: Place and Music in Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.” 13 For an account of the concept album, see Carys Wyn Jones, The Rock Canon: Canonical Values in the Reception of Rock Albums. 14 Also see Simon Frith, Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music, 235.

Bibliography Albright, Daniel. Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature and Other Arts. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Barricelli, Jean-Pierre. Melopoiesis: Approaches to the Study of Literature and Music. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1991. Benson, Stephen. Literary Music: Writing Music in Contemporary Fiction. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. Booktrack. “FAQ.” Accessed March 27, 2013. http://www.booktrack.com/about.php. Brown, Calvin S. Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1948. Crane, Kylie. “The Beat of the Land: Place and Music in Tim Winton’s Dirt Music.” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik: A Quarterly of Language, Literature and Culture 54, no. 1 (2006): 21–32. Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Fuller, Sophie and Nicky Losseff, eds. The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2004. Goldmark, Daniel, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert. “Phonoplay: Recasting Film Music.” In Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, edited by Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert, 1–9. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007. Hubbert, Julie, ed. Celluloid Symphonies: Texts and Contexts in Film Music History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011. Jones, Carys Wyn. The Rock Canon: Canonical Values in the Reception of Rock Albums. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2008. Koch, Grace. “Music and Land Rights: Archival Recordings as Documentation for Australian Aboriginal Land Claims.” Fontes Artis Musicae 55, no. 1 (2008): 155–64. Larsen, Peter. Film Music. London, England: Reaktion, 2005. Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006.


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Meisel, Perry. The Cowboy and the Dandy: Crossing over from Romanticism to Rock and Roll. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999. Moore, Allan. “Authenticity as Authentication.” Popular Music 21, no. 2 (2002): 209–23. Scher, Steven Paul, ed. Music and Text: Critical Inquiries. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Shockley, Alan Frederick. Music in the Words: Musical Form and Counterpoint in the Twentieth-Century Novel. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2009. Simawe, Saadi A., ed. Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison. New York, NY: Garland, 2000. Smyth, Gerry. Music in Contemporary British Fiction: Listening to the Novel. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Straw, Will. “In Memoriam: The Music CD and its Ends.” Design and Culture 1, no. 1 (2009): 79–92. Weisethaunet, Hans and Ulf Lindberg, “Authenticity Revisited: The Rock Critic and the Changing Real.” Popular Music and Society 33, no. 4 (2010): 465–85. Weliver, Phyllis. The Figure of Music in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2005. Williamson, John. Words and Music. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2005. Winton, Tim. Dirt Music: A Novel. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan, 2001. Winton, Tim and Lucky Oceans. Liner notes to Dirt Music: Music for a Novel, by Tim Winton and Lucky Oceans. Australia Broadcasting Corporation 472 046-2. CD. 2001. Wolf, Werner. The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Rodopi, 1999.


“Where the Beat Sounds the Same” American Psycho and the Cultural Capital of Pop Music Carl F. Miller

“I used to hate Iggy Pop but now that he’s so commercial I like him a lot better. . . .”1 Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 book, American Psycho, has garnered a notorious reputation for its presumed glorification of sexism, racism, narcissism, homophobia, and a host of other graphic atrocities, leading its intended publisher, Simon & Schuster, to sever ties with Ellis over what they termed aesthetic differences.2 Although the subsequent publication of the manuscript by Vintage Books—along with the cultclassic movie adaption of a decade later starring Christian Bale3—has, in some measure, legitimized and vindicated Ellis’s work, it is still a book that many dignified readers shy away from discussing, praising, or consuming altogether. The irony of this is that, beyond its vile exterior reputation, American Psycho is actually predicated on classbased stratification and the debate over legitimate aesthetic taste. In a work where free market capitalism runs rampant, the questions of where to devote one’s patronage and critical approbation are often all-consuming concerns for the novel’s protagonist, Patrick Bateman. Although the book is set in the last stand of the Cold War in the late 1980s, it is the Japanese (instead of the Soviets) who are portrayed as the greatest threat to American hegemony,4 for reasons economic instead of political or military. Furthermore, the two extremes that presumably do not exist in a communist society—the upper and lower classes—are the only classes depicted in the book, with the working class being nonexistent.5 Bateman and his friends represent the affluent, young, urban professional (“yuppie”) stereotype of the time, and are dialectically balanced by the disenfranchised bums and prostitutes that are ever present in the book. However, while American Psycho’s monetary divide is exceedingly obvious, the cultural hierarchy that it depicts is much more complex. For while class and taste are always about inclusion and—even more often—exclusion, it is crucial to recognize that these differentiations are not exclusively economic. Such distinction lies at the heart of Pierre Bourdieu’s enduring concept of cultural capital, a theoretical construct concerned with the promotion of social mobility beyond 55


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

economic means. With the abstract goals of “distinction” and “prestige” in mind, Bourdieu articulates three main kinds of capital: economic, social, and cultural, the last of which is constitutive of forms of knowledge, skills, and education that give individuals a higher status in society.6 Any respective field of social relations consequently offers an arena for contesting arbitrary notions of cultural legitimacy, the result of which is a very different kind of social stratification. Taking Bourdieu’s work as his critical foundation, John Guillory—in his influential 1993 book, Cultural Capital—expands on this concept by explaining, “If there exists a form of capital which is specifically symbolic or cultural, the production, exchange, distribution, and consumption of this capital presupposes the division of society into groups that can be called classes.”7 American Psycho presents a prime example of this dynamic, and its period setting in the late 1980s offers an enigmatic lens through which to view the endurance of distinction and time-specific standards of taste. While the book offers a hypercommodified look at yuppie culture as a whole, American Psycho’s narrative is ultimately focused on a triangulated notion of cultural capital subjects—food, fashion, and music—with the last of these concerns providing perhaps the most complex and revealing sociological study of Patrick Bateman in the book.

“The Negation of Style” At its core, debate about taste is always made with the distinction between canonical and evanescent in mind—a search for timelessness in a world beset by what is hot right now. Guillory’s Cultural Capital is largely focused on the issue of literary canon formation, and this consideration is directly applicable to American Psycho, an innately popular work of literature with a burgeoning body of academic criticism. This draws attention to the ways that such theorization is also eminently applicable to other cultural institutions, as American Psycho offers an extended commentary on ways that the highest symbolic standard of education—the Ivy League—might not encourage social change, but rather social assimilation. In this respect, such education is not a matter of opening up the canon so much as preparing the next homogeneous generation to continue controlling it. For Bateman, the archetypal product of this aforementioned conservative system, this system of cultural prestige is most effectively expressed in three distinct creative forms— haute cuisine, high fashion, and popular music—with the first two of these forms directly tied to wealth and exclusivity. Bourdieu contends that one of the foundational principles of cultural capital is “the negative relationship which . . . is established between symbolic profit and economic profit, whereby discredit increases as the audience grows.”8 However, the exclusivity of haute cuisine offers a prime example of balancing this dialectic, with a high-retail product offset by an intentionally limited audience—a dynamic reminiscent of the prestigious Ivy League educations of many of their customers. In American Psycho, such hyper-exclusivity is most thoroughly embodied by the elusive restaurant Dorsia as it is a source of perpetual frustration for Bateman that, despite his economic and professional status, he is unable to secure a reservation there.

American Psycho and the Cultural Capital of Pop Music


Failing access to Dorsia, Bateman instead takes his date to Barcadia, where, as he narrates: I order the shad-roe ravioli with apple compote as an appetizer and the meatloaf with cevre and quail-stock sauce for an entrée. She orders the red snapper with violets and pine nuts and for an appetizer a peanut butter soup with smoked duck and mashed squash which sounds strange but is actually quite good. New York magazine called it a “playful but mysterious little dish.” (Ellis, 77)

Instead of independently assessing the menu items, Bateman is simply regurgitating the elitist mainstream reviews in the most prominent culinary publications of the day. When he and his coworkers are deciding which restaurant to call for a reservation, he is dumbfounded when asked for a suggestion, having misplaced his Zagat guide (Ellis, 310). And while he and his friends are aficionados of the culture industry of haute cuisine, they have no practical knowledge of cooking itself, with Bateman at one point admitting that he does not know what the terms “roasted” or “broiled” even mean (Ellis, 107). Instead, American Psycho is suffused with menu items that are equal parts elitist and irreverent: scallop sausage, free-range squid, marlin chili, and eagle carpaccio (Ellis, 40, 95, 154, 364).9 Furthermore, in contrast to the tendency to classify restaurants based on national and/or regional fare, fusion cuisine becomes the dominant trend in haute cuisine, and the consequences of its ubiquity are a series of restaurants and dishes that are largely indistinguishable from one another. While having dinner with a colleague at DuPlex, Bateman explains: Somewhere along the line the waiter . . . brings fresh Coronas, free-range chicken with raspberry vinegar and guacamole, calf ’s liver with shad roe and leeks, and though I’m not sure who ordered what it doesn’t matter since both plates look exactly the same.” (Ellis, 141)

Bateman’s observation is in general accordance with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s assessment that “the style of the culture industry . . . is also the negation of style,”10 as “having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals . . . obedience to the social hierarchy” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 131), with the end result being “a constant reproduction of the same thing” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 134). This trend toward elitist homogeny applies equally to fashion in American Psycho, in a world dominated by high-end labels such as Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, Armani, and Valentino, the price points for which are inaccessible to most of the general public. And Bateman’s adherence to the laws of fashion is similarly culled from specific critical commentary; when Van Patten asks Bateman the right way to wear a tie bar or clasp, Bateman robotically quotes GQ’s style section advice: “While a tie holder is by no means required businesswear, it adds a clean, neat overall appearance. But the


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

accessory shouldn’t dominate the tie. Choose a simple gold bar or a small clip and place it at the lower end of the tie at a downward forty-five-degree angle.”11 Bateman’s fixation on clothing and accessories would appear excessive to even the most sartorially inclined reader, such that arguably the most satisfying compliment he receives in the whole of the book is when Van Patten tells him that he is “pure prep perfection” (Ellis, 47). The essential uniformity of such fashion again leads to a cast of characters who are largely indistinguishable from one another;12 when Bateman is mistaken for Marcus Halberstram, he considers it “a logical faux pas since Marcus . . . does the same exact thing I do, and he also has a penchant for Valentino suits and clear prescription glasses and we share the same barber.”13 As Theodore Martin explains, in American Psycho “ ‘What are people wearing?’ is the question through which the period of the 1980s defines itself. The authentic history of the 1980s, in other words, is its superficiality.”14 However, Bateman’s penchant for fashion commentary is not motivated so much by any sense of fulfillment as it is by disgust at those who fail to adhere to his rigid standard of taste or by fear of falling short of this standard himself. Similarly, Bateman rarely enjoys eating any of the restaurant dishes, but instead simply feels compelled to order them for the cultural prestige they offer. For both fashion and cuisine, success is merely perfunctory, while failure is devastation,15 a sentiment Bateman reinforces when he admits, “There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me except for greed, and, possibly, total disgust” (Ellis, 282).

The High Mode of Popular Consumption In contrast to the cultural conceptions of haute cuisine and high fashion, which are both characterized by exclusivity and class distinction, the preference in music in American Psycho is decidedly more popular. Building on his earlier triangulation of types of capital, Bourdieu identifies “three zones of taste which roughly correspond to educational levels and social classes”: legitimate taste, middlebrow taste, and popular taste.16 Music effectively complicates the standard of cultural capital in the book, which is otherwise largely drawn along economic lines. Whereas Dorsia and Armani are both representative of legitimate cultural refinement in their respective fields, an artist like Bon Jovi offers a much more accessible and less prestigious cultural form. Just as significantly, music differs greatly from fashion and food in the demands that it makes on the consumer. Bourdieu explains that “as regards its social definition, ‘musical culture’ is something other than a quantity of knowledge and experiences combined with the capacity to talk about them. Music is the most ‘spiritual’ of the arts of the spirit and a love of music is a guarantee of ‘spirituality’ ” (Bourdieu, Distinction, 10)—no small concern in a coldly secular novel such as American Psycho, which openly declares that “God is not alive” (Ellis, 375). While there is little of the autonomous and experimental “pure” music in the book, American Psycho offers a series of forms that synthesize music and lyrics with an eye toward distinguished popular taste. The Broadway production Les Miserables provides a prime example of this, as American Psycho is set at the moment of that musical’s Broadway opening and

American Psycho and the Cultural Capital of Pop Music


subsequent cultural suffusion. As opposed to operatic performances, which would be seen as elitist and generally inaccessible to a wider audience, Les Miserables offers a middlebrow example of musical theater—one that is commodified in the countless billboard advertisements mentioned in American Psycho, and one that provides a common referent for cocktail conversation (a use Bateman demonstrates at a Christmas party, when he pointlessly asks a colleague if he likes the American or British cast recording of Les Miserables better) (Ellis, 182). The musical’s narrative of class struggle and the plight of the sex worker, meanwhile, offers a general catharsis to its consumers, lending political and emotional weight to its popular leanings. As Sonia Baelo-Allué observes, Ellis uses Les Miserables as “a form of denunciation, not of escapism. It becomes a leitmotif that figures in the background of everything that happens in the story.”17 Popular music takes this trend a step further, with a more enigmatic message that for Bateman demands both interpretation and legitimation. From the book’s opening chapter, which begins with a cab driver being bribed five dollars to turn up the volume on the radio so Bateman and his friends can hear the Ronettes’“Be My Baby” and ends with the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” playing continually on the jukebox, popular music is integrally woven into American Psycho’s narrative and message. Beyond the safe nostalgia behind such oldies, which are generally received as campy and ironic, the main musical focuses of the book are the popular artists and songs of the 1980s, which are spoken of in almost canonical tones stressing the artistic virtues of these subjects. Guillory refers to “certain works or genres of lesser cultural capital—science fiction, cartoons, and popular music” and asserts that “the hierarchy of cultural capital is reconfirmed most especially when popular or mass art is consumed according to the high mode of consumption” (Guillory, 332). It comes as little surprise that the music that ultimately overtakes Les Miserables’ visual and aural ubiquity around Manhattan in American Psycho is Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” a song that—despite its seemingly austere and religious title—was infamously utilized in a 1989 Pepsi commercial featuring a series of burning crosses. This raises the deeper motive behind yuppie society’s appreciation of popular music, one indelibly tied to the aforementioned spirituality of music. Bourdieu warns that “for a bourgeois world which conceives its relation to the populace in terms of the relationship of the soul to the body, ‘insensitivity to music’ doubtless represents a particularly unavowable form of material coarseness” (Bourdieu, Distinction, 11). Bateman accordingly uses popular music as an attempt at normalcy within a hyperelitist reality, while simultaneously drawing attention to the deeply ironic way his reception of music is characteristic of the culture of the 1980s. In a world replete with New Age versions of “White Rabbit,” Muzak adaptations of “Sympathy for the Devil,” and cover bands playing Motown hits from the 1960s, the subjective aesthetic reception of contemporary music is central to the cultural struggle in American Psycho.

Referents and Property Even more than disparate musical forms, for Bourdieu it is the popular song— approximated contemporarily by the pop music single—that carries a particular


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

cultural significance, one that offers an archetypal example of the dialectic of cultural capital: The song, as a cultural property which . . . is almost universally accessible and genuinely common (since hardly anyone is not exposed at one moment or another to the “successes” of the day), calls for particular vigilance from those who intend to mark their difference. The intellectuals, artists, and higher-education teachers seem to hesitate between systematic refusal of what can only be, at best, a middlebrow art, and a selective acceptance which manifests the universality of their culture and their aesthetic disposition. (Bourdieu, Distinction, 53)

While expansive and experimental musical forms, which often lack an archetypal (and radio-friendly) structure, are firmly ensconced as autonomous subjects in the realm of “legitimate” taste, pop music mirrors the Broadway musical (à la Les Miserables) in occupying—at best—a rung below on Bourdieu’s ladder of distinction. Criticism of pop music, accordingly, varies from that of legitimate purveyors of timeless musical taste18 to more popular reviews that stress a song’s and an artist’s place within the contemporary scene.19 Three of the most prominent chapters in American Psycho are in fact fictional reprints of critical reviews of Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News, respectively—intercalary segments that seemingly have nothing to do with the book’s larger narrative. Much the same as Bateman is reliant on the Zagat Survey to select an appropriate restaurant and GQ to dictate his daily wardrobe, the three music chapters are reminiscent of profiles from Rolling Stone magazine, which Bateman reiterates with gleeful aplomb. Such triviality is significant, as Bourdieu stresses that, among all cultural signifiers, “Nothing more clearly affirms one’s ‘class,’ nothing more infallibly classifies, than tastes in music” (Bourdieu, Distinction, 10), and at first glance, Bateman’s predilection for pop artists such as Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis appears inconsistent with his aforementioned tastes. Given his upper-class elitism on the subjects of food and fashion, these chapters on popular music might seem the equivalent of Bateman offering an exegesis on T.G.I. Friday’s menu instead of haute cuisine. But to see it as such misses arguably the most significant and complex expression of cultural capital in American Psycho. When Bateman explains that with the 1983 album Sports Huey Lewis and the News came into their own “commercially or artistically” (Ellis, 353), the distinction is effectively redundant. Bateman confidently terms the group “the premier rock band in the country for the 1980s” (Ellis, 355) and uses the band’s market success as evidence of his claim: “What to say to Sports dissenters in the long run? Nine million people can’t be wrong” (Ellis, 356). This commercial emphasis is evident in each of the music review chapters: Bateman considers Genesis’s early work under Peter Gabriel “too artsy, too intellectual,” but comes to appreciate the band after Phil Collins takes control and “the drum machine became more prevalent . . . the lyrics started getting less mystical and more specific . . . and complex ambiguous studies of loss became, instead, smashing first-rate pop

American Psycho and the Cultural Capital of Pop Music


singles” (Ellis, 133). Meanwhile, Bateman stresses that Whitney Houston’s greatest accomplishment is having four number one singles on her eponymous 1985 debut album, and admits that “all the songs” on her second album “sounded like a hit single to me” (Ellis, 255). Her worldwide popularity is made evident by her writing the theme song for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and he concludes her chapter by declaring her to be “the most exciting and original black jazz voice of her generation” (Ellis, 256). However, what these three artists actually offer are the “middlebrow” forms of jazz, blues, and rock, three fields that Bateman is able to exercise little control over in their more autonomous forms. For Bourdieu, unbridled commercial success comes with an accordant critical cost, as “the field of large-scale production . . . is symbolically excluded and discredited” artistically,20 a realization that each of the artists Bateman spotlights would have to reconcile in the years following the book’s publication. In a 2005 interview with VH1, Lewis admitted that his band’s success—with Sports alone selling more than 10 million albums—offered exactly the sort of dialectical conundrum that Bourdieu and Guillory detail. “It was tough,” Lewis said, “because my dad always used to tell me, ‘The most popular stuff is never the best, so if your record is #1, it’s probably not that good.’ ”21 By the early 1990s, just after the News’s commercial high point detailed in American Psycho, Lewis would enigmatically insist: “People think we’re a pop band—but we’re not a pop band, never have been. We just had some huge successes that hurt us a little” (Lewis, “VH1 Classic Q&A”). For Bateman, on the other hand, artistic success is defined by commercial acceptance and prosperity. In spite of (or perhaps because of) his Ivy League background, Bateman is anti-intellectual, anti-academic, and anti-avant-garde. He is instead, above all else, a conservative disciple of capitalism and commodification, and he accordingly pays homage to music that gives itself over to the commercial market. In doing so, he attempts to undercut the capital of those more autonomous artists—such as Peter Gabriel—to which he does not have comparable access and control. Guillory references Mary Louise Pratt’s assertion that the basis of cultural capital is that which “will be the normative referent for everyone, but will remain the property of a small and powerful caste that is linguistically and ethnically unified” (Guillory, 46), which accounts for the appeal of middlebrow commercial musicians to a man of Bateman’s economic stature. The need for this sort of command is evident when Bateman is asked to attend a heavy metal performance and says he will do anything that evening so long as it does not involve music; when asked to clarify, he says, “I don’t like concerts . . . I don’t like ‘live’ music” (Ellis, 73). Ostensibly, this is because—unlike albums on CD—he does not physically control its delivery and must instead critique it extemporaneously. He despises the U2 concert he attends (“I hate live music”), and admits that “the only real pleasure I get from being here is seeing Scott and Anne Smiley ten rows behind us, in shittier though probably not less expensive seats” (Ellis, 143–4). He spends much of the concert observing the band’s attire (“Emporio,” “Armani,” “Gitano”) and discussing where they should go to eat after the show, and when asked later what he thought about U2’s performance, he stammers, “They were great, just totally great. Just totally . . . Just totally . . . Irish” (Ellis, 236).


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

A Talking Head This draws attention to the fact that—even more so than the subjects of haute cuisine and high fashion—Bateman does not actually know anything about music; he simply repeats what he has read and heard elsewhere, and is at a loss when the conversation moves beyond this limited frame of reference. When Bateman is asked by his date what kind of music he likes, he replies: “ ‘Oh you know,’ I say, completely stuck. ‘The Kingsmen. Louie, Louie. That kind of stuff ’ ” (Ellis, 236). Asked what the saddest song he knows is, Bateman responds, “ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ . . . by the Beatles” (Ellis, 371). When asked directly if he knows who Mick Jagger is, Bateman can only struggle to sing a few lyrics from Jagger’s 1985 song, “Just Another Night” (Ellis, 207)—a decidedly minor (albeit contemporary) footnote for one of the major figures in rock music history. There is also a significant racial dynamic to Bateman’s musical assessment. While he is tolerant of the 1960s Motown girl group the Shirelles (whom he groups with 1960s white/mixed-race bands like the Tokens and the Ronettes) and Bobby McFerrin (whose middlebrow hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”22 he appreciates in much the same way that he does Whitney Houston’s catalog), Bateman is uninterested in any artists threatening the established racial/ethnic order. He disdains all classical jazz save for Bix Beiderbecke; he contends that Genesis produces “a groove funkier and blacker than anything Prince or Michael Jackson—or any other black artist in recent years—has come up with” (Ellis, 136); and he obliviously notes that the backing horns on Genesis’s “No Reply at All” are “by some group called Earth, Wind, and Fire” (Ellis, 134). In the most grievous example of this, the ever-present looping of INXS and Belinda Carlisle at the club is interrupted, Bateman narrates, by “some black guy rapping, if I’m hearing this correctly, something called ‘Her Shit on His Dick’ ” (Ellis, 198),23 which leads to a racial diatribe in which he ignorantly conflates rap with reggae.24 Bateman is, consequently, a critical reactionary who can only reproduce random— and often incomplete or inaccurate—sound bites. This makes it ironically appropriate both that Bateman’s favorite band is Talking Heads—the book being prefaced by the band’s lyrics, “And as things fell apart / Nobody paid much attention”—and that he slightly mishears Bon Jovi’s opening lyrics to “Wanted Dead or Alive”: “It’s all the same, only the names have changed” (Ellis, 163). This misunderstanding aligns seamlessly with Horkheimer and Adorno’s cynical commentary on popular music, which holds that “not only are the hit songs . . . cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 125). The most notorious manifestation of this reality by Bateman occurs at the aforementioned U2 concert, when he thinks that the title of the band’s iconic song “Where the Streets Have No Name” is actually “Where the Beat Sounds the Same” (Ellis, 144). Bateman’s prevailing mode of thinking collectively strips the musical form of its depth, edge, and innovation. Culture, in turn, becomes a continual replay lacking originality, as evidenced in the repeated club scenes in which Belinda Carlisle’s “I Feel Free” gives way to INXS’ “The Devil Inside,” which seamlessly segues into “New

American Psycho and the Cultural Capital of Pop Music


Sensation,” and then to the aptly titled “Pump up the Volume.” In a rare moment of introspective clarity, Bateman observes, “The Chandelier Room is packed and everyone looks familiar, everyone looks the same. . . . The music, INXS again, is louder than ever, but building toward what?” (Ellis, 61). In this context, pop music is little more than background noise for a yuppie society that can talk only in brief snippets about standardized topics. Bourdieu contends that “music represents the most radical and most absolute form of the negation of the world, and especially the social world, which the bourgeois ethos tends to demand of all forms of art” (Bourdieu, Distinction, 11). While Bourdieu’s commentary is aimed at promoting the positive transcendent qualities of music, in American Psycho such negation takes the corrupted forms of the negation of socialization, the negation of artistic innovation, and even the negation of individual identity at the promotion of an inflexibly homogeneous aesthetic. For although Simon Frith contends that “this egocentric aesthetic . . . is driven by a passionate desire to make other people listen differently” (Frith, 24), in Bateman’s case it is driven by the desire to have everyone listen exactly the same. In the chapter titled “End of the 1980s,” Bateman assesses the decade’s final cultural legacy by declaring, “Individuality [is] no longer an issue. . . . Intellect is not a cure. . . . Surface, surface, surface25 was all that anyone found meaning in” (Ellis, 375). In American Psycho, clothes define the man, cuisine is characterized by style over substance, and pop music is reduced to a formulaic sheen of hooks, refrains, and backbeats that allow the collective to stand in place of the individual.26

Music and Murder While American Psycho will always be best known for its pathological antihumanism and its graphic murder scenes, these actions are merely manifestations originating from Bateman’s carbon-copy superficiality. Indeed, one of the enduring warnings of the book is that when the experimental edge is removed from music and art, it necessitates the turn toward a different kind of rebellious expression—in this extreme case, the innovative murdering of innocent people. While these victims are variously the homeless and the sex workers of New York (with Les Miserables serving as an appropriate backdrop), the murders associated with popular music tend to be of members of both upper and lower economic classes. The violent role of music is evident in the graphic scene when Bateman uses the music from a Traveling Wilburys album to drown out the screams of two female victims (Ellis, 304), as well as his playing of a Richard Marx CD while he “grind[s] bone and fat and flesh [of his victims] into patties” (Ellis, 345). In perhaps the most famous scene from the 2000 Lionsgate film adaption, Bateman (played by Christian Bale) asks colleague Paul Allen (played by Jared Leto) if he likes Huey Lewis and the News, only to be dismayed when Allen answers dismissively, “They’re ok”—a flippancy characteristic of Bourdieu’s earlier conflation of musical insensitivity with material coarseness. Bateman proceeds to recite a number of critical quotations that appear in the book’s Huey Lewis chapter before murdering Allen with an axe while “Hip to be Square” plays in the background.27


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

This murder scene in the book is slightly but crucially different. Paul Owen (whose last name was altered in the film version) is an object of fascination for Bateman, having landed the coveted Fisher account, but he is the same age, does the same job, and dresses in the same fashion as Bateman. In the book, it is Owen—instead of Bateman—who independently raises the subject of music, randomly admitting to his host, “Anyway, I used to hate Iggy Pop but now that he’s so commercial I like him a lot better than—” and it is at that precise moment that Bateman chops open Owen’s head with an axe (Ellis, 217). The irony here is palpable, given that Bateman is killing someone who seemingly shares his artistic and popular views, and chooses to end Owen’s life in spite of this. In contrast to his earlier murder of a homeless man named Al, whom he kills after admitting, “I don’t have anything in common with you” (Ellis, 131), by this point in the book Bateman is seeking out a mirror image of himself. There is nothing redeeming, productive, or original about Bateman’s intrinsic constitution, and lacking any creative artistic outlet, he turns this frustrated energy against the veritable embodiments of himself. The mantra he finds himself repeating by the end of the book is, in fact, “Kill . . . All . . . Yuppies” (Ellis, 374). Of course, this does not solve the greater problem at hand, but instead perpetuates a vicious and murderous cycle, as American Psycho appropriately ends with the words “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT” (Ellis, 399). Lacking any sense of resolution, it is presumed that Bateman’s blank persona and violent outbursts carry on in perpetuity; there will be no epiphany that drives him to reject materialism, popular consensus, or murder, in large part because such good/evil binaries are effectively complicated by the world around him.28 Guillory’s Cultural Capital ends with a strikingly similar message, with the admission that “there is no way out of the game of culture, then, even when cultural capital is the only kind of capital, there may be another game, with less dire consequences for the losers, an aesthetic game” (Guillory, 340). Far from simply aesthetic play, though, the consequences offered within American Psycho are dire, and the stakes of this game are literally defined as life and death, along the way characterized by a desperate search for both individuality and commonality. While American Psycho offers a virtual panorama of 1980s pop music, it is popular music in a narrowly defined sense. The emphasis—in Bateman’s words—is on being “less mystical and more specific,” with the end objective being to produce “smashing first-rate pop singles” (Ellis, 133) that provide a safe social identity, universal cultural referents, and the background noise for a yuppie society that has lost the ability to think for itself.

Notes 1 Ellis, American Psycho, 217. 2 Benatar, “American Psychodrama,” 42. 3 For an in-depth reading of the myriad philosophical differences between Ellis’s novel and its film adaptation, see Eldridge, “The Generic American Psycho,” 19–33.

American Psycho and the Cultural Capital of Pop Music


4 Söderlind suggests that the title of the novel and its setting are key considerations to Bateman’s existential character, as “unlike Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, who was just psycho and can easily be explained away as one, Patrick Bateman is explicitly American, and his aberrant behavior must therefore be looked at in a national context” (“Branding the Body American,” 65). 5 For extended consideration of this perverse system of social economics, see Conley, “The Poverty of Bret Easton Ellis”; Heise, “American Psycho”; and Gooden, “Fictions of Fictitious Capital.” 6 Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” 242. 7 Guillory, Cultural Capital, viii. 8 Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, 48. 9 Bracewell observes that this is indeed part of a larger cultural trend, as “the 1980s would also see the menus of fashionable restaurants employ a kind of lyric poetry . . . in the descriptions of dishes: ‘shards of baby halibut wrapped in a fluffy cardigan of raspberry coulis, dancing on a mist of chives.’ In the Nineties, he-man chefs . . . and the rugged snappiness of cucina rustica would be a neat indicator of the general push toward authenticity—the triumph of ingredients over adjectives. But the list-based poetry of food description would endure, largely on the packaging of supermarket premium-range thermodestabilized theme snacks” (When Surface Was Depth, 9). 10 Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 129–30. 11 Ellis, American Psycho, 160. 12 For an analysis of the dialectical relationship between such hyper-consumerism and hyper-masculinity, see Storey, “ ‘And as things fell apart.’ ” 13 Ellis, American Psycho, 89. 14 Martin, “The Privilege of Contemporary Life,” 159. 15 This is in direct accordance with Guillory, who explains, “It would seem . . . that at the level of the dominant aesthetic, the ‘pleasure’ of aesthetic pleasure is ideally reduced to a zero-degree, to the experience of ‘distaste,’ while at the level of the popular aesthetic, the pleasure produced by cultural products fails to be ‘aesthetic’ at all. At neither level is ‘aesthetic pleasure’ actually experienced by anyone” (Cultural Capital, 333). 16 Bourdieu, Distinction, 8. 17 Baelo-Allué, Bret Easton Ellis’s Controversial Fiction, 101. 18 For a historical study of such high-cultural musical criticism, see Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club. 19 And, in the case of cultural marginalization, popular music and popular journalism are particularly intertwined, with Bourdieu calling journalism “the seemingly most heteronomous form of cultural production” (The Field of Cultural Production, 45). 20 Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, 39. 21 Lewis, “VH1 Classic Q&A: Huey Lewis—Part 2.” 22 Ironically, the success of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”—the first a cappella song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—also proved to be a critical/creative enigma for McFerrin. After winning the 1988 Grammy for both Song of the Year and Album of the Year, McFerrin’s new legion of fans were often pop listeners (such as Bateman) who had little interest in his more avant-classical jazz work, and McFerrin’s subsequent mission to reclaim his experimental legitimacy has resulted in his having no subsequent singles in the Billboard Hot 100.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

23 Ironically, rap is the musical form that most aligns with Bateman’s persona, through its stereotypic glorification of violence, materialism, and the denigration of women. 24 This discrimination carries over to the Lionsgate film version, as well. When Detective Kimball extemporaneously asks Bateman if he likes Huey Lewis and the News—a band Bateman clearly has an appreciation for—he responds simply, “Huey’s too black sounding for me” (American Psycho). 25 Bracewell, while referring directly to Ellis and the characters of American Psycho, ultimately condemns this mode of thinking by insisting that “merely to ‘slide down the surface of things’ . . . began by seeming clever and wound up, well, just missing the point” (When Surface Was Depth, 199). 26 In the words of Baelo-Allué: “Bateman’s personality is constructed through the images and messages he receives through mass and consumer culture, which leads to his inability to distinguish self from surface” (Bret Easton Ellis’s Controversial Fiction, 111). 27 Of course, Bateman is ironically not hip to be square, and instead uses the song to play out another of his repressions through music. While he praises the music of his favorite artists for glorifying material simplicity, monogamy, and emotional vulnerability, he clearly lacks the ability to personally evince these qualities. Beyond its cultural significance, popular music also fills an emotional void for Bateman, but in a way that is correspondingly simulacrum instead of substance. 28 For example, in contrast with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1986), which Bracewell terms “a presentation of cultural materialism as a Faustian struggle between good and evil,” American Psycho offers surprisingly little moral direction, with the alternative to material obsession presented as stark material deprivation (When Surface Was Depth, 307).

Bibliography American Psycho. Directed by Mary Harron. 2000; Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate Home Entertainment, 2005. DVD. Baelo-Allué, Sonia. Bret Easton Ellis’s Controversial Fiction: Writing between High and Low Culture. New York, NY: Continuum, 2011. Benatar, Giselle “American Psychodrama: The American Psycho Drama—Why Bret Easton Ellis’ New Novel is Having Such a Hard Time Coming Out.” Entertainment Weekly, November 30, 1990. Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010. ———. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Edited by Randal Johnson. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993. ———. “The Forms of Capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by John Richardson, 241–58. New York, NY: Greenwood, 1986. Bracewell, Michael. When Surface Was Depth: Death by Cappuccino and Other Reflections on Music and Culture in the 1990s. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002. Conley, John. “The Poverty of Bret Easton Ellis.” Arizona Quarterly 65, no. 3 (Autumn 2009): 117–35. Eldridge, David. “The Generic American Psycho.” Journal of American Studies 42, no. 1: 19–33. Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1991.

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Frith, Simon. “What is Bad Music?” In Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, edited by Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derno, 15–36. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. Gendron, Bernard. Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Gooden, Richard. “Fictions of Fictitious Capital: American Psycho and the Politics of Deregulation.” Textual Practice 25, no. 5 (2011): 853–66. Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Heise, Thomas. “American Psycho: Neoliberal Fantasies and the Death of Downtown.” Arizona Quarterly 67, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 134–60. Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. New York, NY: Continuum, 2000. Lewis, Huey. “VH1 Classic Q&A: Huey Lewis—Part 2.” VH1. Accessed June 21, 2013. http://www.vh1.com/video/interview/69490/huey-lewis-part-2.jhtml#id=1517997. Martin, Theodore. “The Privilege of Contemporary Life: Periodization in the Bret Easton Ellis Decades.” Modern Language Quarterly 71, no. 2 (June 2010): 153–74. Söderlind, Sylvia. “Branding the Body American: Violence and Self-fashioning from The Scarlet Letter to American Psycho.” Canadian Review of American Studies 38, no. 1 (2008): 63–81. Storey, Mark. “ ‘And as things fell apart’: The Crisis of Postmodern Masculinity in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Dennis Cooper’s Frisk.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 47, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 57–72.



Playing (in) Seattle Grunge as a Narrative Soundscape in Mark Lindquist’s Never Mind Nirvana Fiorenzo Iuliano

The existence of grunge as a cultural phenomenon was questioned even at the time of its hype by the very artists who were celebrated as its most representative icons. Grunge was dead, as Kurt Cobain himself claimed; yet, although several scholars have inquired into grunge music and the grunge scene in the 1990s, its connection with the subcultural scene of Seattle still needs to be further explored to fully appreciate the legacy of the phenomenon.1 Mark Lindquist’s novel Never Mind Nirvana undertakes just such an inquiry as it comes to terms with the grunge experience in Seattle by narrating what the city looked like a few years after the so-called grunge revolution. “[A] one-time Brat Pack writer, 15 years later,”2 Lindquist constructs his novel around the story of Pete Tyler, a kind of belated yuppie and former grunge musician (at the time when grunge achieved its momentum in Seattle), who, after giving up his musical career, started working as a deputy prosecutor. In the novel, he is prosecuting Keith, a local rock star accused of rape, “a musician who might as well be his former self,”3 and anxiously looking for a wife. Pete’s professional success hides a troublesome and insubstantial private life—thus echoing most of Bret Easton Ellis’s characters. However, the monodimensional time effect of Ellis’s novels is here replaced by the prominent role of the past, which, in both individual and collective terms, frequently surfaces in Pete’s present. The fractures that interrupt the ostensible smoothness of his story, in the form of breaks in the narrative, reveal Pete’s resistance to identifying with normative models of adulthood, and his being, at the same time, at odds with his own past. Grunge music works as the constant memento of Pete’s youth, the whole novel revolving around his anxiety and fear of growing up (he is “thirty-six years old. Or, as he has been saying since his birthday last week, almost forty”4) and of being officially admitted among the adults. The novel’s continuous slippage between the present and the past is rendered through the emblematic juxtaposition between Pete and the late leader of the band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, whose public persona stands as the emblem of grunge music, despite the differences, sometimes quite substantial in terms of formal and aesthetic features, among the most popular grunge bands of the time.5 Nirvana’s 69


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second studio album, Nevermind (1991), is significantly referred to by Lindquist as the synthesis and icon of the grunge age,6 to the point that the book’s dust jacket closely reproduces Nirvana’s CD cover, yet replaces the well-known image of a baby swimming underwater toward a U.S. dollar bill with a man in his thirties, dressed in a suit and tie. The gap between past and present is thus made visible. In narrating the transformation of a former rebellious rock star into a perfectly integrated young professional, however, the text never fully reveals whether it is a subtle critique or a naïve appropriation of the romantic idealization of grunge—and, to some extent, it can be read as both.

“As I Want You to Be”: Grunge and Authenticity The smooth surface of Never Mind Nirvana is scattered with barely detectable clues that question a straightforward reading which buys into a romanticized ideal of Seattle and grunge. The novel, though seemingly just another by-product of the grunge scene, interrogates a number of issues, such as grunge authenticity and grunge subculture, as sites of both identification and rejection—crucial points for an in-depth understanding of the relationship between grunge and the city of Seattle. In the novel, grunge is regarded as more of a legend than as a musical genre, perceived at the time when the story is set (1999) as a brand capable of effectively selling to its followers a model of alternative youth as if it were a product.7 In the past, grunge had provided the city of Seattle with a popular artsy connotation,8 and Pete is the direct witness of the transformation of the city from the “unrivaled Mecca of modern alternative rock music”9 of the late 1980s and early 1990s into an ordinary big American city. The text indirectly features a genealogy of grunge that establishes its authenticity by showing what its fake, spurious, and counterfeit versions look like. Without ever explicitly taking a stance on the issue, Lindquist simply stages the controversy about grunge and authenticity, which repeatedly surfaces throughout the text. Before moving on to a reading of the novel, I will briefly outline the key terms of the debate between supporters of grunge as an “authentic” subculture and those who consider it a completely fabricated media construct. This issue has been much debated by scholars in cultural studies and music studies, and is still an open question. In the 1980s—that is, the decade that consecrated music videos as a new and autonomous vehicle for pop music—visual elements, rather than music itself, became paramount to the marketing of songs, thus making it more difficult for bands to express dissent and, in general, to emphasize the social and political meaning of music over its more superficial and commercial aspects. Grunge bands were aware of the risk of losing their authenticity in the eyes of fans and critics due to the power that the culture industry had acquired in the previous decade, as Kurt Cobain openly revealed in a 1992 article published in Rolling Stone: “I don’t blame the average seventeen-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout. . . . I understand that.”10 Journalists and scholars, moreover, have often criticized grunge for being a mere juvenile trend responsible for commercializing independent rock11 and yielding to capitalist dynamics.12 A subculture devoid of all the authentically revolutionary components that had

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characterized the subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s, or a post-subculture, grunge has been criticized also for being a mere effect of the mediatized circulation of music,13 especially if compared with supposedly authentic subcultures such as punk or hip hop. Comparing it with hip pop, for instance, Adam Krims argues that grunge lacks that close relation with the urban scene that ultimately provides musical subcultures with social and cultural value, and, quite simplistically, claims that there is a distinction to be drawn between rap and hip hop, as convincing narratives of the NYC ghettoes, and grunge, as an instance of fantasized authenticity that produced an equally fictitious image of Seattle.14 The relationship between grunge and punk is even more controversial and problematic: punk exerted a powerful influence on grunge, but some critics and scholars have labeled grunge a poor spin-off of punk because of grunge artists’ unwillingness to fully engage social and political issues. From this point of view, grunge merely channeled a generic discontent, whose expression frequently had self-centered and individualistic overtones, and which allowed it to be defined as a form of “punk mainstream”; Nirvana, in particular, represented “a depoliticized and domesticated version of original punk.”15 Viewed in this critical context, Never Mind Nirvana can be read as another player in the debate over the authenticity of grunge: the novel further complicates the argument by scrutinizing the commodification of grunge as a complex process, whose structure is reminiscent of the genesis of myth as theorized by Roland Barthes.16 As in a Barthesian myth, in which an unchanged external form or “signifier” becomes the bearer of idealized meanings, Lindquist accurately describes the process of transformation of grunge music, its background, its social and cultural elements, and its icons into highly charged symbols. Specifically, Lindquist analyzes the heterogeneous elements that produced something known as “grunge” by organizing them into a cohesive narrative frame, which progressively erases their original meanings. Lindquist’s novel suggests that something like a grunge essence has existed in the past, though it does not precisely define it. By continually referring to Pete’s direct participation in the grunge scene of the 1990s, the novel seems to agree with the idea that “having taken part in” is the particular feature of any subcultural capital and one of the most reliable means through which authenticity can be tested and proved.17 Lindquist, in fact, shows Pete as fully involved in the Seattle grunge scene, insisting on his familiarity with the most popular grunge musicians and producers. Yet, aware of the ephemeral life of the “grunge era,” Pete wonders about its status as a subculture or simple trend once popular among young people. Specifically, the novel suggests that there is a substantial difference between authenticity as direct participation (a subculture is authentic because someone was actively involved in it) and authenticity as a historical and social datum (proven by the subculture’s relation to its historical and cultural background). In one of the last chapters, “Sub Pop, Fizz Fizz”—obviously referring to a popular ad jingle for AlkaSeltzer (“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz / Oh, what a relief it is”)—the novel recounts a party given in order to celebrate, after almost a decade, the legendary grunge years of Seattle, thus suggesting the idea of a grunge hangover from which the characters are trying to recover. Real people—that is, well-known former grunge musicians—join the party,


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together with “the old tribe of crazies, junkies, sluts, crybabies and ne’er-do-wells” of the Sub Pop entourage (Lindquist, 203). However, the text short-circuits the binary opposition between a realistic narrative style and the artificial and fictitious effect it stages, and produces a sort of vertigo involving the characters and the reader alike: depicted as lacking any real contact with the present, the protagonists of the chapter unsuccessfully try to resuscitate a typical grunge night from a decade earlier, thus merely staging the uncanny repetition of old habits in a completely different context. Whether they are nostalgically celebrating a by now vanished past or retrieving it as a merely performative ritual, however, is (intentionally) unspecified by Lindquist, who, in this as in other passages of the novel, exploits the ambivalences of the narrative to address the complex relationship between past and present. The ending of this kind of daydream is violent and unexpected: Pete is punched in his face because he is recognized as the lawyer persecuting Keith, thus being perceived as an intruder or, even worse, as a traitor (Lindquist, 209–10). The sheer opposition between Pete’s past and present, rather than his direct participation in the grunge scene, emphasizes the historical and social transformations that occurred over the years as a key element to understanding grunge as a subcultural phenomenon and as a contradictory site of identification, one whose mythic rendering raises questions about its pristine authenticity. Pete’s private life mirrors the evolution of grunge into a collective Barthesian myth, whose “mythic signifiers” are Pete’s relationship with the city of Seattle and the role that gender and class play in his self-representation and controversial attitude to his past.

“Stupid and Contagious”: Grunge and Its Myths Taking up and unpacking the “mythic signifiers” of Pete’s life, Lindquist reveals the forgotten or elided actual signifiers of grunge by describing its marketable, “sellout” opposite, realistically embodied in the very figure of Pete Tyler. The identification of grunge with the city of Seattle, seemingly taken for granted in the novel, thus has to be reconsidered in the light of historical reconstruction. Before entering the common imagination as the Seattle sound, in fact, grunge had been the expression of a number of bands whose only shared trait was, with few exceptions, that they came from outside Seattle. The whole region of the U.S. Northwest saw the birth of distinct grunge bands. Even the iconic Nirvana were not from Seattle, but from Aberdeen, and the other bands that contributed to the definition of grunge as a genre were actually from Olympia (Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill, Unwound), Ellensburgh (Screaming Trees, King Crab), Tacoma (Girl Trouble, Seaweed, Green Apple Quick Step, Metal Church), Portland (Wipers, New Bad Things, Heatmiser), Eugene (Snakepit, Some Velvet Sidewalk), or Boise (Treepeople, State of Confusion, Built to Spill, Septic Death). There were also bands from Seattle (U-Men, Madhoney, Alice in Chains, Skinyards, Green River, Young Fresh Fellows, and Fastbacks, for example), but most of the musicians later to be lumped under the umbrella term “grunge” had, at their inception, nothing to do with Seattle and its cultural environment, coming from small,

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sometimes remote, and poor areas. This is the case with Nirvana: the image of Aberdeen as a sordid, violent, and conservative small town in the rural areas of the state of Washington was portrayed by Kurt Cobain himself in his Journals as well as by many other sources that chronicled the rise of grunge.18 Krist Novoselic, the Nirvana bassist whom Lindquist lists among the people at the grunge party described above, mentions the impossibility of creating a punk scene in the American Northwest given its nonurban character, and thus suggests a strong connection between the so-called Seattle sound and the rural areas of the state of Washington often overlooked in the analysis of the (lack of) authenticity of grunge.19 As Novoselic further argues, grunge was in fact the result of a negotiation between the mainstream culture he and Cobain were trying to assault, and a countercultural resistance that, in a place like Aberdeen, risked looking innocuously exotic and naïve.20 Recalling Nirvana’s first steps, Novoselic points out that the years spent in Aberdeen were crucial to his and Cobain’s relationship to music, and not simply because of the gloomy, dull, and solitary “atmosphere” of the place as opposed to the supposedly vibrant and intellectually stimulating scene in Seattle.21 The relationship between Nirvana and Seattle, indeed, was much more complicated and controversial. Though Seattle was undoubtedly the first city that gave Nirvana a larger audience, it was also the center of the “disease-covered Puget Sound” attacked in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”22 as an emblem of the corrupt U.S. culture and movie industry, which destroys its own products to replace them with newly commercialized ones. Never Mind Nirvana on the one hand resorts to the myth of the Seattle sound and stages the direct connection between grunge and Seattle, reinforcing this association by scrupulously tracing every step of its characters across the city. On the other, however, it recoils from a full endorsement of this myth by allowing readers to sense its artificiality. From its very beginning, the text is rich in references to both actual and symbolic landmarks of Seattle: places and clubs are accurately listed, along with other cultural landmarks, from the city’s well-known alternative newspaper, The Stranger, to amazon. com (Lindquist, 9). Downtown Seattle, however, is immediately turned into the very metaphor of Pete’s existence: the perpetual expectation of something that either is happening elsewhere or has already happened, with no chance for the protagonist to fully relish it, voices the frustration and constant disappointment that, in the common understanding, used to characterize grunge: To the south is Pioneer Square. . . . To the east are Gibson’s and the Night Lite, alcoholic dives. . . . To the north is the Belltown area, home to . . . the Crocodile, where every decent Seattle band has played. . . . Whichever route he chooses he knows he will carry with him the edgy suspicion he is missing something, that somewhere out there is the possibility he’s been waiting all his life for and he is just not looking in the right place, but one of these nights. . . . (Lindquist, 5)

Indeed, this intense feeling of displacement informs a crucial scene of the novel, in which Pete drives his car through the streets of Seattle with his fiancée Esmé, while the


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whole city is displayed before their eyes. They stop for a drink and, while in a bar, “they look out on the Space Needle, Queen Anne Hill, Lake Union, and the I-5 bridge” (Lindquist, 119). Meanwhile, one of Nirvana’s most popular songs, “In Bloom,” starts playing. Everything seems to be perfectly balanced: the touristy version of the city and its designated soundtrack are represented as two perfectly integrated components of the same territorial and cultural landscape, and as the perfect frame for a date. This scene, though, is disturbed by something that Pete perceives as wrong and unfitting. He is “horrified by this musical abuse of Nirvana” (Lindquist, 119), thus revealing a deep sense of uneasiness with the fictitious symmetry between the city and its sound. This uneasiness can be ascribed to Pete’s subconscious awareness of how artificial the relationship between Seattle and Cobain/Nirvana was in reality, besides further marking the lapse of time between the grunge years, when Seattle seemed to embody a dream that anyone was able to grasp, and the present, after the utopian dream of the 1990s has faded away. Grunge has been turned by now into a landmark among landmarks in Seattle, despite its strong criticism of and overt rebellion against some of the cultural myths of the city. Futurity is one of these myths, deeply ingrained in the narratives of the city (at least since the early 1960s, when the Emerald City was chosen to host the 1962 World’s Fair), and ridiculed in the novel as an unrealistic perspective in late 1990s United States: “We’ve got a criminal justice system that doesn’t expect anyone to be a grownup, we live in a country that doesn’t expect anyone to be a grown up, we’ve even got a president who won’t grow up, so why should you?” (Lindquist, 187). Implicitly evoking the sense of nihilistic impotence that originally characterized grunge music, the protagonists’ lives seem ironically to deny the myth of futurity as it was commonly circulated within Seattle’s popular narratives, and the very reputation of Seattle as “the city of the future.”23 Yet, in the novel, futurity and its anxieties are also expressed in terms of gender, particularly in figuring Pete’s obsession with the need to get married as an attempt to end his otherwise apparently everlasting adolescence. By idealizing marriage as the only reasonable course of action that he sees for himself, furthermore, Pete endorses normative (heterosexual) masculinity, traditional family, and patriarchy as values, thus further widening the gap between his past identification with grunge subculture and his present status as an upper middle-class man. Grunge, indeed, was renowned for attacking patriarchy and its institutions, and, in general, any model of society based on normative heterosexuality. As Catherine Strong maintains, “the prominent male figures of grunge . . . were vocal in their support of tolerance and equality, not just for women but also races and sexualities other than white heterosexual” (Strong, 108).24 Lindquist’s (and grunge’s) antihero, Kurt Cobain, has been praised for his attacks (both in his songs and in his journals) against machismo and patriarchy, for having often played with gender roles, allowing “his own sexuality to be called into question by often wearing dresses and/or make-up on stage,” and for writing “explicitly feminist songs” (Strong, 108), though his will to subvert gender stereotypes has been explained as a reaction to the bullying he suffered in high school.25 Lindquist’s novel gives prominence to the political function of Cobain’s subversion by contrasting it with Pete’s choices and behavior, which are presented as the outcome of a conservative and patriarchal ideology.

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The symbolic opposition between Pete and Kurt Cobain is nevertheless altered, and to some degree diminished, in the chapter “Power, Money, or Art.” Here, Pete and his colleague Scott are at the Deja Vu, an adult club located in downtown Seattle where young professionals and businessmen go to enjoy sex shows, and where Nirvana’s music is employed, incredibly, as background. Moreover, the music played is “Heart-Shaped Box,” a love song that Kurt Cobain apparently dedicated to his wife Courtney,26 the merely superficial recollection of its celebrated, dead icon being perhaps the only way for grunge to be kept alive, no matter what Cobain actually intended in his music. The discrepancy between the sordid and chauvinist setting and the use of grunge music is also increased by the presence among the customers of a non-identified member of the grunge band Alice in Chains: at this point in history, living grunge stars are not dissimilar from the ordinary audience of such clubs, despite the strong critique of male chauvinism as a form of power that characterized the music they played until a few years before.

“Rather Be Dead than Cool”: A Novel about Mourning By having “Heart-Shaped Box” played in a strip club, with a former member of Alice in Chains among the audience, Never Mind Nirvana exposes the process of commodifying and trivializing grunge and the transformation undergone by its very protagonists. In the narrative economy of the text, this process is embodied by Pete: describing him as constantly rehearsing the role of the prototypical 1990s young, urban, (white and straight) male, Lindquist unveils the artificiality of his normative identification, and indirectly emphasizes the call for alternative models of identity and behavior as a distinctive trait of grunge subculture. When he looks at himself, Pete hardly recognizes the rebellious and transgressive rock star he used to be, yet it is doubtful whether his uneasiness is due to the mythologized nature of his own past or to the conformist character of his present life. The novel provides no definite answers to this dilemma, but simply suggests to those who question the “merely” performative nature of subcultures that any process of identification is, as such, performative. Further, the melancholia that characterizes Pete’s relationship with his past reveals his inability to completely identify with his present position as a young professional, since the memory of what he used to be, besides operating as a constant reminder of the past, also reminds him of the fabricated nature of his present identity. Pete’s regret for a lost past interestingly dovetails with the death of Kurt Cobain and the different ways in which he was mourned, in a crucial shift of the novel from a private (Pete’s) to a collective account of grunge. The mourning of Cobain, as in a Freudian textbook, adequately replaces the indefinite and vague melancholia for a youth that Pete, as the epitome of his generation, wishes to stretch out beyond its natural ending. The issue of authenticity as evidence both of cultural capital and of grunge as a true subculture comes up again, but now the only possible expression of authenticity is the elaboration of mourning. Kurt Cobain’s tragic death, the episode after which “the Nirvana phenomenon instantly gained the status of myth,”27 also revealed that grunge had by now turned into


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a commercial enterprise, complete with merchandise.28 Working as the denouement of the novel, the chapter titled “The Thing About Kurt Cobain” stages the relationship between Cobain’s death and his function in the symbolic construction of grunge as both a myth and a product. Pete, his friend Scott, and two young women are on a ferry going across Elliot Bay, the Puget Sound landscape perfectly fitting as a backdrop for the scene. Talking about the rape case Pete is working on, the topic of their conversation shifts to Kurt Cobain: “The thing about Kurt Cobain,” Helen says, “is that he never wanted to be a star. . . . the thing about Kurt is he never lost his artistic integrity. He always gave off this incredible thing of pureness. . . . But the thing about Kurt,” Helen continues, “is –” “The thing about Kurt Cobain,” Pete says, “is that he’s dead.” (Lindquist, 195)

Lindquist suggests that Cobain dramatically revealed, through the materiality of his own death, the impossibility of being consistent with his own principles without being self-destructive in the end. Apart from a number of sociological studies concerned with its effects on young people’s behavior,29 several scholarly texts have discussed Cobain’s suicide as the result of the unbearable weight of being a star and the spokesperson of the so-called Generation X,30 “the reluctant figurehead of the grunge movement.”31 As Catherine Strong summarizes the question, “the death of Kurt Cobain has often been linked to the pressures placed on him to live up to the ideals of authenticity demanded by his audience and the media” (Strong, 22).32 Conversely, Cobain’s death has been also analyzed as an “effect of the real,” the result of his merely televisual legacy,33 his actual death being thus dismissed as completely irrelevant to his audience: “For those who experienced him through this new music cultural apparatus, his real death can be a matter of almost total indifference . . . because his televisual presence is all that ever mattered in the first place” (Beebe, 320). Lindquist’s layered narrative, which allows for multiple readings of the same phenomenon, produces a first-level of perception of the past that apparently backs and amplifies this position: “grunge” was only a piece of fiction; what actually existed was a group of young men who took advantage of the hype to become famous and date as many girls as possible. However, the pervasive melancholia of the novel, which evokes the loss and mourning of an original, authentic energy of grunge music, and the narrative’s twofold articulation, hinged on the opposition between Pete and Kurt Cobain, imply that grunge cannot be dismissed as a pure media phenomenon, and trace a subtle connection (or even cause-and-effect dynamic) between the loss of authenticity in grunge music and subculture, on the one hand, and Cobain’s death on the other. The way in which the novel handles this question is representative of its rhetorical strategy: rather than overtly referring to what grunge used to be before becoming a salable product, Never Mind Nirvana chooses to stage its degraded outcome. Though never explicitly addressing this issue, there is a layer of the narrative suggesting that the end of any critical (or revolutionary) potential of grunge, and the final surrender of its most widely known spokesperson, is to be traced back to the transformation of grunge into

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the marketable “teen spirit” that Cobain mocked in his (probably) most popular song, and the progressive erasure of what it used to be at its origins. Only by looking at how grunge as a subculture was deeply grounded in specific sections of the U.S. society can we undo the simple opposition between media effect/ genuine product, which the novel places in the spotlight, inviting deeper scrutiny of its historical and social dynamics. Scholars such as Rupa Huq and Deena Weinstein provide valuable contributions to the discussion through well-sustained explorations of what grunge was in social/economic, and not simply symbolic, terms. As the core of his argument, Huq posits grunge as “inseparable from its constituency and context of white youth in the U.S. suburbs. . . . In grunge and its drop-out sentiment we can see a reaction to the Reagan–Bush axis with its central belief that ‘greed is good’ ” (Huq, 139). In her essay about “alternative youth,” Deena Weinstein maintains: The Seattle slacker style of appearance is a variation of punk for the Pacific northwest region of the United States—flannel shirts and torn jeans (identification with the homeless and the destitute). . . . The slacker generation is referred to in the mass media as the Baby Bust generation—the ones who were suffering from the austerity involved in paying for the economic excesses of the 1970s and 1980s and know that they face a contracted horizon of opportunity.34

Following this argument, we can read grunge’s failure as a subculture as the result of its shift from a peripheral and marginal rural context, as it was for Cobain, to a music scene fully ingrained in a metropolitan milieu. Grunge died after moving to Seattle, or, at least, this is what happened to its most celebrated icon. Music was no longer a weapon to wield against actual enemies (unemployment, class subalternity, patriarchal ideology, homophobic bullying), but a way to give voice, at most, to a generation that had no political or social concerns and was simply bored with its status as well off and middle class. It follows that Cobain’s discomfort with his role of rock star and icon of grunge was political rather than personal, this difference marking his opposition with Pete Tyler, whose anxiety exclusively derives from private and individual concerns. Class and gender become real terms of contradiction and struggle between what Kurt Cobain was and how the media described him: rather than the spokesperson of Generation X, he was the adequate representative of those rural American youth who grew up in places like Aberdeen during the 1980s, when the United States lived in the myth of the “bright lights, big city,” and peripheral areas were becoming increasingly poor, isolated, and depressed. In this conflict between rural America and the big city and its mythography, the novel’s ending takes up and effectively mocks the rhetorical stances of the whole text. Pete realizes that there is a girl, Winter, whom he may want to marry and for whom, at the end, he declares his love. But she shows him the engagement ring “with an emeraldcut diamond” she has just received (Lindquist, 236). Besides the subtle, tongue-incheek reference to the “emerald city” (which is one of the novel’s leitmotifs), Pete’s reaction is what counts. “After Winter disappears inside,” he decides that he will not


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leave Seattle, and, then, “Pete clicks on his headlights. In his view ahead is downtown and the Space Needle. Well, you still have Seattle. Possibilities. He turns the radio on” (Lindquist, 238, 239). The last three lines, finally, explain the pun implied in the novel’s title. “Never Mind Nirvana,” rather than a quote of Nirvana’s Nevermind, is to be understood literally: forget Nirvana and what they said; the myth of “the city of the future” and the opportunities it can disclose are much more appealing. Whereas grunge was the cynical and realistic description of a stubborn and angry no-future generation, Pete prefers to believe in Seattle and in its shining stereotypes, musical and otherwise. Kurt Cobain, luckily for him, was long dead.

Notes I wish to thank John Vallier from the University of Washington, Seattle, for his precious suggestions and for the inspiring conversations we had while I was working on this essay. I also gratefully acknowledge the Sardinia regional government for its financial support (P.O.R. Sardegna F.S.E. Operational Programme of the Autonomous Region of Sardinia, European Social Fund 2007–2013—Axis IV Human Resources, Objective l.3, Line of Activity l.3.1 “Avviso di chiamata per il finanziamento di Assegni di Ricerca”). 1 To mention just a couple of them: Catherine Strong, whose Grunge: Music and Memory is, to date, the most thorough and comprehensive research on the topic; and Ryan Moore, who, in Sells Like Teen Spirit. Music, Youth Culture, and Social Crisis, addresses the issue of music and social change in the 1990s in the United States. Interesting contributions, though often limited to single articles, have also been authored by Giles Hooper and Tim Hughes, among others. 2 Dederer, “Novel’s Trial Based in the Heart of Grunge.” 3 Brace, “Facing the Music—and a Midlife Crisis.” 4 Lindquist, Never Mind Nirvana, 3. 5 That Cobain is the symbol and the icon of grunge music, and, in general, of the subcultural scene that animated 1990s Seattle, is by now unanimously acknowledged: there were of course other bands, but, as Roopa Huq reminds us in Beyond Subculture, “grunge will always be seen as synonymous with Nirvana and more specifically Kurt Cobain” (Huq, 139). Nirvana was, according to Catherine Strong, “the only band almost all respondents agree could be called ‘grunge’ ” (Grunge, 85). 6 The reference to Nevermind sounds all the more provocative since it contains some of the most famous Nirvana songs, such as “Smells like Teen Spirit” (commonly defined as the anthem of the 1990s’ Generation X), “Lithium,” “In Bloom,” and “Come as You Are.” 7 Weinstein, “Alternative Youth: The Ironies of Recapturing Youth Culture,” 67. 8 Grunge has been deemed no more than a marketing tactic developed by a record label, Sub Pop, that profitably grouped together different and heterogeneous bands under the same umbrella term. As Thomas Bell puts it, “What was the glue that held these groups together . . .? The answer largely revolves around the fortunes and subsequent commercial downturns of Sub Pop Records” (“Why Seattle?”, 37). 9 Bell, “Why Seattle?”, 35. 10 Azerrad, “Nirvana: Inside the Heart and Mind of Kurt Cobain,” 37.

Grunge as a Narrative Soundscape in Never Mind Nirvana


11 Tow, The Strangest Tribe, 229. 12 Moore, Sells Like Teen Spirit, 155. 13 Dylan Clark, for instance, after delineating the gradual decline of punk as a subculture, because of its slow cooptation into the culture industry, maintains that grunge was a “religion of the consumer; baptized and born-again as celebrations of corporatecapitalism,” and, above all, that it was nothing more than an “un-style,” made of “an old pair of jeans and a flannel shirt” (“The Death and Life of Punk, the Last Subculture,” 232). 14 Krims, Music and Urban Geography, 121. 15 Shevory, “Bleached Resistance,” 44, 32. It is curious how Shevory severely condemns (blaming it on grunge and Nirvana) the domestication of punk, which, on the contrary, is one of the things grunge has later been praised for: suffice it to think of the permanent exhibit at the Seattle Experience Music Project Museum, Taking Punk to the Masses (which is also an ambitious and interesting project of oral history, and the title of a book published in 2011 by Fantagraphics, Seattle), which emphasizes how grunge was able to reach also those social groups and categories usually not interested in music nor participating in any subculture. 16 A myth, according to Barthes, springs out of a deforming process that partially erases the original value of a given signifier, though preserving it and its signifying function. In order to work as a myth, the signifier needs to be literally mutilated, and “deprived of [its] history, changed into gestures” (Mythologies, 121–2). Of course, since the signifier, at the level of mythological production, is itself a signified as well, this amputation cannot be but partial: its signifying component is left untouched, while its essential (signified) one is profoundly transformed, subtracted from its original signifying sphere and charged with a new meaning heavily marked in symbolic terms. 17 Bell, “Why Seattle?”, 38–9; Tim Hughes, “Nirvana,” 155–6; Moore, Sells Like Teen Spirit, 139. 18 Collecting the definitions provided by magazines and newspapers, Sharon Mazzarella describes Aberdeen as “a blue-collar logging town some 100 miles from Seattle, alternately described as ‘gray, sodden,’ ‘depressed,’ ‘dreary,’ ‘desolate,’ ‘plagued by unemployment and a high suicide rate,’ ‘rotten with unemployment, racked by alcoholism, drugs and suicide’. (“ ‘The Voice of a Generation?’ Media Coverage of the Suicide of Kurt Cobain,” 58). 19 “I found that it was hard for punk to make its way to Aberdeen because of its geographic isolation” (Of Grunge and Government, 11–12). 20 Grunge style of clothing, “the threadbare flannel shirts, knobby wool sweaters and cracked leatherette coats” (Marin, “Grunge: A Success Story”), soon to become trendy among young people, actually reflected the need to find an alternative look and, at the same time, to claim a sort of identification with the Northwestern working class. As Novoselic puts it: “I started shopping for clothes at the Salvation Army in an attempt to subvert consumerism. . . . I dressed differently from the status quo, and, unlike some punks, I didn’t dress dangerously. I didn’t have a mohawk or a studded leather jacket” (Of Grunge and Government, 13). 21 The notions of atmosphere, spirit, or personality of the place have often been evoked in order to justify the depressive and angry mood of grunge music, and, in general, to provide a believable reason for the unexpected outburst of the Seattle musical and cultural scene in the 1990s, as Thomas Bell argues in his essay on the “alternative rock culture heart” (“Why Seattle?”).


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22 The song is the fifth track of the third (and last) studio album released by Nirvana, In Utero (1993). 23 This myth has been explored in texts like The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and its Legacy, by Paula Becker and Alan J. Stein (2011), and in the documentary When Seattle Invented the Future: The 1962 World’s Fair, directed by John Gordon Hill, released in 2012. Setting in Seattle part of his novel Invisible Monsters, Chuck Palahniuk makes fun of “what’s become of the future” by commenting on a postcard portraying “clean, sun-bleached 1962 skies and an opening day Space Needle. . . . When did the future . . . switch from being a promise to be a threat?” (Invisible Monsters, 255–6). 24 Feminist and gay/lesbian positions were supported as potentially revolutionary, patriarchy being condemned as the most intimate essence of every form of power and violence. Moreover, the stereotype of the “macho swagger,” as it was embodied by older rock bands, was rejected by grunge, while feminism was explicitly valued as naturally fitting “with the new sensibility” (Novoselic, Of Grunge and Government, 22). Such great importance attached to gender issues was probably due to the fact that traditional forms of rebellion (for instance, politically marked ones) were perceived by that generation as ineffective or obsolete. 25 See Jan Muto, “He was the Woman of His Dreams: Identity, Gender, and Kurt Cobain,” 74–5. Moreover, Muto stresses how rebellion against patriarchy, besides being a strong attack against power, was also meant as a way to disappoint the expectations that mainstream society usually puts on a young, white, heterosexual (and also goodlooking) man such as Cobain. 26 Released as a single in August 1993 and then included in In Utero. 27 Mazullo, “The Man Whom the World Sold,” 716. 28 This process was strongly criticized also by grunge musicians and producers. The famous hoax published in The New York Times by Rick Marin on November 15, 1992, which listed a number of completely made-up words and expressions passed off as the “lexicon of grunge speak” (“Grunge,” 1992), revealed the degree of popularity that grunge had reached by then, and its unavoidable transformation into a pop-culture phenomenon. On the other hand, investigating different aspects of grunge as a subculture, of Nirvana, and of Kurt Cobain’s life and writings, Mark Mazullo, Giles Hooper, and Neil Nehring argue that the allegations of inauthenticity have no ground, or, at least, that they need to be counterbalanced by an adequate emphasis on what Nirvana represented at the time, both in musical and sociocultural terms. Giles Hooper, in particular, devotes a whole essay to this question, arguing that Nirvana were fully aware of their controversial position, halfway between mainstream and underground (“ ‘Nevermind’ Nirvana,” 101), while Catherine Strong claims that, given the strong emphasis Nirvana placed on social and gender questions (Grunge, 137), their music cannot be rejected merely as a media phenomenon, nor as the expression of a vague teen anger and rebellious attitude. 29 See, to mention but a few, David A. Jobes et al., “The Kurt Cobain Suicide Crisis: Perspectives from Research, Public Health, and the News Media”; Graham Martin and Lisa Koo, “Celebrity Suicide: Did the Death of Kurt Cobain Influence Young Suicides in Australia?”; and David Seelov, “Listening to Youth: Woodstock, Music, America, and Kurt Cobain’s Suicide.” For a more exhaustive analysis of the media coverage of Cobain’s suicide, see Sharon R. Mazzarella, “ ‘The Voice of a Generation’? Media Coverage of the Suicide of Kurt Cobain.”

Grunge as a Narrative Soundscape in Never Mind Nirvana


30 The connection between grunge and teenagers of the 1990s was so strong at the time that grunge, for most of them, was an unquestionable identity marker, or, at least, was trivialized and circulated by media as if it were. In the words of Catherine Strong, “The concept of Generation X is important to grunge, as the two were closely associated in the media coverage at the time. . . . the way in which it has been constructed in the media and popular works on generations is relevant to the way that the memory and the youth of this group has been constructed” (Grunge, 134). 31 Huq, Beyond Subculture, 138. 32 The idea that Cobain was not at ease with his public role of rock star, his most intimate desire being that of achieving “a deeper aesthetic purpose in his work,” is instead the hypothesis proposed by Mark Mazullo (“The Man Whom the World Sold,” 717). Finally, the chapter devoted to Cobain’s death in Neil Nehring’s book Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism (emblematically titled “Kurt Cobain Died for Your Sins”) passionately criticizes the reading of Cobain’s suicide as a media event, as many journalists at the time described it, suggesting that there was a real tension operating in Nirvana’s music, always misunderstood by media and by critics (Nehring, 90, 104). 33 Beebe, “Mourning Becomes . . .? Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and the ‘Waning of Affect’,” 315. 34 Weinstein, “Alternative Youth,” 68, my emphasis.

Bibliography Azerrad, Michael. “Nirvana: Inside the Heart and Mind of Kurt Cobain.” Rolling Stone 628, April (1992): 37–40. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Anette Lavers. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972. Becker, Paula, and Alan J. Stein. The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and its Legacy. Seattle, WA: Seattle Center Foundation, 2011. Beebe, Roger. “Mourning Becomes . . .? Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and the ‘Waning of Affect’.” In Rock over the Edge. Transformations in Popular Music Culture, edited by Roger Beebe, Denise Fullbrook and Ben Saunders, 311–34. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002. Bell, Thomas L. “Why Seattle? An Examination of an Alternative Rock Culture Heart.” Journal of Cultural Geography 18, no. 1 (1998): 35–47. Brace, Eric. “Facing the Music—and a Midlife Crisis.” The Washington Post, May 30, 2000. Clark, Dylan. “The Death and Life of Punk, the Last Subculture.” In The Post-subcultures Reader, edited by David Muggleton and Rupert Weinzierl, 223–36. Oxford, England, and New York, NY: Berg, 2003. Cobain, Kurt. Journals. London, England: Penguin, 2002. Dederer, Claire. “Novel’s Trial Based in the Heart of Grunge.” The Seattle Times, May 1, 2000. Hooper, Giles. “ ‘Nevermind’ Nirvana: A Post-Adornian Perspective.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 38, no. 1 (2007): 91–107. Hughes, Tim. “Nirvana: University of Washington, Seattle, January 6, 1990.” In Performance


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and Popular Music: History, Place and Time, edited by Ian Inglis, 155–71. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. Huq, Roopa. Beyond Subculture: Pop, Youth and Identity in a Postcolonial World. London, England: Routledge, 2006. Jobes, David A., Alan L. Berman, Patrick W. O’Carroll, Susan Eastgard and Steve Knickmeyer. “The Kurt Cobain Suicide Crisis: Perspectives from Research, Public Health, and the News Media.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 26, no. 3 (1996): 260–71. Krims, Adam. Music and Urban Geography. New York, NY, and London, England: Routledge, 2007. Lindquist, Mark. Never Mind Nirvana. New York, NY: Villard, 2000. Marin, Rick. “Grunge: A Success Story.” The New York Times, November 15, 1992. Martin, Graham and Lisa Koo. “Celebrity Suicide: Did the Death of Kurt Cobain Influence Young Suicides in Australia?” Archives of Suicide Research 3 (1997): 187–98. Mazullo, Mark. “The Man Whom the World Sold: Kurt Cobain, Rock’s Progressive Aesthetic, and the Challenges of Authenticity.” The Musical Quarterly 84, no. 4 (2000): 713–49. Mazzarella, Sharon R. “ ‘The Voice of a Generation’? Media Coverage of the Suicide of Kurt Cobain.” Popular Music and Society 19, no. 2 (1995): 49–68. Moore, Ryan. Sells Like Teen Spirit. Music, Youth Culture, and Social Crisis. New York, NY, and London, England: New York University Press, 2010. Muto, Jan. “He Was the Woman of His Dreams: Identity, Gender, and Kurt Cobain.” Popular Music and Society 19, no. 2 (1995): 69–85. Nehring, Neil. Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism: Anger is an Energy. Thousand Oaks, CA, London and New Delhi: Sage, 1997. Novoselic, Krist. Of Grunge and Government. Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy! New York, NY: Akashik, 2004. Palahniuk, Chuck. Invisible Monsters. New York, NY: Norton, 1999. Seelov, David. “Listening to Youth: Woodstock, Music, America, and Kurt Cobain’s Suicide.” Child and Youth Care Forum 25, no. 1 (1996): 49–53. Shevory, Thomas C. “Bleached Resistance: The Politics of Grunge.” Popular Music and Society 19, no. 2 (1995): 23–48. Strong, Catherine. Grunge: Music and Memory. Farnham, Surrey : Ashgate, 2011. Tow, Stephen. The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch, 2011. Weinstein, Deena. “Alternative Youth: The Ironies of Recapturing Youth Culture.” Young. The Nordic Journal of Youth Research 3, no. 1 (1995): 61–71. When Seattle Invented the Future: The 1962 World’s Fair. Directed by John Gordon Hill. Seattle, WA: KCTS, 2012. DVD.

Part Two

Gendering Rock and Jazz




Masculinity and Jazz in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, Jim Crace’s All That Follows, and Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Trilogy Aidan Byrne and Nicola Allen

Jazz, according to Cornel West, is a fundamentally democratic art form that “flies in the face of any policing of borders and boundaries of ‘blackness,’ ‘maleness,’ ‘femaleness,’ or ‘whiteness’ ”: the genre’s musical and social fluidity resists the essentializing tendencies supposedly inherent in other cultural formations.1 Jazz effuses a hybrid status—existing somewhere in between the elitism of classical music and the straightforward melodic appeal of pop, and this fluidity makes it difficult to package. Undoubtedly, for many, this is part of the appeal of jazz, but its free form alienates too. In Anne Shaw Faulkner’s 1921 Ladies’ Home Journal article “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?,” a letter from “scientist” Dr. Henry van Dyke notes that “ ‘jazz’ is an unmitigated cacophony, a combination of disagreeable sounds in complicated discords, a willful ugliness and a deliberate vulgarity.”2 Faulkner then locates the “cacophony” in racialized discourse: Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the halfcrazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. (Faulkner, 16)

For this reason, the journal suggests, jazz music should not be played at college balls. The casual racism crystallizes Faulkner’s disavowal of the liberal or radical values she discerns at the heart of the genre, but, before the century was out, jazz was to shift in public perception. In the latter half of the 20th century, jazz lost its radical edge, becoming imbued with a sense of institutionalized, outmoded, restrictive politics, particularly when it came to gender. Perhaps ironically, jazz’s marginalization in popular culture today is the result not of its perceived radicality, but of its supposed conservatism. It is popularly regarded as the staid music of the old, and particularly, almost exclusively, the music of old men. The gender bias within the consumption and production of jazz music is profound: 85 percent of jazz musicians are male.3 These statistics support a broader sense of jazz 85


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as an inherently masculine form that is implicitly reinforced by the paraphernalia surrounding the genre, one which is deeply integrated with 20th-century consumer capitalism. As John Szwed observes: Playboy magazine was . . . promoting the good life for the single man: money, imported cars, circular beds, top-of-the-line stereos, chicks. . . . Playboy championed jazz, as a male music, to be sure, but the music of a certain kind of male, as the couture, decorations, and genderized illustrations of the jazz life in its pages made clear . . . celebrating freedom, male bonding, drugs, art, and the hip lifestyle.4

Szwed’s assertion that jazz is often regarded as a vehicle for the promotion of a materialistic, decadent, hedonistic masculinity represents a commonly held (mis) perception of the genre that constantly risks displacing West’s affirmations of the form’s fluidity and potentiality. This misperception contributes to jazz’s growing marginalization within broader 20th-century popular musical culture, which promotes itself as socially progressive and alternative, fundamentally at odds with jazz’s supposed outmoded masculinist exclusivity. Yet this male-dominated arena, far from prescribing a single masculinity, contains the potential (at least) for a multitude of differences within and between its practitioners and fans. In such a profusion of masculinities, dissent becomes the only means of asserting difference or individuality, both of which are vital to jazz’s sense of itself as an improvised, ideologically untethered art, as George McKay notes in Circular Breathing: A Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain: . . . the history of jazz in Britain is one of men supporting men, talking to and writing about men, preserving special male sociocultural spaces, men listening to each other’s music and responding, men filling the willed silences of their daily discoursing with other sounds, men compensating for their societal inadequacy or familial indolence with a solo, men sharing instrumental secrets with each other, seeking structure or escape in a twelve or thirty-two bar sequence, men helping each other break out of rigid class expectations, small groups of men on stages and in corners watched, listened to and envied by larger groups of men.5

This simultaneous assertion and rejection of any straightforward alignment with, or espousal of, the central tenets of classical maleness, is fundamental to the genre. As Andrew Blake notes: Jazz has attracted its fair share of the fantasy of opposition, the individualized, implicitly male, “heroism” of the great artist working in defiance of social norms. This is a convenient view of themselves for lonely suburban men, not gifted with great social skills, but who can play a saxophone or trumpet—or who have record collections and opinions thereon.6

Masculinity and Jazz in Trumpet, All That Follows, and The Beiderbecke Trilogy 87 The three novels in this chapter each address these fantasies of opposition, primarily with regard to constructions of masculinity. We suggest that Alan Plater’s The Beiderbecke Trilogy (1985–93) and Jim Crace’s All That Follows (2010) foreground the reconstructed nature of the masculinity of their jazz fan/musician protagonists, while Jackie Kay’s portrayal in Trumpet (1998) of a biologically female jazz musician who has lived as a man dramatizes the destabilization of socially constructed gender essentialism.7 The Beiderbecke Trilogy’s male protagonist Trevor Chaplin and his allies, of course, fulfill exactly Blake’s enunciations of jazz-inflected masculinities. It is their disavowal of behavioral conventions, patterns, and norms that allows jazz to maintain such a heavily male constituency while simultaneously acting as a site of opposition to essentializing notions of masculinity. Such an exclusively male culture might appear to prescribe narrow or singular constructions of masculinity: Lynne Segal notes that “when men have written of themselves . . . they have done so as though presenting the universal truths of humanity, rather than the partial truths of half of it.”8 She implies a limiting partiality within any predominantly male cultural conduit. However, the ways in which jazz’s liberatory avowals are presented in these novels actually amplify the silences and fermatas of any grand universal claims by drawing attention to the limits of masculinity as an essentialist structuring taxonomy. In this spirit, we draw on performative theories of gender and Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” to explore these texts’ constructions (and deconstructions) of masculinity viewed through the prism of performing, failing to perform, and listening to jazz.9 There is then a bifurcation of effect in contemporary British representations of jazz music and culture, in that masculinity is problematized within these texts: jazz complicates rather than asserts or celebrates hedonistic masculinity. All three writers explicitly or implicitly draw on the improvisatory nature of jazz to promote or reflect upon masculinities freed from the fixed formations of patriarchy. As Ralph Ellison explains, jazz is a natural ally of hybrid subjects or those existing at a tangent to hegemonic requirements: “you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind . . . you slip into the breaks and look around”10 This sense of being somehow out of sympathy with the mainstream pervades all three novels, but is felt particularly keenly by Crace’s male protagonists. This alienation is perhaps locatable in Crace’s own transition between classes as a grammar school boy in the 1950s and 1960s: I felt rebuffed by my education. The very first day I was at school I was told I shouldn’t do P.E. I had to have elocution lessons instead. I put a lot of effort into being a member of societies, and a cross-country runner, but when it came to it I was never taken seriously in the sixth form. I was one of three boys who weren’t made a prefect. It was a snub. . . . What I had wasn’t appreciated.11

Crace notes, then dismisses, the effects of having to improvise, to switch between classes during his formative schooling. His interviewer, Philip Tew, notes that “Crace insistently proselytizes the dogma that his life is uneventful, his origins without


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particular distinction and that neither can help in situating his fiction” (Tew, 25). This denial of the influence of experience may be Crace’s attempt to maintain privacy in the face of probing, but it may also have a deeper resonance when we consider Crace’s literary representation of improvisation, as the notion that there may not be an easily defined source for art is echoed in All That Follows. At one point, Lennie riffs around a kind of portentous silence, creating “a charged hush, the sort of breath-sucked quiet that often means the sky is jittery and heralding a thunderclap, or shooting stars, or rain” (Crace, 23). Whatever the source of the earth-shattering sound, it resists definition and explanation. In such acts of creation, the smallness of the man on stage is emphasized, but so too is his courage. He is simultaneously insignificant, a mere conduit for something otherworldly, and yet the means by which this glimpse of potential becomes inevitable: “each note is imminent with failure. But there is no retreat” (Crace, 23). This echoes Miles Davis’ description of what it is to play: “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”12 This paired notion of fragility and an essentialized determinism makes the act of improvisation at once delicate and yet un-stoppable; it defies neat explanation, even when transposed into the symbolic realm of the novel. The fragility of the performance is analogous, in these novels, to postmodern concepts of gender in which masculinity is permanently negotiated between socialized expectations, and the authors’ perceptions of internal, numinous sources of self-definition. For instance, Crace’s protagonist, Lennie Lessing, represents a truer art, a purer improvisation, and a more honest masculinity than his overblown, hostage-taking, grand-gesturing macho friend, Max Lermontov. Lennie draws inspiration not from his eventful life, but from some other unspecified, rarefied, source. This shift in focus to the uneventful life is integrally jazz-inflected and implicitly radically political. The latent thunderclap in his riff demonstrates a yearning for potential, for the expression of a road un-trodden, for something as yet undefined but tantalizingly about to be unleashed, echoing Miles Davies’ invocation to the younger members of his band: “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there” (Cook, 38). Crucially, this translates into the politics of the text, which, while loosely defined, resolutely expresses distrust of dogma and hegemonic expectations of masculinity. Alan Plater’s writing similarly privileges the politics of improvisation over dogma. A gentle, even romantic sort of socialism pervades much of his work, and his political proselytizing is utterly eclipsed, in the public perception of the writer at least, by his avowed status as a keen and knowledgeable jazz fan. Plater notes in his memoir Doggin’ Around: “[M]y approach to dramatic structure is to play Duke Ellington’s 1940 version of ‘Harlem Airshaft,’ which contains all you need to know about dramatic structure, if you have ears to listen.”13 In the novel’s politics of individualism, Plater refuses the heroic, refuses to let it be taken seriously, yet his heroes are determined to “do the right thing.” This improvised quasi-socialism and the forms of jazz are intrinsically linked. Improvisation around set pieces is vital to the jazz man’s persona, as exemplified in Plater’s anecdote about Ronnie Scott “performing” as himself on the telephone at his eponymous club: “He’s dead? (pause) Is it serious? (pause) Does that mean he can’t play the tour? (pause) So tell me the bad news.”14

Masculinity and Jazz in Trumpet, All That Follows, and The Beiderbecke Trilogy 89 Improvisation infused with this sense of absurdist humor is key to Plater’s The Beiderbecke Trilogy. The novel’s central protagonists are a recent and tentative heterosexual couple. Jill Swinburne, named after the dissolute Victorian poet, is an English teacher who takes on the traditionally male role of political activist, notably standing for election and supporting a wide range of good causes. Her partner, woodwork teacher Trevor Chaplin (his surname denoting a humorous and slightly inadequate masculinity), represents a new 1980s formation: the New Man, too guiltily aware of his privileged position to securely inhabit the gendered roles previously available to men in industrial capitalist conditions.15 Trevor’s political instincts are liberal but un-ideological, and rather than being active in the public sphere, he frequently retreats to the domestic sphere in the form of a flat filled with meticulously ordered jazz records, or into a recuperatory private world accessed by donning headphones and listening to jazz, particularly Bix Beiderbecke. With the established gender roles reversed, the couple falls into a series of farcical adventures. Jill’s ideological certainty, Trevor’s jazz-inflected moral and psychic compass, and their allies, such as Big Al and Little Norm, local fixers and sages, combine to counter the machinations of various men in gray suits. This allows Plater to maintain a complex balancing act in which he insists upon an essentialized sense of gender, but displaces any unfashionable or culturally sensitive aspects of masculinity onto a bureaucratized modernity that particularly marginalizes liberal, provincial, and working-class men. These men in gray suits include the petty bureaucracy of the headmaster, Mr. Wheeler, Inspector Hobson, the soi-disant intellectual policeman who cannot cope with indeterminacy; several sinister and violent men who act for the “deep” state; and Jill’s ex-husband Peter, a misogynistic fraud. Inspector Hobson and Jill listen only to classical music, connoting a stern, secure, and somewhat inflexible ideology. As each new twist of the rather slight plot unfolds, Jill provides the ideological certainty and intellect, but Trevor’s improvisation—derived from the jazz he refers to frequently—directs their actions and gets them out of multiple tight situations: “You’re very bad at underpants and socks but give you a major crisis, and you just shrug your shoulders and say, yes, that’ll be all right, pet.” “A jazz fan stays cool, baby, under all difficulties.”16

Here, Trevor’s masculinity and courage have two sources: the reductive discourse of patriarchy with an ironic twist (“baby”) but also identification with his jazz heroes. Trevor extends the qualities of the musician to the fans: while one might expect listening to jazz to be a passive or “feminine” position, it becomes “cool” and masculine. Socially, then, jazz in The Beiderbecke Trilogy echoes West’s claim that jazz is fundamentally democratic and opposed to borders—except for one: He had strange obsessions about long-forgotten footballers and deceased jazz musicians, obsessions she had no ability to share. She had tried, and had even


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction learned names like Jacky Milburn and Art Blakey, but which one played football and which one had a band she could never be sure. (Plater, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, 7)

While Jill appreciates Trevor’s love for and his constant attempts to explain jazz, she cannot relate to, understand, or appreciate it: no woman can. Although jazz allows men like Trevor to display emotions normally forbidden under patriarchy, Plater humorously reproduces stereotypes of men as collectors or hunters, whether of music or statistics. Women, however intelligent, are presumed to be incapable of comprehending these supposed male traits. Jazz thus authorizes homosociality, or male–male social capital, in this trilogy. While Jill divides the world into ideological allies and enemies like a man, Trevor’s jazz-inspired “feminine” empathy instantiates a network of men who, whatever their class, national, or occupational differences, all love jazz and undertake to aid one another. Appreciating—even loving—jazz functions as shorthand for a set of humane, liberal values shared by a number of men secretly freed from inherited performances of traditional, restrictive codes of masculinity (“music born in the bars and brothels of New Orleans did not sit happily in the semi-detached desirability of an executive estate” (Plater, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, 79)). Activated by the “spirit” of jazz—which confers a degree of counter-hegemonic homosocial solidarity between jazz-lovers and other “oppressed” groups—they respond to threats and difficult situations as they believe their jazz heroes would: bravely and innovatively, in contrast to the heavyhanded predictability of hegemonic forces. Women can be allies and even leaders, but the values associated with jazz are humorously presented as essentially male. Trevor takes Jill to jazz nights, and frequently tries to explain jazz to her, but the music is equated with other supposedly exclusively male obsessions: for example, Trevor is also a devotee of historical football facts. Such pursuits provide a safe space for Trevor and his comrades away from women who encroach on their interiority. Trevor confesses to Jill that he is “frightened of women” and that he assumes all men feel likewise: she commends him for his brave confession and they establish “a silent and mutual understanding whereby every so often Trevor would stay at his flat for a few days, generally to listen his way through the latest batch of jazz records” (Plater, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, 91, 107). Jazz can be understood in these novels as the bedrock of an “imagined community,” social historian Benedict Anderson’s term for communities formed by the circulation of cultural goods, such as books and newspapers, through which disparate individuals identify with strangers they may never meet, having been “brought together” by a shared vernacular propagated by capitalist media circulation (Anderson, 44). In The Beiderbecke Trilogy, jazz fans form an imagined community of marginalized devotees to whom each owes a duty despite the lack of other social ties. Jazz is a vernacular where classical music and pop are privileged imperial languages: without them, jazz would lose its countercultural significance. Yet jazz, like Arnold’s nationalism, is a product of capitalism. In The Beiderbecke Trilogy, records and tapes circulate amongst the jazz fans

Masculinity and Jazz in Trumpet, All That Follows, and The Beiderbecke Trilogy 91 as fetishized objects in which rarity attracts a premium and increases the owner’s social capital amongst his peers: the exchange of physical media turns the imagined community into a real one that combines to defeat the forces of reaction ranged against individual members. Trevor, unlike Leonard in All That Follows and Joss in Trumpet, does not play: “As a teenager, he had tried and failed to play guitar like Django Reinhardt, saxophone like Charlie Parker, or trumpet like Louis Armstrong” (Plater, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, 8). He is a skilled craftsman who teaches woodwork without wood and he is a jazzer whose instrument is not a saxophone but a stereo: Trevor’s communion with the jazz world is that of the supplicant rather than the celebrant. The circulated records significantly almost exclusively feature male solo musicians: Reinhardt, Parker, and Armstrong, along with more obscure practitioners such as King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Toshiko Akiyosi, and Wynton Marsalis (Plater, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, 71), the last of whom critic Ted Gioia describes as a traditionalist and a “neo-classicist.”17 Gioia goes on to note that, while Trevor and his comrades endorse jazz’s openness, they also, contradictorily, seek purity and authenticity (Gioia, The Story of Jazz, 359). The novel’s presiding spirit is, of course, Bix Beiderbecke, whose tragic and short personal life is recounted frequently. Trevor obsessively tells people that Beiderbecke’s playing “sounded like bullets shot from a bell” (Plater, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, 11). Beiderbecke played the cornet. It is a phallic symbol, its sound irrupting into the audience’s consciousness, its shape reminiscent of an actual phallus.18 Allied with the violent nature of the imagery (“bullets shot from a bell”), Trevor’s devotion to Beiderbecke’s legend and music crystallizes his quest for an alternative masculinity that provides the strength and power to endure, while deriving from a subversive and emotional source, hence the “bell” rather than the gun. Beiderbecke’s notes pierce the bodies of the male audience—perhaps giving them a passive, “feminized” role—but the novel’s construction of an imagined community of jazz fans lends them a new masculinity defined by mutual aid, left-liberal values, and emotional resilience. The Beiderbecke Trilogy novels are the only novels under consideration in which the male protagonists are jazz fans rather than performers. Trumpet and All That Follows explore masculinity in relation to performing—or failing to perform—as a musician amongst musicians. In All That Follows, Leonard Lessing’s life is determined by his recent inability to play his saxophone and compose, though whether this is psychological or solely the result of an injury to his arm is left ambiguous. Lessing’s musical wound is sexual and political: he is unmanned or “lessened” by his failure to perform sexually, to locate his missing stepdaughter (perhaps childlessness indicates that being a composer is only secondarily creative), and to live up to his past political militancy as his former comrade Max has. Leonard’s relationship to his injury is fluid. At times, it signifies his failure to keep up physically, politically, and musically: “an older man’s condition . . . premature rigor mortis”; as he regains his spirits it signified his reawakened courage, which led to a beating by the security forces: “a stirring narrative . . . a young man’s injury, a war wound in a way, his scar of opposition to the Reconciliation Summit, a twin of Mr. Perkiss’s shattered, noble arm. He can carry it with pride.”19 So Leonard’s self-inflicted, partially psychosomatic wound changes from an outward sign of


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self-absorption to signify re-engagement with the world. From this flows recovery, physical and spiritual, and he is once again able to compose and play. As with Trevor and Joss, the improvisatory nature of jazz legitimizes Leonard’s improvisation in other spheres: it is a natural counterpoint to the oppressive demands of essentializing social structures. Jazz, in all these novels, returns agency to men, whether they are biologically male or not. Thus Crace’s novel echoes West’s assertion of jazz’s democratic nature. Alone, Lennie is an irrelevant shell; reunited with his musical and political comrades, he recuperates his musical, spiritual, and sexual identity. Jazz is an index of apparently countercultural performative masculinity: creative, seductive, and explicitly allied to progressive or counter-hegemonic politics. Leonard’s inability manifests his phallogocentric failure, demonstrated by his reduction to the condition of listener rather than performer, witness rather than activist, and sexual inadequate. These masculine performances are undeniably related: “closure” is achieved when he locates his missing stepdaughter and remakes the nuclear family. Only then can he “love his wife and make love to his saxophone” and “resume his long affair with music” (Crace, 275). However, Leonard’s return to a form of masculinity depends on external forces, particularly junior agitator Lucy’s appeal both to his latent paternalism and political consciousness. Nadia dismisses Lucy as “just a girl who wants to be a heroine,” but Leonard replies that he “thought he’d be a heroine as well,” inspired by Lucy rather than his old comrade Max, whose violent masculinist activism (“He only ever wanted to throw punches,” Nadia recalls) Leonard always feared (Crace, 195). However, inspiration is not enough for Leonard. Jazz is his psychological prop: he recalls a mentor telling him to “play it for the mirror, even when the house is packed,” and he finds music therapeutic: “When he’s finished playing he will be a man renewed. Music reinforces him” (Crace, 141, 143). A classic jazz loner, he spends much of his time walking and driving around, usually with jazz on the stereo, sometimes his own: Leonard listens to himself again . . . listens to the retrieved mistakes that masquerade as wit and bravery, the risk-taking, the nerve, the valiance . . . He presses the track button and returns to the beginning . . . And then again. And then again. Announcements and applause, with Francine in the audience—but that was then—admiring him. (Crace, 21)

Here, Leonard’s self-doubts are surrendered to the music (just as jazz dissolves the hard edges of fixed identity in the “Music” chapter of Kay’s Trumpet). He can hear mistakes that are transmuted into the masculine qualities he has now lost. His recordings remind Leonard how much he has lost and revive him. He remains intellectually self-critical, yet his awareness that music first attracted Francine to him implies that surrender to jazz will again be his salvation. Without jazz, it is clear, Leonard is—as Francine puts it—“Lessening” (Crace, 117). Jazz is what makes him sexually desirable to her; without it, he is “decaf . . . English blush and stutter” (Crace, 114). Leonard’s reply is instructively like Trevor Chaplin’s conception of jazz:

Masculinity and Jazz in Trumpet, All That Follows, and The Beiderbecke Trilogy 93 Jazz is a refuge from a hazardous world, he wants to say. . . . He is not courageous when he’s playing, not mad and not demonic, just less frightened. He’s Lennie Less Frightened, mapping out a landscape of his own making where it is not truly risky to take risks. “It isn’t me. It’s just an act. The music makes me brave.” (Crace, 114)

For both Trevor and Lennie, jazz heals the psychic wound caused by marginalization. It enables and activates their counter-hegemonic impulses, allowing them to act decisively in the wider world. While jazz is closely allied to progressive or liberal values—particularly nonpatriarchal masculinity—it is only in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet that jazz forms the basis of what Eckstein calls a new “ethical statement” based on refusing essentialism.20 It is the only one of these novels that uses jazz as a literary template rather than relying on realist techniques: the novel is divided into sections modeled on newspaper supplements, in which famous black Scottish musician Joss Moody’s family, friends, pursuing journalists, and others reflect on Moody’s identity after the revelation that he was biologically female. As Kay tells Maya Jaggi, the novel is consciously modeled on jazz: “[t]here’s a solo, with improvisations. . . . Jazz is a process of reinventing itself. . . . There’s a sense in jazz of being a family.”21 Through renaming and self-invention, Joss and all jazz-men create “fantasies of themselves,”22 encouraging other characters (and readers) to do likewise, thus resisting the symbolic order.23 Each character “improvises” his or her life in a fashion, partly in response to Moody’s revelation. Even Sophie Stones, the tabloid journalist whom Koolen considers the personalization of media hostility to transgendered people,24 improvises a performance of phallic maternity.25 She achieves this through power-dressing and reproducing patriarchal hegemonic essentialism in response to an undetermined family trauma involving her more dominant sister: “I have my own skeletons in the cupboard. So does Sarah, although she’d never admit it. There are some things families never talk about” (Kay, 264). Joss’s adopted son Colman (whose name combines Scottishness, jazz, and perhaps even his skin color) undergoes an identity crisis as Joss’s makes him reassess his own masculinity. Colman is a failure: his precarious relationships, jobs, and financial position are reactions against Joss’s unstructured, easy-going life. He doesn’t even like jazz, which, to him, is as oppressive as classical music is to the jazz counterculture, perhaps because its complexity leaves him with nothing against which he can define himself other than Joss. Colman is humiliated by the fact that a woman’s deceitful masculinity was more convincing than his own: “What is it that’s eating me. . . . Probably the fact that my father didn’t have a prick. . . . My mother always told me it was all right for me to be naughty sometimes, but lying, lying was the scourge of the earth” (Kay, 66–7). Colman has internalized the patriarchal masculinity he fails to abide by, hence his initial horror at Joss’s covert subversion of such essentialist and determinist borders. Until he reaches acceptance, masculinity is indivisible from biological sex. He relies on simple binaries to stay afloat: male/female, black/white, Scottish/English, even though such oppositions define him—as a black Scot in London—as “other” (Kay, 51, 58).


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Colman even believes that his penis is growing and testicles becoming more productive after Joss’s death: threatened by his father’s successful but “inauthentic” performance of masculinity, he relies on anatomy for self-definition (Koolen, 71–80). Colman seeks stability, particularly in his adoptive origins. Joss’s letter finally tells him who Joss’s father was, while simultaneously demonstrating to the former William Dunsmore why self-fashioning liberates the individual from the demands of essentialism (Kay, 271–7). Joss’s life challenges those he touches to free themselves from the notion of identity as a fixed sign. He generates “an apparent coherence utterly dependent on the ability of the subject to reconcile contradictions in the narration of its life.”26 Only when Colman learns from Joss that masculinity can be an improvised performance (“you make up your bloodline, Colman. . . . Haven’t you got imagination?” (Kay, 58)) does he free himself from the deforming pressure to fit into hegemonic categories. Joss, by choosing a “female masculinity” that upsets the normative categories not only of “male” and “female” but also “lesbian,” allows Colman, Millie, and other characters to reflect upon and reject categorization per se (Rose, 143, 148, 150). Joss finds it easy to perform as a counter-hegemonic male because jazz itself dissolves essentialist boundaries. The core chapter is “Music” (Kay, 131–6): it mimics the jazz performer’s solo, the essential “break” that demonstrates the jazz musician’s creative virtuosity.27 The chapter describes in minute detail the physical, emotional, and psychological experience of the jazz man performing at the height of his abilities. To do so is to strip away identity: “he loses his sex, his race, his memory. He strips himself bare, takes everything off, till he’s barely human” (Kay, 131). Clearly, Joss isn’t transgendered for strategic career reasons, nor does he wish to appropriate patriarchy’s cultural authority. Instead, jazz allows him to transcend sexual, racial, and personal categorization. It allows him to access the power that is “in the blood” (Kay, 131): not in the essentialist sense that led the Nazis to ban jazz as degenerate “Negro” music, but in the sense that blood is our common denominator. Through it, his music reveals truth; that, “naked” under the influence of the music, he encompasses all possible identities: It is liberating. To be a girl. To be a man. . . . All his self collapses—his idiosyncrasies, his personality, his ego, his sexuality, even, finally, his memory. . . . He unwraps himself with his trumpet. Down at the bottom, face to face with the fact that he is nobody. . . . It is about being nobody coming from nothing. (Kay, 135)

Only jazz can do this. Classical musicians or the rappers Joss dismisses as “shite” (Kay, 190) are social animals, dependent on a conductor or the marketplace. The jazz man is radically individual: his art strips away oppressive determinism. Ultimately, Trumpet requires the reader to abandon sexual divisions as constructions that damage men and women alike. Joss Moody does not simply transfer his sexual identity to “lesbian” or “man”: he clearly doesn’t view being a little girl as inauthentic or horrific. Instead, Trumpet proclaims the joys of liberation from hegemonic structures of sex and gender. Joss accesses this state through his music: Millie, Colman, and other characters discover it through interrogating their own responses to Joss’s revelation.

Masculinity and Jazz in Trumpet, All That Follows, and The Beiderbecke Trilogy 95 In all these novels, jazz provides ways out of the usual codes of signification, permitting glimpses into alternative, non-defined ways of being and communicating. Disturbances in gender dichotomies intimately relate to and affect notions of class distinction in ways that demand new discourses of identity, and that both require and anticipate improvisation. The relationship between identity and jazz is always difficult and yet tantalizingly suggestive of a possible fluidity that seduces as it problematizes any essentialist readings (even of itself). Jazz appeals to our protagonists because it goes beyond simple gender inversion, as jazz singer Cleo Laine’s recollection of domestic negotiations between herself and her husband, bandleader John Dankworth, demonstrates: “One day an argument started over something quite trivial and I grew so angry about it that I said, ‘Don’t you realize I’ve just had a baby?’ He retorted, ‘Don’t you realize I’ve just had a band?’ ”28 Louis Moholo of the South African Blue Notes goes even further than Dankworth’s (semi-playful) suggestion of a creative equivalence between birth and band when he insists upon a relationship with his bandmates that is infused with a gendered inversion: “I’m really pregnant with these guys. Pregnant with them, they’re in me.”29 Moholo adopts maternal rather than paternal imagery to describe his relationship with his bandmates. The paternal lives of Trevor, Joss, and Leonard are similarly infused with an improvised reversal of expected gender roles. Kay, Crace, and Plater create protagonists who find themselves acting as fathers or father-figures (Plater’s Trevor to his own infant son, Kay and Crace’s protagonists to adopted/step-children). None of these roles is planned: Trevor’s child is the result of the otherwise ultra-organized Jill forgetting to take her contraceptive; the other children are inherited step-children or the results of convoluted adoptions. This is in keeping with the role of the improviser, Mike Zwerin notes: “Improvisers tend to transpose musical values into a life-view. . . . Those who create ‘the sound of surprise’ are not likely to plan very far ahead.”30 It is in the roles of improvised father/father-figure that our protagonists utilize their narratives of jazz to create a space for otherwise timid characters to try on identities and to engage with the world. Crace’s Leonard has stopped playing his saxophone because of a frozen shoulder and withdrawn into himself, fantasizing about fighting Fascists in the Spanish Civil War while he spends his days watching TV and giving up red meat. His wife, Francine, tells him he’s become “a dormouse, a tortoise, a sofa socialist, a screen slave” (Crace, 114). Only when Lennie stops spectating and picks up his instrument does he find his political voice, and that voice is innately interested in communitarian values. Jazzmen in contemporary British fiction are often found wrestling with a pressure to make the world a better place; however, the desire to take action to achieve this end is always in tension with their natural timidity and innate (culturally undervalued) gifts as homemakers and child-raisers rather than agitators and reformers. These novels use jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation and innovation, to investigate whether the desire for a public life might be reconciled with the desire for alternative modes of masculinity that encompass domesticity, family, and selffulfillment. The Beiderbecke Trilogy proposes a positive, progressive, but still essentialist masculinity akin to the 1980s’ “New Man.” In Crace’s All That Follows, a positive


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masculinity is deliberately and explicitly sited in the domestic sphere rather than in the conventional masculine arena of public activism. Lennie’s quest is revealed to be less conventionally masculine than the reunification of a shattered nuclear family, made possible by his personal healing, symbolized by his return to jazz performance. Thus, while these texts empower women in the public sphere in a progressive fashion, they insist upon an adjacent empowerment of an enlightened pater familias. Kay’s Trumpet similarly stresses the value of father-figures or a masculine presence in the domestic sphere, but she significantly does not limit that role to the biologically male. Implicitly, her novel posits the existence of a positive “masculine” disposition, which is not, however, essentially rooted in maleness. Joss’s ability to access this masculine force through performing jazz ultimately also dissolves the hegemonic division of masculinity and femininity between public action and the domestic sphere. Therefore, the representations of jazz in these contemporary British fictions explore the classic liberal dilemma of our time: what and where are the boundaries of identity.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

19 20 21

West, Race Matters, 105. Faulkner, “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?”, 30. ACE, Review of Jazz in England: Consultative Green Paper, 17. Szwed, Jazz 101, 183. McKay, Circular Breathing, 246. Blake, The Land without Music, 113. Plater’s The Beiderbecke Affair, Tapes, and Connection appeared first as television drama serials in (respectively) 1985, 1987, and 1988. The novels were published individually in 1985, 1986, and 1992, and as The Beiderbecke Trilogy in 1993. All references in the body of this text are to the trilogy. Segal, Slow Motion, xxxiii. Anderson, Imagined Communities. Ellison, Invisible Man, 8. Tew, Jim Crace, 8–9. Cook, It’s about that Time, 38. Plater, Doggin’ Around, 3. Plater, “Ronnie the Actor,” 81. The birth of their child, the un-named “First-Born,” reasserts both Trevor’s biological masculinity and Jill’s femininity against their cultural gender transgression. Plater, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, 170. Gioia, The Story of Jazz, 359. However, Monterrey, cited in González (“Biographical Improvisation in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet,” 92), asserts that the concave bell of the trumpet renders it ambivalently male and female. Crace, All that Follows, 257. Eckstein, “Performing Jazz, Defying Essence: Music as Metaphor of Being in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet,” 60. Jaggi, “Race and All That Jazz,” 10.

Masculinity and Jazz in Trumpet, All That Follows, and The Beiderbecke Trilogy 97 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30

Kay, Trumpet, 190. Rose, “Heralding New Possibilities,” 146. Koolen, “Masculine Trans-Formations in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet,” 75. See Rose, “Heralding New Possibilities: Female Masculinity in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet,” 141–157. González, “Biographical Improvisation in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet,” 90. For the importance of the solo and break see Gioia’s discussion of Louis Armstrong in The Story of Jazz, 64–8. Laine, Cleo, 171. Moholo, “Call Me Mr. Drums,” 34. Zwerin, La Tristesse de Saint Louis, 36.

Bibliography ACE [Arts Council of England]. Review of Jazz in England: Consultative Green Paper. London, England: Music Department, Arts Council of England, 1995. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised and extended second edition. London, England: Verso, 1991. Blake, Andrew. The Land without Music: Music, Culture and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997. Cook, Richard. It’s about that Time: Miles Davis on and off Record. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Crace, Jim. All That Follows. London, England: Picador, 2010. Eckstein, Lars. “Performing Jazz, Defying Essence: Music as Metaphor of Being in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 54, no. 1 (2006): 51–63. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York, NY: Random House, 1952. Faulkner, Anne Shaw. “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” The Ladies’ Home Journal, August, 1921: 16–34. Gioia, Ted. The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988. ———. The Story of Jazz. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011. González, Carla Rodríguez. “Biographical Improvisation in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.” Scottish Studies Review 8, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 88–100. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=hlh&AN=25733987&site=ehost-live. Jaggi, Maya. “Race and All That Jazz.” The Guardian, December 5, 1998. 10. Kay, Jackie. Trumpet. London, England: Picador, 1998. Koolen, Mandy. “Masculine Trans-Formations in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.” Atlantis 35, no. 1 (2010): 71–80. Laine, Cleo. Cleo. London, England: Simon and Schuster, 1994. McKay, George. Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain. Durham, NC, and London, England: Duke University Press, 2005. Moholo, Louis. “Call Me Mr. Drums.” Interview by Richard Scott. Wire 85 (March 1991): 34–7. Plater, Alan. The Beiderbecke Trilogy. 1st omnibus edition. London, England: Mandarin, 1993. ———. Doggin’ Around. London, England: Northway Publications, 2006.


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———. “Ronnie the Actor.” In Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Farrago, edited by Jim Godbolt, 81. London, England: Hampstead, 2008. Rose, Irene. “Heralding New Possibilities: Female Masculinity in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.” In Posting the Male: Masculinities in Contemporary British Literature, edited by Daniel Lea and Berthold Schoene, 141–57. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Rodopi, 2003. Segal, Lynne. Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men. Revised edition. London, England: Virago, 1997. ———.“Back to the Boys? Temptations of the Good Gender Theorist.” Textual Practice 15, no. 2 (2001): 231–50. Szwed, John. Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2000. ———. So What: The Life of Miles Davis. London, England: Simon and Schuster, 2003. Tew, Philip. Jim Crace. Contemporary British Fiction. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2006. West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2003. Zwerin, Mike. La Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing under the Nazis. London, England: Quartet, 1985.


Queer Time, Queer Space, and Queer Edge in Lynn Breedlove’s Godspeed Joseph P. Fisher

I don’t even think about speed That’s something I just don’t need I’ve got the straight edge1 In the 30-odd years since the dissolution of Minor Threat, the Washington, D.C.-based hardcore punk band, “straight edge” culture—the rigorously anti-drug and anti-alcohol lifestyle that the band championed in their song of the same name—has taken on a life of its own. Indeed, the I Am Straight Edge website continues to serve as a thriving source for discussions, blog posts, and various educational resources for those interested, or already involved, in the culture. Though Minor Threat’s front man, Ian MacKaye, has repeatedly worked not to be canonized as the patron saint of Straight Edge, the fact that he, literally, named the movement and inscribed its holy commandments—“(I) don’t drink / Don’t smoke / Don’t fuck”—into the hallowed vinyl grooves of the band’s 1983 album Out of Step makes it difficult for him to be anything other than just that.2 Any accurate history of straight edge, and American punk and hardcore music more generally, must necessarily acknowledge that the culture’s prohibitions against drugs and alcohol emerged out of necessity. During the 1980s, American hardcore’s salad days, to allude to another Minor Threat song title, many rock venues banned underage concert-goers precisely because minors could not legally consume alcohol. In response, those minors threatened the system as it was constructed by subverting it: they would stage shows that would not serve alcohol in order to be accessible to attendees of all ages. Likewise, shows would be held in spaces and, in particular, at times when teenagers could attend them: namely, not late at night. These strategies worked—oftentimes quite brilliantly. The only problem is that, to date, the overwhelming majority of the history that has looked at straight edge culture has stared too long at these brilliant subversive moments and, therefore, has lost sight of some of the more problematic and, yes, hegemonic strains of straight edge’s ideology. The biggest weakness in straight edge culture is, ironically enough, its overt masculinity. The culture’s explicit dictates against drinking, drugging, and fucking are 99


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steeped in an ethos of asceticism that is tied quite tightly to Judeo-Christian ethics. Ian MacKaye, from his authoritative position on stage, declared his vision of the cosmos, one in which worldly pleasures of all kinds, except gross quantities of soda, are denied.3 The tableau is inherently masculine; an image of a man loudly proclaiming (because everything that Minor Threat did was loud) power—power over the body, power over the mind, power over embodied existence. It is an ideology of colonial authority, where Minor Threat’s acolytes, and eventually straight edge followers more generally, identify with the culture not by admission but by submission. As a result, the strains of straight edge culture that emerged directly under Minor Threat’s sober influence remained largely men’s affairs. Many similar-minded punk bands consisted primarily of men, were patronized primarily by men, and fostered stock conceptions of masculinity—particularly the link between masculinity and aggression. Slam dancing was—and, in some cases, still is—a central part of attendance at many hardcore and punk shows (Fugazi, Ian MacKaye’s subsequent band, should be endlessly thanked for discouraging such behavior at their concerts). This particular understanding of masculinity was—and, in many cases, still is—single minded and conventional. It is also hugely paradoxical. There is arguably nothing more homosocial— nothing less straight—than a small, dimly lit room cramped with sweaty, shirtless men slamming into one another. Of course, the first rule of straight edge is you do not talk about these things, particularly when you don’t fuck. This rigid masculinist history is precisely what Lynn Breedlove rewrites in her 2002 novel Godspeed. Opening as Breedlove’s protagonist, Jim, a butch lesbian bike messenger, is careening down the San Francisco streets like “a mutation, a monster,” like “Linda Blair,” Godspeed flips MacKaye’s holy script, embracing devilish corporeal delights— alcohol, drugs, and lots of sex.4 Though Godspeed is most definitely an artifact of queercore, a subculture that is inextricably linked to the DiY thrust of punk and hardcore, the novel disidentifies with the sanctimonious standards of straight edge. Most intriguingly, the novel finds Jim embracing speed, the very thing that straight edgers “just don’t need,” to rail against the strict binaries—male/female, sober/intoxicated, straight/queer—that straight edge culture so often reinforces. Speed, as geographic motion and as a drug, provides Jim with the inertia to rail against these inflexible demarcations, to warp them—to queer them—and, ultimately, to deconstruct them. Even though the novel concludes with Jim abstaining from intravenous drug use, Godspeed remains guarded in its understandings of sobriety. Rather than mapping neatly onto the kinds of abstinent recovery narratives propagated by mainstream culture, Godspeed links Jim’s denial of intravenous drugs with a denial of masculine phallic power. Jim’s particular understandings of sobriety are less about submission to strict codes of behavior and more about an unwillingness to allow men power over women. While it would be unfair to be wholly critical of straight edge, because its pragmatism and youth-centric focus render it accessible and subversive in ways that mainstream rock culture will never be, it remains necessary to acknowledge the ways in which straight edge ultimately reinforces traditional capitalist conceptions of temporality and, most significantly, responsibility. This reinforcement is concomitant with straight

Queer Time, Queer Space, and Queer Edge in Godspeed


edge’s prohibitions against drinking and drugging. By reiterating the established binary sober/intoxicated, straight edge disavows all subjects, perhaps particularly the young, who get intoxicated precisely because mainstream society tells them not to do those things. After all, there is homework to be done and lousy jobs at the local pizza joint to be had. Drinking and drugging interfere with those supposedly important endeavors. This same kind of marginalization occurs at the level of sexuality. Even though bands like Minor Threat worked to distance themselves from the rampant (hetero)sexism embodied by rock culture at large (compare Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and countless others), straight edge’s prohibitions against sexual expression remained hugely oppressive for queer youths—kids who had been told by just about every cultural institution imaginable that their sexuality is, to use Breedlove’s term, monstrous, unnatural, and in need of denial ad infinitum, forever and ever, amen. In her book In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, Judith Halberstam works to upend traditional understandings of productivity and responsibility by queering those concepts. Halberstam begins by examining the premium that is placed on maturity: “In Western cultures, we chart the emergence of the adult from the dangerous and unruly period of adolescence as a desired process of maturation; and we create longevity as the most desirable future, applaud the pursuit of long life (under any circumstances), and pathologize modes of living that show little or no concern for longevity.”5 The adult/youth binary that Halberstam points to here is one that is constructed based on the corresponding opposition safety/danger. As Halberstam suggests, youth (particularly adolescence) is a developmental period viewed by many (adults) as a time when teenagers engage in immature and dangerous behavior that can potentially jeopardize their chances for “maturing” into adults who will choose to live long lives. As a result, adolescents tend to experience the brunt of widespread cultural initiatives that attempt to regulate and police virtually all of their activities as a means to protect teens both from the abstract dangers of adolescence and from themselves. These initiatives often take the form of consistent adult supervision— parental, legal, and educational—that seeks to stabilize teenage behavior and to align it with the regimented 9–5 work schedule of the adult world. Halberstam reaffirms this idea, arguing that “within the life cycle of the Western human subject, long periods of stability are considered to be desirable, and people who live in rapid bursts (drug addicts, for example) are characterized as immature and even dangerous” (Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 4–5). Not surprisingly, she notes that drug addicts are, once again, disruptive because their unstable lifestyles are not only viewed as immature (read: adolescent), but also as threatening to a culture that prioritizes stability and longevity, both of which are ultimately meant to foster that holiest of activities: heterosexual reproduction. To become mature adults, adolescents must just say no to drugs. Otherwise, their dangerous behavior in the present will threaten their futures; their parents’ futures; and, most notably, the futures of their unborn children. (Of course, the irony here is that adults probably consume more drugs, prescription or otherwise, on a daily basis than most adolescents.) To deconstruct the oppressive, pathologizing force of the adult/youth binary, Halberstam posits the existence of “queer time” and “queer space,” both of which


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

“develop . . . in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction” (Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 1). Since straight time inherently marginalizes subjects who deny the dictates of heteronormativity—demands for a long life, reasonable sobriety, sexuality that is reproductive above all else—Halberstam constructs an alternate temporality for the times, spaces, and subjects outside the purview of mainstream capitalism. Citing “ravers, club kids, HIV-positive barebackers, rent boys, sex workers, homeless people, drug dealers [and drug users], and the unemployed,” Halberstam argues, “Perhaps such people could be called ‘queer subjects’ in terms of the way they live (deliberately, accidentally, or of necessity) during the hours when other people sleep and in the spaces (physical, metaphysical, and economic) that others have abandoned, and in terms of the ways they might work in the domains that other people assign to privacy and family” (Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 10). The force of these claims explodes conceptions of straight time, reimagining what constitutes a productive, safe, and sober life in the process. Queer time and queer space offer a kind of syncopated lifestyle, one that finds queer subjects willingly residing outside of the normative temporal rhythm—in a different time signature, if you will. By choosing to live queerly—by embracing the “sinful” desires of the flesh—these subjects dull the razor-sharp rigidity of straight life by grating against the boundaries that it so heavily polices. Godspeed’s fleshiness reveals itself right away, as Breedlove immediately destabilizes the arbitrary connections between masculine phallic power and heteronormative culture. In a scene that recalls Julian’s “bottoming-out” in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero,6 Jim watches her lesbian friend Pez covertly work as a male prostitute. When Pez is propositioned by one of her regular male customers, she asks Jim to accompany her to the hotel where she will have sex with a man because her John “likes someone to watch” (Breedlove, 38). After the man finishes having anal sex with Pez, which does not take more than a few quick minutes (phallic power is evidently not long-lasting), Jim asks her friend to “see [her] dick” (Breedlove, 40). In response, Pez pulls out one of her nylons that she has stuffed full of hair gel, and she tells Jim that she only carries it around just in case she needs any hard (ahem) evidence to prove that her performance as a boy was authentic: “Yeah. You gotta choose. Hard all the time or soft all the time. You don’t let ’em touch you anyway, it’s just in case they cop a free feel” (Breedlove, 40). Pez then leads Jim out of the hotel room to the street, where the two look for a drug connection. Queer critic Cathy Griggers provides an insightful analysis of the significance of lesbian appropriations of the phallus, and her words are worth quoting at length. According to Griggers: By appropriating the phallus/penis for themselves, lesbians have turned technoculture’s semiotic regime of simulation and the political economy of consumer culture back against the naturalization of masculinist hegemony. Once the penis is mass-reproduced, any illusion of a natural link between the cultural power organized under the sign of the phallus and the penis as biological organ is exposed as artificial. The reproduction of the penis as dildo [or tightly packed hair

Queer Time, Queer Space, and Queer Edge in Godspeed


gel] exposes the male organ as signifier of the phallus, and not vice versa—that is, the dildo exposes the cultural organ of the phallus as a simulacrum. The dildo is an artificial penis, an appropriated phallus, and a material signifier of the imaginary ground for a historically manifest phallic regime of power.7

Breedlove reveals the artificial, and ultimately unstable, connection between phallic power and the reign of masculinist hegemony by having Pez trick the older man into thinking that she is a male herself. In this scene, Pez easily passes as a boy, and she does so by appropriating the phallus through the use of a mundane cosmetic product that is readily available for anyone, particularly women, to purchase. It should be noted too that this particular product is one that can be easily and guiltlessly disposed of because it is really of no lasting value, Breedlove’s implication being that the same holds true for phallic power in general. Though Pez allows her body to be forcefully penetrated, which is a posture that is often read as a sign of weakness and, ironically, femininity, she still remains the more powerful performer in this scene because her performance dupes the man. Here, her queer performance, which completely subverts the standard identity categories sustained by the straight/queer binary, reveals her continued control over her body and its appropriations because she is able to complete her act without exposing herself to the man. By keeping her fake dick hidden from Jim and from the audience—the viewers who gaze at this scene head on, rather than from behind like the man—Pez retains control of her lesbian femininity because she is able to keep her John from getting what he really wants: sex with boy. As such, it is through sexual expression that Pez becomes empowered, because her sexuality allows her to fuck with the man just as much as he is fucking with her. She is not submissive in this scene. Rather, she exploits power to her own ends, causing the man’s body to go limp, and requiring him to pay her for that privilege. In addition, this prostitution scene points to the hypocrisy that is inherent within mainstream, heteronormative notions of propriety—notions that, at the very least, criminalize prostitutes. Here, Pez tells Jim that her customer “doesn’t even touch the old lady [his wife] anymore” (Breedlove, 40). Moreover, Jim overhears the John, whom she derisively calls Family Man, “muttering about altar boys” as he is having sex with Pez (Breedlove, 39). These details quite clearly highlight the hypocritical attitudes inherent in an ideology that supposedly prioritizes “family values,” almost always as a means to pathologize homosexuals, but that so often ignores these very same values. Breedlove’s indictment of Catholicism in this scene is particularly significant because it emphasizes the supreme hypocrisy of a religion that, on the one hand, is explicit in its demonization of homosexuals, but that, on the other hand, frequently turns a blind eye to priests who prey upon young boys. Simultaneously, Breedlove emphasizes a central paradox of Catholicism: despite all of the energy it pours into casting homosexuals as sinners, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is entirely homosocial. The unlikely parallels between straight edge culture and Christianity are, once again, too coincidental not to have been cut from the same paternalistic cloth. Both have been constructed largely by men, and both have historically placed men—only men—in positions of authority. And both have placed rigid restrictions on sexual expression of all kinds. Both have even, in the


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

unlikeliest of marriages, converged in space, as many DiY punk shows have taken place in church basements. Breedlove, however, inverts these spatial contexts and the social baggage that they carry. The prostitution scene occurs early in the novel’s first section, just after a few scenes in which Jim visits her stripper girlfriend Ally, shoots intravenous drugs, and attends a punk concert. When Pez and Jim leave the hotel room, she takes “glory in [her] third consecutive sunrise without a wink of sleep” (Breedlove, 41). These opening episodes immediately position Godspeed in queer time and space. From this point forward, the novel progresses on a temporal rhythm that is outside of normalized routines and behaviors that supposedly constitute healthy living. In doing so, the novel not only illuminates the lifestyles of streetwalkers and drug users, but also dignifies them. When Pez and Jim first meet each other, they do so at night—on a street corner, no less. Their greeting is cordial, pleasurable, and, to the extent that Pez earns a living through prostitution, productive, to use Halberstam’s term. Contrary to mainstream understandings of prostitution—it is humiliating and reductive, diminishing to the body, which ultimately becomes a mere commodity—the exchange between Pez and Jim is mutually fulfilling. At no point does Jim condemn Pez. Likewise, Jim refuses Pez’s offer to pay her for her willingness to perform as a voyeur in the hotel room: “Ah fuck it, you did all the work. It was my pleasure” (Breedlove, 39). For Jim, pleasure overrides the importance that culture places on responsible behavior precisely because the supposed embodiment of responsibility, Mr. Family Man himself, is villainous— perhaps even criminally so, given his sexual preferences for young boys. Breedlove’s queer spaces—the street corner, the strip bar, the hotel room—reconfigure social hierarchies, the power structures that foster those hierarchies, and the ways that we, as readers, perceive the characters that inhabit those locations. Following these early scenes, Godspeed essentially becomes a queer coming of age text that chronicles Jim’s journey, not necessarily maturation, into her identity as a butch lesbian. In large part, the success of this voyage depends on Jim’s ability to appropriate and disregard phallic power on her own terms, rather than based on the terms set forth by heteronormative culture—the culture that largely marginalizes women who attempt to remain masculine in any way shape or form. In many ways, Jim embodies the superficial markers of a tomboy; as such, she remains a perpetual (minor) threat to established gender categories and notions of proper, responsible sexuality that position women as submissive and receptive to the penetrative force of phallic power, a kind of power that works to render girls primarily as wives and, ultimately, mothers. According to Judith Halberstam: Tomboyism tends to be associated with a “natural” desire for the greater freedoms and mobilities enjoyed by boys. . . . Tomboyism is punished, however, when it appears to be the sign of extreme male identification (taking a boy’s name or refusing girl clothing of any type) and when it threatens to extend beyond childhood and into adolescence. Teenage tomboyism presents a problem and tends to be subject to the most severe efforts to reorient. We could say that tomboyism is tolerated as long as the child remains prepubescent; as soon as

Queer Time, Queer Space, and Queer Edge in Godspeed


puberty begins, however, the full force of gender conformity descends on the girl. . . . Female adolescence represents a crisis of coming of age as a girl in a maledominated society. If adolescence for boys represents a rite of passage (much celebrated in Western literature in the form of the Bildungsroman), and an ascension to some version (however attenuated) of social power, for girls, adolescence is a lesson in restraint, punishment, and repression.8

In Godspeed, Breedlove appropriates the masculine space of the Bildungsroman to offer Jim room to do precisely what the genre is designed to do: foster a masculine existential journey. Jim’s masculinity is fostered, enhanced, amplified by her forays into countercultural queercore music scenes, scenes that are more hospitable to girls (particularly girls who take boys’ names) than mainstream music scenes—perhaps especially the “indie underground scenes,” to use rock historian Michael Azerrad’s term, constructed by Henry Rollins (who would occasionally punch fans at Black Flag shows), Steve Albini (who fronted a group called Rapeman), The Minutemen (whose band name speaks for itself)—which have consistently excluded females of all gender and sexual identifications. For the most part, Jim comes of age in Godspeed’s episodic middle section, which follows her as she works as a roadie for the band Hostile Mucous, who derive their name from “a natural occurring contraceptive made in your choch,” to quote Jim (Breedlove, 137). As Jim further points out, the doctor who discovered this mucous was a man “who obviously wanted to spread his progeny far and wide, so he called it hostile mucous, but to girls of course it is not hostile, it’s quite friendly and helpful” (Breedlove, 137). Though primarily intended as an antagonistic affront to the hegemonic demand that all women reproduce, the name Hostile Mucous also works to render this middle section of the novel protective, insular, and decidedly feminine. Indeed, it is not entirely too essentializing to see this middle section of Godspeed as a vaginal space, one that nurtures Jim while she is forming her butch identity alongside, as she repeatedly calls them, an ever-expanding group of dykes. As such—and in keeping with the band name Hostile Mucous—this middle portion of the novel is entirely inhospitable to men, despite the fact that so much of it takes place in dive bars and rock clubs, spaces that are customarily reserved for male patrons and performers. In her book Feminism and Youth Culture, Angela McRobbie contends that “all-girl subcultures where the commitment to the gang comes first . . . provide their members with a collective confidence which could transcend the need for ‘boys.’ ”9 Jim agrees with McRobbie, claiming, in one brief moment, that she is on a journey into “no man’s land” (Breedlove, 141). Ironically enough, it is only in no man’s land that Jim grows into her (female) masculinity, as Halberstam would call it. Working for Hostile Mucous provides Jim a kind of political asylum from the familial and social pressures that would otherwise stifle her masculinity—her “tomboyism”—while molding her into a traditionally submissive female (McRobbie, 42). Truly, while touring with the band, Jim learns how to fight (like a man), she drinks excessively (like a man), and she fucks promiscuously (like a man), and none of this behavior is ever scorned or condemned by her female


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

peers. For Jim, the significance of these behaviors lies not so much in their apparent nihilism as in the opportunity that she, no man, has to perform them openly and freely. Once again, the role played by this section’s setting—an elongated punk rock tour, consisting of various performances—cannot be overstated. As a roadie, Jim is charged with transporting Hostile Mucous’s instruments—their equipment, so to speak. Obviously, the most important instrument for any punk rock band is the electric guitar—that instrument which operates as a “technophallus,” in Steve Waksman’s famous formulation.10 Just as Pez’s hair gel dildo separates the culturally entrenched link between phallic power and the male body, so too does Jim’s repeated appropriation of the technophallic guitar destabilize the “historically manifest phallic regime of power” in the realm of rock music (Griggers, 181). As the members of Hostile Mucous and Jim repeatedly pack and unpack their technophallic guitars—their packages, as it were—the “phallic dimensions” of their own queer female bodies are enhanced, which allows them to rewrite—on their own terms, in their own time—the masculinist, heteronormative history of rock music (Waksman, 244). In the hands of these lesbians, cock rock is queered, becoming a space that can be inhabited by chicks with dicks, none of whom would want to be called straight (edge). It is for all of these reasons that Jim has an epiphany about the plasticity of her identity as she makes her way back across the country independently at the end of the novel. After jumping a cargo train headed westward, Jim stares out at the passing landscape and reflects: I’m starting to feel like I’m not even me, like who is me anyway, I could be anyone, I can change shape, I can say my name’s Bill or Bob or Joe or I could say I’m Mary Sue and wear a dress, and nobody’d be the wiser. Nobody’d think anything was weird, except I got a funny gait for a girl, because they don’t know me and I don’t know me, I’m just a product of history that’s gone now with the ones who wrote it. (Breedlove, 273–4)

What Jim experiences here for the first time is the liberating power of motion. This moment reflects the political and cultural transcendence that McRobbie reads into allgirl subcultures; in this case, it’s a kind of transcendence that is buoyed by speed. As Jim traverses space and time, literally, like a speeding locomotive, she is able to break through the rigid boundaries established by heteronormative culture, allowing her identity to be free from the paralyzing dictates of gender conformity. Here, Jim is riding on the crest of a new historical moment that does not force her into a fixed gender category like the antiquated (male) writers of history did in the past. By surfing high on this new wave, Jim is provided a new vantage point from which to view America: “I’m floating through space they call the States, mountains, desert sage blowing” (Breedlove, 273–4). As Jim rides high in the ether, she looks out at America and does not see the same boundaries that “they” see. Rather, the States become one expansive queer space for Jim, which is merely another way of saying that she has arrived at her destination. The additional significance of Jim’s trip into this queer space emerges as Breedlove brings her novel’s addiction narrative to a close. As Godspeed opens, Jim is struggling

Queer Time, Queer Space, and Queer Edge in Godspeed


with a serious drug addiction that is interfering with her relationship with Ally. The only way that Jim is able to kick her habit is by going on tour with Hostile Mucous, which provides her literally with the time and the space that she needs to move outward from the paralyzing effects of her drug use. Yet Jim does relapse at one key moment when she is traveling on the cargo train back to her home in San Francisco. At one point, two young drifters hop onto the train and offer Jim a speedball. She accepts, shoots up, and nods out. As she is lying intoxicated on the floor of the train, a male transient rapes Jim, and she is unable to fight him off because she is still high at the time. However, when the effects of the heroin wear off, Jim notices that the man is still on the train—still lying next to her, no less—and in what is the novel’s most graphic scene, she reaches over and castrates him with her pocketknife. This scene is of crucial importance to the text because it unites Breedlove’s critique of mainstream heterosexism with her critique of drug addiction—which, it is important to note, she distinguishes from drug use. Addiction, for Breedlove, implies servility to external power; indeed, the first time that Jim injects herself is in an early episode titled “Submission” (Breedlove, 25). In the rape scene, that power is wholly masculine: Jim’s body is forcefully penetrated by the prick of the hypodermic needle—a prick that fills her body with fluid. This penetrative moment leaves her prostrated, powerless, which leads to unwanted sexual penetration by another prick: the male rapist. Prior to this scene, when Jim entered queer space, her identity was freed, and, as she points out, she realized that she could be anyone, that she can perpetually change shape. Once she takes drugs—once she submits her body to penetration—she is pulled out of that transcendent space and back into a realm of heterosexist power that can ultimately fix her body, just like heroin, and exploit it in whatever way it chooses. In the rapist’s sexist mind, Jim’s body exudes femininity because it remains docile and submissive on the floor of the train. Thus, the man is able to cease the boundless flow of Jim’s identity by rendering her a submissive, feminine subject to his phallic power, and the influence of her heroin high keeps her from doing anything about that. These points are further demonstrated by the destruction that Ally suffers in the grip of her drug addiction, to which she succumbs while Jim is off kicking hers. After arriving back in San Francisco, Jim tracks down her estranged girlfriend, only to find that her body has not only been ravaged by a heroin addiction but also by phallic power. Jim states, “I turn around and look for her, she’s nowhere, just this skinny girl with a tit job, and I look around and Skinny says, ‘Over here. It’s me.’ She walks over and hugs me, I step back and look at her. Satan eyes. Pinpoints. Where’s my Ally. Where are the big black pupils on a green dish in a trapezoid eye that seduces with the promise of most sublime love” (Breedlove, 279). As Jim looks at Ally, whom she can no longer recognize, she notes that her body has been colonized both by drugs and by masculine heterosexism. In this scene, Ally’s free-flowing queer eroticism, which she is able to use to attract both men and women at the beginning of the novel, has become trapped within the boundaries of masculinist heteronormativity. Here, Jim is largely repelled by Ally as she notices that her body has been reconstructed in accordance with contemporary Hollywood images of feminine beauty. Ally has lost significant weight, no doubt as a side effect of her drug habit, and she has gotten plastic surgery to enhance


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

the size of her breasts, all of which aligns her body with the many images of women that Hollywood markets primarily to heterosexual men. Though Jim does not disown Ally in this scene, she knows that the two of them will never be in love again and that she can only watch as Ally slowly “disappears in the fog” (Breedlove, 282). Though Godspeed’s closing moments seem to tie the novel to straight edge culture, to the extent that Jim seems to begin a sober life in the book’s final pages, the conclusion of Breedlove’s narrative remains guarded about its connections to straight life. Despite quitting an intravenous drug habit, Jim gets sober but she does not go straight. If anything, Breedlove subverts the masculine history of straight edge by literalizing that culture in the figure of Jim’s pocket knife. For Jim, the knife allows her to cut off—to castrate—male power at its source. Jim even punctuates that action by “bust[ing] [the rapist’s] balls,” a move that doubles the man over while also doubling back to emphasize Jim’s determination to kick her drug habit (Breedlove, 277). Here, Jim has got the straight edge, but it is her straight edge—not anyone else’s—and she uses it as a tool to protect herself from forced submission. Having come to the realization that she can perpetually change shape, Jim recognizes that the rigidity of the straight life will never allow her that freedom. And so as the novel comes to a close, Jim speeds off into the distance. Notably, her trajectory is downward as she follows the highway that devilishly “snakes down the coast” (Breedlove, 287). This final image is Edenic in the fullest sense. While Jim relishes the ecstatic bliss of the wind that is “kissing” her cheek, she also recognizes the murkiness of the Pacific Ocean that is “seducing surfers to be sucked into the undertow” (Breedlove, 287). Once again, the serpent has found its way into the garden. As we wish Jim “Godspeed” on her journey, we can only do so by acknowledging the uncertainty of the future. After all, why would we need to wish Jim a good journey in the first place if goodness, safety, success were all guaranteed in life? In Lee Edelman’s grand polemic No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, he argues against the priority that culture places on values such as responsibility and safety—values that, if practiced (the argument goes), will lead to a long life that stretches far into the future. Edelman claims that queer subjects need to deny the demands of responsibility, that they “[resist] enslavement to the future in the name of having a life.”11 If we, as readers, are going to be at all responsible in our treatment of Jim, we have to let her ride with dangerous speed into the future, a future that could very quickly suck her into its own destructive inertia. Jim drinks. She smokes. She fucks. That is her life. The rest of us need to let her have it.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5

Minor Threat, “Straight Edge.” Minor Threat, “Out of Step (With the World).” Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life, 145. Breedlove, Godspeed, 3. Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 4.

Queer Time, Queer Space, and Queer Edge in Godspeed 6 7 8 9 10 11


Ellis, Less Than Zero, 172–6. Griggers, “Lesbian Bodies in the Age of (Post)mechanical Reproduction,” 181. Halberstam, Female Masculinity, 6. McRobbie, Feminism and Youth Culture, 42. Waksman, Instruments of Desire, 188. Edelman, No Future, 30.

Bibliography Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981–1991. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2001. Breedlove, Lynn. Godspeed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. Ellis, Bret Easton. Less Than Zero. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Griggers, Cathy. “Lesbian Bodies in the Age of (Post)mechanical Reproduction.” In Fear of a Queer Planet, edited by Michael Warner, 178–92. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998. ———. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2005. McRobbie, Angela. Feminism and Youth Culture. Second edition. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. Minor Threat. “Out of Step (With the World).” Complete Discography. Dischord 040. CD. 1990. ———. “Straight Edge.” Complete Discography. Dischord 040. CD. 1990. Waksman, Steve. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.



The Popular Music Experiments of Rick Moody’s Connecticut WASPs in The Ice Storm Zachary Snider

Literary critic Joseph Dewey observes about Rick Moody’s language and style: “[His] prose has become his signature: elaborate and elongated sentences, lyrical and intense; a playful indulgence of a high-caloric vocabulary. . . .”1 Moody’s novels are known for their free-flowing language and for sentences that can last for pages, just as much as they are noted for their guilt-ridden characters. Dewey’s analysis of Moody’s work also mentions his “free use of fragments that can build momentum across pages; punctuation gimmicks such as forsaking quotation marks; odd syntactical arrangements that work best when read aloud; and a rich reservoir of allusions to literary and pop-culture referents” (Dewey, 17). The language of Moody’s novels flows like soothing classical music or smooth jazz, and he rarely writes stiffly structured sentences or paragraphs. His fictions are also infused with popular culture references, including comic book and multi-genre music metaphors. Yet he’s also fond of exploring alcoholism and drug abuse, disapproval of conservative Republican American politics, privileged New Englanders, religious rejection or awakening, parent–child emotional abuse, and male depression—in other words, the same critically hailed themes of popular music. Moody’s characters and the issues with which they struggle are typically hyperdramatic, much like the emotionally hyperbolized characters of popular songs. Keith Negus, in his comparative analysis of character types within literature versus those in popular songs, notes: “Like novels, all songs contain characters. . . . The narrator may be the central character or might be commenting on, or in dialogue with, other characters within a song.”2 Moody’s narrators typically tell readers about suburbanites who have created their own self-destructive problems out of boredom and selfishness, the most widely known of Moody’s characters being the dueling families of The Ice Storm. The most prominent subject within Moody’s novels is the ways that music affects his characters. These characters have the potential to change and/or be liberated by music thanks to third-person narration (i.e., how these characters’ inner monologues provide analysis of bands, singers, and genres). Moody’s characters can be divided into two categories: (a) teenagers who rely on music to develop a self-identity (Paul and Wendy Hood of The Ice Storm) or (b) unhappy middle-agers who selfishly cause each other strife because they are nostalgic for their own youth (their father Ben) or are 111


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

afraid of pop culture phenomena (their mother Elena). Moody uses music as a metaphor for sex; uses music preference as a barrier in marriage or friendship; and uses music education and exposure as opportunity for characters to challenge themselves and change their lives. In The Ice Storm, these father-against-son and mother-againstdaughter pairings are heightened to show how and if music can change Moody’s characters, illustrating that, in the end, only the matriarch character can change her stale life. In The Ice Storm, males are egotistically incapable of change and doomed to stagnancy and depression, and teenage girls are socially oppressed and not yet ready for or worthy of significant change. Ultimately—through immersing herself in popular music—only Elena manages to transform her identity, as she realizes the profound hopelessness of her male counterparts and manages to liberate herself sexually.

Searching for the Self: The Ice Storm’s “Moody” Teenagers The Ice Storm is told through an eerily all-knowing third-person point of view, and chronicles the dangerous intermingling of two privileged New Canaan, Connecticut, families: Benjamin, Elena, Paul, and Wendy Hood (the more conservative Protestant family) and Jim, Janey, Mikey, and Sandy Williams (the hipper, bohemian family down the street). These families—both generations, parents and children alike—experiment with one another’s bodies and psychological shortcomings amidst the sexual revolution of the early 1970s. In the novel’s beginning, Moody contextualizes this time period with popular culture and technological references: “No answering machines. And no call waiting. No caller I.D. No compact disc recorders or laser discs or holography or cable television or MTV. . . . No punk rock, no postpunk or hardcore, or grunge. No hiphop.”3 The characters—especially the more cautious Hood family—are comfortable with (both sexually and socially) yet tired of their banal selves. From The Ice Storm’s exposition, Moody further historicizes the time period with popular music references, to instigate changes in and confusion for the characters: “Much was in the recent past. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were in the recent past. . . . The Beatles were recording solo albums” (Moody, 4). The year 1970 saw the Beatles break up, and both Hendrix and Joplin die within three weeks of each other, all three events “traumatic” turning points for music fans and for the annals of popular culture. Moody uses these references to suggest that pop culture lovers were still in trauma, and to hint at how resistant the characters of The Ice Storm are to undergo change. Incidental references like these also fuel the characters’ dialog throughout The Ice Storm, which further shows how empty their lives are. Like many residents of commercialized American suburbs, the Hoods and the Williamses fill their conversations with trivia about popular culture, product information from catalogs, and news stories. “Some indulge with ease with the noncommunication of parlor chitchat, circulate in rooms heavy with weather factoids, office gossip, impromptu movie reviews, and investment tips” (Dewey, 17). In other words, trivial small talk consumes Moody’s characters’ interactions, showing how routine their lives have

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become. Because The Ice Storm is set in the early 1970s, the characters also often ponder and chat about the trendiness of psychotherapy (e.g., Freudian theory), self-discovery through pop-literature (e.g., Jonathan Livingston Seagull), and corrupt political leaders (e.g., Nixon memorabilia and paranoia abound!). The narrative style of The Ice Storm is divided into a quartet of separate, thirdperson points of views of the Hood family, beginning with prep school teenager Paul Hood, who is obsessed with comic books and has decided that his family is just like the Fantastic Four. His father is The Thing since he’s grumpy, socially awkward, and doesn’t like people or popular culture, and even has the same first name as The Thing’s alter ego. Paul’s mother is The Invisible Girl because she too is silently awkward and cannot keep up with or disapproves of popular trends of the time (Moody, 80). Marc Singer suggests that Paul uses this comparison to escape his frustration about his family members: Moody illustrates how serial comic books, through an intersection of formal properties and commercial interests, suspend time through the metonymic and synecdochic relationships of continuity, assembling sequential, temporally progressive narratives into a metanarrative in which time is virtually arrested.4

Paul, like the rest of the Hood family, seems stuck in time, unable to progress emotionally or psychologically. He displaces the characters of the Fantastic Four in efforts to give importance to his parents and sister, and to feel empathy for them because he cannot do so in real life. This metonymic displacement allows Paul to exist in a fictive world in which he can actually respect his father, not pity his mother so greatly, and not see his sister as a whiny brat. Seeing his family members as the Fantastic Four also allows Paul to stereotype his parents by their personal strengths (Ben’s withdrawn nature, which, in real life, embarrasses Paul in public; Elena’s quiet, pious demeanor, which really makes Paul feel sorry for her) and by their genders. Turning his father into a superhero allows Paul to see Ben as a masculine patriarch, his mother as a quietly confident supermom (instead of a martyr), and his sister as a tough rebel punk. At St. Pete’s, the fancy boarding school Paul attends in Manhattan, he secretly despises his roommate and supposed best friend, Francis Davenport IV, because he “steals his records” and attempts to ruin everything else that’s sacred to Paul: comic books, music, clothes, drugs, and girls (Moody, 94). Paul resents Francis just as much as he resents his own father because he sees both of them as obstacles for his own masculine development. Francis is an obstacle since he is Paul’s competition for girls; Ben is an obstacle because Paul already hopes to become nothing like his father. So Paul turns to pop culture to understand his friendship with Francis, just as he attempts to editorially understand his father. In his study about musicians and their devoted fans, Taylor Martin Houston suggests that “homosocial interactions allow [males] to express rather than suppress their affection and emotions towards other men and support their construction of alternative masculinities.5 Paul Hood, however, shields himself with popular culture synecdoches in order to express even a small amount of affection for his father and best friend.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Paul is a nerdy teenage romantic, which, for him, translates to being a boy who is just as awkward as his parents, one who spouts Star Wars trivia to his friends and who ravenously lusts after his female peers with such desperation that, in one scene, he forces himself on a passed-out drunk girl on whom he has a major crush. Paul watches girls from afar and fantasizes, since he is too moody and nervous to interact with them: “On Paul’s radio program, on the ten-watt AM radio station at St. Pete’s, he made hideously sentimental dedications to girls he’d never met” (Moody, 101–2). In other words, Paul hides behind song lyrics. In Houston’s study about musician camaraderie and fandom, he explains that emotional song lyrics like the ones Paul uses as social armor are “not normal masculine behavior, [but are] an essential part of being an artist” (Houston, 168). Paul wholly relates to this idea, fancying himself just as artistic and wounded as the musicians he loves, a behavior not uncommon for many moody teenage boys who are able to form exclusive clubs because of their deeply rooted if not overdramatic fandom of certain musicians. Houston continues, stating that this . . . “brotherhood” at times [upholds] normalized masculine notions of exclusivity. . . . Through these small acts, constructing a more positive version of hegemonic masculinity that is less hierarchical and more emotionally healthy, supportive, and accepting becomes a more reachable goal. (Houston, 171)

As competitive as Paul is with Francis and the other boys at St. Pete’s, they are emotionally and fraternally connected through immense affection for popular culture; namely, music. Outward emotion for masculine development is disallowed by Paul’s father and his school buddies, but when he escapes into music, he’s allowed to be selfreflective, to homosocially bond with his friends, and, most important, to pretend that he is someone else besides The Thing’s son. Paul prefers new, hip, controversial music—such as glam rock—that challenges his father’s oafish masculinity, and he admires musicians who push gender roles and even androgyny to the extreme. Listening to and reading about these glam rock stars allows Paul to fantasize about his desired identity versus his hereditarily dictated identity. In his analysis of masculinity and glam rock, Andrew Branch states that, for fans like Paul Hood, “The attraction of this new identity [glam] was its distinctiveness, a quality that allowed for fantasies of uniqueness and moral superiority.”6 For three pages, Moody— through Paul’s voice—gives a lengthy speech that is part history lesson and part criticism about the music scene of New York City in the early 1970s. He uses Paul’s interest in glam rock to convey his own critical take on singers and bands such as Glitter, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and the New York Dolls, the last of whom he describes objectively, so as to convey a “serious critic” tone, as “a collection of guys from the boroughs who wore makeup and fake furs” (Moody, 184). Paul/Moody explains how and why effeminate performers such as Elton John and Liberace can possibly exist and be popular during this time period (even though “the straight world is over this craziness” (Moody, 184)). He teaches the reader that

The Popular Music Experiments of Connecticut WASPs in The Ice Storm


. . . [t]his was Glitter. These men all wore platform shoes and boas and blouses and leather jumpsuits. They were writing songs about transvestites—Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Sugar Plum Fairy, Jackie Curtis. In Paul Hood’s November issue of Creem, one rock critic called 1973 “the year of the transsexual tramp. All of a sudden almost everyone in rock and roll wanted to be—or at least suggest the possibility of being—a raging queen.” (Moody, 184)

Glam rock in particular allows Paul to admire publicly loved males who are entirely antithetical to his stuffy father. Paul escapes reality—most notably, his parents’ arguments and ignorance, or his own failures with girls—through genres like glam. Branch adds that “glam’s visual appeal lay in its rejection of a traditional code of masculine attire, in favour of a more camp visual androgyny. It was a look which appealed to fans even if they felt unable to emulate it . . .” (Branch, 31). As a fan, Paul has no intention of emulating the femininity and flamboyance of glam rock’s costumes, makeup, and falsettos. However, he also knows that being a devoted fan of this gender-threatening category of rock music staunchly separates him from his father (and his mother, for that matter), allowing him to rebel against his parents’ values and tastes via music. Branch states that glam rock fans—like Paul—used musicians such as David Bowie to have an “artificial construction of identity” (Branch, 26) for themselves. As a privileged and confused teenager, Paul changes his identity and self-definition as quickly as album tracks change. In his critical reading of glam rock aficionados, Branch argues that “the androgyny of glam was constantly framed within a broader discussion, in which the parameters of a normative male sexuality were reasserted,” ultimately asserting that “this androgyny by some glam artists [is] an opportunity to reassert [a musician’s or a fan’s] heterosexuality” (Branch, 32). In this way, Paul asserts a different type of heterosexuality, one that he has in common with his young, offbeat St. Pete’s pals, yet one that is totally in conflict with his father’s. Paul Hood thus exemplifies Branch’s claim about individual heterosexual identity: “one of the attractions of glam was the idea of ‘glamour’ itself, which was viewed as synonymous with sophistication, as a way of distinguishing oneself from others . . .” (Branch, 33). Through dramatic irony, though, Paul’s purposeful attempt to dramatically contrast his heterosexuality (rebellious, stylish, desirable, cool) against his father’s (Protestant, stiff, boring, uncool) seems pointless since he’s so very much like his father—a hereditary inevitability for most young men. Paul’s little sister Wendy is a forceful young woman, but, unlike her passive brother, Wendy’s main popular culture obsession is with television. She is a young teenager, in the final stages of puberty, so her pop culture references show her child-versus-adult identity in crisis. One minute she is enraptured with Nixon news stories and is making sophisticated political analyses about the Watergate scandal, and the next minute she is ashamed for wanting to watch the Claymation Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for the umpteenth time. Soon after the climax of The Ice Storm, during which Mikey Williams dies after accidentally electrocuting himself, and during which Wendy realizes that her parents have cheated on each other with the Williams parents (Elena


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

with Jim, Ben with Janey), the narrator says: “Wendy would think about this moment a lot, later, and she would conclude that Elton John’s drummer, Nigel Olsen, meant more to her than her parents’ marriage, and that her own heart had shrunk down, like the heart of the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (Moody, 249). These music references and television images that she has seen countless times flood into her consciousness in her efforts to ignore the emotional upheaval occurring in her family. Even Wendy’s bedroom is described as an emotionally confused place of childversus-adult identity in crisis: “On the walls: posters of David Cassidy, the Dark Side of the Moon record sleeve, a peace symbol. . . . All-in-one Magnavox record player with a warped copy of Neil Diamond’s Hot August Love resting on it. Side four, including ‘Mother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show’ ” (Moody, 260). Her parents like Neil Diamond and his safe, gentle music, but Wendy longs to be like anyone but her parents, especially her mother. Likewise, the David Cassidy posters illustrate her immature tastes. The record album cover juxtaposition of Pink Floyd and Neil Diamond hanging on her wall further illustrates her young teenage confusion. Tellingly, though, there are zero posters of female musicians on her walls. Wendy does not like female popular culture icons; they’re too weak, too passive, too soft. Too much like her mother. In their article about gender dominance and pop music fandom, Vaughn Schmutz and Alison Faupel assert that “Female performers are less likely than male performers to receive cultural legitimacy of any type—popular, professional or critical—and, moreover, gender has a significant effect on the odds of consecration. . . .”7 When taking into account the capital and critical aspects of music distribution and popularity, it makes perfect sense that Wendy eschews female artists. Wendy likes learning about dominant politicians, rowdy rock stars, and corrupt leaders—all male, because, to her, only men have power. Wendy’s mother has no power in her home, something that bothers Wendy on a daily basis, so much so that she is embarrassed of Elena. She is ultimately torn between idolizing her father versus wanting him to take care of her; she does not want to be a “weak woman,” but sees no other option for her gender. Schmutz continues his gender debate about pop musicians, stating that “the ‘intensity,’ ‘rawness,’ and ‘seriousness’ that characterizes ‘good’ music holds masculine connotations in contrast to the ‘softness’ and ‘sentimentalism’ often used to pejoratively describe women’s music” (Schmutz and Faupel, 690). Wendy is not a soft or sentimental girl in any sense, mainly because her mother is soft and sentimental. So, these adjectives that are commonly associated with popular female musicians could never be complimentary for Wendy, because they could be complimentary for Elena. In another scene, Wendy belts out the lyrics of a Led Zeppelin song that she finds in a songbook at the Williamses’ house, but doesn’t actually know the tune or the meaning of the lyrics, and barely even knows who Led Zeppelin is (Moody, 233). Wendy’s frustration with her family, particularly her parents, whom she considers pathetic, is exemplified by her lack of music education and understanding. She wants to like cool, adult bands, and sophisticated television shows, too, but the sadness and lack of adult understanding she has about her parents’ relationship—and thus about the future of her family dynamic—leaves her identity and personal comfort level in chaos.

The Popular Music Experiments of Connecticut WASPs in The Ice Storm


At the novel’s conclusion, shortly after Wendy and Sandy Williams find his father, Jim, holding Mikey’s dead body in their living room, Wendy again tunes out from reality to concentrate on the sheet music of Henry Mancini’s sleepy song “Moon River,” which rests on the Williams’ piano (Moody, 241). Wendy has just forced preteen Sandy to climb into bed naked and sip vodka with her (two strictly adult acts), but, now, with all four Williams and Hood parents present and shocked about Mikey’s death, Wendy wants to be a little girl again. Here, Moody suggests that Wendy has attempted to experiment with her gender in ways that are entirely antithetical to her mother’s pious behavior and conservative mindset, which further suggests that experimentation with popular music allows one to experiment with gender identity. In this particular situation, though, since Wendy is still in her mid-adolescent experimental phase, she temporarily returns to Mancini’s innocent tune to calm herself in the moment. Moody says that his novels are inspired by music rather than cinema, but he certainly still gives them a soundtrack, similar to the ways that music swells onscreen in films to enhance character emotion.

Liberation By Music: The Ice Storm’s Naughty Middle-Agers The patriarch of the Hood family, Benjamin, is constructed as a frustrated yet cocky oaf whose life is so unsatisfying that he now only gets pleasure out of his semi-frequent bowel movements after a long day at work (Moody, 8). Ben’s wife is bored and disappointed with him, and now his mistress, Janey Williams, has grown tired of him, too. “Once his dreams had been songs,” the intrusive, editorial narrator says of Ben: “He’d been a balladeer of promise and opportunity” (Moody, 6). This third-person narrator continuously prompts Ben to have pity-parties for himself; he too feels like a failure, and thus he agrees with the women in his life. “It never did [any good] to compare your wife to your mistress,” Ben thinks via the narrator, “because your wife always won, the way the classics were better, the way that jazz standards had nuances no other songs had” (Moody, 11). This figurative conflict of Ben’s music tastes—exciting, tempting, new popular music versus stale, familiar classic standards—serves as a humorous metaphor for how he views Janey and Elena. Ben’s knowledge of pop music is more depressive and nostalgic than The Ice Storm’s other characters, all of whom instead use pop music as inspiration and guidance. Ben, in contrast, feels stuck in life and thus music grounds him negatively: Still, those pop ditties of the moment could sometimes get stuck in Hood’s head. Sometimes they articulated the sorrow in a stalled marriage. His loneliness. Then the strings swelled in the bridge and those songs weren’t so bad after all. (Moody, 11)

Moody’s use of music in fiction is usually presented through this third-person narration about male characters who have a surplus of idealized nostalgia for the past. Ben “hate[s] the world, hate[s] mankind, hate[s] his family” (Moody, 80)—especially


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Paul—because, as a middle-aged man past his prime, both sexually and (pop) culturally, Ben feels trapped in his mundane suburban cycle of work and parenting. He wants his youth back and hates his teenage son for it. Ben Hood’s un-hipness and his inability to appreciate the popular music and culture of the Swinging Seventies prompts him to crave his past—his glory days—when he was a young stud in college, pre-marriage, pre-fatherhood, and even pre-adultery. Paul has all of these privileges as a young man who is also up to date with popular culture/ music, but Ben feels like Paul is squandering his opportunities. Ben genuinely has no idea who his son is, or what his social character is like, so much so that, when Ben tries to have paternal conversations with Paul about sex and masturbation, Paul is so embarrassed and uncomfortable that he hates his father even more. Whenever these awkward moments happen, Paul retreats to music and comic books; Ben retreats to alcohol, self-pity, and adultery. Janey Williams is the coolest mother and wife in New Canaan, so Moody juxtaposes her character against Ben’s lameness throughout the novel. Janey is everything that Elena Hood is not: she smokes pot and drinks during the day, she has a lava lamp in her bedroom, and, most impressive to the younger generation of Hood and Williams children (if not to Ben as well), Janey is always in-the-know about which popular music is the coolest. The stack of records in the Williams house regularly reminds Ben of Janey’s coolness. For Ben, Janey is his experiment with popular culture/music. Sleeping with her makes Ben hipper to popular culture/music trends, or at least more accessible to them—or so he thinks. Moody uses metaphoric music references for Ben to characterize how truly uncool and purely capitalistic he is, two traits that he cannot seem to escape: [T]he music of business, the investment business, was music to his ears. America rose and fell on the melody of New Canaan’s songs of the economy. Songs sung by a Jewish economist and mimicked by WASPs who would have thought twice before playing twice with the guy. (Moody, 128–9)

Ben uses Janey, booze, and social status to construct a fantasy for himself in which he is the ultimate husband and bachelor, able to live a double life, one in which he is the celebrity alpha male of New Canaan, Connecticut. Ben’s fantasy life is just as active as his son’s, which is counterintuitive if not humorous, since father and son have each constructed a fantasy life to get away from each other. In her study about male authors and their characters’ relationship with depression, Catherine Toal remarked in relation to Moody’s work: “[Guilt and fantasy] also work indirectly to validate a kind of subjectivity apparently fostered by such an experience: an ineffectual, fearful, introverted masculinity, the persona Moody occupies in every encounter he relates.”8 Ben is undoubtedly driven by guilt—for cheating on his wife, for being a bad lover to his mistress, for being an emotionally stunted father, and for being such an uncool dude. Thus, he wants to feel victimized, too, for being in a loveless marriage, for having a mistress who pities him, for having painfully apathetic children, and, again, for being

The Popular Music Experiments of Connecticut WASPs in The Ice Storm


such an uncool dude. This guilt, Toal says, posits Ben as a universal symbol of American maleness: “Moody leaps outside of the classification of ‘depression’ (or ‘addiction’ or ‘alcoholism’) deploying a malleable concept of ‘melancholy’ to launch what he takes to be a thoroughgoing exposé of American guilt . . .” (Toal, 311). Worse, in the context of The Ice Storm, not understanding or participating in popular culture makes Ben even more depressed since he doesn’t know enough about pop culture/music to be participatory and cool. Ben’s cycle of fantasy and victimization entraps him in a woe-is-me suburban masculinity in which he constantly feels like a miserable failure. Thus, it’s also important to note that one of the reasons why Paul Hood is so obsessed with popular culture— specifically, popular music—is because his father is so out of touch with what the popular mass adores and praises in the early ’70s. Paul sees his father as the oafish destructor of his family—The Thing—a bumbling fool who is incapable of understanding anyone, including his own kids and wife. Paul feels sorry for his mother, partially because of his father’s treatment of her, but, unfortunately, cannot treat her any better than his father does. He has no elder male role model in New Canaan, Connecticut, one who treats his wife, daughter, secretary, or even his mistress respectfully. In the chapter first featuring Elena’s maternal point of view, she thinks nervously about how much has changed in her small town, and about how intimidated she is by these rapid changes. The mischievous narrator has Elena questioning her religious upbringing, which further clarifies her hesitancy to embrace the naughty popular culture of the time, especially music. Elena is, however, okay with religious-based tunes and tamer pop music: “And then there was popular religion: Godspell was a hit. Jesus Christ Superstar was a hit. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a hit. (And the film version had just opened featuring the songs of Neil Diamond)” (Moody, 75–6). Elena’s vanilla popular culture tastes bore Ben just as much as his habitual, predictable nature bores her. Elena’s “unsexiness” is seen as her weakness in their marriage; it’s the downfall of her social life, too. Ben and Elena have no real friends, which is completely antithetical to the bustling social life of the Williamses, who are cool enough to embrace trends such as glam rock and marijuana. Jim Williams is always gone on business trips, giving him an enviably jet-setting lifestyle, while his wife Janey spends her days reading salacious literature and ignorantly letting her children play with the whips and explosives that she keeps in the house. Elena is overly analytical, always in her head and critically if not neurotically weighing the goods and bads, and especially the consequences, of every situation that greets her. She over-narrates her own life yet also has separate narrations running in her head for her spouse and kids, too. Negus’s study of the narratology of popular songs can easily be applied to Elena’s thought patterns and the way she thinks about music, and the way it affects her: “The characters in pop songs are signaled from the properties that can be heard (the words used, actions, names, musical arrangement—the qualities of the ‘I’ or ‘you’) and from what can be inferred (the traits that may be implied through allegory and metaphor)” (Negus, 618). For Elena, every song’s rhythm, subject matter, and public reputation have deeper meanings. A song is not just a song for Elena, a


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

geeky yet analytical idea that allows her to think about music more—and to also change more than her husband or kids. In order for Elena to transformatively become “sexy,” and thus to compete socially with Janey (and thereby to feel personally and sexually empowered), she begins a process of convincing herself that she too can partake in the popular culture of the early ’70s. At a climactic party that Ben and Elena attend with utmost discomfort, Elena surveys the room with much trepidation, thinking that “she could sense the key party in the air like the grope games of elementary school . . . she would dance to records by Antonio Carlos Jobim, the master of bossa nova, or to Switched-on Bach by Walter Carlos, or to the Carole King LP everyone seemed to have” (Moody, 156). This realization that she has come to a key party—to purposely swap husbands with another wife for the evening—terrifies Elena; she never engages in such risqué behavior. But she also thinks that, if she participates in this sex game, her level of self-confidence will rise since she knows fully well that her husband is having an affair, too. Once every partygoer is drunk and nervously excited to begin the spouse-swapping, “Dot [the hostess] had turned on some racy music to go with the event—theme music from the Tribal Love Rock Musical Hair” (Moody, 167). For Elena, dancing the bossa nova or publicly being a fan of a nudie musical is too much of a hedonistic endeavor, but, at the same time, engaging in this foreign hedonism is the only way to show Ben that she can be as unfaithful as he is. Until this point, Elena has only “cheated on Benjamin with his own lost youth,” since she too much prefers the young Ben Hood instead of the passionless man he has become (Moody, 75). The partygoers “soldiered on, these pretenders to the Tribal Love Rock Event, like it was a civic duty,” and thus Elena convinces herself to partake in this so-called duty (Moody, 168). Houston’s gender study about musicians and their fans parallels Elena’s cautious, analytical actions at this party, behavior that is typically associated with females: [Stereotypical] “feminine” characteristics are described as socially constructed behaviors and performances that uphold the gender dichotomy through such qualities as: expressing emotions such as caring, joy, sadness, anxiety, and fear; being openly affectionate with peers; maintaining stylized/fashion forward dress codes that accentuate the body; engaging in beautification practices like styling one’s hair and adorning the body with accessories; and performing activities that sexualize the body and draw the gaze of onlookers. (Houston, 159)

At the key party, while Ben gets heavily intoxicated and fumbles around the Halfords’ house, Elena uses the music that’s playing to activate and understand her behavior. She uses the party’s soundtrack to experience this array of emotions that Houston mentions here, and allows herself to consider her clothing, her body, and her interactions with men in a new way—because of the music. Although Elena’s behavior in this scene suggests that she’s exemplifying a floozy 1970s party-girl stereotype, acting

The Popular Music Experiments of Connecticut WASPs in The Ice Storm


this way is merely Elena’s transformative beginning; these stereotypically feminine behaviors initiate the start of a more genuine transformation for Elena. She soon realizes that these overly flirtatious and silly acts do not suit her true character and that she must liberate herself in ways that are more honest for her; indeed, she goes through a process of sexual and gender identity awakening that evening which eventually results in her sleeping with another man and showing up her husband; in other words, Elena competes to empower herself. Likewise, Houston also suggests that, if men like Ben were to use music in the same way to explore their own gender limitations and to experiment with what it’s like to be the opposite gender (as his teenage son does with glam), then men too might grow sexually, emotionally, and maritally: “By incorporating these conventional feminine characteristics into the enactment of their masculinity and homosocial relations with other men, male participants in certain subcultures and social settings are challenging hegemonic masculine norms” (Houston, 159). Elena allows herself to become the predator, the conqueror, and the adulterer—the man. She also knows that Ben is incapable of gender image experimentation or understanding what it’s like to be female. When Elena draws Jim Williams’s keys from the glass bowl, and after all the other keys have been selected, she leads Jim to his car. The narrator shows the progress of her character change, led by a frivolous sexual exploit and guided by a pop music soundtrack similar to the one played at Dot Halford’s party: And that, suddenly, was the beginning of it. Elena had never made love in a car before. It was one of those rites of passage that she had read about in books. She hadn’t known about rock and roll, she hadn’t known about racial strife, and she hadn’t known about heavy petting in cars. (Moody, 176)

Although Elena is viewed as the least “cool” character in the novel, it is ironic that she is also the only character who truly changes by the novel’s end, compliments of all this “dangerous” pop music influencing her decisions and instigating the risks that she takes. While the judgmental narrator clearly pities Elena up until the end of the novel, whenever this third-person narrator shows Ben’s perspective, they seem to playfully antagonize him. This curious narrator also encourages Wendy Hood to be sexually naughty while fostering her extreme love for everything on television; describes the Williams boys as creepy outcasts; and puts Janey Williams on a pedestal of coolness. Each character is defined and judged by this narrator for his or her participation in popular culture, but the reader does not find out why until the novel’s conclusion, when a guilty Paul Hood confesses that he has been the editorial narrator of the novel the whole time. Thus, although The Ice Storm highlights misogyny, overtly sexualizes women, and praises masculine dominance, it is ultimately a tribute to Mom and a farce about Dad. Elena Hood’s successful experimentation with popular music gives her an uplifted self-identity, a new closeness to her pop culture-loving kids, and revenge. With music, she wins.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Dewey, “Rick Moody,” 17. Negus, “Authorship and the Popular Song,” 618. Moody, The Ice Storm, 3. Singer, “Embodiments of the Real,” 281. Houston, “The Homosocial Construction of Alternative Masculinities,” 161. Branch, “All the Young Dudes,” 42. Schmutz and Faupel, “Gender and Cultural Consecration in Popular Music,” 697. Toal, “Contemporary American Melancholy,” 310.

Bibliography Branch, Andrew. “All the Young Dudes: Educational Capital, Masculinity, and the Uses of Popular Music.” Popular Music 31 (2012): 25–44. Dewey, Joseph. “Rick Moody.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 23 (Summer 2003): 7–49. Houston, Taylor Martin. “The Homosocial Construction of Alternative Masculinities: Men in Indie Rock Bands.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 20 (Spring 2012): 158–75. Moody, Rick. The Ice Storm. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1994. Negus, Keith. “Authorship and the Popular Song.” Music and Letters 92 (November 2011): 607–29. Schmutz, Vaughn and Alison Faupel. “Gender and Cultural Consecration in Popular Music.” Social Forces 89 (Spring 2010): 685–708. Singer, Marc. “Embodiments of the Real: The Counterlinguistic Turn in the Comic Book Novel.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 49 (Spring 2008): 273–89. Toal, Catherine. “Corrections: Contemporary American Melancholy.” Journal of European Studies 33 (December, issue 1, 2003): 305–22.


“Every song ends” Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad Danica van de Velde

Among the many characters that occupy the narrative of Jennifer Egan’s 2010 text A Visit from the Goon Squad is a 13-year-old boy named Lincoln Blake who possesses a strangely intense obsession with the pauses in rock songs. This preoccupation centers on a number of songs, ranging from Garbage’s “Supervixen” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans” to Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and The Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” His fixation on musical pauses and silences causes much tension in his family home, particularly with his father, Drew, who does not understand their relevance. After some conflict, Drew’s failure to grasp the significance of the musical pause is harshly challenged by his wife, Sasha: “The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”1 This emphasis on silence and the suspension of closure is at the heart of Egan’s book and her thematic concern with temporality as illuminated through musical structures. Rather than simply signaling the end of a song, the pause in Egan’s text is employed as an overarching metaphor designed to represent the threatening presence of all that is lost in the passage of time—the goon to which the book’s title refers: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” (Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, 341). Replete with pauses, ellipses and temporal disjunctures that replicate the musical structures she thematizes, Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a text that is impossible to capture in a narrative summary. Composed of a multiplicity of loosely connected narrative threads and temporalities, subjectivities and voices, styles and tones, the book spans from the early 1970s to an imagined vision of the future, and takes place in a variety of geographical settings ranging from New York and San Francisco to Mombasa and Naples. The novel unfolds in non-chronological order and follows its own covert genealogy linked by the degrees of separation between characters. The two characters that, while not featuring prominently in every chapter, are at the center of the text’s connective tissue are record producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant, Sasha. However, the subjects that link the loosely connected narratives of Egan’s text are not characters, 123


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but the motifs of music and time. The anxiety surrounding the end, which is imagined through the completion of a song, touches on the manner in which music and nostalgia serve as points of intersection in the text that converge on the late 1970s punk scene in San Francisco. Specifically, the soundtracking of memory and desire in the text is an expression of nostalgic longing, which Egan interestingly ties to representations of gender, whereby nostalgia is not a universal emotion of loss, but one that is articulated and understood through constructions of masculinity and femininity. The nostalgia for the punk scene of the 1970s is particularly aligned with the male characters who are consumed by the desire to return to the perceived authenticity of the period. The intertwining of punk and nostalgia is not only thematically interwoven into the narrative lives of Egan’s characters, who predominantly work in the music industry or are in some way connected to it, but is present in the very texture of the book. Specifically, the shift in temporal register, combined with the articulation of lost moments through gaps and silences, embeds the rhythms and chaotic flow of punk into the structure and language of the text, creating a parallel between the mnemonic movement of nostalgia and the musical pause. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, music enacts the characters’ memories; however, it also gestures towards emotional voids and temporal absences, positioning music as both a source of positive recollection and deep disappointment. By juxtaposing past and present in her layered structure of time, Egan lays bare the hollow idealism that is particularly at the heart of her male characters’ lives and that positions them to desire to return to a past that they can never recapture. Indeed, this sentimental attachment to the past further reinforces their movement away from the hardcore authenticity of the punk scene, while also drawing attention to the gaps and recesses that exist between then and now, or A and B.

From A to B In “X’s and O’s,” the sixth chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Scotty Hausmann, one of Bennie’s childhood friends, unexpectedly pays him a visit at his New York office. Arriving with a striped bass he has freshly caught from the East River, Scotty rationalizes his presence by stating, “I came for this reason: I want to know what happened between A and B . . . A is when we were both in the band, chasing the same girl. B is now” (Egan, Goon Squad, 106). While Scotty’s statement further reinforces the anxiety surrounding the passing of time that is embedded within Egan’s text, it also references the structure of the book itself. Divided into A (six chapters) and B (seven chapters), the final configuration of the text was a highly conceptual undertaking for Egan. In her author’s note, which accompanies the reader’s guide to the book on the Random House website, she lists the guiding rules that determined her approach to writing A Visit from the Goon Squad: 1) Each chapter had to be about a different person. 2) Each chapter had to have a different mood and tone and approach. 3) Each chapter had to stand completely on its own.2

Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in A Visit from the Goon Squad 125 With these demands accomplished, Egan has stated that she views the text collectively as neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, but, rather, as a “concept album” (Random House, “A Note from Jennifer Egan”).3 Citing The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as influential musical texts, Egan justifies this blurring of the structural lines between literature and a musical album as “a story told in parts that sound completely different from each other . . . yet also work together” (Random House, “A Note from Jennifer Egan”). Based on Egan’s own conceptualization, it is useful to think of the book as an appropriation of the form of a vinyl record; that is, featuring side A and side B and with each chapter, and the characters’ perspectives within it, representing a song from her literary concept album. However, while Egan’s reference to the concept album provides a useful framework for comprehending the composition of the book’s chapters, the subversive form of Egan’s text is arguably more appropriately aligned with the punk genre. Indeed, if Egan’s book can be read as a concept album, then its “sound” is intentionally cacophonous, transgressive, and resistant to conventional linear structural flow. Although Egan desired each chapter to have its own life, with a number of the chapters in A Visit from the Goon Squad having been published independently in venues such as The New Yorker, the configuration of the stories into a bound whole impels readers to approach them collectively. Bearing in mind Egan’s composition of fragmented stories into a singular narrative, I argue that the text formalistically mobilizes the structural vocabulary of punk by imitating what Dick Hebdige has defined as the unifying principle of the subcultural movement: “chaos cohered as a meaningful whole.”4 Given that punk is about disturbing and unsettling order, it is an entirely appropriate framework within which to situate Egan’s book. As Daniel S. Traber writes, “The one narrative most punks leave securely in place is the primacy of the individual, investing in a discourse of alienation” that “claims to privilege dissonance, incoherence, and destabilization.”5 Indeed, the architecture of Egan’s text is inherently unstable and discontinuous, with the subversive composition of A Visit from the Goon Squad reaching its pinnacle in a chapter comprised solely of PowerPoint slides. By presenting an entire chapter in PowerPoint, and consciously collaging the visual into the textual structure of her book, Egan disturbs the conventional form of the literary textual apparatus. Although this is arguably the most provocative and iconoclastic chapter in her text, the decision to have a different mood and tone for each chapter—or song—results in a disorientating reading experience that juxtaposes the internally focalized narration of Chapter 6, “X’s and O’s,” to a journalistic essay in Chapter 9, “Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens up About Love, Fame and Nixon!” and the strange, almost secondperson narration of Chapter 10, “Out of Body,” which attempts to interpolate the reader with the constant use of the word “you”: “the question is, which one is really ‘you,’ the one saying and doing whatever it is, or the one watching?” (Egan, Goon Squad, 197). In presenting what I refer to as a punk structure, Egan is not engaged merely with the archetypal subject matter of punk narratives, which Guy Lawley outlines as “punk characters, gigs and bands,” or the thematic concerns of “the rejection of hippy values, the politics of Anarchy, an antiauthoritarian thrust, or the nihilistic rallying cry of ‘No


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Future.’ ”6 Although these elements are certainly present in A Visit from the Goon Squad—particularly in the third chapter, “Ask Me if I Care,” which focuses on the late1970s San Francisco punk scene—Egan more interestingly produces a text that evokes a punk mood. In delineating the book in this fashion, I am not suggesting that Egan’s prose takes on the self-destructive primitivism of punk; rather, that she interweaves the chaos of the movement within the fabric of the text. In this sense, the punk subculture is utilized not for its political undertones, but for its structural aesthetics. For example, the visual style of punk, which was most explicitly revealed in the fashion design of its brief existence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is one of fragmentation and collage that has overtly DIY (do-it-yourself) overtones. As Hebdige writes, “Punk reproduced the entire sartorial history of postwar working-class youth cultures in ‘cut up’ form, combining elements which had originally belonged to completely different epochs” (Hebdige, 26). The aesthetic juxtaposition of contrasting or conflicting elements was then extended to the visual production of the period that developed from the typographical model of “the ransom note in which individual letters cut up from a variety of sources (newspapers, etc.) in different type faces were pasted together to form an anonymous message” (Hebdige, 112). The cut-and-paste process associated with visual representation in punk is effectively staged in A Visit from the Goon Squad with its palimpsest of times, voices, and places, as well as its blurring of textual and visual mediums. The unanchored trajectory of the text, which avoids offering narrative resolution to the majority of the events in each song–chapter, is intriguingly hinted at in the name of one of the bands that Bennie represents, “Stop/Go.” The musical style of the punk-rock sister duo is encapsulated in the “almost-threadbare sound of their voices mixed with the clash of instruments”; however, it is the paradox at the heart of their band name that exemplifies the punk rhythm of Egan’s book (Egan, Goon Squad, 31). Moreover, the privileging of marginal and peripheral characters is also a decidedly punk move for Egan, who gives voice to those who have been pushed to the outskirts of society and, initially, to the fringes of the narrative. Traber refers to the manner in which punk can “transgress the fixed order of class and racial hierarchies by crossing the boundaries of . . . inherited subjectivities” (Traber, 117), and Egan similarly cuts across the invisible divide that separates the characters’ public representations and their personal selves. However, what is interesting in Traber’s delineation of punk is an absence of gender considerations, thereby suggesting that the punk movement could be potentially read as non-gendered and giving weight to Egan’s easy juxtaposition of male and female voices in the text. In reflecting on the brief period in which punk was at its height, Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten commented in his autobiography that “During the Pistols era, women were out there playing with the men, taking us on in equal terms. . . . It wasn’t combative, but compatible.”7 While a male perspective on female punk subjectivity could certainly be questioned, Helen Reddington posits that the subculture generated an “enabling environment” for young women supported by the “genderlevelling effect of mass unemployment and the do-it-yourself nature of the punk ethos.”8 Angela McRobbie similarly points out the manner in which the punk subculture’s focus on class and race seemingly eradicated gender issues, providing a level playing field for women, as much as their male counterparts, to voice their anger.9

Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in A Visit from the Goon Squad 127 Although the critical assessments of the role of women in punk are—in most cases—positive, scholars such as Reddington have also drawn attention to the fact that there was “no specific mention of girls and young women in any of punk’s ‘manifestos’ ” (Reddington, 24). David A. Ensminger further highlights the limited destabilization of traditional gender identities in the punk scene in the sense that women “could not readily escape their gender roles or expectations.”10 He elaborates, “the punk scene often mimicked the very culture it supposedly loathed, acting out sexist stereotyping and intolerance; hence, the notion that punk offered different gender roles often is more like a trope or convenient fiction than reality” (Ensminger, 194). By employing punk as a framework for her text, Egan intervenes into the overt masculinity of the movement and recovers the gender issues marginalized in punk’s grand narrative. The effect of the punk mode of A Visit from the Goon Squad is one in which gendered perspectives are subtly elided; however, the assertion from one of the male characters that “[w]omen are cunts” indicates that, while the punk structure may be gender neutral, the content is not—a point to which I will return later in this essay (Egan, Goon Squad, 82). In switching between different gendered narrative subjectivities, Egan infuses punk confusion not only into the modes of address in her book, but also into the temporal disjunctions. For example, within “Safari,” the text’s fourth chapter, the reader is presented with a modality of time that simultaneously mixes past, present, and future. The reader is introduced to Rolph and Charlie Kline, the son and daughter of Bennie’s mentor, Lou Kline. Within this chapter, which is set during an African safari holiday, Rolph attempts to remind his sister of a family vacation in Hawaii when their parents were still together: “Rolph closes his eyes and opens them again. He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right” (Egan, Goon Squad, 66). As Rolph’s thoughts are cast backwards in time, Egan’s omniscient narration fractures the seemingly contained temporality of Rolph’s thought patterns to reveal how the future will adversely affect these characters: Charlie doesn’t know herself. Four years from now, at eighteen, she’ll join a cult across the Mexican border whose charismatic leader promotes a diet of raw eggs; she’ll nearly die from salmonella poisoning before Lou rescues her. A cocaine habit will require partial reconstruction of her nose, changing her appearance, and a series of feckless, domineering men will leave her solitary in her late twenties, trying to broker peace between Rolph and Lou, who will have stopped speaking. (Egan, Goon Squad, 84–5)

This proleptic device that Egan employs also plays a part in informing the reader that, at the age of 28, Rolph will shoot himself in the head. Here, as in many of the chapters in the book, Egan appears to set up her narrative in the manner of a Bildungsroman before undercutting the linearity of the text’s progression, shifting the focus away from the characters that she initially sets up as being pivotal to the narrative and laying waste to any sense of innocence that could be attributed to Rolf and Charlie’s status as children. In many ways, Egan provides a literary twist to the antiestablishment approach


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to audience participation in punk music performance, which annihilates the once sacrosanct boundary that separates the performer from the audience. However, in Egan’s case, she aims to unsettle her own narrative to highlight the manner in which damage is the ultimate condition of her characters’ passages into adulthood. In the final chapter, which takes place in an imagined projection of 2016, the uneasiness related to time is conveyed in the question, “if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?” (Egan, Goon Squad, 339). While this truncated language, which is the prevalent form of communication in the future, gestures towards a collapse in everyday discourse, offering a punk configuration of expression, it also emphasizes the unspoken trauma of time that is threaded through the chapters of the book.

Everything is Ending: Real Longing and the Pure Past While punk music is based on an ethos that seeks to simultaneously annihilate the past and disavow the future, A Visit from the Goon Squad departs from the punk temporality of a permanent present through its romantic longing for the past. The disillusioned cry of “No future” heard in the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” resounds in Egan’s portrayal of the changes in the music industry’s shift from analog to digital technology. As Bennie comments, “The problem is . . . it’s not about sound anymore. It’s not about music. It’s about reach” (Egan, Goon Squad, 319). Indeed, Egan has claimed that the structuring of the book along the lines of a concept album was also an homage to a dying musical form in an age of digitization.11 Moreover, with her fleeting references to “blasting bootleg tapes,” thereby drawing attention to another musical medium that has become a historical ruin, Egan utilizes the music industry to function as an allegory for the nostalgia that is bound up with technological progress and the passing of time (Egan, Goon Squad, 41). Reflecting on the importance of music as a gateway to the past, Egan made the following comment in a 2010 interview: I don’t experience time as linear. I experience it in layers that seem to coexist. I feel like 20 years ago was really recent even though I was much younger and had a different kind of life. Yet at the same time I feel like I’m still kind of there. One thing that facilitates that kind of time travel is music, which is why I think music ended up being such an important part of the book. Also, I was reading Proust. He tries, very successfully in some ways, to capture the sense of time passing, the quality of consciousness, and the ways to get around linearity, which is the weird scourge of writing prose.12

Although Egan has acknowledged the inspiration of a Proustian sensibility in her writing, she and Marcel Proust employ different faculties to open the doorway to memory: where Proust invokes childhood memories through the sense of taste, specifically as his character dips a madeleine cake into a cup of tea, Egan frames recollection through the sense of sound.13 This capacity to travel through music is captured when Bennie and his friends listen to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” poetically

Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in A Visit from the Goon Squad 129 referencing the manner in which music transforms the listener into a passenger riding “through the city’s backside” (Egan, Goon Squad, 58). However, it is Bennie’s musically motivated reminiscences, which allow a mnemonic transition from the present to the past, that emphasize the intertwining of music and time: But Bennie knew that what he was bringing into the world was shit. Too clear, too clean. The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust! . . . But the deep thrill of these old songs lay, for Bennie, in the rapturous surges of sixteen-year-old-ness they induced. . . . (Egan, Goon Squad, 24)

In this instance, Bennie’s nostalgia is prompted by his disenchantment with the current condition of the music industry—a state in which, to quote Malcolm Chase and Christopher Shaw, “Nostalgia is experienced when some elements of the present are felt to be defective and where there is no public sense of redeemability through a belief in progress.”14 Significantly, the epigraph that opens the text is taken from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success” (Egan, Goon Squad, ix). Notably, the capacity of music to mnemonically transport the characters into the past is, as Proust suggests, an act of passage that is tinged in disappointment and melancholy. If, as I maintain, nostalgia in A Visit from the Goon Squad is principally articulated through music, it is the San Francisco punk scene of Bennie’s youth that is represented as the site of this nostalgia. The specific temporality of punk music, which Stuart Borthwick and Ron Moy attribute to its “apocalyptic feel” that combines a “fast tempo” with a “monadic march . . . to suggest that time is literally running out,” is ironically at odds with the backwards projection of nostalgia.15 While the punk movement was concerned with destroying traditions of the past, nostalgia in Egan’s text gestures towards the traditional etymology of the word that comes from the Greek, with nostos meaning “to return home” and algia “a painful condition.”16 The yearning for home here takes on the temporal connotations of returning to one’s youth; however, it is also explicitly linked to an ephemeral sense of authenticity that is linked to the lost punk subculture represented in the book. Considering the complex relationship between music and authenticity, Allan F. Moore convincingly states that authenticity can be conceived as “a property of the listening experience rather than simply of the track listened to. . . . ‘authenticity’ is a matter of interpretation that is made and fought for from within a particular cultural and, thus, historicized position. Like all meanings, it is ascribed, not inscribed.”17 The notion of authenticity is therefore highly unstable and unfixed; however, within a punk context, Jason Middleton positions authenticity in relation to the movement’s resistance to commercialism.18 The punk emphasis on “class consciousness” supports the


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importance of constructing a punk community that is forged through “common bases of experience, identity, and authenticity through subcultural practices” (Middleton, 335, 338). For Egan’s characters, the authenticity of punk is placed in opposition to the dying hippy culture: “Nineteen eighty is almost here, thank God. The hippies are getting old, they blew their brains on acid and now they’re begging on street corners all over San Francisco. Their hair is tangled and their bare feet are thick and gray as shoes. We’re sick of them” (Egan, Goon Squad, 42–3). Accordingly, the formation of an authentic punk identity in A Visit from the Goon Squad centers on what Hans Weisethaunet and Ulf Lindberg define as “ ‘authenticity’ as negation,” a now dated branch of authenticity that finds meaning in “that which it thinks it is not.”19 The sense of realness and integrity attributed to the punk scene in the book presents a conflation of authenticity and nostalgia, whereby genuineness and truth can seemingly only be located in the past. Moreover, the twinning of authenticity and nostalgia with punk music lays the foundations for examining the manner in which Egan negotiates representations of gender in the text. As the San Francisco chapter is not narrated from Bennie’s perspective, his friend, Rhea, inducts the reader into the social microcosm that orbits around Bennie’s punk band, the Flaming Dildos. The central concern that emanates from Rhea’s narration is the importance of realness and authenticity: “In the Mab’s graffiti-splattered bathroom we eavesdrop: Ricky Sleeper fell off the stage at a gig; Joe Rees of Target Video is making an entire movie of punk rock; two sisters we always see at the club have started turning tricks to pay for heroin. Knowing all this makes us one step closer to being real” (Egan, Goon Squad, 48). Although the onslaught of time brings a sense of decay to the lives of all the characters in the text, the responses to nostalgia in A Visit from the Goon Squad are intriguingly gendered, and it is principally the male characters that appear to be incapable of mending the division between the authentic past and the deficiency of the present. Even though nostalgia is not a theoretical trope that is traditionally gendered, Egan draws a distinct line between how this emotion is negotiated by her characters based on their gender. The representation of Bennie and Scotty as teenagers in a punk band is a highly mediated and performative construction of gender, whereby the male characters find a “real” identity in the grungy, hedonistic punk scene. Scotty is originally characterized by his handsome physique and charisma, but is later mistaken for a roadie because his appearance has become so degenerate. Similarly, when Bennie reaches middle age, he has to resort to sprinkling gold flakes into his coffee to try to muster his missing sexual potency. Ironically, he longs for the perceived authenticity of the past and yet he is overcome by “shame memories” (Egan, Goon Squad, 20). When Bennie and Scotty eventually reunite to stage a concert in the final chapter of the book, Bennie praises Scotty for being “absolutely pure” and “untouched,” and this characterization is allowed by the fact that Scotty has lived a subterranean existence beyond the surveillance of what has become a hyper-digital culture (Egan, Goon Squad, 321). He therefore represents a strangely uncontaminated link to Bennie’s past life, and his veneration of Scotty is actually a means of trying to nostalgically mend his own fragmented sense of self. Significantly, the relationship between masculinity, nostalgia, and punk identity is not merely confined to the friendship between Scotty and Benny, but also extends to

Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in A Visit from the Goon Squad 131 the character of Bosco, a musician who has left behind his punk days and is portrayed as “obese, alcoholic and cancer-ridden” (Egan, Goon Squad, 119). The motif of A to B, which I originally employed to discuss the structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad as a punk concept album, is again repeated in the text when it is used as the album title for Bosco’s forthcoming solo album. In the same vein as the majority of the male characters in the book, Bosco is so obsessed with the past that it is the guiding question of his album: “[H]ow did I go from being a rock star to a fat fuck no one cares about?” (Egan, Goon Squad, 134). He resolves to put on a final national tour in which he will perform as his younger self and push his body to the point of death. Here, Bosco’s “Suicide Tour” is the ultimate male rejection of the “goon” that is time (Egan, Goon Squad, 136). Attempting to collapse past and present into the singular image of his suicide performance, Bosco disregards the rationality of linear time. In so doing, he tries to separate authenticity from the nostalgia for the past to use music to reconstitute a “real” identity in the present. The ridiculous delusion at the heart of Bosco’s musical project further reinforces Egan’s representation of male identity as one that is confined to the empty assurances of the past. The female characters, on the other hand, are painfully aware of time running out, but they do not wallow in the false promises of nostalgia. Sasha Blake understands the importance of pauses in rock music because she prefers to confront the end rather than “trust [her] memories,” describing her existence before marriage and children as “another life” (Egan, Goon Squad, 267). Two separate female characters divulge at different temporal points in the book that they believe everything is ending; however, it is Kitty Jackson, the subject of the journalistic essay of Chapter 9, who puts the female perspective on the past so perfectly: “But I want to forget . . . I’m actively trying to forget. I want to be like Lulu—innocent” (Egan, Goon Squad, 160). In the following chapter, Kitty Jackson’s former self is described in Jules Jones’ article: “Kitty’s skin—that smooth, plump, sweetly fragrant sac upon which life scrawls the record of our failures and exhaustion—is perfect” (Egan, Goon Squad, 186). The idealism of nostalgia is overtly lacking in the female characters: they do not want to return to the past, they want to forget it ever happened. When Lou, seemingly unprovoked, refers to women as “cunts,” he is arguably taking issue with the irreconcilable approaches to the past attributed to each gender, which is why the majority of the romantic relationships in the text are both fleeting and doomed. Fred Davis conceptualizes nostalgia as being bound up with “the means for holding onto and reaffirming identities which had been badly bruised by the turmoil of the times” (Davis, 107), and in Egan’s musical elegy for the lost promise of youth and innocence, she specifically codifies the reaffirmation of identity through nostalgia as a masculine prerogative.

Great Rock and Roll Pauses In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym argues that nostalgia is incorporated into the “off-modern,” whereby the “adverb off confuses our sense of direction; it makes us explore sideshadows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress.”20 She


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posits further that “nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values. . . . The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them” (Boym, 8). The emphasis on architectural recesses, shadows, and silences in Boym’s conceptualization of nostalgia is pertinent when unpacking the manner in which this emotion coalesces with the musical form of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Significantly, it is Lincoln Blake’s obsessive interest in musical pauses that is the subject of the book’s most unconventionally structured—and arguably punk-influenced—chapter. The mapping of this chapter, which is aptly titled “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” is arranged exclusively through a series of PowerPoint slides and is filled with graphs and tables that attempt to make sense of the elusive power of the musical pause.21 While pauses are explicitly portrayed as musical in this chapter, they are also imagined as symbolic of irretrievable loss and serve not just as a musical metaphor, but also as a representation of gaps, silences, and the traumatic shifts in time experienced by the characters. Far from simply being a quirky method of presenting information, the PowerPoint holds an important function in transcending the constraints of the written form. In much the same way that punk music altered the delivery of vocals to produce a “nonmusical approach” that “opposed the usual melodic singing style,” Egan unsettles the written conventions of the novel (Borthwick and Moy, 87). In so doing, her text not only implements a musical structure that is based on intuition and flow, but manages to visually convey the pauses that are thematized in the book. The time between A and B in the characters’ lives constitutes a pause that is figured as an unrepresentable site of haunting, and it is no coincidence that one of the graphs in Chapter  12 provides a visual mapping that compares the pause to its “haunting power” (Egan, Goon Squad, 313). This takes on a particularly tangible quality through Egan’s engagement with the post-9/11 New York landscape in which the architectural void left in the space where the Twin Towers stood is used to publically enact the characters’ lack of cohesion. As Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones, states when he returns from a period in a correctional facility: “I go away for a few years and the whole fucking world is upside down. . . . Buildings are missing. You get strip-searched every time you go to someone’s office. Everybody sounds stoned, because they’re e-mailing people the whole time they’re talking to you. Tom and Nicole are with different people. . . . And now my rock-and-roll sister and her husband are hanging around with Republicans. What the fuck!” (Egan, Goon Squad, 130)

The trope of the pause highlights the failure of nostalgic desire to mend the gaps in time, and this is illustrated by the void left by the Twin Towers that is poignantly realized by a male character who is again attempting to find meaning in the past. Egan stresses this sense of temporal, as well as spatial, suspension for the reader as she moves through different viewpoints, times, and spaces in the book, leaving a number of

Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in A Visit from the Goon Squad 133 narrative threads untied and unresolved, whereby the reader is left to dwell in the ellipses of the text. Similarly, the pause is also bound up in the noted degeneration of language and communication as the book progresses towards its construction of the future. Although the PowerPoint chapter signals a breakdown in traditional language, which is supplanted by slogans and graphics, it is the final chapter that presents a troubling vision of the status of textual expression. Ironically titled “Pure Language,” Egan portrays the future as a space in which expression has been simplified to a ridiculous point of abstraction: th blu nyt th stRs u cant c th hum tht nevr gOs awy. (Egan, Goon Squad, 348)

Significantly, while textual communication has become distorted, it is music that has the agency to connect people. Despite Bennie’s fears of where the music industry is headed, it is Scotty, crucially described as being “wary of technology,” who manages to transcend the discontinuities of language through his music: “a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage, in a way that now registered as pure. Untouched” (Egan, Goon Squad, 334, 344). The description of Scotty as “pure” and “untouched” again reinforces the discourse of gendered nostalgia that runs throughout Egan’s text. However, in contrast to Bennie, who has been incapable of retaining his former punk identity, Scotty remains true to his younger self by residing in the subterranean cracks of society. Although Egan presents the viewer with what is arguably a dystopian vision of the future, as well as a strong critique on the disillusionment of nostalgia, it is music that survives as a source of hope and redemption. A Visit from the Goon Squad can be situated as a text that interrogates not only music, authenticity, and nostalgia, but also how the intersection of these tropes can be read through the lens of gender. Egan’s punk-structured text emphasizes that, despite the unavoidable impingement of time and the general failure of her male characters to nostalgically reconstruct the mood of a lost era, music remains ever present. The book ends with the optimistic belief that, although the song must inevitably end, it has not ended just yet.

Notes 1 Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, 289. 2 Random House, “A Note from Jennifer Egan.” 3 It is for this reason that I will use the words “text” or “book” to refer to A Visit from the Goon Squad in this essay. 4 Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, 113. 5 Traber, Whiteness, Otherness, and the Individualism Paradox from Huck to Punk, 115–17.


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6 Lawley, “ ‘I Like Hate and I Hate Everything Else’: The Influence of Punk on Comics,” 100. 7 Lydon, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, 378. 8 Reddington, The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era, 12–23. See also Reynolds and Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ’n’ Roll, 306. 9 McRobbie, In the Culture Society: Art, Fashion and Popular Music, 146. 10 Ensminger, Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation, 189. 11 Egan, “The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Egan.” In this interview, Egan spoke specifically about the manner in which musical consumption has changed with the prevalence of the download culture in which buyers may purchase a selection of songs off an album as opposed to the complete product. 12 Egan, “Jennifer Egan.” 13 See Proust, Swann’s Way. 14 Chase and Shaw, “The Dimensions of Nostalgia,” in The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia, 15. 15 Borthwick and Moy, Popular Music Genres, 89. 16 Davis, Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, 1. 17 Moore, Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song, 266. 18 Middleton, “D.C. Punk and the Production of Authenticity,” 335–56. Middleton acknowledges the limitations of this argument, especially in regard to the symbiotic relationship between the Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s punk fashion shop, “Sex,” which greatly profited from the punk sartorial style. 19 Weisethaunet and Lindberg, “Authenticity Revisited: The Rock Critic and the Changing Real,” 472. 20 Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, xvi–xvii. 21 As of July 9, 2013, Jennifer Egan’s professional website featured a link to “The Great Rock and Roll Pauses” chapter that is color coded and incorporates audio samples of the songs. This allows readers of the hard copy or paperback versions to view the slides in the style that they were originally intended.

Bibliography Borthwick, Stuart and Ron Moy. Popular Music Genres. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001. Chase, Malcolm and Christopher Shaw, eds. “The Dimensions of Nostalgia.” In The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia, 1–17. Manchester, England, and New York, NY: University of Manchester Press, 1989. Davis, Fred. Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. New York, NY: Free Press, 1979. Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. London, England: Corsair, 2011. ———. “Jennifer Egan.” Interview by Heidi Julavits. Bomb Magazine 112 (2010). Accessed April 22, 2013. http://bombsite.com/issues/112/articles/3524. ———. “The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Egan.” Interview by Alec Michod. Therumpus.net. Last modified June 23, 2010. http://therumpus.net/2010/06/therumpus-interview-with-jennifer-egan/.

Musical Pauses, Gendered Nostalgia, and Loss in A Visit from the Goon Squad 135 Ensminger, David A. Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011. Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, England: Methuen, 1979. Lawley, Guy. “ ‘I Like Hate and I Hate Everything Else’: The Influence of Punk on Comics.” In Punk Rock: So What?, edited by Roger Sabin, 100–19. London, England: Routledge, 1999. Lydon, John. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. London, England: Coronet, 1995. McRobbie, Angela. In the Culture Society: Art, Fashion and Popular Music. London, England, and New York, NY: Routledge, 1999. Middleton, Jason. “D.C. Punk and the Production of Authenticity.” In Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture, edited by Roger Beebe, Denise Fulbrook and Ben Saunders, 335–56. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002. Moore, Allan F. Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song. Surrey, England, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. 1913. Reprint, London, England: Penguin, 2000. Random House. “A Note from Jennifer Egan.” Reader’s Guide: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. Accessed April 10, 2013. http://www.randomhouse.com/ book/201020/a-visit-from-the-goon-squad-by-jennifer-egan/9780307592835/?view=re ader’sguide. Reddington, Helen. The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era. Hampshire, England, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Reynolds, Simon and Joy Press. The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ’n’ Roll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. Traber, Daniel S. Whiteness, Otherness, and the Individualism Paradox from Huck to Punk. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Weisethaunet, Hans and Ulf Lindberg. “Authenticity Revisited: The Rock Critic and the Changing Real.” Popular Music and Society, 33, no. 4, 465–85.


Part Three

Sounding Race and Nation




“It’s Me or the . . . Eggplant” Pleasure, Politics, and Prince in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album Eric Berlatsky

Of the contemporary writers interested in popular music, there are few who explore it as persistently as Hanif Kureishi. Among Kureishi’s credits are a 1995 anthology of pop-music writing (The Faber Book of Pop, which he coedited);1 a play, The King and Me (1980), which engages with an impoverished couple’s mutual obsession with Elvis Presley;2 a 1991 essay, “Eight Arms to Hold You,” which delineates the importance of the Beatles to Kureishi’s childhood and the 1960s in which he came of age;3 and a number of screenplays to which popular music is central. More recently, the novel Gabriel’s Gift (2001) focuses on the fictional rock star Lester Jones.4 Although pop is clearly important to Kureishi, its meaning is not always clear. If anything, it comes to emblematize the struggle between the needs of the individual and the frequently oppositional pull of the community, particularly configured in terms of racial or ethnic solidarity. Indeed, one of the central questions of Kureishi’s oeuvre is the degree to which personal pleasure, subjectivity-as-performance, and individual “freedom” can and should be pursued, even at the expense of communal, familial, and/ or ethnic affiliations. Music, then, often represents an attempt to synthesize or reconcile the individual with the communal, though not always successfully, as in Kureishi’s second novel, 1995’s The Black Album.5 Both The Black Album and Kureishi’s first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990),6 contain references to dozens of musical artists and a variety of musical styles, but they focus closely on only a few, constructing a history of British popular music from approximately 1969 to 1990. Buddha begins with the Beatles, and moves through the “glam rock” of David Bowie on its way to punk, and particularly the Sex Pistols. All three are represented by narrator Karim Amir’s friend, lust interest, and eventual stepbrother, Charlie Hero (née Kay). Charlie opens the novel as a high school student and Beatles fan before becoming the lead singer of Mustn’t Grumble and a Bowie analogue.7 Finally, he trades in his failing Bowie persona to front the Pistols-like Condemned, leading to international celebrity. 139


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The Black Album, by contrast, does not invent any pop stars, but refers frequently to 1980s’ icons Prince and Madonna. Madonna is the subject of interest of college professor Deedee Osgood and her students. The narrator, Shahid, meanwhile, is an obsessive fan of Prince, explaining the novel’s title, which refers to a 1987 Prince album the widespread release of which was canceled, appearing only briefly seven years later before being deleted. The title also reemphasizes Kureishi’s interest in the Beatles, referring to their “White Album” (1968).8 The “Beatles–Bowie–Sex Pistols–Prince/Madonna” trajectory of pop history is a mainstream one, marginalizing vast tracks of the music landscape. It is necessary, then, to identify what this trajectory means and why these figures are important to Kureishi. Jörg Helbig takes a step in that direction in his essay discussing the “Beatles-myth” in Buddha.9 Helbig argues that Kureishi focuses on the Beatles in order to establish an affiliation with (mostly white) “Englishness.” For him, the novel is concerned with “belonging” in a nationalist sense, especially given Buddha’s well-known opening: My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. . . . Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless. . . . (Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 3)

It is Karim’s mixed ethnic background that makes him a “new breed” of Englishman, of course. With an Indian father and white mother, Karim is an Englishman, but, from the perspective of the Londoners he encounters, a “funny kind.” Within the logic of Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, to be English one must be white,10 and it is within this discursive construction that Karim uncomfortably maneuvers, though it is part of Kureishi’s project to attempt to redefine “Englishness” itself.11 As Karim notes, “we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it” (Kureishi, Buddha, 53). Rejected, mistreated, and abused because of ethnic heritage, to identify as fully English within this environment would necessitate a kind of self-hatred that Karim’s friend/lover Jamila wholeheartedly rejects, but which remains part of Karim’s psyche. Helbig sees the focus on the Beatles as an attempt by Karim to integrate into “mainstream” English society, just as other critics have seen Karim’s romancing of both Charlie and the “English Rose,” Eleanor, as a mixture of racial self-hatred and a doomed attempt to enter white bourgeois society.12 Further, Helbig claims that, with “the exception of Jimi Hendrix and the Jackson Five, the narrator does not even mention any musicians of different ethnic origin” (Helbig, 77), arguing that the novel willfully ignores not only Indian musicians who were popular in the West during the period (and important to the Beatles themselves), but also African American music and 1960s–1970s’ London staples such as ska, dub, and reggae. In fact, Helbig is misleading in this regard, as Karim frequently refers to African American musicians (Kureishi, Buddha, 53, 95), though Anglo-Indian and AfroCaribbean musicians are less commonly name-checked.13 It is certainly true, however,

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that the Beatles, Bowie, and the Pistols are more central to the narrative of Buddha than any black musicians, and it would be possible to see these three pop coordinates as particularly (white) “English” and therefore part of Karim’s efforts to affiliate with a community from which he has been forcibly excluded. If we look closely at what the Beatles mean to Kureishi, however, it becomes clear that Karim’s fascination with them is not simply an attempt to appropriate white English identity, but also an attempt to fuse communal solidarity and radical politics with a more stereotypically “Western” fascination with hedonism, self-invention, and individuality. Kureishi’s most protracted discussion of the Beatles occurs in “Eight Arms to Hold You,” and, although he identifies the Beatles as a particularly English band, the most important element of the Beatles’ attraction to him is not communal or national, but individual (Kureishi, London, 360). “Without conscience, duty, or concern for the future, everything about the Beatles spoke of enjoyment, abandon, and attention to the needs of the self” (Kureishi, London, 364; my emphasis). For Kureishi, the Beatles here represent the abandonment of social responsibility in favor of “pleasure . . . freedom and good times” (Kureishi, London, 363). Kureishi’s Beatles are also particularly tied to “the present,” a moment of “escape,” “euphoria,” and “heightened sensation” (Kureishi, London, 365) that rejects the secularized Protestant work ethic in which pleasure must be sublimated until the weekend, retirement, or, simply, “the future.” It is this world of the “self,” the present, and “heightened sensation” (explicitly through the [un]holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll) that the Beatles and its sixties’ epoch represent in the essay. All of these themes of “Eight Arms” are re-articulated elsewhere in Kureishi’s work. In “Some Time with Stephen,” for instance, Kureishi states that, “the desire for more freedom, more pleasure, more self-expression [is] fundamental to life” (Kureishi, London, 136). In Buddha, Karim, before giving Charlie a drug-fuelled handjob, echoes, “I wanted to live always this intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people, and drugs” (Kureishi, Buddha, 15).14 Although the close of the sixties brought the dissolution of the Beatles, Kureishi retains an ideology centered on “intense” experience beyond that decade, though the exact shape of that experience becomes rhetorically more elastic. Post-Beatles, Kureishi remained attached to John Lennon, and, as the 1970s took shape, Kureishi argues that the “attention to the needs of the self” “bifurcated into two streams—hedonism, self-aggrandizement and decay, represented by the Stones; and serious politics and self-exploration, represented by Lennon” (Kureishi, London, 369). The claim Kureishi makes here is a bit inconsistent, however. In this encomium of Lennon, Kureishi argues that the search for individual “sensation” can be carried too far, that “hedonism” can reach uncomfortably self-indulgent extremes, particularly in a kind of decadence linked to self-promotion. Opposed to this is a presumably more noble iteration of the “needs of the self” that caters to the spiritual, psychological, and/or intellectual (“self-exploration”). While the pleasures of the flesh are identified as a virtue earlier in the essay, here they are simultaneously abandoned and linked not only to “self-exploration,” but also to “serious politics” in a way that is never explained logically, except through the alchemy of their attachment to John Lennon. If, after all, “serious politics” is to have any meaning whatsoever, it is as a communal activity, and as a commitment to the betterment of society as a whole (or communities


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within it). “Serious politics” must inevitably be built upon some kind of “conscience,” precisely that which the Beatles’ music, according to Kureishi earlier in the essay, rejects. As examples of “serious politics,” Kureishi cites “the gay, black, and women’s movements” (Kureishi, London, 370), making a questionable effort to link them to the Beatles by organizing them under the chronological umbrella of “progress since Sgt. Pepper” (Kureishi, London, 370). Certainly, the Beatles and much of the sixties’ counterculture eventually opposed the war in Vietnam, anti-immigration racism, and gender inequality (though it is also true that sexism and racism were not uncommon within the movement). These political movements are not, however, necessarily continuous with the “pursuit of pleasure” that Kureishi champions as integral to the Beatles’ music. In referring to the 1976 “Rock Against Racism” movement, Kureishi indicates the ways in which pop music had become “an instrument of solidarity, as resistance and propaganda . . . effective against the National Front” (Kureishi, London, 371). While this is certainly true, it is a far cry from the hedonism Kureishi pinpoints as the central value of the Beatles only seven pages previously. “Solidarity,” after all, seems to be the opposite of the “attention to the needs of the self.” Rather than resolving these tensions, I argue that precisely these contradictions permeate Kureishi’s work in general, and his use of popular music in particular. As Haroon, Karim’s father, says in Buddha, “Should people pursue their own happiness at the expense of others? Or should they be unhappy so others can be happy? There’s no one who hasn’t had to confront this problem” (Kureishi, Buddha, 76). On one hand, Kureishi often configures the pursuit of individual pleasure and the “needs of the self” as the ultimate value. Alternatively, his commitment to a radical politics, and particularly one revolving around the concerns of the black British community, makes such hedonism seem unpalatable. In “Eight Arms,” Kureishi attempts to marry the two concerns by linking them both to the Beatles, or, eventually, to Lennon alone. A similar attempt is made in The Black Album, with Prince (and Madonna) playing the role of the Beatles. As we shall see, however, neither Kureishi nor the pop music he deploys ever fully succeeds in reconciling political/social commitments with the pleasures of the flesh.

“What Else Is There?” The struggle between individual sensation and communal identification with political commitment is nowhere more explicit than in The Black Album, wherein the protagonist, Shahid Hasan (a Pakistani Briton), is caught in the middle of a metaphorical love triangle whose other vertices are Deedee Osgood and Riaz al-Hussain, the leader of a group of fundamentalist Muslims and Shahid’s neighbor in a Kilburn (London) block of flats. Shahid is caught between his sexual fascination with Deedee and the communal belonging and political engagement he gains with Riaz. Shahid finally chooses hedonistic sensation over solidarity, but the manner in which he does so is curious. Physical sensation is clearly behind Shahid’s relationship with Deedee, their sexual encounters described in pornographic detail, along with their dabbling in drugs, rave

Pleasure, Politics, and Prince in The Black Album


culture, dancing, literature, and popular music. Their “self-indulgence” is not, however, without repercussions. Indeed, Shahid introduces himself to Riaz by revealing a previous love affair that resulted in a “late abortion” Shahid calls a “shabby business” (Kureishi, The Black Album, 13). The abortion functions as a classic synecdoche for the negative repercussions of the unchecked pursuit of sexual pleasure. Similarly, Shahid’s brother Chili takes the pleasures of drug use “too far,” becoming addicted and losing his money and marriage. This clichéd series of dire consequences are not included in order to warn the reader away from “sensation,” however. Rather, they function as background to Shahid’s choice to embrace “heightened sensation” despite problematic results. At the novel’s conclusion, Shahid and Deedee provisionally commit to each other not for life, but “Until it stops being fun” (Kureishi, Black, 283), making fun itself the barometer for interpersonal relationships. By contrast, Riaz eventually becomes a subject of risible satire and easy rejection. When Riaz comes to believe that “God had inscribed holy words into the mossy flesh” of an eggplant (Kureishi, Black, 177) and endorses the burning of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988), Shahid’s rejection of Riaz is clearly meant to be endorsed by the reader.15 Initially, however, Shahid is powerfully attracted to Riaz’s community, which gives him a sense of social and political belonging. In his desire to belong, Shahid is hardly unique. “These days everyone wanted to belong, was insisting on their identity, coming out as a man, woman, gay, black, Jew— brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they wouldn’t be human” (Kureishi, Black, 98). While half-mocking the “politically correct” tendency to “come out” as part of a particular gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, Shahid feels the pull of “joining,” not least because of the mistreatment and exclusion he and his have undergone. When Shahid joins Riaz’s group in protecting a Pakistani family from local racists, he cannot help but identify with their plight, having experienced it himself as a youth (Kureishi, Black, 14). “The husband had been smashed over the head with a bottle and taken to hospital. The wife had been punched. Lighted matches had been pushed through the letter box” (Kureishi, Black, 96). While Shahid can remain at an intellectual distance from the group in matters of religious belief and literary appreciation, he cannot help but bind himself to them in political solidarity against such injustices. The group’s religious opposition to sensual hedonism is attractive to Shahid not for its own sake, but for its role in binding a community. As Chad, one of Riaz’s group, reminds him, they are devoted to the notion that “pleasure and selfabsorption isn’t everything” (Kureishi, Black, 134), positioning themselves unavoidably against his relationship with Deedee. It is not surprising that Shahid is perpetually looking for a means of combining “attention to the needs of the self ” with communal comfort, given his attraction to both options. Surprisingly, despite its initial positioning as only one side of this binary, Shahid’s relationship with Deedee becomes one possible option for reconciling the two. Riaz’s group refers to Deedee as a stereotypically devilish white temptress, a “pornographic priestess” (Kureishi, Black, 236), but she is initially presented as politically sympathetic as well. She notes that she too once “had hard political purpose” (Kureishi, Black, 121), linked to her socialist commitment with her husband, Brownlow,


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during the 1960s. While the novel frequently makes a mockery of their fashionable leftism, Deedee is also connected to the movements for gender and racial equality and gay rights, which are more compelling to Shahid (Kureishi, Black, 122)—and, as we have seen, to Kureishi. Deedee also teaches about these movements in a way that is inspiring to Shahid and other students. At one meeting, she teaches about American segregation, the lynching of Emmett Till, “King, Malcolm, Cleaver, Davis, and the freedom riders” while “Shahid listened exultantly and scribbled continuously” (Kureishi, Black, 31). He even finds it difficult to believe that “he lived so long without this knowledge” of the “living breathing history of struggle” (Kureishi, Black, 31). In this, Deedee becomes the repository for Shahid’s sexual desires and his political consciousness. However, such a fusion of these impulses is shown to be impossible, at least through Deedee. Though she keeps teaching radical material, her political commitment collapses with the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, leading her to self-consciously construct an ideology centered solely on physical sensation. When Shahid asks Deedee, “Is life just for pleasure then?,” her glib “What else is there?” (Kureishi, Black, 115) combines hedonism and nihilism. For her, physical sensation is the last alternative in the wake of the failures of political idealism. When Shahid counters, “What about making the world better?” (Kureishi, Black, 115), Deedee has no reply. Unable to initially accept her self-absorption, Shahid responds angrily: “clever white people like you are too cynical. You see through everything and rip everything to shreds but you never take any action. Why would you want to change anything when you already have everything you want?” (Kureishi, Black, 116). Here, Shahid reminds both the reader and Deedee that she is not part of the community of the oppressed, or at least not one that Shahid (and Kureishi?) recognizes.16 Without herself being the victim of letterbox bombs and racist persecution, Deedee is free to abandon the cause when it is no longer convenient. In this, the novel indicates the ways in which communal affiliations and political commitments are not solely matters of personal choice, but are forced upon people by circumstance. Deedee cannot represent communal belonging or political commitment to Shahid simply because of the circumstances that make her a “clever (and cynical) white person.” If he is to choose her, as he ultimately does, it will be as an alternative to community and commitment, not as a representative of it.

“Am I Black or White . . .? Am I Straight Or Gay . . .?” To return to pop music, it is possible to see pop in the novel as another attempt at a synthesis between the individual and the community. When Shahid asks Deedee what she and Brownlow had in common, she identifies two things that do not seem immediately linked: “We liked the Beatles. We had activism” (Kureishi, Black, 121). Again, the Beatles are linked to political commitment if only as items in a series. Similarly, Shahid thinks of the time of American segregation as the “time of Presley,” linking his political consciousness to the origins of rock and roll. Likewise, when

Pleasure, Politics, and Prince in The Black Album


Deedee teaches Shahid and his classmates about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver, she “concluded by playing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” (Kureishi, Black, 32). Gaye’s 1971 single is one of the most famous examples of socially conscious pop, a hit both for its message and for its sinuous jazzy groove. Lyrically objecting to police “brutality” against both blacks and hippies, the song underscores Deedee’s attempt to fuse the bodily “sensations” of music and dancing to communal/ political solidarity. It is not, however, “What’s Going On?” or similar self-consciously political music that becomes integral to the novel. Instead, Prince and Madonna are used to negotiate individual sensation and communal involvement.17 The question of “Why Prince?” is posed directly by Deedee. Shahid replies: “He’s half black and half white, half man, and half woman, half size, feminine, but macho, too. His work contains and extends the history of black American music, Little Richard, James Brown, Sly Stone, Hendrix . . .” (Kureishi, Black, 29). Shahid’s attraction to Prince is twofold. First, Prince represents an indeterminate, hybrid, liminal subject who does not fit into any single racial, sexual, or gendered category. In this, Prince is also associated with sexual pleasure. When Deedee “cross[es] her legs and tug[s] her skirt down,” it arouses Shahid to such an extent that “it provided the total effect of a Prince concert” and “his mind took off into a scenario about how he might be able to tape record the whisper of her legs, copy it, add a backbeat, and play it through his headphones” (Kureishi, Black, 30). In this reverie, sexuality and sensuality become pop music, and Prince’s pop is an equivalent to sexual hedonism. Prince’s own musical and lyrical association with explicit sexuality is nearly all pervasive, of course, and is merely echoed in the novel. At the same time, even though Prince is “half black and half white,” and a representative of pure sensuality, he also is located securely by Shahid in the history of “black American music,” and thus linked to one racially defined community. As Shahid observes, Prince has roots in the explicitly black funk tradition of James Brown and Sly Stone, traditions emphasized in the scrapped “Black Album” itself. Both Brown and Stone made self-conscious declarations of membership and pride in the black community. Brown’s 1968 “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” is one of the most recognizable anthems of the Black Power movement, while Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You for Talkin’ To Me Africa” from 1971 provides a downbeat riposte to their 1969 hit “Thank You Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” While “Mice Elf ” is a song at least somewhat about “attention to the needs of the self,” the later reprise emphasizes an affiliation with Africa in the wake of the failures of more optimistic hippy integrationist rhetoric. Placing Prince within the context of these two musicians paradoxically affiliates him with the black community, even though Shahid has already cast him as a liminal figure who challenges and transcends group identification. In her book Crossing B(l)ack, Sika Dagbovie-Mullins identifies a recent movement in American fiction and culture towards a “black-sentient mixed-race identity” (Dagbovie-Mullins, 2–4) that allows people of mixed racial ancestry to both identify as mixed race and specifically as black, linking individual consciousness to the historical oppression, political struggles, and shared rituals of African Americans while also


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

acknowledging alternative ancestry. The Black Album’s deployment of Prince reflects this model in a slightly removed context, as Shahid is attracted to Prince because he identifies him “with blackness and embrace[s] a postmodern racial identity.”18 In this regard, Shahid’s attraction to Prince is not only racial. Prince (like Little Richard) is also “half man and half woman,” “half macho, half feminine.” As Ilaria Ricci notes, “Prince wore heavy make-up and . . . feminine lingerie, and represented himself as a sexual new category, totally hybrid.”19 Due to Prince’s stature, wardrobe, frequent use of falsetto, and gender bending, there was also media speculation about his sexual orientation in his heyday. Prince addresses such questions in the lyrics to “Controversy”: “I just can’t believe all the things people say—controversy/Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” Rather, than “clarifying” his race or sexual orientation, Prince here takes listeners and the media to task for attempting to stabilize his fluid identity.20 Likewise, Prince’s gender bending can be seen in the likes of “If I Was Your Girlfriend,”21 which he sings in a not atypical falsetto, creating “a disjunction between the male singer and the supposedly naturalizing signification of a ‘normal’ male voice.”22 Gender ambiguity is not limited to his voice, however, but extends also to the lyrics, in which a male speaker/singer muses upon the increased level of intimacy to be achieved with his lover if he were her “girlfriend” or “best friend,” rather than a man. He details how, in these circumstances, he would be able to dress, feed, and wash his lover, before eventually kissing her “down there where it counts.” The speaker adopts the female gender to experience a more intimate friendship, and to engage in lesbian sexuality, while still (somehow) remaining male. The song blurs divisions of gender and sexual orientation while fulfilling a typical male sexual fantasy. Just as Prince is an icon of both ambiguous race and a representative of the black community, in this song and elsewhere he is of ambiguous gender and sexual orientation while retaining a hyperbolic masculinity. The song is referenced in The Black Album in a sex scene in which Deedee authoritatively directs Shahid to wear makeup and walk on his toes “like a [female] model.” In response, Shahid feels “relief . . . he liked the feel of his new female face. He could be demure, flirtatious, teasing, a star. . . . He didn’t have to take the lead. He even wondered what it might be like to go out as a woman, and be looked at differently” (Kureishi, Black, 124). The novel here avails itself of conventional notions of masculinity and femininity, with the former meaning “take the lead” and the latter comprised of makeup, teasing, submissiveness, and subjection to the male gaze. It does so, however, in order to indicate, à la Judith Butler’s work, how gender roles can be performed, inverted, or switched regardless of biological “sex,” potentially subverting ossified beliefs about supposedly “natural,” but actually social, norms.23 Deedee turns on Madonna’s “Vogue” for this role-playing, a song devoted to the idea of performing an identity (“strike a pose”) and using imagination to escape the constraints of everyday life. In “Vogue,” the dance floor becomes a place where “You try everything you can to escape/The pain of life that you know” and, as in “Controversy,” social divisions such as race and gender are temporarily dissolved: “It makes no difference if you’re black or white/If you’re a boy or a girl.”24 “Vogue,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and this scene from The Black Album suggest that we “perform” gender, inventing it as a process, rather than inhabiting it as a

Pleasure, Politics, and Prince in The Black Album


biological “given.” With a little imagination, they suggest, it is possible to avoid being pigeonholed within a specific social community. In addition, gender and racial ambiguity themselves are linked to sensuality, as it is the frisson of transgression of gender and racial borders that is arousing. Simon Frith argues that “our understanding of what makes music and musicians sexy, has depended on a confusion of sexual address.”25 That is, far from sexual ambiguity being a turn-off, the fluidity of gender and sexuality is that which arouses.26 In these songs and in the context of discourses that correlate mixed racial ancestry both with beauty and with sexual availability, it seems that racial indeterminacy or fluidity has a similar effect (Dagbovie-Mullins, 1–2, 117). Here, the links Kureishi makes between gender performativity, queer sexualities, racial ambiguity, and pop music achieves a kind of coherence. If pop music, as in Kureishi’s discussion of the Beatles, is particularly linked to intense bodily pleasure, the music is pleasurable, at least in part, because of the ways in which it transcends the everyday “pain of life” by positing gender, race, and identity as malleable. In this context, Shahid, towards the close of The Black Album, explicitly “embrace[s] uncertainty” (Kureishi, Black, 235), asserting an allegiance to a multiple and malleable subjectivity: How could anyone confine themselves to one system or creed? Why should they feel they had to? There was no fixed self; surely our several selves melted and mutated daily? There had to be innumerable ways of being in the world. (Kureishi, Black, 281)

This assertion is, of course, a model of “postmodern” utopian tolerance; utopian in its claim that the individual can choose which self to deploy in any situation, rather than being forced into the role of “Pakis or nigs or wogs” by others. It seems tolerant, too, in its acknowledgment that all people have multiple selves and should not be confined to one “system or creed.” At the same time, Shahid’s turn to this “postmodern” identity model is intolerant of Riaz and his group, who are here defined as those who “confine” themselves to a single belief system: fundamentalists. In embracing relativism, performance, self-determination, and sensation, he inevitably rejects those who define themselves by their racial, religious, and communal stability and solidarity. It is this contradiction that The Black Album initially attempts to navigate by invoking Prince both as a figure of performative race and gender and as a representative of a specifically “black” community. Interestingly, however, Prince fails in this regard, as Shahid ultimately decides that he must choose individual sensation and self-definition over membership in a community, rather than synthesizing the two paths. Deedee insists that such a reconciliation is impossible when she baldly asserts, “it’s me or the enchanted eggplant” (Kureishi, Black, 217). Initially, Shahid chooses Riaz and the eggplant (aubergine). In less than a page, however, Shahid has changed his mind and the holy eggplant becomes part of the couple’s sex games, with Deedee mockingly telling Shahid to “Give me your aubergine. . . . Stick it in my earth and let me bless it with my holy waters,” to which Shahid replies, “this is the life” (Kureishi, Black, 219).27 The choice of The Black Album as a title is also explicable in this context, since Prince


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

canceled the album. Here, it is possible to see a turn by Prince away from racial identification in the album’s title and, perhaps, its content.28 The degree to which the novel approves of Shahid’s choice is highlighted by the fate of Chad, Riaz’s fervent follower, who functions as a double for Shahid. A Pakistani boy adopted by a white family, he, like Shahid, has a choice about which path to follow. Feeling discomfort in both worlds, unable to speak Urdu but rejected by his white neighbors, he adopts a series of names that correspond to the different communities he uncomfortably “almost” inhabits (Kureishi, Black, 112–13). Like Shahid, he is a fan of Prince and pop, seeking a bootleg of the “Black Album” (Kureishi, Black, 23) in Shahid’s box of cassettes and stopping transfixed in the streets upon hearing Otis Redding (Kureishi, Black, 95). Also, like Shahid, he is tempted by Deedee towards “attention to the needs of the self.” Unlike Shahid, however, Chad rejects Prince, sensual pleasure, and postmodern identity in favor of the stability of Riaz’s community. His path thus functions as the “road not taken” for Shahid, but an incorrect one. As Sheila Ghose observes, “Chad is . . . the Shahid-that-could-have-been that the narrative must rid itself of ” (Ghose, 131). Chad’s plans literally “blow up in his face” when he is injured tossing a firebomb into a bookshop selling Satanic Verses. His hospitalization functions as the book’s rejection of fundamentalism, but fundamentalism is linked in the novel with racial solidarity and communal feeling, and so these things too are indirectly rejected. Shahid is rewarded with frequent experimental sex, a vacation, and Prince tickets, while Chad is punished with severe burns and hospitalization.29 At the same time, it is not only Chad who “loses,” but also the vision of a dialectic synthesis of individual freedom and communal solidarity built upon political commitment. The novel ultimately suggests that such a fusion must fail, and, if popular music at times suggests that it is possible, that promise remains unrealized outside of song.

Fundamentalism and Deracination When viewed in this light, one of the most interesting qualities of The Black Album is its role as a lynchpin in Kureishi’s career. The decision Shahid makes functions as a turn away from the more optimistic closing of The Buddha of Suburbia and toward the puzzling deracination that characterizes many of the texts that follow. If Prince functions as a utopian melding of communal consciousness and hedonistic pleasure, Shahid’s inability to maintain that synthesis casts a long shadow over Kureishi’s subsequent fiction. The short story, “My Son the Fanatic,”30 reiterates this failed synthesis with the choice of Ali, the son of a South Asian London cabbie. As opposed to Shahid, Ali chooses fundamentalism over “pleasure,” but, in depicting his choice, the story, like The Black Album, emphasizes the notion that the two paths are irreconcilable. Like The Black Album, “My Son the Fanatic” emphasizes that fundamentalism is a rational response to racist mistreatment, as opposed to a religious commitment based purely on the spirituality and mystical “insight” that Orientalist discourse stereotypically suggests. For Kureishi, the turn to fundamentalism by British Muslims is rationally explicable, if repulsive to his own sensibilities. It is for this reason that critics have seen

Pleasure, Politics, and Prince in The Black Album


The Black Album, “My Son the Fanatic,” and the essays in The Word and the Bomb as valuable in the wake of 9/11 and the 7/7 (2005) London bus and train bombings to help explain the ways in which the West is responsible for the anger, despair, and violence of its “black” immigrant communities.31 While these works initially seem to embrace familiar stereotypes (the hedonistic West/the fanatical East), in fact they more often serve to explain how these stereotypical associations develop as responses to concrete sociopolitical situations.32 Kureishi is also careful in these texts to provide counterexamples to the stereotypes, especially in hedonistic South Asians like Ali’s father or in Chili and Shahid. In this, he continues the project begun (and widely praised) in works like My Beautiful Laundrette, which subvert and mock the (stereo) typical Asians portrayed in most literature and film of the time.33 As the same time, the late eighties’ rise of Muslim fundamentalism in England (including the response to Satanic Verses) troubles Kureishi so much that he writes several works that directly repudiate it.34 Likewise, since it is clear that Kureishi sees the rise of fundamentalism as a response to the racist mistreatment of the black British community, he links that community as a whole with one of its parts, defining fundamentalism merely as one of several possible responses to shared oppression, but not fully extricating that response from the community as a whole. As a surprising result, the rejection of fundamentalism in his work leads to a more widespread rejection of racial identification and communal belonging. Whereas Margaret Thatcher once insisted that “there is no such thing as society,”35 Kureishi’s post-Black Album fiction often implies that “there is no such thing as race,” a shocking development given the communally rooted nature of his work from 1985 to 1995. Where The Black Album explores the importance of racial/communal identification and the dangers that ensue when a community rejects rationality and pleasure, the texts that follow reject, or occlude, that community altogether. Works such as Intimacy, Midnight All Day, and Gabriel’s Gift use either Caucasian protagonists or those of indeterminate race, suggesting, perhaps, that race and ethnicity have ceased to be concerns for Kureishi or of the London about which he writes. This puzzling “postethnic” world, one which has little relationship to the “real” London, which continues to be plagued by racial and ethnic divisions, has been discussed by several critics, and I do not have space to explore it fully here.36 Nevertheless, while these later texts do engage with popular music, the possible synthesis of community and hedonism Prince represents in The Black Album is absent from them, particularly in regard to ethnic affiliation. While these texts are still preoccupied with questions of “pleasure vs. responsibility,” they do not number ethnic groups as among those communities to which their protagonists are responsible. In Intimacy, for instance, the ambiguously raced Jay chooses between his nuclear family and the hedonistic pleasure gained through an affair with a younger woman. “Serious politics” and allegiance to an ethnic community do not substantially enter into the novel, and Jay’s decision to leave his family, while similar to Shahid’s in its hedonistic impulse, is even more insular since it does not fully acknowledge the presence of a world outside of the deracinated bourgeois home and the choice of (hetero)sexual partners. By contrast, the earlier Buddha ends with a turn away from hedonism and towards a community, though it too is a community less clearly identified with race than that in


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The Black Album. At the close of Buddha, Karim rejects Charlie’s attempts to indoctrinate him into a “derangement of the senses” that involves sadomasochistic sex games with a prostitute named Frankie.37 Instead Karim, “discovering myself by what I rejected,”38 turns his back on “hedonism and “self-aggrandisement” in favor of Lennonesque self-exploration that requires a return to London from New York and a reconnection with a multiracial, multigender, and multigenerational “community” of his own choosing (Kureishi, Buddha, 255). The turn away from Charlie’s games of sex and pain does not mark a complete rejection of hedonistic pleasure, but, rather, suggests that it may be possible to reconcile communal commitment and the “struggle to locate myself and learn what the heart is,” especially if the community is of one’s own making (Kureishi, Buddha, 283–84). Ironically, it is perhaps the rise of the “serious politics” of fundamentalism, itself configured as resistance to personal and institutional racism, that makes such a delicate balance seem impossible for Kureishi only a handful of years later. While The Black Album, via Prince, has a utopian vision that, like Karim’s, balances individual pleasure with communal identification, the pressures of Thatcher-era “fascism,” racist violence and the fundamentalist response to them make the realization of that vision seem impossible. While, through Karim, Kureishi is able to imagine a future England where everything will not necessarily be a “mess” thanks to being surrounded by “people I loved” (Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 284), the close of The Black Album reduces any future happiness to the pleasure of the individual and the pursuit of “fun,” a simplistic reduction of the promise offered by pop music and one which drifts away from the “serious politics” of race.

Notes I would like to thank Jeffrey Roessner for inviting me to participate in this project and Erich Hertz for his feedback and patience. Finally, thanks go to Sika Dagbovie-Mullins for reading the essay, providing feedback, and recommending some sources that helped bring it to fruition. 1 2 3 4 5

Kureishi and Savage, The Faber Book of Pop. Kaleta, Hanif Kureishi. Kureishi, London Kills Me. Kureishi, Gabriel’s Gift. Kureishi, The Black Album. Here, I reject Ricci’s extreme claim that for Kureishi, “pop is always associated with pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure, and drugs.” See Ricci, “Sign O’ The Times.” 6 Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia. 7 Some critics link Charlie also to Billy Idol. Bowie, Idol, and Kureishi attended the same Bromley grammar school, and Bowie provided the soundtrack to the BBC’s production of Buddha. See Kaleta, Hanif Kureishi, 73, 107–8. 8 In both cases, these are not the album’s actual names. “The White Album” refers to the white album cover of The Beatles. Prince’s untitled “Black Album” is named for its plain black cover and because of its purported attempt to appeal more exclusively to African Americans.

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9 Helbig, “ ‘Get Back To Where You Once Belonged,’ ” 77–82. 10 By this time, both Powell and Thatcher’s nativism is well established and frequently discussed. See Layton-Henry, The Politics of Race in Britain, 76, and Gilroy, “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.” 11 See Ilona, “Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia,” 86–105; Kureishi, London, 36; Kureishi, “The Word and the Bomb”; Upstone, “A Question of Black or White,” 18; Needham, Using the Master’s Tools; and Kaleta, Hanif Kureishi, 4–8. 12 See Winkgens, “Cultural Hybridity and Fluid Masculinities in the Postcolonial Metropolis.” See also Kureishi, Black, 15, and Kureishi, London, 4, 7. 13 Some attempt to correct this oversight appears in the BBC’s production of Buddha. 14 See also Finney, “Hanif Kureishi.” 15 For links between The Black Album and The Satanic Verses, see Ghose, “Brit Bomber,” and Holmes, “The Postcolonial Subject Divided between East and West.” 16 While Shahid gives lip-service to the women’s movement and feminism, he never fully acknowledges the degree to which patriarchy makes Deedee less privileged than he assumes. 17 Prince’s oeuvre includes political and race conscious songs, but these are largely ignored in the novel. 18 Dagbovie-Mullins, Crossing B(l)ack, 3. 19 Ricci, “Sign O’ The Times,” 244. 20 Prince, “Controversy.” 21 Prince, “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” 22 Waldrep, The Aesthetics of Self-Invention, 116. 23 See Butler, Gender Trouble. 24 Madonna, “Vogue.” 25 Quoted in Waldrep, Aesthetics, 141. 26 See Ricci, “Sign O’ The Times,” 244, for a discussion of this possibility in relation to Madonna. 27 Deedee’s assumption of the mantle of “earth mother” is tied to her increasing depiction as a mere creature of pleasure and repository for sexual desire, following a damaging stereotype of women outlined at length in De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (page 163 onwards), and elsewhere. While Kureishi depicts gender as performative, he also falls prey to depicting women stereotypically. 28 For a reading of the title of Prince’s album in racial terms, see Upstone, “A Question of Black Or White,” 7–8. Alternatively, the turn from the “Black Album” to Lovesexy can be read as a turn away from hedonistic pleasures and toward religion (or toward a reconciliation of the two). See Touré, I Would Die 4 U, 111–44. A combination of these readings leads to the possibility that Prince embraces the stereotypical link of blackness to hypersexuality, with the turn away from “blackness” exhibited in the cancelation of the “Black Album” accompanying a turn away from sexuality. The complex history of Prince’s attempt to negotiate sex and religion predates the two albums in question, however, and is too conflicted to limn fully here. 29 Ghose, “Brit Bomber,”133–4. 30 Kureishi, Black, 285–98. 31 See Jussowalla, “Homegrown Terrorism”; Ramsey-Kurz, “Humoring the Terrorists or the Terrorised?,” 83; Gunning, Race and Antiracism in Black British and British Asian Literature; Upstone, “A Question of Black or White”; and Ghose, “Brit Bomber.”


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32 For critics who accuse Kureishi of propagating Orientalist stereotypes, see Maxey, “ ‘Life in the Diaspora is Often Held in Strange Suspension,’ ” and Ravasinha, Hanif Kureishi. 33 See Hall, “New Ethnicities.” 34 See Kureishi, Word, 57–8. 35 Thatcher, Woman’s Own. 36 See Ahmed, “Occluding Race in Selected Short Fiction By Hanif Kureishi”; Banerjee, “Postethnicity and Postcommunism in Hanif Kureishi’s Gabriel’s Gift and Salman Rushdie’s Fury”; and Stein, “Posed Ethnicity and the Postethnic.” 37 As with Prince/Madonna, Charlie’s association with David Bowie marks him as an ambiguously gendered sexual hedonist and master of self-invention (see Waldrep, The Aesthetics of Self-Invention, 105–40). Bowie, however, is marked with whiteness as opposed to Prince’s racial ambiguity. 38 The scene is, in some ways, a reprise of the earlier orgy staged by Matthew Pyke and his wife for Karim and Eleanor.

Bibliography Ahmed, Rehana. “Occluding Race in Selected Short Fiction by Hanif Kureishi.” Wasfiri 24, no. 2 (2009): 27–34. Banerjee, Mita. “Postethnicity and Postcommunism in Hanif Kureishi’s Gabriel’s Gift and Salman Rushdie’s Fury.” In Reconstructing Hybridity: Post-Colonial Studies in Transition, edited by Joel Kuortti and Jopi Nyman, 309–24. New York, NY: Rodopi, 2007. Brown, James. “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The Singles, Volume 5: 1967–1969. Hip-O 001041102, CD. 2008. The Buddha of Suburbia. Written by Hanif Kureishi and Roger Mitchell. Directed by Roger Michell. Perf. Naveen Andrews, and Roshan Seth. BBC, 1993. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, NY: Routledge, 1990. Dagbovie-Mullins, Sika. Crossing B(l)ack: Mixed-Race Identity in Modern American Fiction and Culture. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2013. De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York, NY: Vintage, 2011. Finney, Brian. “Hanif Kureishi: The Buddha of Suburbia.” In English Fiction Since 1984: Narrating a Nation, 124–38. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Gaye, Marvin. “What’s Going On?” What’s Going On? Motown 013404. CD. 1971. Ghose, Sheila. “Brit Bomber: The Fundamentalist Trope in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album and ‘My Son The Fanatic.’ ” In Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective, edited by Graham Macphee and Prem Poddar, 121–38. New York, NY: Berghahn, 2007. Gilroy, Paul. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Gunning, Dave. Race and Antiracism in Black British and British Asian Literature. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2010. Hall, Stuart. “New Ethnicities.” 1988. In Writing Black Britain, 1948–1998, edited by James Procter, 265–75. New York, NY: Manchester University Press, 1998.

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Helbig, Jörg. “ ‘Get Back to Where You Once Belonged’: Hanif Kureishi’s Use of the Beatles-Myth in The Buddha of Suburbia.” In Across the Lines: Intertextuality and Transcultural Communication in the New Literatures in English, edited by Wolfgang Kloos, 77–82. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1998. Holmes, Frederick. “The Postcolonial Subject Divided between East and West: Kureishi’s The Black Album as an Intertext of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.” Papers on Language and Literature 37, no. 3 (2001): 296–313. Ilona, Anthony. “Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia: ‘A New Way of Being British.’ ” In Contemporary British Fiction, edited by Richard J. Lane, Rod Mengham, and Philip Tew, 86–105. Cambridge, England: Polity, 2003. Jussowalla, Feroza. “Homegrown Terrorism: The Bildungsroman of Hanif Kureishi, The Author, and His Characters.” In British Asian Fiction: Framing the Contemporary, edited by Neil Murphy and Wai-Chew Sim, 55–75. Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2008. Kaleta, Kenneth. Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1998. Kureishi, Hanif. The Black Album with “My Son the Fanatic.” New York, NY: Scribner, 1995. ———. The Buddha of Suburbia. New York, NY: Penguin, 1990. ———. Gabriel’s Gift: A Novel. New York, NY: Scribner, 2001. ———. Intimacy: A Novel; and Midnight All Day: Stories. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1999. ———. London Kills Me: Three Screenplays and Four Essays. New York, NY: Penguin, 1992. ———. The Word and the Bomb. London, England: Faber and Faber, 2005. Kureishi, Hanif, and Jon Savage, eds. The Faber Book of Pop. London, England: Faber and Faber, 1995. Layton-Henry, Zig. The Politics of Race in Britain. London, England: George Allen & Unwin, 1984. Madonna. “Vogue.” I’m Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy. Sire/ Warner 26209. CD. 1990. Maxey, Ruth. “ ‘Life in the Diaspora is Often Held in Strange Suspension’: First-Generation Self-Fashioning in Hanif Kureishi’s Narratives of Home and Return.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 41, no. 5 (2006): 5–25. Needham, Anuradha. Using the Master’s Tools: Resistance and the Literature of the South-Asian Diasporas. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Prince. “Controversy.” Controversy. Warner 3601. CD. 1981. ———. “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Sign O’ The Times. Paisley Park/Warner 25577. CD. 1987. Ramsey-Kurz, Helga. “Humouring the Terrorists or the Terrorised? Militant Muslims in Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, and Hanif Kureishi.” In Cheeky Fictions: Laughter and the Postcolonial, edited by Susanne Reichl and Mark Stein, 73–86. New York, NY: Rodopi, 2005. Ravasinha, Ruvina. Hanif Kureishi. Horndon, Devon, England: Northcote House, 2002. Ricci, Ilaria. “Sign O’ The Times: Pop Music and Identity in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album.” In Identities in Transition in the English-Speaking World, edited by Nicoletta Vasta, Antonella Natale, Maria Bortoluzzi, and Deborah Saidero, 243–9. Udine, Italy : Forum, 2011. Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York, NY: Viking, 1988. Sly and the Family Stone. “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa.” There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Epic 726953. CD. 1971.


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Stein, Mark. “Posed Ethnicity and the Postethnic: Hanif Kureishi’s Novels.” In English Literatures in International Contexts, edited by Heinz Antor and Klaus Stierstorfer, 119–39. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 2000. Thatcher, Margaret. Woman’s Own. October 31, 1987. Touré. I Would Die 4 U: How Prince Became an Icon. New York, NY: Atria, 2013. Upstone, Sara. “A Question of Black or White: Returning to Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album.” Postcolonial Text 4, no. 1 (2008): 1–24. Waldrep, Shelton. The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Winkgens, Meinhard. “Cultural Hybridity and Fluid Masculinities in the Postcolonial Metropolis: Individualized Gender Identities in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album.” In Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present, edited by Stefan Horlacher, 229–45. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.


Rock Music as Cosmopolitan Touchstone in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet Tim Gauthier

Asked why he had chosen rock ’n’ roll as the subject of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie asserted: “Rock is the mythology of our time.”1 Through the writing of his polyphonic fiction and this infusion of rock ’n’ roll, Rushdie fantasizes about a medium—a “secret language”—that will transcend differences, remain unaffected by boundaries, and thus possess the capacity to speak to all. In this intertwining of form and content, then, the author reveals a narrative desire for a greater cosmopolitanism. This is accomplished through an updating of the Orpheus–Eurydice myth, in which he aligns his own textual exuberance with the excesses of rock ’n’ roll. The experiences of his two rock star protagonists—Ormus Cama (equal parts Presley, Dylan, and Lennon, with dashes of Freddie Mercury and Brian Wilson) and Vina Apsara (Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Lady Diana)—are intended to convey a postcolonial terrain replete with earthquakes, fissures, and instabilities. In the world of the text, this duo represents idealized artists loosed from “religion, language, prejudices, demeanours, the works.”2 And music (read: all art), with its capacity to fly by restrictions and borders, offers the only really solid ground beneath our feet. In Rushdie’s novel, rock ’n’ roll is positioned as a uniting force that transcends binaries and connects people of divergent cultures.3 In other words, it possesses all the positive attributes of globalization (and none of the negative ones). This notion is reflected in Rushdie’s recollection of rock music’s eruption in his life as a child in Bombay, a story he retells in interviews with remarkably similar details: because the city was so international, we had access. I often heard this music in my friends’ houses, listening to their records. It wasn’t easy for that music to arrive, given these constraints. And yet it did arrive, and we all heard. So, in a way, it became the first globalized cultural phenomenon. (Kadzis, “Interview”)

Speaking to Charlie Rose, he expresses his amazement at: 155


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

. . . how easily the music traveled. There we were, these kids thousands of miles away from America, knowing nothing about America really. . . . And yet this music seemed to belong to us instantly. And it strikes me now that maybe that was happening everywhere in the world. It was probably happening in, you know, Patagonia and Yokohama.4

Interestingly, Rushdie’s account omits his privileged status, of living a cosmopolitan experience probably not shared by many in early ’60s Bombay, nor does his recollection express any sense of the foreignness a young Bombayite may have felt on first hearing Elvis Presley. In this way, Rushdie seeks to efface the economic disparities that might interfere with a culturally shared cosmopolitanism, as well as the local uniqueness that is often an integral part of musical expression. His remembrances reveal a good deal about the author’s feelings concerning the globalizing potential of cultural works and the role of the artist in providing alternate visions to the orthodoxies and fundamentalisms that plague this world. They also emphasize the role of cities as hubs of cosmopolitanism, as The Ground Beneath Her Feet tells the story of Ormus and Vina and their odyssey from Bombay to London to New York on their way to becoming the greatest rock band of all time, VTO. Notably, the novel begins with the death of Vina, who is literally swallowed up by the earth during an earthquake in Mexico, on February 14, 1989 (the same day the fatwa was declared against Rushdie). Seismic shifts and tectonic displacements figure prominently in a text where the protagonists strive to find stable ground beneath their feet—played out through an unrelenting search for “home.” Having left their place of birth, the characters are challenged to define what home means and to seek a place they might legitimately call their own. The restlessness experienced by these characters is certainly part of the ethos of rock ’n’ roll; of not being tied down, of having the freedom to move when and where one wishes, a rolling stone gathering no moss. Mobility is central to that ethos, and, in this respect, globalization has simply facilitated a certain kind of cosmopolitanism, a making the world one’s home (the unspoken inequities of such a vision will be addressed later in this essay). Thus, one wonders whether The Ground Beneath Her Feet was truly intended to be about rock musicians, and to what degree rock music merely served as a convenient vehicle for endowing the protagonists with globe-trotting abilities. Even the narrator, Rai, finds ways to trek the globe, not as a musician but as a photographer. And the text works hard at times to create a strong triangulation between the three characters. Though he is apparently “tone deaf,” for instance, Rai demonstrates a certain musicality in his appreciation for the talents of Ormus and Vina. And, early in the novel, he expounds on the name that ties him to North African musicians: And in another part of the world, Rai was music. In the home of this music, alas, religious fanatics have lately started killing the musicians. They think the music is an insult to god, who gave us voices but does not wish us to sing, who gave us free will, rai, but prefers us not to be free. (Rushdie, Ground, 19).

Rock Music as Cosmopolitan Touchstone in The Ground Beneath Her Feet


Rachel Falconer, for her part, argues that Rai’s “Orphic side” is enhanced through this connection with “the antiestablishment Algerian singers.”5 Christopher Rollason, however, observes that, while the passage explicitly links “the risks facing Algerian performers to Rushdie’s own predicament,” the text neglects to pursue the analogy since “no more is made of the possible connections by either Rai or Rushdie.”6 Nevertheless, this passage suggests that what is most important is the capacity all three characters (and perhaps the novelist) possess to move as they wish, to subvert expectations. So that the allusion to the Algerian musicians is primarily about resistance and only secondarily about musical ability.7 Rai notes that they, like all of us, were given ground on which to stand: their birthplace. “But Ormus and Vina and I,” Rai observes, “we couldn’t accept that, we came loose” (Rushdie, Ground, 55). He then highlights the capacity of both the song and the singer (though somewhat less) to flout boundaries: Among the great struggles of man—good/evil, reason/unreason, etc.—there is also this mighty conflict between the fantasy of Home and the fantasy of Away, the dream of roots and the mirage of the journey. And if you are Ormus Cama, if you are Vina Apsara, whose songs could cross all frontiers, even the frontiers of peoples’ hearts, then perhaps you believed that all ground could be skipped over, all frontiers would crumble before the sorcery of the tune. (Rushdie, Ground, 55)

One of the contradictions of the text is that the artist (in this case, the rock star) can belong everywhere and nowhere. It is precisely the role of outsider that loosens him or her from that which ties other mortals down thereby to exist free of the binary systems that seem to govern the world. This idea finds metaphoric expression in the novel through the concept of “outsideness.” Early on, Sir Darius Cama proposes that understanding any social system requires not only knowing what exists within, but what exists without: “But what about outsideness? What about all that which is beyond the pale, above the fray, beneath notice? What about outcasts, lepers, pariahs, exiles, enemies, spooks, paradoxes?” (Rushdie, Ground, 42–3; emphasis in text). It is precisely this privileged position that Ormus attains. He tells Vina, “It could be I found the outsideness of what we’re inside. The way out from the carnival grounds, the secret turnstile. The route through the looking glass” (350). Outsideness is both a necessity and a virtue, as it is in most of Rushdie’s work for, as Sir Darius declares, “The only people who see the whole picture . . . are the ones who step outside the frame” (Rushdie, Ground, 43). It thus becomes apparent why Rushdie should choose the myth of Orpheus—the greatest boundary-crosser of all, including that separating life and death—as the backbone of the novel. Such crossings serve to place both sides of the border under scrutiny. Ormus Cama is depicted as a similar visionary imbued with an otherworldly perspective. This alternate consciousness puts into question any notion of what is “real” and, of course, invalidates any fundamentalist or absolutist concepts as ways of dealing with the world.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

But it is not sufficient that the artist experience the vision—he or she must communicate that vision to others. Music, with its universalist qualities, becomes the means of transmission. Ormus, in a moment of bravura, declares that he is: . . . nothing less than the secret originator, the prime innovator, of the music that courses in our blood, that possesses and moves us, wherever we may be, the music that speaks the secret language of all humanity, our common heritage, whatever mother tongue we speak, whatever dances we first learned to dance. (Rushdie, Ground, 89)

So, whether Ormus Cama is that person/artist or not, the sentence suggests that music is, in and of itself, a “secret language” capable of transcending linguistic, ethnic, and national boundaries.8 The artist becomes the conduit, the one with the ability to speak this language. In Rushdie’s conception, the astonishing characteristic about Ormus Cama’s music, and Vina Aspara’s performance of it, will be its capability to both represent and communicate with “a single multitude”: He hasn’t fully grasped how to make of multiplicity an accumulating strength rather than a frittery weakness. How the many selves can, be, in song, a single multitude. Not a cacophony, but an orchestra, a choir, a dazzling plural voice . . . he is still trying to settle on the one true line to follow. Still looking for ground to stand on, for the hard centre of his art. (Rushdie, Ground, 299)

The very belief in such a language reflects (betrays?) a conviction that there exists an essential humanity. It is the function of the artist to find the means to harness the many selves into a “dazzling plural voice.” The implication in Rai’s sentences is that it is simply a matter of time; there is “one true line”—Ormus Cama just has not found it yet. So, not only must the artist see the whole world, he or she must also be able to encompass the whole world and, finally, communicate the whole world. The parallels between possessing what Rushdie calls an “encyclopedist instinct” and seeing the globally harmonizing capabilities of art are apparent in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Indeed, we might take this further and note a certain parallelism in the presumption that either a work of art or an individual might contain the whole world. And, as a self-identified encyclopedist himself, Rushdie remains committed to painting all-encompassing canvases: I think the encyclopedist instinct . . . is one that I’ve always had as a writer. I’ve always thought that there are two ways of writing good books. One is to try to put the whole world in and fail obviously, but fail interestingly. As Beckett said, try again, fail better. Or to take one strand out of the hair of the world and look at that single strand in great detail and to find infinity in it. Now I, by and large, have tended to the former strategy.9

Rock Music as Cosmopolitan Touchstone in The Ground Beneath Her Feet


And, by and large, so have the protagonists of Rushdie’s novels, whether it is Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children or Aurora in The Moor’s Last Sigh. Ormus is another in the line of Rushdian encyclopedists, as Rai testifies: VTO had a hit record again, and what a record it was, a jam-packed carnival of a double album, Doctor Love and the Whole Catastrophe. . . . He used to say that music could be either about almost nothing, one tiny strand of sound plucked like a silver hair from the head of the Muse, or about everything there was, all of it, tutti tutti, life, marriage, otherworlds, earthquakes, uncertainties, warnings, rebukes, journeys, dreams, love, the whole ball of wax, the full nine yards, the whole catastrophe. (Rushdie, Ground, 421–2)

The title of VTO’s album leaves no doubt as to which path Ormus has chosen. As we shall see, this belief, although he’s conscious of its potential failure, feeds into the idea of globalized figures and of globally shared culture. It suggests an ability to link disparate elements into a communicable whole. For, not only does the rock star communicate with everyone, he or she can also be “everyone.” This is a salient quality of the “star,” and naturally contributes to his or her global appeal. In this regard, Ormus declares that one of the objectives of his music is: . . . to show that I don’t have to be this guy or that guy, the fellow from over there or the fellow from here . . . or just the man standing in front of you right now. I’ll be all of them, I can do that. Here comes everybody right? (Rushdie, Ground, 303)

And Rai offers a similar observation about Vina: “That’s why people loved her, remember: for making herself the exaggerated avatar of their own jumbled selves, but pushed to the edge or, better, driven to the heights” (Rushdie, Ground, 339–40). Due to such passages, readers have often made a connection between Vina’s death and the tragic demise of Lady Diana. In terms of achieving stardom, Jason Toynbee suggests that “the exemplary agency of musicians . . . arises in the need to negotiate between these two positions—that is, being ordinary, typically of the people, and being marvelous, showing what life could be like ‘if only.’ ”10 One might take this further and argue that the ideal star would be one who strikes just the right balance between the human and the divine—the perfect demi-god who, in turn, can be conceived as the perfect globalized figure. Such a balance is not achieved in the figures of Vina and Ormus. Rushdie, never one to let a literary conceit pass him by, is not satisfied with presenting the exploits of a successful rock band—VTO must be the greatest of all time. Second, not only are the rock protagonists invested with otherworldly qualities, but they are also amalgamations of some of the finest figures from the pantheon of rock. To put this in the bluntest terms, they are too divine and insufficiently human. Of course, VTO’s massive worldwide success is an important component of the novel, since it acts as an indication of the globalizing potential of their music. For a


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

rock novel, however, the text contains very few passages that describe the actual making of music (whether creating, recording, or playing), and so fails to provide the reader with a full understanding of what actually makes the group great. One such moment describes the newly reformed VTO, now with Mira as lead vocalist, playing in front of a live crowd for the first time. The scene captures the febrile relationship between musicians and audience, tapping into the energy flowing between the two entities (Rushdie, Ground, 549–51). Another recounts an event early in Ormus’s career, once he has migrated to London. He has been enduring a creative block when he charges into the recording studio demanding that all the session musicians be relieved of their duties. Over the next two pages, the text describes how he singlehandedly proceeds to forge a song with the help of a sound mixer who lays one track over the other. Ormus asserts his vision (and, naturally, plays all the instruments to perfection). The text notes the creative gambit of the moment: The problem is that once you’ve done this you can never separate the tracks again. The mix you make is what you’re stuck with. You can’t pull the music apart and play with it any more. You’re making final irrevocable decisions as you go. It’s a recipe for disaster, unless the person doing it is a genius. . . . Ormus Cama is a genius. (Rushdie, Ground, 300–1)

The passage recalls descriptions of the inspired furor surrounding the making of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, and the musical alchemy that occurred in George Martin’s booth (the reader might also be reminded of Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds). For much of the novel, however, we are not privy to the creative process, nor to evocations of how the music actually sounds. As Jonathan Lethem observes, “The music’s inaudible, for nearly 600 pages. This leaves Rushdie stranded in a protests-too-much valley of hyperbole, asserting the greatness of a soundtrack we’ll never get to hear.”11 The passage is thus typical of the novel because, in the end, it falls upon Rai to attest to the magnificence of Ormus, Vina, and VTO. The text takes the reader’s knowledge of the group’s success for granted, and relies on Rai to proclaim VTO’s splendidness: . . . while Vina’s is the exceptional instrument, capable of affecting the hairs on the back of your neck as it swoops and dives, Ormus’s lower, gentler harmonies, perfectly offset her pyrotechnics, and the two voices, when they blend, create a magical third, more Righteous than the Righteous Brothers, Everlier than the Everlys, Supremer than the Supremes. (Rushdie, Ground, 378–9)

Rushdie’s predilection for American music from a certain period comes through—a topic to which I shall return—as do the lengths to which an author must go when praising musical creations that are never anything more than words on a page.12 The praise is significant, since the group’s global popularity remains a key component to Rushdie’s vision of music as globally shared culture. But, as Stephanie Merritt observes, “the difficulty in Rai’s aggrandising the memory of Vina and Ormus with such bombast

Rock Music as Cosmopolitan Touchstone in The Ground Beneath Her Feet


is that, whenever we are allowed to glimpse them directly, they inevitably fail to reach the heights that the narrative has manufactured for them.”13 This is particularly true in terms of the lyrics reproduced on the page. As Christopher Rollason and others have pointed out, the words certainly do not appear capable of making “high buildings sway.” Lethem, for his part, exclaims, “Ah, the lyrics. Rushdie can’t avoid the trap that snared Don DeLillo, Scott Spencer, Norman Spinrad, and dozens of others: his genius’s song lyrics die on the page.”14 This is clearly a risk the author chooses to take, though one with few alternatives. After all, if one wishes to imagine the greatest rock duo of all time, one will inevitably be confronted with presenting the music to the reader, with the lyrics as the most obvious point of access. However, the author risks undermining the plausibility of his conceit should they not live up to the hype. Such, sadly, is the case for many of the verses found in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Take, for instance, the words to an early Cama composition, “Tar Baby,” an apparent VTO classic: Ooh Tar Baby yeah you got me stuck on you. Ooh Tar Baby and I can’t get loose it’s true. Come on Tar Baby won’t you hold me tight, we can stick together all through the night. Ooh Tar Baby and maybe I’m in love with you. (Rushdie, Ground, 276; italicized in text)

Or “Lorelei,” off the first self-titled VTO album from 1971: No authority’s vested in me, on what’s good or bad or make-believe or even real. But I’m just saying what I see, because the truth can set you free, and even if it hasn’t done too much for me, well, I still hope it will. (Rushdie, Ground, 305)

Admittedly, the author is working to replicate the idiom and rhythms of the period in which these songs were written; however, they exhibit a certain clunkiness and, somewhat surprisingly, the lack of a poetic touch. This is the challenge facing any reader of such “literary music,” to borrow Benson’s term.15 We are obliged to accept the author’s word that VTO is truly the greatest rock band ever assembled, just as we have no choice but to concede to the quality of Adrian Leverkühn’s compositions in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus or of any number of other musical works created by entirely fictional composers in other novels (Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, Seth’s An Equal Music, etc). But the reader’s “buy in” to such a proposition is largely dependent on the narrator’s ability to convince him or her of the quality of the imagined compositions—though this is aided somewhat by the reader’s propensity to empathize with the narrator, and thus accept the insider’s appreciations of the artist’s creations.16 The purported global appeal of VTO is also compromised somewhat by the very narrow (primarily American) pantheon of musical acts that Rushdie, and consequently the novel, cherishes. Like many who have fond remembrances only for the music of their adolescence and early adulthood, so does the novelist of The Ground Beneath Her Feet. For, though the novel ostensibly covers the evolution of rock ’n’ roll over the last


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

four decades of the 20th century, its focus is clearly set on a specific period of time. The text, for example, has very little time for punk (which it dismisses as “Runt”) or its aftermath, and the only post-1980 band to which the text alludes is U2 (thinly disguised as Vox Pop). This selectivity reveals an underlying assumption that only this music truly matters, and the text couches its choices in the notion that rock was once the music of resistance, helping to end a war.17 The implication is that no current music can possess the draw of these earlier compositions. Rushdie’s dismissiveness is too facile, failing to recognize the cultural impact of The Clash, Nirvana, or, indeed, the political and social resistance strongly expressed in rap. Such an approach, therefore, limits the degree to which a contemporary reader might “connect” with whatever globalizing appeal VTO is said to possess. A potential disconnect between reader and material is not to be discounted, because, as Silvia Albertazzi contends: Music gives narrative a larger sense of space; it widens the horizons of the plot by adding new feelings to the story; it gives the reader emotions deriving from the memory of a particular music; it allows the sharing of a mutual musical knowledge between reader and author, thus creating a deeper involvement of the former with the story.”18

According to Abertazzi, then, music in literature can serve similar functions to those it does in film, providing a soundtrack for the book. But is this actually the case for The Ground Beneath Her Feet? First, in the alternate universe of the novel, the songs are not necessarily the songs we know. “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” for instance, is a hit for the female duo of Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Pretty Woman” are mis-credited to John Lennon and The Kinks respectively. Second, we have no access to the principal music of the text—neither the works of Ormus nor the voice of Vina are available for our auditory pleasure. We must rely on transcriptions of the lyrics, such as they are, and the inadequate descriptions Rai provides. Third, we might consider the ephemeral nature of popular music—what is in one day is passé the next—and the extent to which Rushdie’s chosen allusions can achieve their desired effect, even if they were not disguised. Does the author make the mistake of assuming a greater degree of “mutual musical knowledge” than actually exists? Because the rock music Rushdie privileges—works emanating largely from the ’60s and ’70s—are likely to remain unknown to a good percentage of the readership, and thus severely limit the possibility of such a connection. So, while the adoption of rock ’n’ roll as the spine of the novel affords Rushdie certain liberties, it also poses some problems, not the least of which is the fact that rock remains a fundamentally Western musical genre. Another issue is that, despite its image as subversive and rebellious, rock music is inextricably linked to cultural imperialism and Western commodification.19 Rushdie’s vision of rock music as globally shared culture thus requires the attenuation, if not the eradication, of any implication of rock as a tool for American global domination. As such, he must establish a set of circumstances in which the global trumps the local without any inference of oppression.

Rock Music as Cosmopolitan Touchstone in The Ground Beneath Her Feet


To counteract these assumptions, Rushdie engages in some literary sleight of hand through his use of magic realism. The most blatant alteration is the creation of Ormus and Vina, two Bombayites, as the greatest rock act of all time. In this way, Rushdie seeks to subvert Western ownership of rock music. This is also effected through what Rollason calls the novel’s “Gayomart conceit,” in which Ormus, through the conduit of his dead brother, Gayomart, is privy to the melodies (the lyrics are never clear) 1,001 days before the rest of the world hears them (Rushdie, Ground, 96). The earliest mention of rock music occurs during the first meeting between Ormus and Vina at a music store, where Ormus overhears “Heartbreak Hotel,” a song he has already written. This device proposes the possibility that these sounds originated in the East (in Ormus’s mind) rather than the West, and raises questions about the origins of any cultural form.20 In this way, Rushdie seeks to subvert the traditional story about the birth of rock. But the novel does not carry through on this promise, nor does it emonstrate how rock music may actually be infused with other musics of the world. Slightly altering the universe, of course, allows the author to inject whatever change appeals to his imagination. Reference points, however, must remain solidly in this world, or else readers will lose their bearings. The world Rushdie depicts is recognizable, but also recognizably altered: John Kennedy survives the assassination attempt in Dallas; England goes to war against Indochina; “Heartbreak Hotel” is the work of a young man named Jesse Garon Parker managed by a Colonel Tom Presley. So, while we may agree that this is meant as fantasy, and its intent is to undermine any absolutist view of rock and roll as American and only American, does this really have the intended effect? Because there is an unquestionably American slant to the novel’s evocations of rock history. This is probably truest in that the allusions created around Ormus are largely American (with a significant nod to Lennon, although most of the resemblances pertain to the period when the Liverpudlian resided in Manhattan). So, while there are many allusions to Presley and Dylan, little attempt is made to strengthen the Eastern aspects of Cama’s makeup (I, for one, cannot recall a single reference). For his part, Rollason questions Rushdie’s claim “to have subversively rewritten rock history by inventing two Indian megastars” (Rollason). “What,” he asks, “is Indian about these two—apart from their origins? What, if any, are the specifically Indian elements behind these twain’s meteoric careers?” (Rollason). Thus, there is no sense of appropriating and transforming the hegemonic vision of the American Dream, nor does the text ever suggest that VTO is Easternizing rock ’n’ roll. Rushdie does provide one significant instance of Cama’s accessing other influences and his use of “un-American sounds”: . . . the sexiness of the Cuban horns, the mind-bending patterns of the Brazilian drums, the Chilean woodwinds moaning like the winds of oppression, the African male voice choruses like trees swaying in freedom’s breeze, the grand old ladies of Algerian music with their yearning squawks and ululations, the holy passion of the Pakistani qawwals. (Rushdie, Ground, 379)


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

It is this passage to which many critics refer in attempting to demonstrate that the novel subverts the notion of Western cultural dominance. Pirbhai argues that these lines demonstrate Rushdie’s ability “to ironize the extent to which we can trace any singular points of origin in a heterogeneous, hybrid world, as well as the extent to which we can ascertain at which point cultural homogenization begins and ends.”21 But Rushdie’s work is so encyclopedic, so inclusive in its expansiveness, that one can find (as is often done with the Bible) a passage to support practically any interpretation. Most notable, however, is the fact that this is the only reference to any attempt on Ormus’s part to globalize the musical form to which he has laid claim. In an effort to posit rock music as globally shared culture, Rushdie is ironically obliged to erase any sense of local variations. Just as he glossed over any sense of American provenance in his recollection about Bombay, so too must he avoid making the music of VTO too Eastern, too foreign. For, though Rushdie plays with, and alters, the history of rock ’n’ roll (at least initially), he remains conscious of the implausibility of a rock group from India conquering the world.22 Only here does Rushdie play with the notion of “glocalization”: the interplay between the local and the global. This resembles Motti Regev’s notion of “aesthetic cosmopolitanism,” in which, instead of the one-way flow imposed by the dominant, we find that “many of the art works and cultural products that signify contemporary ethnonational cultural uniqueness routinely and intentionally include elements drawn from ‘outside’ the nation.”23 As such, Regev argues, “The difference between what counts as ‘exterior’ or ‘interior’ to national culture has been blurred” (Regev, 318). In other words, it becomes impossible to distinguish where the global ends and the local begins. This blurring is effected, Regev contends, through indigenous musicians engaging in “transposition” by appropriating the “stylistic patterns of pop-rock and using them with ethno-national contexts, and application of ethno-national traditional patterns into the realm of pop-rock” (Regev, 324). One would imagine that this “blurring” of local and global would suit Rushdie to a tee, for we no longer have cultural imperialism, but, instead, a demonstration of the local artist’s agency through his or her “willful embracing” of the creative possibilities of pop rock. Such is not the case with Rushdie’s protagonist, however, whose “embracing” of the Anglo-American ethos erases all traces of the local. In attempting to make Ormus global, Rushdie is too preoccupied with his otherworldliness, thus failing to address the struggles of the artist who uses “global” forms to express “local” concerns and speak directly to, and for, his community.24 On a related note, any formulation that would seek to position rock music as a cosmopolitan touchstone needs to address the question of Western “cultural imperialism,” and rock music’s role in the dissemination of the “American way of life.” And, on more than one occasion, the text announces its awareness of this reality. In the aftermath of the American military debacle in Indochina, for instance, the narrator declares: Almost every young Indochinese person wanted to eat, dress, bop, and profit in the good old American way. MTV, Nike, McWorld. Where soldiers had failed, U.S. values—that is, greenbacks, set to music—had triumphed. . . . Let the music play. Let freedom ring. Hail, hail, rock ’n’ roll. (Rushdie, Ground, 441)

Rock Music as Cosmopolitan Touchstone in The Ground Beneath Her Feet


And, while this might be called globally shared culture of a sort, the political and social inequities of the situation are only too apparent. For though the description makes clear that it is the Indochinese exercising agency—it is they who “want” what the Americans are offering—this music is far from “belonging” to the Indochinese in the way it did for the Bombayites of Rushdie’s recollection. At other times, the text makes light of American imperialism, suggesting that those who would critique Ormus as a “cultural traitor . . . who betrayed his roots and spent his pathetic lifetime pouring trash of America into our children’s ears” are nothing more than “enslaved organisms” who fail to recognize the splendor of his boundary-crossing ways or the transgressive potential of music itself (Rushdie, Ground, 95). Additionally, the text seeks to have it both ways, acknowledging the invasive nature of American culture while suggesting that VTO have somehow managed to dodge any such affiliations. Ormus, in particular, is depicted as someone living on another plane of existence. The difficulty remains, however, that The Ground Beneath Her Feet does little to dissuade the reader of this impression. VTO securely belongs to the tradition of the supergroup—a Western invention if ever there was one—and no intimation of foreign influences, or use of magic realism, is likely to change any of that. When a writer does not take a position, it is de rigueur for critics to proclaim that he is simply problematizing the actual discourse for the reader, raising questions rather than answering them. Naturally, such a writer will also want to demonstrate that he is aware of the limitations or pitfalls of his position. As such, we are likely to encounter, particularly in encyclopedic works such as those written by Rushdie, any number of comments, ideas, or incidents that attenuate, modify, or even run counter to what appears to be the main contention of the novel. The challenge for the reader, then, is to weigh that which is presented in the text and determine the extent to which the writer is advocating one position, or perhaps two, more than any of the others. So, is The Ground Beneath Her Feet an argument for the power of song to transcend borders (including death), or is it a novel concerned with the manner in which hegemonic systems find ways of incorporating and assimilating the sites of resistance expressed in song? Rushdie adopts the Orpheus myth primarily for its stance on the immortality of art—not the artist, but the art. After Orpheus is torn limb from limb by the Maenads, his head continues to sing as it floats down the river. As Rushdie tells Peter Kadzis, “You can destroy the singer, but you can’t stop the song. And I think for fairly obvious reasons, that’s an important thought for me to have and to hold on to.”25 These aspirations, however, may impact the reader’s capacity to connect with an earthly Ormus (if such a figure exists). And this problem is compounded by the depiction of the protagonists as people loosed from the world. The novel remains intent on positioning its protagonists as cosmopolitans. This stance is reflected, paradoxically, in its early accentuation of VTO’s Eastern roots and then in its later omission of any mention of ethnic connections once the group becomes world famous. And, although the text expresses concern for the loss of the East or “disorientation” (Rushdie, Ground, 176; my emphasis), its geographical movement (from India to Britain to settling in the United States) cannot but privilege the West. As D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke observes, this also reflects the trajectory of Rushdie’s own metropolitan life: Bombay to London to


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

New York.26 The finality of this odyssey is symbolized in the sprinkling of Ormus’s ashes over Manhattan, ensuring his permanent “residence” in that city (Rushdie, Ground, 572). Hanging one’s dreams of a globalized utopia on the skeleton of rock music is a risky proposition. For her part, Pirbhai finds Rushdie’s “cosmopolitan discourse” problematic, since it “often tends to overemphasize globally shared cultural references, such as those found in pop culture, in an otherwise linguistically, culturally, and economically stratified and diverse world.”27 In this regard, the novel struggles to undermine the notion of rock ’n’ roll as anything other than an American invention, so that the genre is far more easily conceptualized as the opposite of what Rushdie intends: a symbol of American superiority. The majority of allusions to rock music sprinkled throughout the novel are American in nature, thus solidifying, rather than undermining, the impression of dominance. Finally, then, we might say that the novel ends up serving different purposes than those proclaimed at its beginning. So that, rather than subverting or putting into question Western dominance on the global stage—through its manipulations of rock history—the text ultimately treasures the New World now closest to Salman Rushdie’s heart.

Notes 1 Kadzis, “Interview with Salman Rushdie.” 2 Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 95. 3 Of the critical attention the novel has garnered, surprisingly little is devoted specifically to the topic of music. For, though incidental references are invariably made to rock ’n’ roll, few critical texts dedicate more than select paragraphs to the role it plays in the novel (Albertazzi, “Why do we care about singers?”; Bassi, “Orpheus’s Other Voyage”; and Rollason, “Rushdie’s Un-Indian Music” are the notable exceptions). 4 Rose, “Rushdie Calls Rock Music First Globalized Cultural Event,” 255–6. Interestingly, Wise offers up similar recollections in a chapter entitled “Global Music” (76–107). See also Regev, “Ethno-National Pop-Rock Music.” Regev contends that “Conventional descriptions of the field of pop-rock . . . tend to concentrate almost exclusively on its dominant Anglo-American components. But pop-rock was from an early stage a world phenomenon” (Regev, 322). 5 Falconer, “Bouncing Down to the Underworld,” 480. 6 Rollason, “Rushdie’s Un-Indian Music.” 7 For an extended discussion of Rai music and its mercurial relationship to globalization, see Tony Langlois’s “The Local and the Global in North African Music.” 8 In this regard, see Keith Negus, Popular Music in Theory, in which he observes that the emergence of hybrid and multicultural forms has led some to proclaim the existence of “global culture” and the possibility of “a universal musical language which touches a common chord across humanity and which transcends cultural differences” (Negus, 177). But, he warns that “this type of argument tends to assume that a cultural form is universal because it appears to be universally popular” (Negus, 177). Such a contention “does not connect the widespread appeal of the artist with the systems of production and distribution that have put a Madonna or a Michael Jackson in the position to be

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9 10 11 12

13 14 15 16

17 18 19 20 21 22

23 24 25 26 27


universal in the first place” (Negus, 177–78; emphasis in text). See also Wise’s discussion of “common forms” (“Global Music,” 91). Silverblatt, “Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt,” 205. Toynbee, Making Popular Music, x. Lethem, “Rock of Ages.” One principal difference between Rushdie’s novel and other novels concerned with the musical realm is that one of Ormus Cama’s compositions, “Beneath Her Feet” (Rushdie, Ground, 475) has actually been set to music. In 2000, U2 recorded “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” for the soundtrack of director Wim Wenders’ film The Million Dollar Hotel. While this gesture appears to confer some rock legitimacy upon the writer of the novel, it does raise some questions about authorship. Merritt, “Rock ’n’ Roll Legends.” Lethem, “Rock of Ages.” See Benson, Literary Music. Benson, however, suggests that “the absence of music only serves to bolster its (music’s) strength, to make it more palpably present. It permeates what we read, suggesting the possibility that musically-inclined fiction is most potent not in those rare exceptions when it manages somehow to catch the coat tails of its object, but rather when it works to deploy its necessary silence” (Literary Music, 142). See Negus, who similarly contests the existence of a “rock era” (Popular Music, 147–53). Albertazzi, “Why do we care,” 91–2. See Negus, Popular Music, 164–6. See also Connell and Gibson, “World Music,” 344, 355. See Wise, “Global Music,” which casts the notion of Western music as “debatable” (Wise, 87). Pirbhai, “The Paradox of Globalization as an ‘Untotalizable Totality’ in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” Conversely, Bassi argues that such an occurrence is entirely plausible and cites the example of Queen, whose music—“the quintessence of rock populism, glamour Romanticism, musically eclectic”—reveals nothing of Freddie Mercury’s postcolonial origins. As with VTO, Bassi contends, Queen’s music “has nothing recognizably ‘Asian’ or ethnic, but some general, unmarked, ‘universal’ message of love and friendship” (“Orpheus’s Other Voyage ,” 113). Regev, “Ethno-National Pop-Rock Music,” 318. For more on the question of glocalization, see Fairley (“The ‘Local’ and ‘Global’ in Popular Music,” 272–4) and Wise (“Global Music,” 78). Kadzis, “Interview with Salman Rushdie.” Goonetilleke, Salman Rushdie, 147. Pirbhai, “The Paradox of Globalization.”

Bibliography Albertazzi, Silvia. “ ‘Why do we care about singers?’: Music in The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” In The Great Work of Making Real: Salman Rushdie’s “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” edited by Elsa Linguanti and Viktoria Tchernichov, 91–7. Pisa, Italy : Edizioni ETS, 2003.


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Bassi, Shaul. “Orpheus’s Other Voyage: Myth, Music and Globalisation.” In The Great Work of Making Real: Salman Rushdie’s “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” edited by Elsa Linguanti and Viktoria Tchernichova, 99–114. Pisa, Italy: Edizioni ETS, 2003. Benson, Stephen. Literary Music: Writing Music in Contemporary Fiction. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Connell, John and Chris Gibson. “World Music: Deterritorializing Place and Identity.” Progress in Human Geography 28, no. 3 (2004): 342–61. Falconer, Rachel. “Bouncing Down to the Underworld: Classical Katabasis in The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” Twentieth-Century Literature 47, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 467–509. Fairley, Jan “The ‘Local’ and ‘Global’ in Popular Music.” In The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, edited by Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street, 272–89. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Goonetilleke, D.C.R.A. Salman Rushdie. Second edition. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Kadzis, Peter. “Interview with Salman Rushdie.” Boston Phoenix, May 6–13, 1999. http:// www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/books/99/05/06/SALMAN_RUSHDIE.html. Langlois, Tony. “The Local and the Global in North African Popular Music.” Popular Music 15, no. 3 (1996). Lethem, Jonathan. “Rock of Ages.” Review of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie. Village Voice, April 20, 1999. http://www.villagevoice.com/1999-04-20/books/ rock-of-ages/. Merritt, Stephanie. “Rock ’n’ Roll Legends.” Review of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie. The Guardian, January 30, 2000. http://www.guardian.co.uk/ books/2000/jan/30/fiction.salmanrushdie. Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Hanover, NH, and London, England: Wesleyan University Press, 1997. Pirbhai, Mariam. “The Paradox of Globalization as an ‘Untotalizable Totality’ in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” The International Fiction Review 28, no. 1 (2001). http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/view/7691/8748. Regev, Motti. “Ethno-National Pop-Rock Music: Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism Made from Within.” Cultural Sociology 1, no. 3 (2007): 317–41. Rollason, Christopher. “Rushdie’s Un-Indian Music: The Ground Beneath Her Feet.” (2006). http://yatrarollason.info/files/RushdieGFupdated.pdf. Rose, Charlie. “Rushdie Calls Rock Music First Globalized Cultural Event.” In Salman Rushdie Interviews: A Sourcebook of His Ideas, edited by P. S. Chauhan, 255–65. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. Rushdie, Salman. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999. Silverblatt, Michael. “Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt: Salman Rushdie” in Salman Rushdie Interviews: A Sourcebook of His Ideas, edited by P. S. Chauhan, 199–208. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. Toynbee, Jason. Making Popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and Institutions. London, England: Arnold, 2000. Wise, J. Macgregor. “Global Music.” In Cultural Globalization: A User’s Guide, 76–107. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.


Music Consumption and the Remix of Self in Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor John Joseph Hess

In Colson Whitehead’s 1993 Village Voice review of Basehead’s album Not in Kansas Anymore, he summarized the communicative significance of turntable technology. In a single-sentence overview of hip hop’s foundational synthesis between medium and message, Whitehead stated that “early rappers produced their songs by stitching their rhymes and the music they grew up with together with the limited technology at hand—an extra turntable, a mike, and the B side of your favorite record were all you needed.”1 According to Whitehead, what you had shaped, what you could say and how you could say it. What you said depended on the mix. Mixing is a basic feature of the process of music recording. The process of mixing a song or album involves a mixer: an “electronic device which combines several signals and routes them to one or more channels corresponding to tracks on a magnetic tape, or to a loudspeaker.”2 Mixing a song or album involves combining different tape tracks and digital files, blending different sources, and establishing their relative levels. Remixing involves creating a different mix. This might be a distinct, alternate version that may or may not clearly resemble the primary mix, as in an extended mix of a popular song that might be created for dance clubs.3 Remixing might involve juxtaposition and radical recontextualization. In his history of early hip hop culture, Peter Shapiro has called this a form of “audio montage.”4 As Simon Reynolds explains, this aesthetic causes “a performance fragment [to be] wrenched from its matrix of musical meaning and applied to different purposes altogether, frequently without consultation or even the knowledge of the original performer.”5 Remixes and sampling, which Reynolds succinctly defines as the process of “using recordings to make new recordings” (Reynolds, 313), are the processes by which DJs have continued to “stitch” their music together since the late 1970s.6 The influence of hip hop’s innovations in sampling, mixing, and cultural eclecticism has become so widespread that they have become norms in contemporary mainstream technology and theory. The media-mixing DJ is no longer seen as an exclusively musical figure, but is, instead, invoked as a type of sophisticated and innovative cultural shaper.7 Contemporary media theorists have proven especially interested in the ways that available editing and web technologies have allowed audiences to become their 169


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

own DJs. Reynolds and Steven Johnson have characterized this as a “curatorial culture,” in which, Johnson argues, people are “curators, not creators, brilliant at assembling new combinations of songs rather than generating them from scratch.”8 Analyzing fan fiction and audience-created images that are assembled from existing media sources, Henry Jenkins has described what he sees as a fundamental “cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.”9 In Jenkins’s view, one-time media consumers are increasingly involved in a new “participatory culture [that] contrasts with older notions of passive media spectatorship” as consumers become “participants who interact with each other” and with media producers “according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands” (Jenkins, 3). Legal scholar and media theorist Lawrence Lessig has applied the music term “remix” to his analysis of copyright law, as that law relates to the media, and culture “shifts” from what Lessig calls a “R/O (read only)” culture, in which audiences consume, to a “R/W (read/write)” media culture, in which audiences edit, appropriate, and redeploy media in their own ways.10 Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor (2009) uses popular music and the American literary tradition to explore evolutions in the complex relationships between culture, self, and narrative. Popular music performers, venues, and technologies enhance the verisimilitude of the setting and 1980s time period of the novel. At another level, these references suggest protagonist Benji Cooper’s personal discomfort as he attempts to fit in with his friends and family, to understand complex cultural exchanges, and to conceive his own unique identity. Benji is inspired by emerging hip hop culture to perceive the possibility of dual turntables for artistic and self creation. Noting with interest that his friend Marv, an early follower of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, possessed two turntables, Benji explains that “one turntable, you liked music. Two turntables and you were an artist” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 291). This claim recognizes the aesthetic dimensions of the musical culture that inspires Marv. Benji’s image of the two turntables that transform the music consumption of listening into the selfprojection of verbal expression provides an image for the novel’s own aesthetic. Sag Harbor blends the twin turntables of literature and popular culture, allowing Whitehead’s invocation of W. E. B. Du Bois and Herman Melville to establish a particular beat that is enhanced by a variety of the narrator’s popular, obscure, and personally meaningful cultural experiences. By mixing the American literary tradition, popular music samples, and a variety of music technologies, including the radio, boom box, and turntable, Whitehead uses musical innovation as a model for personal development as Benji uses the backwards glance of his adult perspective to recontextualize the forward progress of adolescent life. As a child, Benji struggles to understand the complexity of racial identification in Sag Harbor. Whitehead situates W. E. B. Du Bois near the beginning of the novel as a “legend[ary]” one-time visitor to the Sag Harbor community that serves as refuge, reward, and presumed birthright for the “Talented Tenth” of African American doctors and lawyers.11 Recognizing that he “had no idea who Du Bois was,” Benji adds Du Bois to his mental list of “Famous Black People I had never heard of ” along with Marcus Garvey and Toussaint L’Ouverture (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 17–18). The adult Benji

Music Consumption and the Remix of Self in Sag Harbor


who narrates Sag Harbor indicates that his youthful ignorance has been as much a product of his education in primarily white private schools as it had been a product of his youth (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 18). Benji’s television references to M*A*S*H* (1972–83) and The Six Million Dollar Man (1974–8) also suggest that his early ignorance of what he calls “Iconic Figures of Black Nationalism” may result from the fact that, while his parents were employed as professionals in New York City, out in Sag Harbor, “the TV was our babysitter” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 7). Indeed, Benji repeatedly suggests that much of his world view has been formed by television, film, and music. Benji describes his early understanding of the “Pre-Lando Calrissian Star Wars universe” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 159) of the late 1970s as one of his foundational experiences of what Du Bois calls “double consciousness” (Du Bois, 11). Looking backward, Benji the narrator links this concept to his own earlier gravitation toward the “alien and armored and masked characters” of Star Wars (1977) while playing with his (mostly white) action figures (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 159). Benji recognizes his “preference” for such figures because of a TV broadcast of Like It Is (1968–2011) that discussed “a study where a group of black children was told to ‘pick the pretty doll’ ” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 159). Having experienced the world through the lens of George Lucas’s camera, Benji believes that his subsequent shift in action figure affiliation represents his self-correction for having been “brainwashed by the Evil Empire” of Star Wars and, metaphorically, American culture (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 159). If anything, Benji’s imaginary identification with the alien character Greedo (and Benji’s subsequent creation of a non-mercenary alternative in the imagined figure of “Greedo’s cousin”) (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 160), suggests that Sag Harbor reconfirms Du Bois’s prophecy in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that “the problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” (Du Bois, 5). Sag Harbor’s presentation of Like It Is for young Star Wars fans emphasizes, 15 years before the century’s end, the continuing complexity of navigating the color line in the face of the implications of popular culture. Benji explicitly invokes double consciousness as what he calls an “embroider[ed] theme” several times in Sag Harbor (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 101). In identifying Herman Melville as the 19th-century progenitor of Sag Harbor’s literary history, Benji cites one of two different references to the town in Moby Dick (1851). Benji notes that “the town is mentioned in Moby Dick—it’s a Sag Harbor ship that takes Queequeg from his South Sea home to America” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 101). Benji’s interest in what he sees as Queequeg’s “double consciousness” also implies Sag Harbor’s anxiety over whiteness (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 101). In Moby Dick, the “Sag Harbor ship” has taken Queequeg (by his own volition) from his island home of Kokovoko. Ishmael describes this island as one that is “not down in any map; true places never are.”12 Benji’s reference to the unmapped Kokovoko as part of Sag Harbor’s literary history reminds the reader that Benji’s African American summer community does not appear in guides to adjacent white summer communities. Sag Harbor is “off in the margins . . . where the map ended” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 24). In correction to this cartographic exclusion, Sag Harbor begins with a hand-printed drawing of a map titled “Benji’s Sag Harbor.” This map includes


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

youthful adventures (“Found 2 bucks here once”) as well as a dislocation of whiteness via an arrow that points just east of the map’s territory to identify the path “to East Hampton, the Atlantic Ocean, Europe” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, n.p.). The map therefore ends not at its edge, but with a gesture toward an adjacent space (East Hampton), a historically vexed zone of interaction (the Atlantic Ocean), and a cultural tradition (Europe). Benji may not exhibit the obviously maniacal intensity of anxiety that Ishmael demonstrates in his chapter-length contemplation of “The Whiteness of the Whale” in Moby Dick (Melville, 159–60), but Benji cannot help but be cognizant of the whiteness at the geographic and temporal edges of his summer life. Radio songs are foundational to Benji’s early intuition of his double consciousness. Immediately after the adult narrator quotes from Du Bois’s articulation of the concept in The Souls of Black Folk, Benji remembers the unease that was produced by his father’s car radio. Benji’s “troubled dreams” are derived from his father’s abrupt switching of the radio dial between the “Easy Listening. . . . whiteness” represented by the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” and “Afrocentric Talk Radio” and “the black Top 40” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 20, 18, 19). The “two unreconciled strivings” that Du Bois had described at the beginning of the century (Du Bois, 11) and that the adult Benji had quoted one page earlier are remembered as the media experience of hearing “two signals too weak to be heard for more than a few moments” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 20). Whitehead employs ironic diminishment, but he also emphasizes the reality of the torment caused by different stations of the dial. Whitehead’s positioning of Benji midway between these stations on the dial foregrounds Benji’s struggle to conceive what he perceives as a workable racial identity. In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), Paul Gilroy criticizes “any simplistic (essentialist or antiessentialist) understanding of the relationship between racial identity and racial non-identity, between folk cultural authenticity and pop cultural betrayal” (Gilroy, 99). Using the examples of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the late 19th century and Jimi Hendrix in the late 20th, Gilroy identifies a recurrent anxiety caused by “the discourse of authenticity” (Gilroy, 99). For Gilroy and for music theorists like Keith Negus, this has been an especially reductive way to conceive of identity or creative output.13 For Benji, who does not yet understand the complex possibilities for self-identification offered by popular culture, the dichotomy between “Easy Listening” and “the black Top 40” remains troubling (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 18, 19). The signals disappear momentarily, yet they linger in Benji’s consciousness, producing troubled dreams (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 20) that haunt him like the “unremittant beat” of Countee Cullen’s “Heritage.”14 The popular culture details of Sag Harbor are essential to the content, form, and themes of the novel as Benji begins to develop an increasingly complex conception of self. As in any remix, what has become familiar is reshaped, resuscitated, and rearticulated through recontextualization. The sheer amount of popular culture details in Sag Harbor appears to suggest young Benji’s indiscriminate consumption. As Benji the narrator repeatedly explains, however, film and television shaped his youthful conception of the world around him. Sidney Poitier acts as Benji’s conscience when Benji considers how he will be seen if he joins his white classmates in shoplifting

Music Consumption and the Remix of Self in Sag Harbor


(Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 124). Raiders of the Lost Ark provides the inspiration for Benji’s only fist fight (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 182). Benji describes his knowledge of the opposite sex as “informed by late-night cable flicks [that inspired] imagery . . . featur[ing] wispy young women who cavorted in nighties . . . giggling as they chased each other” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 101). One might question the value of shrinking the imagination to fit the contours of preexisting, and often juvenile, popular forms, but the scope of Benji’s knowledge of the popular culture of his day is as immense, intellectual, and as irritating as Ishmael’s endless lists of specialized whaling vocabulary or the three-chapter sequence that describes every imaginable image of a whale in Moby Dick (Melville, 214–23). As in Moby Dick, the narrator’s specialized obsession becomes his lens for the interpretation of experience. Popular culture is Benji’s cetology. In his early musical experiences, Benji fails to identify any potential relationship between music and personal experience. Near the beginning of the novel, Benji describes an “eighth-grade roller-disco party” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 9). Nostalgically remembering his early “girl contact” at the party as an experience of “roller-rink infinity,” Benji describes the soundtrack to their experience as nothing more than background music. “Big Shot” and “Bette Davis Eyes” were songs whose “lyrics provided no commentary, honest or ironic, on the proceedings” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 15). Benji hears these songs only as background music. They have no discernible connection to his experience. A writer with strong comic sense, Whitehead ensures that Benji’s foundational musical experience is not without its irony. The humor of the scene derives not only from the banality of the setting for the protagonist’s self-proclaimed arrival in “big-boy territory” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 16). Instead, the full humor of this scene relies on the reader’s command of the pop music tradition since the song that abruptly ends Benji’s “roller-rink infinity” is Olivia Newton-John’s and Electric Light Orchestra’s 1980 hit “Xanadu” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 15). This song is the theme from the soundtrack to Olivia Newton-John’s film of the same title, a movie that is about roller-discos and immortality. That this further irony is lost on Benji should not be lost on Whitehead’s readers. After this early radio-derived discomfort, Benji begins to actively engage with music culture. In this second phase of music consumption, Benji acquires knowledge by collecting records and cassettes, and he begins to consider the possible relationship between music and identity. He and his friends read Spin magazine, shop at Tower Records, and “Sounds, the East Hampton Music Store” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 194, 124, 151). They “overanalyze the lyric sheets of the band that currently owned their soul, until the words became a philosophy” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 30). They deploy this knowledge in carefully supported music debates. Gradually, Benji begins to see music consumption as part of the process of storing the materials that will allow him to “refurbish” the “self ” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 29). This magazine, lyric sheet, and record store sequence offers a crucial reemphasis of Benji’s stubbornly persistent belief in coherent singular identity. Benji notes that the appeal of the group U.T.F.O. is that each member “employed theme personalities” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 234). Each of these personalities is identifiable by a single characteristic. U.T.F.O. includes “the Educated Rapper. . . . Doctor Ice. . . . The Kangol


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Kid . . . [and] Mix Master Ice” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 234–5). To Benji, U.T.F.O. appears to confirm that the acquisition of a system of knowledge, such as education or medicine, enables the formation of an identifiable self, however “goofball” it may be (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 235). Benji’s pursuit of knowledge about music culture allows him to become a connoisseur rather than a simple consumer. Like Ishmael, Benji devotes himself to comprehensive knowledge of the field. When he runs into his friend Bobby “buy[ing] U.T.F.O.’s debut album” at a Manhattan Tower Records, Benji is “looking for a Depeche Mode twelve-inch” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 124–5). That this record is a “twelve-inch,” rather than an album, suggests Benji’s command of and commitment to the specialized knowledge of music connoisseurship. Both circular, both 12 inches, and both made of vinyl, a 12-inch and an album appear virtually identical to the non-music fan. In fact, to the uninitiated, the album might appear to be the more precious object. Usually a collection of 10 to 12 individual songs, an album offers variety. It promises greater financial value in terms of dollar spent per original composition purchased. It may also present superior aesthetics in terms of the record sleeve’s card stock. It might offer advertized bonuses or contain hidden treasures, such as a gatefold cover, a picture sleeve, lyric sheet, or poster. A 12-inch, on the other hand, might have any of those things. It just as easily might not. It might come packaged in a plain paper sleeve. It might include only two discrete songs (an “A side” and its “B side”). In the case of the “picture disc,” it might only offer one song (with a picture on the reverse). The 12-inch might include the same song multiplied into a variety of mixes. The songs might be previously available album tracks. They might be unique songs or unique remixes that are unavailable elsewhere. In the example of what Benji called the “summer of Purple Rain” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 322), the 12-inch vinyl album of the film soundtrack includes nine unique songs.15 The 12-inch of one of its most commercially successful singles, “When Doves Cry,” includes two: the album version of the song and a then otherwise unavailable B side called “17 Days.”16 One new song and one repeat? Certainly this is crass commercialism, the flooding of the market with additional product to capture more American dollars! Why not just add a tenth track to the album? Such might be the confused or indignant outcry of any dollar-oriented consumer. In this specific case, however, a Prince fan might argue that the 12-inch of “When Doves Cry” offers its own coherent artistic statement, as the beat and keyboards to “17 Days” invert those heard on the A side. In the more general instance, a music fan might argue that the 12-inch suggests commitment, knowledge, connoisseurship. Anybody might walk in off the street and buy an album or a single. Only a fan would go looking for, would understand the significance of, or would appreciate the beauty of a 12-inch.17 In one sense, Benji may be replacing his own feelings of exclusion with a fanaticism that is built on exclusivity. The breadth and depth of Benji’s emerging knowledge, however, allows him to identify cultural connections that are lost on others. These cultural connections are significant to Benji because they suggest “models” for his own gradual self-fashioning (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 72). When his friend Clive plays Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s 1982 song “Planet Rock,” Benji identifies the

Music Consumption and the Remix of Self in Sag Harbor


influence of the German group Kraftwerk. When his friends refuse to believe that the song “bit that off Kraftwerk,” Benji explains that Kraftwerk’s 1977 song “Trans-Europe Express”—which he knew from “listening to [it] over and over”—“has that Da Dah Da part” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 75–6). Reflecting on this youthful debate, the adult Benji explains this use of Kraftwerk and provides a key to his own narrative. According to Benji, “it didn’t matter where it came from, the art was in converting it to new use” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 76). Elaborating, Benji explains that sampling relies on “expertise and [a] keen ear” in order to “manipulate what you had at your disposal for your own purposes” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 76). Thanks to his emerging cultural expertise, Benji’s “keen ear” allows him to hear connections that others cannot. He describes his youthful interest in “Planet Rock” as recognition that it “dismantled [a] piece of white culture and produced [a] . . . sustaining thing” that acknowledges cultural “paradox” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 77). In this sense, Benji recalls his own earlier identification as the “paradox . . . I call myself ” and he foreshadows his subsequent narrative efforts (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 72).18 “Planet Rock” proves foundational for Benji’s subsequent understanding of music as a source for inspiration, appropriation, and articulation. Instead of continuing to “overanalyze lyrics,” he becomes increasingly interested in how audiences can recontextualize music and “convert it to new use” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 76). U.T.F.O. is therefore interesting not only because of their use of “goofball . . . theme personalities,” but also because their 1984 single “Roxanne, Roxanne” suggests the communicative potential of popular music, as the song inspires first one “answer record” by Roxanne Shanté, and then “answer records to answer records” that “escalated matters” in the “Roxanne Wars of the mid-’80s” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 234–5). When Benji misunderstands the message of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 song “The Message,” hearing “Melle Mel rap” a word that Benji has invented (“sacadiliac”), the adult Benji intercedes to explain that such an incorrect interpretation should not even occasion a “shrug” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 241, 260). While Benji once failed to recognize “Xanadu” and later obsessively studied lyrics (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 15, 30), his emerging awareness of the possibilities of hip hop appropriation suggest that “mishearing song lyrics, making your specific travesty of the words, is the right of every human being” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 260). Rather than providing an object for “overanalysis,” music—Benji (under the combined influence of Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force) increasingly believes—should be something its audience can use. Whitehead’s careful attention to the self-making possibilities inherent in new developments in music technology during the 1980s links the ideas of music consumption and self-development in Sag Harbor. The phenomenon of the listenersequenced mix tape makes Benji’s increasing musical sophistication more than academic. Simon Reynolds has described tape as “the ultimate in do-it-yourself, because it could be dubbed-on-demand at home, whereas vinyl required a heavier financial outlay and a contractual arrangement with a manufacturer” (Reynolds, 349). Enabled by the affordable technologies of blank audio cassettes and the tape-recording deck of a home stereo or portable boom box (which could receive radio signals and


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

record music to the cassette), the mix tape allowed Benji and his friends to begin to learn to “manipulate[e] what you had at your disposal for your own purposes” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 76). Although the music of the mix tape is assembled from previously recorded songs, the mix tape changes Benji’s attitude toward music consumption. While Benji had previously seen music as an engagement that claimed “owne[rship]” of his “soul,” he describes the mix tape as “a snapshot of this month’s soul translated into music and arranged in perfect order” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 142).19 Instead of claiming the listener’s undivided attention, the mix tape allows the listener to “convert” and “manipulate” existing music recordings into new sequences designed to articulate a rudimentary narrative of the moods of the listener-turned-mixproducer. With “expertise and a keen ear,” the recordable audio cassette/boom box combination would allow a consumer to change his or her relationship to the music. The mix tape allows the consumer not to identify and adopt a singular “philosophy,” but, instead, to construct a sequence that would begin to express the listener’s own various musical interests. The mix tape might vary month to month, but it would always reflect the interests and intelligence of its creator. As Steven Johnson has claimed, it would not be a statement of original musical expressions composed by the listener (Johnson, 145). It would be an original statement of musical expressions effectively compiled from the perspective of the listener’s experience. With the mix tape, Benji begins to describe his experience of music as something that can be appropriated, recontextualized, and personalized. The models of “Planet Rock” and the mix tape suggest to Benji the possibility of “infinite recombination” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 105). The final phase of Benji’s musical development comes in his discovery that selfexpressive power is not conferred by the act of sequencing alone (as in the mix tape), but is, instead, a result of the possibilities for synthesis offered by two turntables. When Benji is finally able to get into the Bayside disco, he experiences what he perceives to be transformative experience. This is not the result of the performances of either of the acts he has come to see (Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and U.T.F.O.). It instead happens by chance as a result of the unique mix of a DJ. When the “DJ drop[s] [Prince’s 1985 single] ‘Raspberry Beret,’ ” Benji discovers the joy of dancing with a community of other people who “were all there for the same thing” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 262). While dancing, Benji claims to feel “the music rewiring [his] every system” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 262). In his head, he is conscious of a phrase from The Six Million Dollar Man television series, “We can rebuild him” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 262; emphasis Whitehead’s). Mixed with the sounds of his popular culture-inspired moment of selfinception and the sounds of Prince and the Revolution’s first post-Purple Rain single, the DJ adds an additional track, “a segment of Debbie Harry singing ‘Rapture.’ ” Rather than creating a new sequence, the use of this 1981 Blondie single creates a new mix that Benji describes as “Good. No qualifier, chaotic or otherwise. Simply: Good” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 263).20 This night is not “the highlight of the summer” because of the groups whose unique individual recordings Benji had already “overanalyzed” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 234, 30). Instead the U.T.F.O./Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam concert is the summer’s highlight because, like “Planet Rock” before it, the Bayside DJ’s

Music Consumption and the Remix of Self in Sag Harbor


“Raspberry Beret”/“Rapture” mix offers Benji a moment of unqualified rapture that suggests a new direction for his own conception of the self. In a novel that foregrounds what Du Bois called “the problem of the color line” (Du Bois, 5), the anxiety of whiteness, and the adjacent position of different maps, Benji’s temporary rapture at the sound of Blondie might be interpreted as an embrace of whiteness. This appears even more convincing in light of Benji’s mocking treatment of the song that he calls “the black national anthem,” McFadden & Whitehead’s 1979 hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 312). Setting the scene for the Labor Day party that concludes the novel, the adult Benji calls this song “the disco version of ‘We Shall Overcome’ ” as he makes self-conscious fun of the idea that “the song addressed the generations . . . whether the association was civil rights triumph [in the generation of Benji’s grandparents], bursting through glass ceilings in corporate towers [as Benji’s parents were], or merely [his own] silly joy of gliding around a roller rink” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 313). This appears, like his youthful ignorance of “Iconic Figures of Black Nationalism,” to indicate a continuing unease with African American history.21 Such a solution to Benji’s puzzlement at “the black national anthem” is, however, too simple. The novel emphasizes Benji’s sustained engagement with African American literary history and the adult Benji’s understanding of the Labor Day party is strongly linked to what he sees as a generational transition from his own age group to the young people who have already begun to replace it in Sag Harbor (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 313). Benji’s sarcastic attitude toward “the black national anthem” derives from its definite article. Having already recognized that he, his siblings, and his friends, all “talked one way in school, one way in our homes, and another way to each other,” Benji views a singular, progressive vision of essential similarity as something that cannot possibly account for what he perceives, like Du Bois before him, to be the “paradox” of self (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 72). Instead of what Paul Gilroy calls “essentialist” notions of self (Gilroy, 99), Benji suggests a Walt Whitmanesque alternative, to “embrace the contradiction. Say, what you call paradox, I call myself ” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 72). According to Benji, this option initially works “in theory,” but lacks “many obvious models” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 72). In his development as a music consumer, Benji comes to see “Planet Rock,” mix tapes, and turntables as possible models. In his 1993 Village Voice review of Digable Planets’ album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)—a review that declares its intention to “alter a little Ralph Ellison”— Whitehead describes the group’s “method” in terms that suggest Benji’s experience and Whitehead’s own Sag Harbor narrative. Digable Planets, according to Whitehead, emphasize the significance of “mak[ing] your mad, hybrid ancestry work for you.”22 Instead of the triumphantly vague message of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” the “method” of “Planet Rock,” and, later, Digable Planets, becomes the “model” for Benji’s struggle with his self-perception of “paradox” in Sag Harbor (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 72). Sag Harbor emphasizes Benji’s belief that the self might be remixable. Using the model of popular music and the perspective of time, Sag Harbor offers an imaginative engagement with a “hybrid history” that, with effort and proper knowledge, can be made to serve self-articulation (Whitehead, “Digable Planets”). Benji sees “history” as


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

defined by “context” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 51). The lesson of “Planet Rock” suggests that context can be shifted by new juxtapositions and incorporations. Young Benji begins to understand this in his first post-Bayside disco experiences as he starts to use music in personally meaningful ways. Incorporating three lyrical samples from British singer, songwriter, and former Beatles “balance engineer”23 Norman “Hurricane” Smith’s 1972 song “Oh Babe What Would You Say,” Benji discovers the mix of his own unique narrative voice (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 279, 292, 302). Mixing the lyrics of Smith’s song with Benji’s memory of them and with several experiences that conflate Benji’s past and present, the young Benji begins to understand how personal history can be reconfigured to allow the self to continue to be “rebuilt” and “refurbished” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 262, 29). A dozen years after the 1985 narrative events of Sag Harbor, Benji revisits and reconsiders Greedo in the new context of George Lucas’ 20th-anniversary Star Wars: Special Edition (1997). As Benji explains, using “a secret compound and an entire nerd army dedicated to [his] purpose,” Lucas remixed the original film. In one example, he “redigitized the scene” in which Greedo confronts Han Solo, “insert[ing] a laser blast” that “changes” the relationship between the two characters and “rewrit[es] the alien’s history” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 189). Noting the fact of fan outrage at Lucas’s alteration, the adult Benji explains why this new version of Star Wars had not bothered him (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 189). For the adult Benji, this “redigitized” version was simply one of several characters called Greedo: “There was the first Greedo, the one we knew, and the other Greedo, the new one that emerged to change the meaning of things. To me they’re both real” (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 189). As suggested by Whitehead’s Digable Planets review, the work of Ralph Ellison is also audible in Whitehead’s fictional mix. The unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) claimed that “light confirm[ed his] reality [and gave] birth to [his] form.”24 Seen in the light of Greedo’s “inserted laser blast,” Benji reconfirms the reality of his own conception of the self as remix. If his adult narrative voice represents an articulation of a version of the “rebuilt self ” that became aware in the Bayside disco, the narrative emphasizes the existence of a variety of earlier versions. Instead of seeing these versions as progressive developments of one constantly evolving identity, Benji sees them as a series of unique mixes that may be collected and compared in the sequence of narrative. At the same time, these mixes can be preserved by memory in their various unique configurations. In a sense, Benji’s conception of self never ceases to be derived from his Star Wars action figures. Luke Skywalker and “X-Wing Pilot” Luke Skywalker are recognizably the same character. Similarly, in Benji’s mind, “Greedo’s Cousin,” “Jonni Waffle” Benji, “Bayside Disco” Benji, and “Benji the Narrator” are all versions of Benji. As a music novel that synthesizes music and literature and juxtaposes self-creation and media change, Sag Harbor suggests that, just as popular culture acts as part of the discourse that shapes racial, generational, or individual identity, popular culture might also serve as a remixable element in the narrative discourse of continuous selfrefashioning. Rather than seeing any version of the self as definitive, Benji follows the “model” of the music remix (Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 72). The variety of Benji’s musical

Music Consumption and the Remix of Self in Sag Harbor


experiences in Sag Harbor suggests that remixes may be meaningful. Remixes may be personal artistic statements developed from earlier models or from the synthesis and manipulation of existing tracks and whatever other media and “technolog[ies]” are “at hand” (Whitehead, “Say it Slurred”). A variety of remixes might be derived from the same basic elements. Sometimes, they are even available on the same 12-inch.

Notes 1 Whitehead, “Say It Slurred,” quoted in Murray, “From the Archives: Colson Whitehead’s Music Criticism at The Voice (Part 1).” 2 Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music, Fifth edition, s.v. “mixer.” 3 As an example, the “club mix” of Irish rock group U2’s dance-oriented 1983 12-inch “Two Hearts Beat As One” offers three “special U.S. remixes.” With additional instrumentation, altered rhythms, and rearrangement of the traditional verse/chorus pop structure of the songs, the two Francois Kevorkian remixes are both recognizable as and distinct from their album mixes on War (1983). The “New Year’s Day” remix even begins with an alternate verse, as Kevorkian’s remix of the song’s basic elements includes a sample of one of singer Bono’s different vocal takes. 4 Shapiro, “Deck Wreckers,” 166. 5 Reynolds, Retromania, 316. 6 For overviews of early hip hop history, see Shapiro, “Deck Wreckers,” and Negus, Popular Music in Theory, 109. 7 See also Shapiro, “Deck Wreckers,” 176. The idea of the cultural DJ has also been extended to film. See Rennett, “Quentin Tarantino and the Director as DJ.” 8 Johnson, “Curatorial Culture,” quoted in Collins, Bring on the Books for Everybody, 45. Simon Reynolds discusses “The Rise of the Rock Curator” in Chapter 4 of Retromania (129–61). 9 Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 3. 10 Lessig, Remix, “Part One: Cultures.” 11 Whitehead, Sag Harbor, 17; Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 72. 12 Melville, Moby Dick, 99. 13 See Negus, Popular Music in Theory, in which he argues that cultural identities are “constructed, actively made and open to further change” (Negus, 133). 14 Cullen, Color, 38. 15 Prince and the Revolution, Music from Purple Rain. 16 Prince and the Revolution, When Doves Cry. 17 For an alternate discussion of the 12-inch format, please see Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, 105–7. 18 Shapiro discusses the eclecticism of Afrika Bambaataa (“Deck Wreckers,” 166–7). Negus has noted the popularity of Kraftwerk for early hip hop artists (Popular Music, 104). 19 Shapiro has claimed that “the mixtape is emblematic of Hip Hop’s basic guiding principle: the flow and juxtaposition are everything” (“Deck Wreckers,” 174). 20 For a discussion of Blondie’s relationship to early hip hop culture as it relates to “Rapture,” see Hodgkinson, “What Blondie Did for Us.” For an appropriation of “Rapture” by Grandmaster Flash, please refer to Shapiro, “Deck Wreckers.”


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21 For an alternate discussion of the connections between media, race, literature, and American history, please refer to Touré’s early review of Sag Harbor, “Visible Young Man.” 22 Whitehead, “Digable Planets,” quoted in Murray, “From the Archives: Colson Whitehead On The Digable Planets, 1993.” 23 Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, 17. 24 Ellison, Invisible Man, 6.

Bibliography Cullen, Countee. Color. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1925. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. In The Souls of Black Folk: Norton Critical Edition, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Terri Hume Oliver, 1–164. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York, NY: Modern Library, 1994. Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. Hodgkinson, Will. “What Blondie Did for Us: Five Ways in Which Debbie Harry and Co Saved Pop Music.” Mojo, July 2013: 51. Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2006. Johnson, Steven. “Curatorial Culture.” New York Times, December 27, 2003, quoted in Jim Collins, Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, 45. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Sony Reader edition. New York, NY: Penguin, 2008. Lewisohn, Mark. The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962–1970. London, England: EMI, Hamlyn, 2004. Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. In Moby Dick: Norton Critical Edition, Second edition, edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, 1–427. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996. Prince and the Revolution. Music from Purple Rain. Warner Brothers 9-25110-2. CD. 1984. ———. When Doves Cry. Warner Brothers 9-20228-0 A. Vinyl. 1984. Rennett, Michael. “Quentin Tarantino and the Director as DJ.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45, no. 2 (2012): 391–409. Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York, NY: Faber and Faber, 2011. Shapiro, Peter. “Deck Wreckers: The Turntable as Instrument.” In Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music, edited by Rob Young, 163–76. London, England: Wire/Continuum, 2002. Touré. “Visible Young Man.” New York Times, May 3, 2009. http://www.nytimes. com/2009/05/03/books/review/Toure-t.html?_r=0. U2. Two Hearts Beat as One (Club Version). Island 12IS109. Vinyl. 1983.

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Whitehead, Colson. “Digable Planets.” Village Voice, March 9, 1993, quoted in Nick Murray, “From the Archives: Colson Whitehead on the Digable Planets, 1993.” Village Voice, October 28, 2011. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2011/10/colson_whitehead_ critic_archives_part_two.php. ———. Sag Harbor. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2009. ———. “Say It Slurred.” Village Voice, April 6, 1993, quoted in Nick Murray, “From the Archives: Colson Whitehead’s Music Criticism at The Voice (Part 1).” Village Voice, October 27, 2011. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2011/10/from_the_archiv_ 1.php.



Static Signals Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah Elena Machado Sáez

My coauthored book The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (2007) is primarily about the New York literary scene, but concludes with a tentative exploration of how Cuban American writers trace a continuum between the postsixties’ literary tradition in New York City and Miami-based Latino culture. The present essay expands upon that critical conversation about Latinidad and the market by reading Arlene Dávila’s analyses of New York City Latino radio stations alongside Jennine Capó Crucet’s short story collection How to Leave Hialeah (2009).1 By specifically addressing Arlene Dávila’s concept of “hierarchies of evaluation” within media representations of Latinidad, I aim to show how Cuban American writer Jennine Capó Crucet imagines similar dynamics within a Miami cultural space. Her short story “Resurrection, or: The story behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 SemiAnnual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival” draws parallels between media definitions of Latinidad and the way the U.S. Latino book market commodifies ethnicity and transmits certain codes of cultural authenticity. In the short story, the dehistoricized figure of Celia Cruz becomes a powerful yet static symbol, to the extent that one of the main characters, Jesenia, believes that resurrecting the recently deceased singer will translate into her own upward mobility out of an unpaid internship at a radio station. In order to historically contextualize Cruz in terms of her selffashioning as a Latino icon, I refer to her autobiography, My Life: Celia (2004), and videos of her performances, while also engaging the work of Frances NegrónMutaner and María del Carmen Martínez, who analyze the critical reception of Cruz’s iconicity. By historicizing Cruz’s translation from Cuban performer to pan-Latino celebrity, I discuss how Capó Crucet deploys the singer and Santería as cultural indexes in order to allegorize the challenges of representation and cultural authenticity for U.S. Latino writers. The story’s nameless narrator and her constant allusions to the reader’s expectations link Jesenia’s misguided efforts at upward mobility to a broader context of the short story’s own participation in the market for U.S. Latino cultural production. 183


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Latinidad and Hierarchies of Evaluation Since the title of Capó Crucet’s short story centers on a Miami radio station, I begin with Arlene Dávila’s discussion of a similar salsa music station, La Mega, in New York City. In “Talking Back: Spanish Media and U.S. Latinidad” (2002), Dávila analyzes La Mega within the broader context of “Spanish and Latino-oriented media [that] have undoubtedly contributed to Latinization,” which she defines as “the consolidation of a common Latino identity among different Latino subgroups.”2 Part of what interests Dávila is that such media not only constructs a pan-Latino identity, but the process of Latinization entails the “forg[ing] and trigger[ing] of existing hierarchies of evaluation among members of ostensibly the same group” (Dávila, 27). What this means is that even when Latinidad is invoked within Spanish-language media, specific subgroups are assigned varying degrees of belonging and these hierarchies reinforce dominant stereotypes about each Latino subgroup. The result being that, as Dávila states, each Latino subgroup is reduced “to a particular cultural index, be it music, race, or an artist” (Dávila, 29). In her ethnographic research with various focus groups, Dávila found that in conversations regarding the radio station, La Mega, her Latino subjects often adopted the media’s “associat[ion] of nationalities with particular ethnic indexes” (Dávila, 29). The focus group participants would deploy the media’s hierarchies of evaluation in order to situate themselves in opposition to Other Latino groups. For example, Dávila found that “people’s negative comments on La Mega did not necessarily reflect their listening habits, but rather their generalized association of salsa/merengue stations with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, who in these discussions were treated as the embodiments of low culture against which other New York Latinos would distinguish themselves as more moral, respectable, and authentic” (Dávila, 32). The disparaging remarks made about the radio station did not necessarily mean that the participants did not enjoy listening to the music played on La Mega. Instead, participants appeared to achieve a cultural upward mobility by contrasting themselves with the cultural indexes of salsa and merengue and the Latino groups associated with these musical genres. Dávila notes that, “while all groups admitted liking and listening to La Mega, it was common for people to make claims about their status and class for themselves and others by shunning or taking issue with the station’s vulgar and offensive content, or else by being more or less open about their listening to this station” (Dávila, 32). Assigning vulgarity to Puerto Rican and Dominican communities is shown by Dávila to work as a positioning device by other Latinos to symbolically move up the hierarchy of Latinidad.

Jesenia’s Upward Mobility Project These desires for upward mobility are also tied to media representation in Jennine Capó Crucet’s short story. Jesenia, the main character, whose Latinidad is implied but never specified in terms of ethnic group, comes to believe in the power of popular

Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in How to Leave Hialeah


culture as an avenue for upward mobility, converted to this idea while dancing (high) at a club to the remix of Celia Cruz’s “La Negra Tiene Tumbao.” This song was Cruz’s last big hit before she died in the July of 2003, and blends together the genres of hip hop, reggaeton, and salsa. Dancing, Jesenia is physically overcome by the music: The trumpets in the song match up perfect with the lights trailing like a freakedout rainbow, and I’m so happy I start thinking I might fall down, and then it comes to me—and it’s hard to hold onto stuff when you’re rolling, so I know God wants this—that this happiness is something everyone has to feel.3

Jesenia sees the song accentuating a rainbow diversity that provides access to the happiness of true belonging, but she also interprets media representation as tandem to economic assimilation. Resurrecting Cruz would not only give “everyone” access to that same feeling of happiness, but Jesenia hopes to change her own class status as “an intern who does not get paid, [and] was put in semi-charge of organizing” the “Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival” (Capó Crucet, 5). As you might imagine, Jesenia’s project of obtaining a promotion by “bring[ing] Celia Cruz back from the dead to do one last concert” fails miserably (Capó Crucet, 8). This project fails on the global scale (neither the nun nor the santera she visits help Jesenia resurrect Cruz) as well as the local scale (after accepting defeat at the end of the story, Jesenia also misses out on a potential hookup on a street corner with a guy from the “Beautiful South Beach Weekend Elite”) (Capó Crucet, 10). Similarly to the club scene, Jesenia is dancing on the street corner, seduced by the bass beat from the car stopped at the light. However, that same music serves as the static that prevents Jesenia from connecting with the driver, a potential romantic partner who could offer Jesenia access to the upper-class life she seeks. Overall, the story gives little indication of Celia Cruz’s significance aside from that dance club scene that Jesenia describes. The reader is only given two historical referents: that the story is set in Miami in 2003 and that Cruz has “only been dead a couple of months” (Capó Crucet, 5), which provides the rationale for Jesenia’s plan for resurrection—“I think if we pray hard enough it can happen” (Capó Crucet, 5). The symbolic power that Jesenia ascribes to Cruz is so static that she cannot imagine that even death would have changed the singer. Mentions in the story are made of the singer’s Greatest Hits album and “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” but they remain unexplored and marginal as one-dimensional references. In order to explore the implications of the short story’s static and dehistoricized image of Celia Cruz, I turn to Frances Negrón-Mutaner’s essay, “Celia’s Shoes” (2007), Cruz’s autobiography, and two of her musical performances. The story does not question Jesenia’s choice of Cruz as her patron saint of upward mobility; however, reviewing the contemporary critiques of Cruz’s status as cultural representative helps us understand the implications of Jesenia’s resurrection mission. Examining why and how Cruz transformed herself into a pan-Latino musical icon complicates the symbolism of her larger-than-life status in the story.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Celia Cruz in Translation The short story’s idealized and dehistoricized image of Celia Cruz stands in contrast to the conflicting responses within the Cuban American community to Cruz as a representative of the Cuban exile experience. The tension over Cruz’s authenticity as a Cuban exile derives from similar questions of race, gender, and high versus low culture discussed by Dávila’s focus groups. To begin, while the story frames the singer as a static symbol for Miami Latino/as, Cruz’s narrative of migration does not follow the Miami trajectory of Cuban exile. As Negrón-Mutaner points out, “Celia responded dramatically to the Cuban Revolution’s swift restructuring of the entertainment industry in 1959” by “first mov[ing] to Mexico and then settl[ing] permanently outside New York City.”4 In examining the process by which this “self-described ‘ugly woman’ became a pan-Latino icon” (Negrón-Mutaner, 96), Negrón-Mutaner also exposes the conflicting responses within the Cuban American community to Cruz as a representative of the Cuban exile experience. She describes a conversation with a former Cuban ambassador who angrily contests Cruz’s iconicity; specifically, the inclusion of her shoes as “part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History” (NegrónMutaner, 95). The ambassador “held the deepest contempt for what he called the Smithsonian’s ‘pedestrian’ taste” and “insist[ed] that the museum’s exhibition of Celia’s finery was a way of humiliating Cuban exiles in the United States” (Negrón-Mutaner, 96). This Cuban exile very clearly sees Celia Cruz at the bottom of his hierarchy of evaluation, asking, “Couldn’t the Smithsonian choose something more elevated to represent the Cuban people? A poem by patriot José Martí? A portrait of Father Varela, the nineteenthcentury priest called ‘the first Cuban’? A uniform worn by pro-independence fighter Antonio Maceo?” (Negrón-Mutaner, 96). Dávila’s discussion of media representation is indirectly evoked here by Negrón-Mutaner: “[T]he Cuban diplomat did see one thing straight: the display of the singer’s worn shoes as representative of all Cuban exile experience in the United States references the lowliest of signs according to elite cultural hierarchies” (Negrón-Mutaner, 96). Cruz troubles the normative hierarchies of Cuban American identity in the mainstream media, not only due to her racial and geographic distance from the dominant stereotype of Cubans in the USA, but also her musical and political associations. An outspoken critic of the Castro regime, she also vocally defended the rights of undocumented immigrants in the United States (for example, her public statements in opposition to the 1995 bill, Prop 187, in California).5 Most importantly for the purposes of analyzing Jennine Capó Crucet’s short story, Celia Cruz’s career entailed a shift from an early identification as a Cuban music singer to her transformation into a pan-Latino music icon. Negrón-Mutaner describes this particular element of Cruz’s trajectory by arguing that exile: . . . provided the conditions for her to ascend professionally from the genre-specific and nationally bound musical identity as la guarachera de Cuba to a pan-Latino global identification as the Queen of Salsa. . . . [S]he had little trouble incorporating the new accents that came to define “Latin” music for over the past half-century. (Negrón-Mutaner, 97)

Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in How to Leave Hialeah


Cruz’s ability to expand her musical repertoire beyond her Cuban musical training can be credited to her self-styling in terms of music and fashion. By discussing videos of Cruz’s performances, we can visualize Cruz’s transition from Cuban guarachera to her incarnation of pan-Latinidad.6 The static symbol of Celia Cruz in Capó Crucet’s short story can be fleshed out through a discussion of Cruz’s musical career and its trajectory. In her autobiography, Celia: My Life (2004), Cruz explains that, “from 1967 until 1969, we worked seven months a year in Mexico.”7 During this time, Cruz gave a televised performance of the unofficial Cuban anthem “Guantanamera.” Dressed in an elegant, fitted dress, with her hair perfectly gathered in a bun, Cruz can be seen dancing a guaracha while wearing those famous shoes that are now part of the Smithsonian collection. Ironically echoing the words of the Cuban ambassador who criticized the exhibition of her shoes, Cruz improvises and adds her own verses to the song’s usual lyrics, mentioning the “verbo de Martí” and the “machete de Maceo”8 Cruz lays claim to her Cubanness by using the same cultural icons that the ambassador deemed more worthy of representing the Cuban nation. While she is concluding her performance, the curtain is pulled up to reveal a group of white teenagers, dressed in 1960s mod clothing. Their awkwardness during Cruz’s final lines, unsure as to whether and how they should sway along to the music, speaks to a major challenge that the performer would soon encounter in her career. In her autobiography, Cruz explains that: . . . the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s was the age of rock and disco, and, as a result, my people’s music was barely played. . . . Many believed that Cuban music was something of the past and that it belonged only in the homes of Cuban exiles and at dances for older people. In other words, Cuban music just wasn’t hip. (Cruz and Reymundo, 129)

Because “young people were snubbing the classification of traditional Cuban music” (Cruz and Reymundo, 132), Cruz argues that it became necessary to create a new label for these musical rhythms in order to market them to a new generation. She gives the example that, when performing in Miami during the 1960s and 1970s, “if we called our performance ‘salsa,’ 80 percent of the audience would be composed of young people. If we called it a Cuban musical performance, young people would ignore it” (Cruz and Reymundo, 132). Cruz’s self-transformation into the Queen of Salsa entailed a very specific strategy to address this problem of popularity: the adoption of a musical pan-Latinidad. When “asked what my secret is and why my songs become so popular” (Cruz and Reymundo, 137), Cruz points to her choice of musical arrangements: When we pick what we are going to record on an album, we make sure to have a bomba for the Puerto Ricans, a guaracha for the Cubans, a merengue for the Dominicans, and so on, since people like to hear songs recorded in their native styles. (Cruz and Reymundo, 139)


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

The integration of different Latin musical styles in her last big hit, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” (2001), from salsa to reggaeton, is emblematic of the survival strategy Cruz developed in order to ensure her continued relevance and appeal to young Latino audiences. The awarding of the Grammy for Best Salsa Record in 2003, in a large part due to this song, speaks to Cruz’s market success as well as to her ability to identify new trends such as reggaeton, for which the mainstream music industry had no category at the time. The music video for the song also reflects a visual imaginary of pan-Latinidad.9 Unlike the 1967 televised performance, Celia Cruz is not the sole figure depicted in the music video. The video’s narrative follows the journey of a tall, thin, beautiful black woman who walks into a Laundromat wearing a miniskirt, black bra, and white fur coat and proceeds to strip in front of a multicultural cast of characters, male and female, black and white, whose gaze of desire parallels that of the camera. The tone of this video, however, is largely comedic and playful, with Cruz herself embodying a rainbow diversity with continual changes in wardrobe and wigs. The lyrics of the song are significant for its symbolism in Capo Crucet’s short story. One of the last lines in the video has Cruz singing that, after people die, they are often remembered in an idealistic manner (“era tan buena”), and that she prefers to have the truth be told, that she enjoyed life, while taking precautions (“Celia Cruz—La Negra Tiene Tumbao”). So, this theme of memory, the way a person is memorialized after death, figures very strongly in Jesenia’s resurrection project. Jesenia’s idealization of Cruz finds its expression in her belief that the singer’s embodiment of pan-ethnic musical diversity will resolve Jesenia’s problem of economic inequality as an unpaid intern. With such complicated contexts in mind, of community reception, exile, and musical migrations, what would it then mean for Jesenia to raise Celia Cruz from the dead? We would probably have to start with what her death in 2003 meant to the Cuban American community in Miami. Negrón-Mutaner helpfully points out that, “if New York was to be the final resting place in lieu of Cuba, Miami was the showcase, the surface on which Cubans contemplated the state of their national selves” (NegrónMutaner, 110). If “no other event of [Cruz’s] public life brought to light so many tensions between Cubans as her funeral” (Negrón-Mutaner, 109), then it seems that Jesenia’s plans for resurrection can be read as an attempt to erase these divisions, to resolve the fragmentation of the Cuban exile community, in the interest of reinstating Latinization through the figure of Cruz, of reaffirming a pan-Latino unity through popular culture and the media. Jesenia believes that resurrecting the singer will help her successfully fulfill her responsibility at the radio station as the semi-organizer of a pan-Latino cultural event, the “Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival.” Part of the mystical power that Jesenia ascribes to Cruz performing another concert is that of resolving the tension in the “and/or” that links and divides these two different Latino communities. The failure of Jesenia’s project can then be understood as Jennine Capó Crucet’s commentary on the inability of the media market to gloss over the ethnic, cultural, and political diversity of the U.S. Latino community. But, even if this is the case, what does it mean for the short story to depict Celia Cruz as a floating signifier, completely detached from her historicity?

Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in How to Leave Hialeah


Teasing the Reader, Teasing out the Implications of the Market The static quality of Celia Cruz’s depiction in the story as either background music or a ghostly promise of market success mirrors the evocation of the reader’s presence as a figure haunting the narration of Jesenia’s story. By using the nameless narrator to invoke and revoke the imagined reader’s powers of interpretation, Capó Crucet points to the complicity of the English literary market as engaged in the same Latinization process as that of Spanish-language media, and therefore equally dependent upon reducing diversity to “iconic and essentialist representations that are presented as ‘belonging’ neatly to some groups and not to others” (Dávila, 29). What Jennine Capó Crucet’s short story resurrects and makes visible is the hierarchy of evaluation employed by the reader, and here I mean that the narration of the story highlights the process by which the reader domesticates the narrative according to the ethnic indexes they bring to U.S. Latino fiction. The numerous narrative asides to the reader acknowledge the reader’s desire for, and, by extension, the market appeal of, representation and authenticity. These second-person asides reference the “you” of the reader and the interpretive lens that the audience will apply to the short story. I’d therefore like to close this essay by exploring the ways that the narrative feeds into and forecloses the reader’s voyeuristic desire for knowledge about the ethnic Other. The short story’s opening implies that the reader’s imagination will be the dominant force shaping the plot: “You could imagine the sound of the soft soles of her shoes scuffing down the center aisle. . . . Or you could imagine that someone has just finished playing an organ. . . . You could imagine the church’s entire frame rattling from the distant boom of the bass beat at a nearby dance club. Any of these would work fine” (Capó Crucet, 1). Of course, while the narrator reassures the reader that any of these alternatives will be acceptable, opening up the story to different soundtrack possibilities, the narrator reinscribes her authority, establishing which alternatives have the opportunity to become conclusive. It is the narrator who provides this list of which sounds would “work fine” with the beginning of story. The reassurances in these first lines imply a power struggle over narration, but the story proceeds to place the reader on the higher end of a hierarchy of knowledge. While Jesenia is depicted as a clueless girl on a hopeless mission, the reader is at first aligned with the more worldly character of the nun, Marcela. For example, as Jesenia attempts to explain her resurrection project to Marcela in church, the narrator explains that, “This is how these pookie-heads talk; you know that; even the nun knows that” (Capó Crucet, 4). The authority of the reader is therefore tied to his or her ability to judge the authenticity of the characters’ thoughts and actions. As the story progresses, several obstacles emerge to challenge the reader’s power of interpretation and hierarchy of evaluation. When Jesenia goes to see the nun’s sister, Ocila the santera, for help with Celia Cruz’s resurrection, the narrator transitions from a declarative sentence about the surprising normalcy of the santera’s house into an analysis of how the reader will resolve this “problem”: You could say the room, even the whole townhouse, seems more regular than any room in any townhouse you had ever seen, except for the oddly placed table and


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

its little frame, and a jar full of pennies and feathers on the floor propping open the bedroom door. So you reason that maybe santeras don’t necessarily like advertising their religious affiliations through their home décor. (Capó Crucet, 7)

The reader’s expectations are aligned with stereotypes of Santería practitioners such that the normalcy of this regular home must be explained away by imagining that Santería markets its practices in more secretive ways. Since the narrative frames the non-stereotypical styling of Ocila’s home as a disguise, the imagined reader’s rationalization of normalcy as a camouflage for an exotic religious practice alludes to the market reader’s desire to trespass into an underworld of authentic Latino subculture. Jesenia’s visit to Ocila, the santera, is a climactic scene where the interpretive confrontation between the reader and narrator is most explicitly staged. The progression of the story has been structured as a sort of scavenger hunt, with the reader aligned with Jesenia in the search of a marginalized but authentic route for recuperating the icon of Latinidad, Celia Cruz. Not coincidentally, the figure of Cruz reemerges in this scene as background music to a cultural practice that will hopefully result in the same effect as Jesenia’s dance floor conversion—true belonging will finally be achieved. Instead, the reader and Jesenia’s desires are halted, and, in the process, the narrator “calls out” the reader for the ethnic indexes applied to Santería. As a result, it also becomes clear that the role of the narrator is equally conscripted by market forces. As Ocila begins the ceremony to resurrect the singer, the narrative reenacts the interpretive game that opened the story: What happens next is up to you because it relies on your knowledge of Santería. Maybe Ocila mashes the flowers into a paste and smears it on Jesenia’s upper lip while playing Celia Cruz’s Greatest Hits on a loop. Maybe she makes a powder that Jesenia must then sprinkle over both Celia’s grave and the stage where she wants her to perform. Maybe she spreads chicken feathers on the ground and has Jesenia lay out on them while Ocila douses her with sugar water. (Capó Crucet, 9)

Now, the plot possibilities depend on the reader’s knowledge of not just Santería but the not very accessible location of Cruz’s gravesite in the Bronx (considering that Jesenia is in Miami). The ahistorical rendering of Cruz and Santería ensure that these options can only be evaluated according to the “cultural authenticity” of the reader, such that the story forces the reader into a hierarchy of evaluation. The narrator assumes that the reader is unable to evaluate which of these options is the most realistic ceremony: The point is, barring your own attempts at research—and you know how lazy you can be, how else do you find the time to read stuff like this?—you need to be told, preferably by someone you’d consider an expert, an insider. Someone who knows enough to drop the name Changó (a.k.a. Santa Bárbara) or Babalu-aye

Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in How to Leave Hialeah


(a.k.a. San Lázaro) in the same way Ocila does to give her act credibility in front of Jesenia. (Capó Crucet, 9)

The narrator “knows enough” to translate certain Santería terminology; however, right after the narrator situates the reader as a cultural outsider, the narrator proceeds to admit to her own lack of knowledge about Santería. Since the reader and the narrator are shown to be cultural outsiders informed by similar hierarchies of evaluation, the undermining of the reader’s knowledge is mirrored by the narrator’s self-deconstruction: Maybe your narrator—me—then tells you about the santeros that lived across the street from my childhood home. How one morning, I woke up to find our entire driveway covered in pennies. I tell you how my mother made us all—my father, my grandmother, my two sisters, and my younger brother—pee in a bucket so Mom could pour it over the pennies and sweep them out into the street to undo the trabajo they’d done on our house for only Changó knows what reason. I might admit that that’s pretty much the extent of my firsthand experience with Santería. Your narrator, however, thanks God for such ignorance. (Capó Crucet, 9)

On the one hand, this passage highlights the power dynamics shaping the ethnic writer as an authentic translator and undermines the lazy market reader’s expectation by confessing to a lack of knowledge about the cultural index of Santería. On the other hand, the narrator’s confession also serves to contrast the narrator’s family with the santeros across the street. In the same way that Dávila’s focus groups position themselves higher up on the Latino social ladder by denigrating the morality of the radio station La Mega, the narrator uses the cultural index of Santería to thankfully move up the cultural scale of Latinidad, claiming ignorance of such “pedestrian” cultural practices. Pulling back the curtain of cultural authority and knowledge, the reader and narrator are both shown to operate according to the Spanish and English media’s stereotyped cultural indexes. The narrator imagines the effect of admitting to cultural ignorance on the reader: But what kind of story would such a confession leave you with? Not the one you expected—you wanted chicken blood, people wearing burlap, goats maybe, statues eating fruit and drinking bottles of beer. You want zombies. And Jesenia—she just wants something real to happen, and she fools herself weekend after weekend into thinking that she is a VIP. She just wants to forget that she can’t stay behind the velvet rope come Monday morning. But here’s what happens. (Capó Crucet, 9)

The reader and Jesenia’s desires for “something real to happen” are exposed as culturally constructed. Both want zombies, the living dead, to appear; both want the static ideology of stereotype to stand in for the dynamic and paradoxical diversity of living culture. As “professional knowers,” their shared interest lies in accessing the


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

authentic and real, which, in the story, turns out to be an unattainable illusion.10 Defrauded, the narrator and Jesenia are reduced to the same position of frustrated desire: “[Jesenia] realizes—just as you are reading this—that Ocila really can’t do what she claims to do for a living; she can’t conjure spirits, she can’t convince you to believe in something you don’t trust” (Capó Crucet, 9–10). Despite the narrator’s desires for upward mobility and attempts to distinguish herself as more respectable than those santeros across the street, the narrator becomes aligned with the santera. Both the narrator and Ocila are revealed as posers, as unable to meet the “real” demands of their customers.11 The last line of the story, “And you, you keep watching [Jesenia], hardly believing people like this exist” (Capó Crucet, 10), affirms that Ocila and the narrator’s performances have been shattered, such that the imagined reader is left in a state of disbelief regarding the story’s claim to realism.

The Santera Who Lived on Celia Cruz’s Street The allegorization of the narrative’s anxieties over representation and cultural authenticity through the depiction of Santería brings us back to the static symbol of Celia Cruz. While Cruz transformed herself into a pan-Latino icon, her identity as an Afro-Cuban had a double valence within exile discourse of Cubanidad. As María del Carmen Martínez notes in “Mambisa y (Mala) Madre: The Mulata and Cuban American Literature” (2007), Cruz was often depicted during her lifetime as “both race-less and the quintessential representative of Cuban color.”12 In her autobiography, Cruz discusses the racial stereotypes imposed upon her due to her status as a spokesperson for Afro-Cubans, saying that “Many people who don’t know me well think that I’m a santera. I’m black and Cuban, so, naturally, I must believe in Santería” (Cruz and Reymundo, 24–5). Cruz calls attention to how her identity, in the words of Dávila, is reduced “to a particular cultural index,” that of Santería (Dávila, 19). She recounts that such stereotypes of Afro-Cubanness have led to some awkward situations; for example, when a man in the Dominican Republic insisted that he and Cruz “were both initiated into Santería together” or when a “young Cuban man accompanied by two pregnant women” in Miami asked Cruz to bless the unborn children in her supposed capacity as a santera (Cruz and Reymundo, 25). Capó Crucet’s fictional character of Jesenia and her seemingly irrational investment in the mystical power of Cruz’s music actually echoes a public discourse that typecasts Cruz as having supernatural powers due to her nationality and race. In order to refute her depiction as a stereotypical Afro-Cuban santera, Cruz tells the story of how “right behind my house lived a santera named Chela” (Cruz and Reymundo, 23). Emphasizing that her “mother was always frightened by Santería and the santeros” (Cruz and Reymundo, 23), Cruz recounts a childhood memory of a transformative encounter with Chela’s religious practice: One dreadfully warm afternoon, when I couldn’t stand being locked in the house anymore, I wanted to go out back and get some fresh air, but I was afraid to, since

Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in How to Leave Hialeah


Chela was getting ready for one of her bembés. But the heat and my boredom conquered my fear. I went out and sat under the kapok tree that grew in the corner of the backyard, and, through the back corridor that linked all the houses, I could clearly hear the neighbors. I was frightened when I heard the beat of those drums and the songs. . . . Still, the music called out to me. (Cruz and Reymundo, 24)

Hearing the beats and rhythms that flowed through the shared communal space of the backyard, Cruz finds herself moved by the music of Santería. In contrast to the narrator of Capó Crucet’s short story, Cruz does not counter the stereotype of Afro-Cubanness by claiming thankful ignorance of Santería’s practices. Instead, Cruz explains how the liturgical music of Santería helped her overcome her apprehension about a religion she knew very little about: That I sat there listening to the music surprised even me, since I have to admit that the first time I heard those songs and drums I ran and hid, especially when I saw how much those rituals frightened my mother. But with the passage of time, I began to appreciate that type of music as a beautiful way of expressing my African roots. (Cruz and Reymundo, 24)

Laying claim to the cultural heritage of Santería music, to its beautiful rhythms, she rejects the hierarchy of evaluation that flattens out the complexities of Santería. Cruz distinguishes between appreciation of Santería and devotion to its spiritual beliefs, explaining that, while its music provided inspiration for her career, the influence did not correspond with an adoption of Santería as a religious practice. Cruz provides the example that she “even developed a good Lucumi pronunciation, although [she] never learned what the words meant” (Cruz and Reymundo, 24). Since Cruz describes herself as “somewhat versed” in Santería’s language (Cruz and Reymundo, 25), she argues that this albeit “superficial” (Cruz and Reymundo, 26) knowledge enables her to “respect all belief systems and all religions, including Santería” (Cruz and Reymundo, 25). Cruz’s story about the santera who lived behind her childhood home in Havana stands in stark contrast to the narrator’s version of the santeros who lived across the street. Reviewing Cruz’s association with Santería enables another layer of analysis for Capó Crucet’s story—Latinidad’s sublimation of race as well as the colorblind regime that often occludes racism in U.S. society and culture. The narrator’s depiction of Jesenia’s journey relies on an acceptance of Celia Cruz’s symbolism as a figure of the supernatural, seamlessly connecting the worlds of the dance club, the church, and the santera’s home. As previously noted, Cruz observes that, “many people insist on classifying me as a santera . . . due to their prejudices, since I am both black and Cuban” (Cruz and Reymundo, 24–5). The narrator’s invocation of the singer as a static symbol entails silencing or rendering invisible essentialist notions of race. Recalling María del Carmen Martínez’s analysis of Cruz’s contradictory embodiment of Cubanidad as both a “race-less” performer and “quintessential” Afro-Cuban, the story explores the


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

consequences of obviating race. None of the characters—Jesenia, Marcela the nun, Ocila the santera, or even the santeros across the street from the narrator’s childhood home—are identified racially or ethnically. By erasing the story of these codes of identity, Jennine Capó Crucet aligns the market value of pan-Latinidad with the absenting of historical contexts. The narrator’s self-conscious unraveling in relation to cultural authenticity means that her performance of pan-Latinidad ultimately is fractured by the effort to purge histories of racial inequality and stereotype from the story. Celia Cruz’s ghostly presence embodies the various contexts that have been silenced and yet continue to haunt the narration of this Latino narrative. Through the depiction of Celia Cruz as a race-less and static symbol within a larger system of cultural indexes for Cuban American culture such as Santería, Jennine Capó Crucet’s short story helps us make connections between media cultural hierarchies in Miami and New York City while also opening up a conversation about how the U.S. Latino book market commodifies cultural authenticity and shapes reading practices. Cruz’s music videos and autobiographical writing contextualize and frame Capó Crucet’s depiction of the market’s reduction of diversity with a static Cruz, frozen in time. The invocation of Cruz and Santería point to the coexistence of pan-ethnicity and hierarchies of evaluation, such that the privileging of some forms of culture over others pits groups of presumably the same ethnicity against one another. “The story behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival” exposes how cultural indexes shape the production and the interpretation of Latino writing, and Jesenia’s story functions as an allegory for the relationship between a Latino text and its market audience.

Notes I would like to thank the readers who commented on various drafts of this essay, including Raphael Dalleo, Sobeira Latorre, Randy Ontiveros, Belinda Murray Castaneda, Jessica Pitts, Sika Dagbovie, Lisa Swanstrom, and Papatya Bucak. Thanks also to Kathleen Morehead, Kristen Block, and Adam Bradford for providing me with opportunities to write and present my work. 1 I define Latinidad as a pan-ethnic construction of U.S. Latino/a identity and culture. In this essay, I focus on how media and popular culture shape the definition of Latinidad; for a more in-depth analysis of the concept, see Marta Caminero-Santangelo’s On Latinidad. 2 Dávila, “Talking Back,” 27. 3 Capó Crucet, “Resurrection, or: The story behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival,” 4–5. 4 Negrón-Mutaner, “Celia’s Shoes,” 97. 5 In her autobiography, Cruz notes that she “made [her] position on this issue very public” (Cruz and Reymundo, 185). She also explains that her own experience as an “undocumented immigrant” informs her opposition to “children being denied basic human rights, like the right to an education,” simply because “they lack a bureaucratic

Celia Cruz, Santería, and Markets of Latinidad in How to Leave Hialeah


7 8 9 10 11



piece of paper” (Cruz and Reymundo, 185). That is not to say that Cruz did not often espouse radical Cuban exile politics. For example, she was known for her unyielding refusal to perform with musicians from Cuba. This stance upset certain segments of her fans; for example, see Chapter 16 of Eduardo Marceles’s biography of the singer, Azucar!, which describes a 1997 incident in Puerto Rico when Cruz was booed off the stage at a salsa music festival. “Guarachera” refers to a singer of the guaracha, a genre of Cuban popular music that has binary rhythms and a rapid tempo. Additionally, the title of guarachero or guarachera refers to those performers who are expert improvisers. Cruz and Reymundo, Celia: My Life, 133. “Celia Cruz—Guantanamera.” “Celia Cruz—La Negra Tiene Tumbao.” I borrow the term of “professional knowers” from David Chariandy’s Soucouyant, 28. For a more in-depth discussion of how the demands for autobiographical realism and cultural authenticity have shaped American popular music in the 20th century, see Faking It by Barker and Taylor. Their chapter on the album Buena Vista Social Club provides a useful point of comparison to Celia Cruz’s musical career by analyzing Ry Cooder’s successful translation of Cuban music into the relatively new marketing category of world music. Martínez, “Mambisa y (Mala) Madre,” 231.

Bibliography Barker, Hugh and Yuval Taylor. Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. Caminero-Santangelo, Marta. On Latinidad: U.S. Latino Literature and the Construction of Ethnicity. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2007. Capó Crucet, Jennine. “Resurrection, or: The story behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival.” In How to Leave Hialeah, 1–10. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009. “Celia Cruz—La Negra Tiene Tumbao.” YouTube video, 4:20, from a music video created by Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. 2002. Posted by “CeliaCruzVEVO” on October 24, 2009. Accessed March 13, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imeXSRNRMeg. “Celia Cruz—Guantanamera.” YouTube video, 2:48, from a performance televised in 1967 and rebroadcast by Nostalgia [n.b.]. Posted by “xxjorgehlxx” on December 25, 2007. Accessed March 13, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js0rKmv-0Iw. Chariandy, David. Soucouyant: A Novel of Forgetting. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007. Cruz, Celia and Ana Cristina Reymundo. Celia: My Life. New York, NY: Rayo, 2004. Dalleo, Raphael and Elena Machado Sáez. The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Dávila, Arlene. “Talking Back: Spanish Media and U.S. Latinidad.” In Latino/a Popular Culture, edited by Michelle Habell-Pallan and Mary Romero, 25–37. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2002. Marceles, Eduardo. Azucar!: The Biography of Celia Cruz. Translated by Dolores M. Koch. New York, NY: Reed Press, 2004.


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Martínez, María del Carmen. “Mambisa y (Mala) Madre: The Mulata and Cuban American Literature.” In Cuba: Counterpoints on Culture, History and Society/ Contrapuntos de cultura, historia y sociedad, edited by Francisco Scarano and Margarita Zamora, 229–58. San Juan: Callejones Press, University of Puerto Rico, 2007. Negrón-Mutaner, Frances. “Celia’s Shoes.” In From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, edited by Myra Mendible, 94–116. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Part Four

Making Pop Art




Incommensurate Nostalgias Changin’ Times in Watchmen Benjamin J. Robertson

Introduction This essay considers the function of music history and music in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Watchmen describes an alternative history of the Cold War in which “costumed heroes” police the United States and the world, many of whom wield their power (fantastic, political, financial, or otherwise) to bring the actual United States as they perceive it into alignment with their individual idealizations of what the nation ought to be. The tensions that exist between these idealizations reflect historical arguments of the period over the meaning of the nation’s past and the proper direction for its future. The historical Cold War saw an evolving sociocultural landscape divide the American people (or manifest latent divisions in that people). Similarly, schisms endemic to popular music and its culture—for example, the manner in which individuals see in the same performer or song different, even divergent meanings— reflect and involve the cultural confusions of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (the period with which the novel deals). Moore and Gibbons reference historical artists such as Bob Dylan and create fictional acts Pale Horse and Krystallnacht to demonstrate the irreducible complexity of the American nation, and the manner in which nostalgia, far from unifying that nation through a shared longing for a simple past, serves instead to fracture the nation into individuals whose diverse desires render a collective, coherent, and common future impossible. Specifically, I argue that Watchmen describes a United States comprised of individuals and factions, represented by the forceful and various personalities of the several costumed heroes who are the novel’s main characters. These factions are joined to one another by a common feeling of nostalgia provoked by the changing times they each experience.1 However, the novel makes clear that this common feeling neither produces nor requires a common object. The object of this nostalgia and the future this nostalgia suggests are fractured, different for different people. Such difference engenders the novel’s primary conflicts. Rock music—which traces its origins to the postwar 199


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period and undergoes rapid transformation and experiences an evolving cultural acceptance in the decades that follow—serves in Watchmen as a proxy for a broader American culture, one that reflects the various attitudes of the people towards a world whose history changes faster than they can make sense of it.

Inherited and Imagined In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus asserts that a rock ’n’ roll musician performs an ideal, that his or her music attempts to define a community in which the performer might find a home, where he or she would be able to communicate freely with the other members of the community and they with him or her. In other words, the rock ’n’ roller creates a community built on a shared understanding of “what is inherited and what is imagined,” the stuff out of which the performer creates him- or herself and the future that creation implies.2 Marcus writes: The audiences that gather around rock ’n’ rollers are as close to that ideal community as anyone gets. The real drama of a performer’s career comes when the ideal that one can hear in the music and the audience the artist really attracts begin to affect each other. No artist can predict, let alone control, what an audience will make of his images; yet no rock ’n’ roller can exist without a relationship with an audience, whether it is the imaginary audience one begins with or the all-too-real confusion of the audience one wins. (Marcus, 6)

He continues by arguing that rock ’n’ rollers “create immediate links between people who might have nothing in common except a response to their work” (Marcus, 6). In contrast to the ideal, imaginary audience the performer posits as his or her community, the actual audience, the one hearing and interpreting performances, is composed of individuals who share with one another nothing but those performances and the artist behind them. The community’s lack of perfect communication with itself or with the performer, this lack of natural community, manifests not in spite of commonality, but because of it. Individual community members share not a single, coherent object called “Bob Dylan” (for example), but as many “Bob Dylans” as there are members of the community. Moreover, the self that Bob Dylan develops as the center of the ideal community will not always, or ever, be the one the audience understands to be on stage. Likewise, with regard to the music, the real audience does not inherit from the artist a single message, but as many messages as there are individuals to hear. What they imagine, therefore, following from their inheritances, will be as multiple as those inheritances. When Dylan wrote and first performed “The Times They Are a-Changin”’ in 1963, various progressive causes and groups—the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, the antiwar movement, etc.—were established or well on their way to establishment. The “changin’ times” described by a hero of this heterogeneous counterculture would

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen


inevitably lead to the social justice this counterculture sought. Michael Gray notes, with regards to “Times”: “Dylan’s aim was to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public—to give that inchoate sentiment an anthem and give its clamour an outlet.”3 Dylan arguably succeeded in this aim, “but the language of the song is nevertheless imprecisely and very generally directed” (Gray, 662). People might agree that times change, but they do not necessarily agree upon the nature of general change or desirability of specific changes. Dylan himself would confront this imprecision when, on November 23, 1963, he performed, with “Times” as his opening number. To Dylan, the song’s apparent idealism seemed misplaced, or, perhaps, transformed into something else entirely, the day after the Kennedy assassination. Dylan stated: I thought, “Wow, how can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me.’ But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there. I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.4

From Dylan’s reaction, we cannot be certain whether he had understood, when writing the song or in previous performances, the neutrality of change: that change happens for good or for ill, can produce justice as well as injustice, depending on any number of factors, not least of which is the perception of those experiencing the change. Regardless, his audience, the real community of people who had Dylan in common, did not seem to understand this aspect of change. Locked in to a progressive reading of the song, they could not help but cheer, even following what Don DeLillo has called “the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.”5 At such a moment, idealized communities obscure the tensions that exist within real communities, tensions that fracture past, present, and future.

Nostalgia by Veidt Svetlana Boym writes: The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future was discarded like an outmoded spaceship sometime in the 1960s. Nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension, only it is no longer directed toward the future.6

Nostalgia locates the ideal in the past, at a moment of history sometime prior to the complexities of the real present. In a discussion of Huckleberry Finn, Leslie Fiedler explains that we nostalgize not in spite of our hopes for the future, but as a result of them, as a recognition that these hopes are forever compromised by reality’s


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complexities. Here, Fiedler attributes Twain’s nostalgic impulse to the knowledge that comes with adulthood, and the memories of childhood that knowledge provokes: If Huckleberry Finn is, finally, the greatest of all books about childhood, this is because it renders with a child’s tough-mindedness and a child’s desperate hilarity a double-truth fumbled by most other books on the subject: how truly wonderful it is to remember our childhood; and yet how we cannot recall it without revealing to ourselves the roots of the very terror which in adulthood has driven us nostalgically to evoke that past.7

The hopes of childhood, untempered by the complexities and violence of the present moment, become in adulthood so much unfulfilled promise. The adult therefore seeks simplicity, the innocence of childhood, a wholeness and coherence only found in the past. And yet, in seeking this past and the answers it might provide, the adult confronts again and again the very complexities that necessitated this nostalgia to begin with. Like Huckleberry Finn, Watchmen is a postwar novel (World War II and Vietnam rather than Civil), one produced at a time when American innocence (if ever there was such a thing) had receded so far into the past as to no longer be visible or intelligible, let alone recoverable. This innocence only exists as ideal. Unlike Huckleberry Finn, Watchmen is not about childhood. Rather, per Fredric Jameson’s argument, like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is a nostalgic text insofar as it references past texts: [Star Wars] is a complex object in which on some first level children and adolescents can take the adventure straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and live its strange old aesthetic artifacts through again.8

For Jameson, Raiders tells a story of the 1930s and 1940s, “but in reality it too conveys that period metonymically through its own characteristic adventure stories (which are no longer our own)” (Jameson, 117). Whereas Star Wars and Raiders re-enact the serials of a bygone era, Watchmen recalls the superhero comics of the first half of the 20th century, which is to say that it recalls, rather than childhood, something like the childish. Watchmen critiques this childishness, which, far from being contained in comic books, manifests in broader cultural and political tendencies to simplify complexity, to idealize the world to the exclusion of all that threatens the ideal and the stability it seems to promise. Hollis Mason, a cop who would go on to become one of America’s first costumed heroes in Watchmen, describes his infatuation with pulp fictions such as The Shadow as well as Action Comics’ Superman (who, as a character, would become obsolete with the appearance of real superheroes such as Mason’s Nite Owl, the Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan) and thus reveals his complicity with such simplification of complexity. Mason writes in his autobiography Under the Hood: “The world of Doc Savage and The Shadow was one of absolute values, where what was good was never in doubt and

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen


where what was evil inevitably suffered some fitting punishment.”9 He later writes, “from the moment I set eyes on it I only had eyes for the Superman story. Here was something that presented the basic morality of the pulps without all their darkness and ambiguity” (Moore and Gibbons, I, 5). Charged with upholding the law in his day job, Mason seeks and finds a model of morality, but a childish one that ignores and excludes complexity and nuance in favor of a black-and-white model of truth. The costumed heroes who are Watchmen’s main characters reveal the limitations of this morality and the longing for such in adulthood. A sober Cold War text, Watchmen makes clear that no superhero could have saved the world from its problems; real superheroes would themselves be products and part of the world, just as susceptible to corruption, duplicity, prejudice, and other weaknesses as the average human being.10 Indeed, these superheroes and their power only exacerbate historical problems. To long for a past filled with superheroes is not only to nostalgize what never happened, but also to “remember” what never could have happened. Otherwise put, Watchmen, rather than giving us a fantasy world full of events that simply did not take place (because of, for example, the simple vagaries of history), instead shows us a world that could not ever have been (because, perhaps, such a fantasy is only ever simply that: a fantasy). Like Huckleberry Finn and so many other novels of America,11 Watchmen dramatizes the complex emotions of a people caught between the aspirations of the past and the realities of the present, between what Lincoln called the “unfinished work” of the ideal nation described in the Declaration and the “great task” that remains before the real nation, one reeling from a crisis that demonstrated violent differences of opinion with regard to the national inheritance as it related to the national imagination. After the industrial revolution of the 19th century, even after the setback known as the Great Depression, the post-WWII years would have seemed to Americans as the moment that that great task, whatever it entailed, might be concluded. Indeed, the vision of futuristic utopia Boym references lasted in the United States at least through the 1940s and into the early 1950s. World Fairs and automobile designs took cues from Hugo Gernsback and Frank R. Paul, and, in the midst of apparent postwar stability and prosperity, prophesied the dawn of a more enlightened, rational age. Of course, when the nation of the early 1950s saw the Soviet Union test its own nuclear device, such fantasies were revealed as such. (It should be noted that any understanding of the 1950s as homogeneously stable and prosperous for the USA and its citizens is itself fantasy, even outside the context of the Cold War.) By the mid to late 1960s, even the youthful optimism given voice by Dylan and others was somewhat muted by the assassinations and violence that had come to mark the decade. Even as it reveals the always already-fragmented nature of the ideal that nostalgia takes as its object, Watchmen’s preoccupation with Dylan underscores its own, ironic perhaps, nostalgic dimension. The novel makes use of three Dylan lyrics. The first two, from “Desolation Row” and “All Along the Watchtower,” Moore and Gibbons explicitly attribute to their respective sources. (I shall have more to say about “Desolation Row” below.) They serve as epigraphs for two of the novel’s twelve chapters, and therefore operate outside of Watchmen’s fictional world, as if perhaps Dylan himself never existed there (indeed, he is never referenced by name in the story itself). Much as the


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novel posits an American nostalgia for the simplicity of superhero morality, these references to Dylan suggest a nostalgia for Dylan himself, for a time when Dylan made sense, or perhaps for a superheroic Dylan who could make sense of the world by simplifying its problems into anthemic songs. The novel seems to long for a world that never existed even as it demonstrates the fact that, had superheroes existed, they could not have created a better future. The third Dylan lyric, the title and chorus to “The Times They Are a-Changin”’ appears as advertising copy for a cologne that stands central in the text’s imagery, themes, and plot: Nostalgia by Veidt.12 Dylan’s words are there slightly amended to read “THE TIMES THEY ARE A ’CHANGING,” the minor modifications further suggesting a gap between the world in which Moore and Gibbons wrote Watchmen and the fictional world the novel describes (Moore and Gibbons, XI, 10). If Dylan, perhaps, does not exist in the latter world, these words, which suggest to us a cultural hope in early to mid-1963, become here a mere slogan, a tool of capitalism bent on commodifying American fears and desires. That this slogan is set, in the ad copy, in a series of futuristic typefaces establishes a relationship between its ostensible message and Boym’s utopia. At the same time, these typefaces signify and this message foreshadows, for those fearful of the future, the inevitability of the past’s replacement with an unrecognizable, unknowable, and likely violent world to come. (The text dramatizes the latter through ubiquitous images of clocks, especially the doomsday clock that appears at the beginning of each chapter, showing the reader a countdown to annihilation.) Nostalgia by Veidt appears throughout Watchmen. Rorschach—the violent and reactionary costumed hero whose complex origin story involves childhood abuse, an absent father, and a recognition of the world’s fundamental violence—wears it. Silk Spectre II—who must live out her mother’s career, who must literally live up to the past every day—carries a bottle in her purse. It shatters on Mars just before she learns the truth about her own absent father (that he was the Comedian, who raped her mother) and just before her conversation with her ex-lover, Dr. Manhattan, about the future of the human race, threatened by nuclear destruction. She asks him (the only costumed hero in the novel with actual superpowers) to feel for those with whom he no longer has anything in common, to recall and idealize his former communities. “Humanity” and “America” have become abstract to him; the only nostalgia he can feel is that which he feels for nostalgia itself. Most importantly, Nostalgia by Veidt is produced and distributed by Adrian Veidt, the “world’s smartest man” and the alter ego of former costumed hero Ozymandias, who retired in the 1970s to oversee his business empire and work for the betterment of the world.13 Chapter XI, “Look on my works, ye mighty” (a reference to Shelley’s “Ozymandias”), focuses on Veidt’s backstory and his plan to unify the world by destroying part of it. Of course, Veidt too is nostalgic, but he longs for a much more distant past, for the past of Alexander the Great, who cut through the complexity of the Gordian Knot and united the world through force and vision. Veidt asserts, “Ruling without barbarism at Alexandria, [Alexander] instituted the world’s greatest seat of learning. True, people died . . . perhaps unnecessarily, though who can judge such

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen


things? Yet how nearly he approached his vision of the world” (Moore and Gibbons, XI, 8). Veidt has set himself in Alexander’s position, given himself license to remake the world in his image, one found in a past he idealizes to such an extent that he is able to ignore its violence and see only a simple answer to a complex problem. When he recounts the story of the Gordian Knot, he describes Alexander’s use of the sword as an early example of lateral thinking, and thereby fails to see that what Alexander had, in fact, done was use violence as a means to simplify complexity. Veidt’s own Gordian plan involves creating an alien being that will kill millions of people in Manhattan. According to the plan, the threat this being represents will unite humanity and allow the people of the world to set aside those differences that engendered the Cold War. Through violence, or what Veidt calls “lateral thinking,” a complex problem is “simply” solved. Two ideal communities (the USA and the USSR), each with their own internal fractures, are replaced with a larger, more inclusive, ideal community. Unlike Dylan, however, Veidt fails to see the already-latent divisions in this new community, expressed by a right-wing newspaper publisher at the conclusion of the novel. That Veidt tends towards a right-wing totalitarianism, however contrary to his image as a sort of “sensible liberal,” only magnifies this point.

Postcards of the Hanging Watchmen ends with “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” It begins with “Desolation Row.” The lyrics to this later Dylan song provide Chapter I with its title (“At midnight all the agents”) and epigraph: “At midnight all the agents/And the superhuman crew/ Go out and round up everyone/That knows more than they do.”14 Recorded just short of two years after Dylan’s post-assassination performance, “Desolation Row” describes a world not so much complex as unknowable, a world in which characters from history interact with fairytales, in which violence is commonplace to the point of becoming entertainment, and the categories of Western thought are incapable of rationalizing human existence. It is “a sustained nightmare, a motorpsychodrama in ten tableaux, an ’opera of death’ (Kerouac), a Baedeker of Hell”15—a song for a people robbed of an ideal past and grown up, a people who now understand that “progress” does not always come bundled with its Enlightenment connotations. Again, in a simple reading, “The Times They Are a-Changin”’ suggests the inevitability of progress and social justice. The Kennedy assassination made clear (to Dylan at least) that times may change, but that such change does not concern itself with any human desire for a better future. What one person understands as change for the better might, for another person, be change for the worse. However, if “Times” reveals itself to be complex, then “Desolation Row” revels in its difficulty. Dylan begins by reminding his listeners that the good old days weren’t always good, with someone “selling postcards of the hanging,” a reference to the lynching of three black men accused of raping a white woman (on suspect evidence) in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s birthplace). The scene of the hanging was commemorated on souvenir postcards, no less a commodification of American fears and desires than the


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advertisement for Nostalgia by Veidt. Moreover, as Mark Polizzotti argues, “Whether motivating a riotous lynch mob in 1920 or the escalating hubris of LBJ’s bellicose administration in 1965, the prevailing zeitgeist seems to have changed very little” (Polizzotti, 158). No return to the past will provide wholeness in the present.“Desolation Row” does not so much explain that the world has become complex. It does not dramatize or thematize change at all. Rather, it demonstrates the complexity of every age modern to itself and postmodern in relation to the one that precedes it. It demonstrates that the simple, ideal past created by our nostalgia is never real. One person may wish for the strict morality of the superhero, another may look fondly at picture postcards of racial violence. In a later moment, “Desolation Row” further reveals the inadequacy of human understanding for dealing with the complexities of the present. Dylan sings, “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune/The Titanic sails at dawn/And everybody’s shouting/‘Which side are you on?’ ” References here to the emperor who allegedly allowed Rome to burn and a disaster born of an all-too confident modernity imply a threatened or dying world. As the world burns or sinks, however, people are asking one another whether they belong to one tribe or another, to which creed they pledge allegiance. Situated as it is in this song, Dylan’s image does not suggest that, as Veidt believes, humans should seek a higher ideal that would obviate the smaller ones that currently divide them. Just as LBJ’s seemingly indivisible consensus belied a deeper fracture in the American public in the mid-’60s, every real community involves real people divided according to their individual assumptions and understandings of the ideal community to which they belong.16 These shouting people are a community, one united by something real and yet abstract. Their situations threaten their existences, just as nuclear war threatens the world during the Cold War. Despite this real threat, people cling to their ideal communities. They remain fractured. Thus, “Desolation Row” clarifies “The Times They Are a-Changin”’ insofar as it calls into question the value or even the possibility of change, and to the extent that it exposes as folly humanity’s search for wholeness in the past, present, and/or future. However, Moore and Gibbons’ particular deployment of Dylan, as stated, suggests that these two songs do not serve as any possible guide to Watchmen’s characters and world so much as they comment on that world. The novel itself implies an alternative history of music, one in which Dylan neither provided a voice for the counterculture nor questioned the value of that counterculture.17 This fictional history is populated by fictional artists such as Pale Horse and Krystallnacht, whose Madison Square Garden show becomes the ground zero for Adrian Veidt’s plan, as well as historical performers. I shall return to the fictional acts below. First, however, I will briefly discuss several of the novel’s references to historical musicians as well as the musical landscape of the period the novel depicts. This discussion will not only serve to situate Watchmen in a broader cultural context, but also clarify its concerns with the conflict between nostalgia and futurity and the confluence of emancipatory and oppressive politics. The historical figures named within the narrative include Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen—the new Dylan seems to exist without the old—and Devo, a band whose

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contradictory stance towards progress (“Devo” derives from “DE-eVOlution”; the band would make great use of new instruments in their music) stymied their contemporaries. Rolling Stone, in a review of the ironically titled New Traditionalists, faults Devo for failing rock music by calling them “New Wave Monkees.” Apparently missing the joke, the review claims that “the group’s increasing overuse of simplistic, droning synthesizer riffs and treadmill dance rhythms is neither trendy nor traditional. It’s predictable.”18 Or, it may have been appropriate for a culture that, in the hangover from the 1960s that was the 1970s, increasingly saw no future and had use for neither trends nor traditions. Devo was one face of an American punk scene notable for its eclecticism. In New York City alone (Watchmen’s primary setting), acts as diverse the Ramones, Television, Blondie, and Talking Heads were labeled “punk” despite having little in common other than CBGB and The Mudd Club (the clubs at which they performed). An ideal community, fraught with its particular internal divisions, sprang up around these artists in response to a world whose problems approached Gordian Knot intractability. On 1979’s Fear of Music—a record that Jonathan Lethem understands, albeit problematically, as a paranoid album of New York19—Talking Heads would express these problems, which involve a van “loaded with weapons,” “the sound of gunfire,” fluid identities, a nascent surveillance state, and the inability of older methods of selfexpression (such as writing) to negotiate the contemporary city and its landscape.20 Like this vision of life during wartime, the New York City of Watchmen is not the playground for the rich it would become under Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s. It is a diverse and divergent city, home, on just one block, to: a newsstand, a cab company, a police station, a right-wing tabloid, and a center for inter-dimensional research. Nearly all of the novel’s major characters pass through this block and bring with them all that they fear and desire, all that they love and hate, all of their conflicts and petty differences. This is a city whose citizens do not care for one another, inhabited by predatory gangs and a rampant criminal underworld—a city struggling with its cosmopolitanism, with its gathering together of so many people of different backgrounds and ideologies, even in the midst of the threats facing the United States. The world has shrunk, it seems, in the context of mutually assured destruction. And yet, its problems do not shrink with it. The Ramones, whose iconography and style are similar to the fictional punk acts in Watchmen, also express the conflicts and contradictions of the 1970s and the New York City of this period. The title of the first track on 1976’s Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop,” conjures general images of violence and specific images of fascism. The kids “forming in a straight line” and at the same time “losing their minds” both conform and resist.21 Nicholas Rombes asks whether the Ramones were being serious or ironic with such music, and decides that punk cannot be summed up according to any notion of authenticity: [W]hat’s great about “punk” isn’t that it is true amateur music, or that it is genuinely anti-corporate, etc., but rather that it works because it is really not any of these things. . . . Punk is a vision of the way we want to see the world, not the way it really is, and this conflict is one the things that makes it so powerful.22


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Punk is a music, a lifestyle, appropriate for its age. The Ramones—with their uniform leather jackets and jeans, their lyrics, and Johnny’s Republican politics—for all of their apparent countercultural tendencies, also tend towards the totalitarian. Watchmen represents this contradiction through its depiction of the culture surrounding fictional bands Pale Horse and Krystallnacht. For Moore and Gibbons, these bands and their drug-abusing, leather jacket-wearing, tattoo-sporting followers are the legacy of a counterculture that could not sustain its momentum after Dylan shifts in the manner just discussed (or one that could not even begin in Dylan’s absence). That these bands perform at Madison Square Garden implies that they have attracted an audience wider than any historical punk rock act ever did in the United States, not only those who were part of the backlash against the hippie ’60s, but also those who never had the opportunity to enjoy the hippie ’60s to begin with. This counterculture’s only apparent connection to the historical one is drug use, but its habit is born of nihilism rather than revolution. Moreover, it may not even be a “counterculture” in the common sense of that term. The Ramones (as well as the Pink Floyd of The Wall, albeit for different reasons) made clear that rock music, in the 1960s squarely of the counterculture and part and parcel of emancipatory politics, could, by the end of the 1970s, be conformist and fascist. Pale Horse, of course, refers to one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation: And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (Rev. 6.7-8)

In Watchmen, their concert occurs on the night Veidt completes his plan. Veidt, himself white and blond, rides the pale horse, not so much given power over death as taking that power and deciding for himself who lives and who dies in the construction of his perfect world. That the other band goes by the name “Krystallnacht” is a fitting reminder of how such visions play out.

This is the Time. These are the Feelings. The distance between Dylan and punk is not so great as it might seem. Dylan himself foreshadows punk’s contradictions with “Desolation Row,” even if he would never, as Johnny Ramone did at the Ramones’ induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, ask god to bless George W. Bush. We have seen that the song critiques abstract principles themselves, regardless of who holds those principles. And, while it does not celebrate fascism, it is well aware of how the seemingly neutral, even well-meaning bureaucrat, favored by the powers that be and caught up in the machinations of the

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen


world, tends towards fascism in pursuit of an ideal. Mark Polizzotti observes, “This is the song of the rubber stamp and the jackboot, the chant of those who would remake the world to suit their own limited, belligerent vision” (Polizzotti, 137). Although Watchmen includes numerous candidates for the position Dylan describes—the Comedian and Rorschach come immediately to mind23—Adrien Veidt, through his seeming benevolence rather than in spite of it, most embodies it. In the interview that follows Chapter XI (in which appears the cologne ad discussed above), Veidt comments on his past, much of which we have learned in the preceding chapter, and describes his ideal future: Not a utopia . . . I don’t believe that any species could continue to grow and keep from stagnation without some adversity . . . but a society with a more human basis, where the problems that beset us are at least new problems. (Moore and Gibbons, XI, 9)

He comes across as a humanitarian and, perhaps above all else, as a “sensible liberal”—a person with a sense of social justice tempered by pragmatism. He appears to be the sort of person who had been, in the historical United States, a hippie in the 1960s before finishing college and then becoming a captain of industry (he would have been in his early twenties at the start of that decade). However, we know that (a) there are no hippies present in the world of Watchmen and that (b) in the 1960s, Veidt was a costumed hero. And he was an optimistic one. Just as Dylan seemed to articulate the principle of Enlightenment progress, Veidt too once believed, as he states at a meeting of costumed heroes in the ’60s: “Given correct handling, none of the world’s problems are insurmountable. All it takes is a little intelligence” (Moore and Gibbons, II, 11). (Although a panel in this scene suggests that among the problems he wishes to handle are “Black Unrest” and “Promiscuity”—hardly values Dylan would be likely to support, and a subtle suggestion of Veidt’s underlying conservatism.) When the Comedian responds to him that his intelligence, his rationality, will not stop the coming nuclear holocaust, Veidt changes. This incident drives him to end his career as a costumed hero and take up business full time in order to pursue his plan for world peace. Veidt may have once believed in the inevitability of social progress Dylan’s audience heard in “The Times They Are a-Changin”’ (even if he had no Dylan to describe it to him), but, after his confrontation with the Comedian, he understood himself to live in the world that produced “Desolation Row,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Thus, Veidt gives in to his own nostalgia, even if he does not acknowledge (or even know) that he does so, and looks to Alexander and other dictators of the past for his models. That they were dictators does not seem to trouble him. Centuries of history buffer him from the complexities of the past and provide for him the tools to simplify and idealize the present and the future. Veidt, playing on the fears and desires of the American people in order to mold the world in his image, produces Nostalgia by Veidt for everyone else. Nostalgia is, for him, a tool, a means by which to create an ideal to which all might belong (or at least those who do not die in the creation of this ideal). Once this tool has served its purpose, he


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abandons it. In its place, he produces a new cologne. Its ad copy: “This is the time. These are the feelings.” Its name: “Millennium” (Moore and Gibbons, XII, 31). Its spokesmodels: a blond man and a blond woman, looking towards a perfect future, perhaps not a utopia, but one in which wholeness, for some anyway, is guaranteed.

Notes 1 In an excellent essay on nostalgia in Watchmen that culminates in a consideration of a critical and cultural nostalgia for Watchmen, Elizabeth Rosen notes, “Because the world which Watchmen depicts is one which is rapidly being modified . . . the sense of living in a time of change is strongly evident to its characters. They are poised on the edge of one era and staring into the next” (“What’s That You Smell Of?,” 86–7). 2 Marcus, Mystery Train, vii. 3 Gray, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, 662. 4 Quoted in Scaduto, Bob Dylan, 160. 5 DeLillo, Libra, 181. 6 Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, xiv. 7 Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, 289. 8 Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” 116. 9 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, I Under the Hood, 5. Watchmen’s pagination is somewhat complex. Each of the 12 chapters (serialized as individual comic books in 1986 and 1987) has its own pagination. Each of the first 11 chapters has 26 to 28 pages (not including some front matter) and is followed by a 4- to 6-page interchapter. (The twelfth chapter does not conclude with an interchapter and therefore has 32 pages). These interchapters provide background of supplementary material for the main text. I will follow the numbering scheme adopted by other critics of Watchmen, which lists the chapter number in Roman numerals followed by the page number. In the case of citations from interchapters, I will include the title of the interchapter and the page number from it. The present citation comes from page 5 of Under the Hood, which follows Chapter I. 10 Jamie A. Hughes, in an argument that dovetails with this essay, explores superheroes in relation to ideology and reality in “ ‘Who Watches the Watchmen?”: Ideology and ‘Real World’ Superheroes.” Two other critical essays are also worth mentioning here. On the graphic novel form in the context of the late Cold War (including specific discussion of Watchmen), see Miller, “ ‘World’s Lived, World’s Died’: The Graphic Novel, the Cold War, and 1986.” DuBose covers similar ground in “Holding Out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Book Vigilantes, and Captain America.” 11 Although both Moore and Gibbons are British, I understand Watchmen as an American novel if for no other reason than it provides such insight into the complexities of the United States in the second half of the 20th century. It should not be surprising that non-Americans could write such a novel, given the potential impact of American foreign policy on the rest of the world at the time. Prince considers Watchmen’s American themes in “Alan Moore’s America: The Liberal Individual and American Identities in Watchmen.” 12 Moore and Gibbons, XI After the Masquerade, 10. 13 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, I, 17.

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen 14 15 16 17

18 19 20 21 22 23


Dylan, “Desolation Row.” Mark Polizzotti, Highway 61 Revisited, 135. See Perlstein, Nixonland, for an excellent discussion of this issue apposite to this essay. The “Which side are you on?” line likely refers to Florence Reece’s 1931 song with that title, written in support of unionized miners threatened by mine owners. It would remain a popular Leftist protest song throughout the ’60s. Fricke, “Devo: New Traditionalists.” See Lethem, Fear of Music. Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime.” Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Rombes, Ramones, 78. Veidt describes The Comedian as “practically a Nazi” (Watchmen, I, 17) to Rorschach, after which he implies that he thinks that Rorschach too is a Nazi.

Bibliography Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001. DeLillo, Don. Libra. New York, NY: Viking, 1988. DuBose, Mike S. “Holding Out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Book Vigilantes, and Captain America.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 40, no. 6 (2007): 915–35. Dylan, Bob. “Desolation Row.” Highway 61 Revisited. Sony 92399. CD. 1965. Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997. Fricke, David. “Devo: New Traditionalists.” Rolling Stone, November 26, 1981. Accessed September 13, 2013. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/newtraditionalists-bonus-tracks-19811126. Gray, Michael. The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Revised and updated edition. New York, NY: Continuum, 2006. Hughes, Jamie A. “ ‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ ”: Ideology and ‘Real World’ Superheroes.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 39, no. 4 (2006): 546–57. Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 13–29. New York, NY: The New Press, 1998. Lethem, Jonathan. Fear of Music. New York, NY, and London, England: Continuum, 2012. Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of American in Rock ’n’ Roll Music. New York, NY: Dutton, 1990. Miller, Carl F. “ ‘World’s Lived, World’s Died’: The Graphic Novel, the Cold War, and 1986.” CEA Critic 72, no. 3 (2010): 50–70. Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1987. Perlstein, Rick. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. New York, NY: Scribner, 2008. Polizzotti, Mark. Highway 61 Revisited. New York, NY, and London, England: Continuum, 2006. Prince, Michael J. “Alan Moore’s America: The Liberal Individual and American Identities in Watchmen.” The Journal of Popular Culture 44, no. 4 (2011): 815–30. Ramones. “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Ramones. Rhino 6020. CD. 1976.


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Rombes, Nicholas. Ramones. New York, NY, and London, England: Continuum, 2011. Rosen, Elizabeth. “What’s That You Smell Of? Twenty Years of Watchmen Nostalgia.” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 98 (2008): 85–98. Scaduto, Anthony. Bob Dylan. London, England: Helter Skelter, 2001. Talking Heads. “Life During Wartime.” Fear of Music. Rhino 273299. CD. 1979.


“To See the World in a Liner Note” The Limits of Song in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude Christopher González

When used as intertexts, songs are like highly charged packets of spacetime. While intertexts are generally understood as delivering the weight of referential meaning from one text to another, songs are substantively powerful when used in literature as intertexts precisely because they reach beyond the content of the song and into specific moments in historical time and place. We remember where we were the first time we heard a meaningful song, and hearing it on occasion takes our memory back to that place and time, even if momentarily. And yet, what a song does when inscribed within a text has been relatively understudied. Werner Wolf notes, “When a text quotes, or even just alludes to, the verbal text of a well-known song, the accompanying music may become present at least for some readers’ inner ears.”1 What Wolf calls the “readers’ inner ear” is actually a description of a complex set of variable characteristics that may differ from one reader to the next. Moreover, because music affects our memory more potently than, say, a discrete passage of text, readers’ minds are most likely to think of a specific place and time that is associated with a familiar song, if they are familiar with it at all. As Oliver Sacks observes: Much that occurs during the perception of music can also occur when music is “played in the mind.” The imagining of music, even in relatively nonmusical people, tends to be remarkably faithful not only to the tune and feeling of the original but to its pitch and tempo. Underlying this is the extraordinary tenacity of musical memory, so that much of what is heard during one’s early years may be “engraved” on the brain for the rest of one’s life.2

The obvious feature here is that this characteristic of music is rendered moot if one is unfamiliar with a particular song when it appears within a narrative. Further, we might ask just what are the ramifications for a book-length narrative that doesn’t just invoke an occasional song title, but, rather, builds the entire storyworld around American music of mid-20th century to the present. To complicate matters even more, what happens when we read about a musician and his music that never existed? 213


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) is just this type of narrative—a 500-plus-page story of gentrification, race, class, and the fantastical. The story doesn’t simply invoke the occasional pop song as the narrative progresses. The story of Dylan Ebdus, Mingus Rude, and Barrett Rude Junior is founded on music. That is to say, Lethem cannot tell this particular story without the rich invocations to American music, from soul to punk to hip hop. Thus, the musical intertexts undergirding The Fortress of Solitude are not simply casual allusions that can be disregarded if a reader is unfamiliar with them. The music of a reader’s inner ear, a phantom echo evoked from the page, is as crucial an ingredient to Lethem’s novel as are the words on the page. One of the salient features of intertextuality is its ability to create an instant ingroup that has a kind of membership to an insider’s perspective. This shared insider knowledge is a shibboleth, a port of entry of sorts—resisting some readers while inviting others into this secret club, as it were. Beyond the metaphorical uses of music, music intertexts help create a fully realized spacetime for some readers (drawing on cultural memory and personal experience), while raising insuperable barriers for others. From a cognitive perspective, a reader continually seeks to create a mental architecture from the words on the printed page. For certain signifiers of everyday objects, such as “table,” variations will invariably occur within the mind of the individual. One person may think of a round table while another may think of a rectangular table, for example. But, when a song lyric appears without context in a novel, readers are confronted by signifiers that signify a specific sound, instrumentation, and melody (i.e., a song). For example, early in Lethem’s novel, when the third-person narrator reports an encounter between the protagonist Dylan Ebdus and the young girl named Marilla singing, “The prob-lem is you ain’t been loved like you sho-huh-hood, what I got will sure-nuff do you good—”, either the reader knows that Marilla is singing the soulful, sexually charged song “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and Chaka Khan or he does not.3 Depending on how familiar the reader is with this song, further experiences and social connotations associated with “Tell Me Something Good” enrich this scene, helping us instantly situate the racial, class, and sexual context between Dylan and Marilla. There is something in how Chaka Khan sings the lyrics that conveys what can’t be expressed in the lyrics alone. The Fortress of Solitude is full of these sorts of moments where a song lyric, artist, or title is referenced. However, Lethem does not use his music intertexts in the way he uses other pop cultural referents, such as the name of Superman’s hidden polar lair in the novel’s title or other comic book marginalia. Rather, the music intertexts are at the very heart of Dylan Ebdus’s process of maturation. This essay looks at the intertextual difficulties imposed by the narrative onto its reader, as well as how the reader reconstructs a stable, inhabitable storyworld that is, in part, predicated on musical knowledge and experience. I argue that Lethem places extreme confidence in the reader’s inner ear to hear the music for which he provides the text—what might be considered the liner notes of the novel’s musicscape. By founding so much of his novel on actual songs from the American music industry, Lethem is able to expose fissures in the pressure points of race relations and family

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dynamics. Such a narrative decision urges readers either to remember the music, or, perhaps better yet, to discover these musical pockets of American history for themselves. In The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem integrates the giants of American music with his fictional unknown singing talent, Barrett Rude Jr.—lead singer of the Subtle Distinctions. Our guide for this journey through the heart of American soul music, Dylan Ebdus, is named after the incomparable Bob Dylan. In “Dylan Interview,” included as a selection from Lethem’s collection The Ecstasy of Influence, he recalls an interview he conducted with the great American singer/songwriter. At one point, Lethem places his own perspective on display: “I’m a forty-two-year-old moonlighting novelist, and a lifelong Dylan fan, but one who, it must be emphasized, doesn’t remember the ’60s. I’m no longer a young man, but I am young for the job I’m doing here. My parents were Dylan fans, and my first taste of his music came through their LPs.”4

The Fortress of Solitude is noted for its autobiographical bent, and one can see the influence of Bob Dylan on the creation of the novel’s protagonist. What is significant about his revelation concerning Bob Dylan is that Lethem came to the singer late in the singer’s career. Though he is able to discover Dylan’s music via his parents’ LPs with the impact of any first time encounter with this significant corpus of music, he experiences Dylan outside of its original context. As Lethem notes, he has no firsthand remembrance of the ’60s—a crucial aspect that helps us understand Dylan Ebdus’s own attempts at understanding Barrett Rude Jr. and soul music. Also included in The Ecstasy of Influence is a piece titled “Otis Redding’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” a commissioned piece Lethem wrote that imagines the sorts of songs dead recording artists might have recorded if they had not died. In his preface, Lethem writes: This piece, conflating the vicarious psyche of the ‘fan’ with the dubious motives of a white person who yearns to supernaturally rescue a black singer from fate, but declines to do so, could be seen as The Fortress of Solitude in a grain of sand.5

Together, these pieces provide a lens for understanding just how much The Fortress of Solitude is motivated by music. Though scholars have investigated other salient aspects of Lethem’s novel, it remains relatively underexamined. Matt Godbey argues that The Fortress of Solitude and novels like it, “which use gentrification to tell stories about contemporary life, offer a rich and varied source for understanding the changes occurring in contemporary U.S. society and culture.”6 Concentrating on the comic book ethos of the novel, David Coughlan concludes, “Comic books in the novel, therefore, have to do with the formations of relations.”7 Florence Dore’s “The Rock Novel and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude,” an excellent excavation of the uses of American rock and roll in American literature, has, as one of its orienting questions, “Why has rock started to matter so much to American novelists, and what


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change in the novel does this tendency perhaps mark?”8 It is a question vociferously explored vis-à-vis The Fortress of Solitude. But Dore’s purpose is to articulate a rationale for the rise of the rock novel as a genre, and eschews the concern of this essay; namely, of the power and ineffability of song as well as the limits of remediation in Lethem’s novel. It is precisely the power of Barrett Rude Jr.’s music that drives Dylan to somehow attempt to save this fallen idol. The critical reception of The Fortress of Solitude was lukewarm, at best, with many reviews decrying its length or its revelry in the minutiae of roofing spaldeens, ways to avoid being yoked, and the finer points of graffiti; John Homans’s review of the novel in New York magazine is emblematic: But for all its postmodern point-of-view shifting and time-traveling trickery, The Fortress of Solitude, built as it is on a charming if somewhat squishy foundation of nostalgia, is in many ways a more conventional book than his last one (Motherless Brooklyn). The book constantly underlines the singularity of the Dean Street experience, which can get a little cloying. The limning is too loving.9

Indeed, Lethem had established the expectation that his “big” novel would equal something to rival Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen. In many ways, the majority of reviews have the right to carry such qualms. As a Bildungsroman, it is arguable that it doesn’t succeed. As a superhero tale, it doesn’t even come close to the mark with its near-MacGuffin power ring. This is of little surprise to anyone who is aware of Lethem’s penchant for genre-busting narratives. But what a majority of the critics have paid little attention to is the music that imbues Lethem’s novel with the pathos that its protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, himself lacks. Indeed, the novel is as much a depiction of Dylan’s relationship with music as it is an exploration of his development as an adult. In that sense, if we trace the use of song throughout the novel, we can better understand how the novel aspires to a failed Bildungsroman—or, perhaps, a Künstlerroman-by-proxy— with a portrait of the artist Barrett Rude Jr. as a has-been, never-will-be. In order to tell his tale, Lethem bestows the dyad of characters around which the narrative revolves with two names that are rich in music lore: Dylan and Mingus (after the musicians Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus). For Dylan, this is particularly poignant because he has no clear connection to the music that permeates his soon-tobe gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, Gowanus, just as many children recently arrived in new environs have difficulty discovering a sense of belonging. Dylan is white and Jewish (though, throughout the narrative, Dylan downplays his Semitic heritage), and he feels his outsider status for much of the first quarter of the novel. The significant turn in his life occurs when he becomes friends with Mingus Rude, a boy who, despite sharing many similarities with Dylan, such as going to the same school, being neighbors, and having no mother in their lives, has two things Dylan longs to have— blackness and soul, as in soul music. For most of The Fortress of Solitude, Dylan is in a slow process of discovering that he can never have either one. Mingus is the brother Dylan never had, or, better yet, he is what Dylan might have been but for his accident of birth.

The Limits of Song in The Fortress of Solitude


Lethem’s decision to take Dylan through this process of self-discovery vis-à-vis American music is a defiant stroke that certainly runs the risk of alienating readers, as Michael Faber notes: The passing of years is evoked mostly through the rapid evolution of pop culture. This is not a problem if, like me, you grew up in the same era, listening to the same music, collecting the same comics. Readers who were busy elsewhere may find the novel difficult to penetrate, since Dylan has a policy of never elaborating the codes. (“The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn’t.”) . . . To the uninitiated—which includes, of course, all readers in the future—such allusions will be opaque without footnotes.10

Lethem’s strategy to forgo footnotes is deliberate, as it forces Dylan into the difficult position of attempting to articulate what he feels for the music that shaped his life, what the music means to him. The novel’s structure bears witness to this fact, as the first part is told using a third-person narrator, which is immediately followed up by a “Liner Note” about Barrett Rude Jr. penned by Dylan Ebdus, now a music critic. The final section of The Fortress of Solitude ranges between Dylan’s first-person narration, thirdperson narration with Mingus as the focalizer, and third-person narration with Dylan as focalizer. It ought to be no surprise that Dylan, after several false starts, becomes a music critic, even writing for Rolling Stone magazine—just as Lethem did—fervently believing that when Barrett Rude Jr. finally passes away, the venerable music magazine will call upon him to write the obituary. In that instance, when Rude Jr. draws his final breath, Dylan will pay his respects by honoring what he recognizes in his almostfather: that the world failed to acknowledge how talented Rude Jr. was. In Barrett Rude Jr., we are meant to recall Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, the virtuoso voices of soul who personified the shocking waste of talent by a life cut tragically short. Cooke was murdered in a cheap hotel under mysterious circumstances. In Gaye’s case, his own father murdered him, and the world was robbed of one of the greatest testaments to pure, effortless vocal talent. Rude Jr., similarly held at gunpoint by his father, Rude Sr., is “saved” by his son, Mingus, who effectively launches his life of crime by the involuntary manslaughter of his grandfather. The moment Mingus kills Senior, the brotherhood he and Dylan may have shared is irrevocably sundered. While Marvin Gaye died a martyr’s death in the name of soul music, Barrett Rude Jr. was allowed to live a tortured existence living on the royalties from his music while watching Judge Judy in peace. Lethem casts Rude Jr. as the archetypical exploited Every(soul)man typical of the industry. As Keith Negus writes: There is considerable evidence that the appropriation and use of styles developed by black musicians has resulted in economic exploitation—from the non-crediting of composers and non-payment of royalties to the privileged promotion accorded to white performers singing “covers” of songs originally written or recorded by black musicians. Despite enjoying immense popularity and cultural influence, many black jazz, blues, soul and rap musicians have been economically exploited


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

and live and died poor. It has often been their white counterparts (whether Dave Brubeck, Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones) or, more frequently, the entertainment corporations who have made most of the money.11

Dylan recognizes this injustice done upon Barrett Rude Jr., and, as a writer of popular music as an adult, he knows all too well the commodification of Rude Jr.’s talents and, in many respects, his identity. As Dylan comes of age in Brooklyn, he begins to sense the power of music, both its power to crush and to uplift. “It was entirely possible that one song could ruin your life,” the narrator observes, continuing: . . . Yes, musical doom could fall on a lone human form and crush it like a bug. The song, that song, was sent from somewhere else to find you, to pick the scab of your whole existence. The song was your personal shitty fate, manifest as a throb of pop floating out of radios everywhere. (Lethem, Fortress, 111)

Here, Dylan is referencing the song “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry, and it was “the top song on the rhythm and blues charts” on “September 7, 1976, the week Dylan Ebdus began seventh grade” (Lethem, Fortress, 111). Wild Cherry’s song typifies what Richard Iton writes of this collision of soul, funk, and disco: Following the late 1970s, and the temporary conflation of African American popular music with disco, and the disappearance of crossover opportunities for black artists in the wake of the backlash against dance music, the ability of these artists to reach white and wider audiences and be recognized as artists diminished considerably. As part of a process that became more apparent in the late 1980s with hip hop, black artists’ productions tended to be consumed as spectacular novelties in a manner that frustrated these performers’ efforts to establish long-term relationships with broader audiences (and, as record companies codified these norms and artists internalized them, with black audiences too). In other words, the disco and particularly the hip-hop eras reintroduced the normalization of black music as devalued commodity that was common in the decades leading up to the civil rights and soul eras (e.g., the battles waged by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the bebop generation to be accepted as creative artists rather than mere producers of ephemeral pop music).12

Dylan takes Wild Cherry’s song as a personal affront, but the band’s song is also another significant marker for the reader to note the displacement of black performers by white wannabes. Not only does the song mark a specific moment in historical time that exists outside the novel, it signifies a crucial time in Dylan’s life as well, when he realizes his whiteness keeps him at arm’s length from where he truly wants to be while simultaneously making him the easy target for a particular type of bullying called “yoking.” The song brands

The Limits of Song in The Fortress of Solitude


Dylan as a “White Boy,” not just to those in his social milieu but to himself also. It is noteworthy that it is a song—in this case, a pop song that “passes” as the sort of funk soul music Dylan will come to revere—that impels him to this moment of selfdiscovery. His status as a white boy is confirmed to him, ironically, by a group comprised of white singers singing about a wannabe black ethos. The song also tacitly suggests that racial passing, or at least acceptance, might be achieved through the vehicle of music. The title of the song suggests the black community’s approval of a white boy who can play funk. If you can’t be black, you can be black through music. Around the same time in Dylan’s childhood, Barrett Rude Jr. becomes a sort of surrogate father for him. In truth, Barrett Rude Jr. is no better or worse a father than Abraham Ebdus, who has withdrawn to his art studio to work in solitude for much of Dylan’s life. Dylan’s two fathers are not exactly failed artists living perpetually in introspection, but their art comes at the cost of their respective families. For Dylan’s part, he does not see in Barrett Rude Jr. a better father because he’s more loving or nurturing. He’s not; Barrett is as indifferent as Abraham. Instead, Dylan reveres him because he has the gift of song, the gift of soul. And, in Mingus Rude, Dylan strains to see a version of himself, as he does in an early encounter just after he gazes upon Barrett Rude Jr.’s gold albums for the first time: Dylan wanted to read Mingus Rude like a language, wanted to know if the new kid had changed Dean Street or only changed Dylan himself by arriving here. . . . Mingus was black but lighter, a combination. The palms of his hands were as white as Dylan’s. He wore corduroys. Anything was possible, really. (Lethem, Fortress, 57–58)

Mingus is of mixed race, while Dylan seeks to validate his urge to be black through music. They are two of a kind via different means. Indeed, one of the tragedies of The Fortress of Solitude is the patrimony bestowed upon the various sons in the novel. Dylan does not take up his father’s life’s work, just as Mingus, like his father before him, fails to continue in his father’s artistic pursuits. Instead, Dylan and Mingus take up their respective fathers’ worst attribute—their compulsion for solitude. What Dylan realizes early in his Gowanus neighborhood is that in his midst resided an artistic genius whose meager contribution to the world never reached the potential of his inherent greatness. Only later will he realize the same for his biological father. Rifling through Barrett Rude Jr.’s record collection, the narrator preserves the moment as if in amber: “The whiteness of the boy in the black man’s house” (Lethem, Fortress, 75). Barrett is impressed when he discovers that Dylan’s mother has left him and Abraham: “Mother’s gone, but the boy is keeping it together.” Barrett Rude Jr. spoke the sentence twice. In the first rendition the words thick, deliberate, tongue-mashed. The second was a lilting echo of the first, the line now a song of admonition, a beguilement. “Mu-tha’s gone, but the boy is keeping it together.” (Lethem, Fortress, 75)


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

This significant moment, where Rude Jr. improvises a song lyric based on Dylan’s experience, fuses together black and white culture in an instant. As Ronald Michael Radano remarks: When we hear the body of black music “speak” we begin to recognize the instabilities of race and nation that have given rise to the tragic formations of racial difference. When we hear black music “speak” we identify an ideal conception of America within the stable ideological construct of white assimilation that is fundamentally, at is very core, simultaneously black and white. This kind of subversive listening develops neither from a purely sonic experience nor from the selective visions that so often inform interpretations of the American social past. It locates black music’s power not in race per se but in the wild fluctuations from sameness to difference that racial ideologies have constructed. From this mode of hearing, we identify, finally, the origins of a kind of musical-textual double speak that claims for music the unities and incommensurabilities of blackness and whiteness, at once.13

Rude Jr. “speaks” Dylan’s existential struggle through the sublime improvisation of song, and, in a single lyric, reifies the racial dynamic of The Fortress of Solitude. The irony for readers, however, is that they can’t actually hear the power of Rude Jr.’s voice. Readers must pretend to participate in the kind of “subversive listening” Radano describes. In this scene, the confluence of impulses converge on young Dylan Ebdus—his gravitation to soul and funk music, his absent mother, and his surrogate father. Dylan wonders, “Did Barrett Rude Junior remind him of Rachel? Or was this only the longest the word mother had been strung in the air since Rachel’s vanishing? Dylan felt that she’d drifted into the room, a mist or cloud, a formation” (Lethem, Fortress, 76). Dylan does not make the parallel between Rachel and Barrett Rude Jr. until Barrett sings, in blues fashion, the pathos of Dylan’s very existence at that moment. In something as minor as an improvised lyric, Barrett Rude Jr. reveals to the impressionable Dylan the power of music to articulate what cannot be expressed at a verbal, conscious level. Based on this crucial moment in Dylan’s life, it seems almost natural that soul music would be his life’s work. If he couldn’t make soul music, he would write about it. And write about it he does. Midway through The Fortress of Solitude appears Part Two titled, “Liner Note.” It is ostensibly a liner note written by Dylan on Barrett Rude Jr. Liner notes are like miniature biographies that are included in albums and that complement the included songs. The inclusion of Dylan’s liner note functions as a break demarcating his childhood from his adulthood. Chronologically, it literally appears out of place, as Dylan writes it after his experiences at Camden in Vermont and Berkeley. Yet its placement in the center of the novel is crucial for my argument concerning the centrality of music in The Fortress of Solitude, and, specifically, the importance of Dylan’s championing of Barrett Rude Jr. Dylan begins the liner note thus:

The Limits of Song in The Fortress of Solitude


Voices in memory you can’t name, rich with unresolved yearning: a song you once leaned toward for an instant on the radio before finding it mawkish, embarrassing, overlush. Maybe the song knew something you didn’t yet, something you weren’t necessarily ready to learn from the radio. So, for you at least, the song is lost. By chance it goes unheard for 15 years, until the day when your own heartbreak unexpectedly finds its due date. (Lethem, Fortress, 296)

Dylan’s liner note argues Barrett Rude Jr. belongs to what he calls “a shadow pantheon . . . those singers who fell just short,” (Lethem, Fortress, 296), and the purpose of the note is to provide the listener with the appropriate context by which to appreciate the talents of Rude Jr. In the storyworld, Dylan’s note accompanies the CDs with Rude Junior’s collected songs, but the reader of The Fortress of Solitude doesn’t have the same opportunity. Dylan writes: Barrett Rude Jr. is one of the most elusive and singular figures in pop-music history. Though none with ears needs telling—if you’re reading the booklet, play the damn CDs already!—I’ll say it anyway: he’s also one of the greatest soul singers who ever lived, not merely one of the best who never got his due. (Lethem, Fortress, 297)

Two audiences are implicit in this moment: the fictional reader of the liner note and the actual reader of the novel. No matter how hard Dylan tries, he can’t make us hear the music of Barrett Rude Jr. Readers can only imagine what his music sounds like through analogies and comparisons. He’s like Marvin Gaye. He’s like Sam Cooke. He’s like Otis Redding. The liner note is evidence that, as Marvin Gaye sang with Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”14 Readers of The Fortress of Solitude can’t “play the damned CDs already!” The liner note is a point of personal pride for Dylan. He is wounded when his superior at Remnant Records, Rhodes Blemner, remarks that it is far from Dylan’s best work. “I think it’s exactly my best work,” Dylan retorts (Lethem, Fortress, 379). Blemner goes on: It’s a false context. The piece reads as if you sat in a small room listening to nothing but Distinctions records for a year and then postulated the history of black music. It reads like you were avoiding something. Maybe you were avoiding your research. (Lethem, Fortress, 379)

Blemner cannot possibly know the intimate connection Dylan once had with the lead singer of the Subtle Distinctions. Indeed, Blemner is right that Dylan was avoiding his research, though he doesn’t realize why. It’s too personal for Dylan; he is too near the events surrounding the downfall that lead to the downward spiral of the Rude family. For his own part, Barrett Rude Jr. deflates Dylan when he indifferently accepts the boxed set with the liner notes in their final encounter. In fact, Dylan understands


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

all too well how personal parts of the liner note will be for Barrett when he reads it, but realizes it is too late to do anything about it. The liner note ought to be a catharsis for Dylan, but it isn’t. That is why it appears in the very middle of the novel and not at its end. In the penultimate paragraph of the liner note, Dylan writes: That’s the story. But what matters is a story in song. The music in the collection tells a tale—of beauty, inspiration, and pain—in voices out of the ghetto and the suburb, the church and the schoolyard, voices of celebration and mourning, sometimes voices of pensiveness and heartache so profound they feel unsustainable in the medium of pop. The voices may propel you to warble along, or to dance, they may inspire you to seduction or insurrection or introspection or merely to watching a little less television. The voices of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Subtle Distinctions lead nowhere, though, if not back to your own neighborhood. To the street where you live. To things you left behind. (Lethem, Fortress, 306)

Here, Dylan is writing about himself as much as he is Barrett Rude Jr. Above it all, what matters is a story in song. But how is the song’s substance conveyed without melody or sound? How can a reader understand what Dylan means when he concludes, “And that’s what you need, what you needed all along. Like the song says: sometimes we all must get bothered blue” (Lethem, Fortress, 306). His emotionality and maturation throughout the novel is concentrated on song’s ability to encapsulate a time and make real something ethereal. And he is confined to the limitations of words on a page. The wondrous vocal power of Barrett Rude Jr. must always remain remediated. We are left with a sense for what his music was like while being left without the music itself. It is a Sisyphean labor that Dylan undertakes. Another liner note, this one written by Colin Escott, provides the impetus for a humorous set piece near the beginning of Part Three. Dylan, by a stroke of dumb luck, is granted a meeting with Jared Orthman to pitch an idea for a movie based on the Prisonaires. Orthman is a stereotypical movie executive with the power to green-light a film. Once the two men are in position, Orthman asks to hear Dylan’s story on the Prisonaires. Only Dylan hasn’t written one word of a screenplay. Instead, he improvises the story based solely on Escott’s liner notes on the Prisonaires. Lethem’s first entry in the acknowledgments section of the novel states, “Just Walking in the Rain by Jay Warner, unread by D. Ebdus, is a responsible account of the Prisonaires” (Lethem, Fortress, 513). The Prisonaires are real, and what happened to them is very real. The liner notes by Colin Escott, and Escott himself, are real. Lethem merges the real and the fictional once more in this scene. The story of the Prisonaires and their wrongfully accused lead man Johnny Bragg is compelling; so compelling, in fact, that Orthman is ready to buy the script on the spot. But Dylan has been riffing on an improvised summation of Bragg’s story, and he has missed one crucial detail. When Orthman asks how the story ends, Dylan reveals that Bragg may still be alive, which Orthman finds unacceptable.

The Limits of Song in The Fortress of Solitude


As with his liner note on Barrett Rude Jr., Dylan attempts to put a definitive stamp on a man whose life has not yet run its course. His intentions are in the right place; he wants the stories of these men—denied their due for various reasons—brought to the surface where they can be properly appreciated. Despite his genuine interest in these men, Dylan falls back to the position he has held his entire life, that of the impostor, the outsider from the wrong neighborhood. When the cab returns for him after his meeting with Orthman, he hears “my old nemesis of a theme song, Wild Cherry’s ‘Play That Funky Music’ ” (Lethem, Fortress, 337). Dylan realizes what his 13-year-old self didn’t: “Wild Cherry was a bunch of white guys. . . . Anyway, it struck me now in a different light, as being yet another bit of personal meaning which had been taken from me, stripped off like clothes I’d only borrowed or stolen” (Lethem, Fortress, 337). No matter how hard he tries, his attempts at revealing the genius of black singers such as Barrett Rude Jr. and Johnny Bragg will always fall short, just as the music he so desperately wishes to blast to the world remains outside the range of the reader of The Fortress of Solitude. That Dylan’s career as an adult is writing liner notes for reissues of relatively obscure black musicians’ music tells us about the nobility and futility of his endeavor. Like his father, who painstakingly paints an unending animated film that few will ever see, Dylan writes for an audience that may never fully appreciate what he is trying to articulate. At one point, Dylan aspires to make the liner note a type of art form in his aborted magnum opus, “Liner Notes: The Box Set,” described as “one of those LP-square boxes so beloved by collectors like myself. Inside, loose sheets bearing the greatest liner notes of all time, in fine reproductions of the original designs” (Lethem, Fortress, 413). It is an intriguing concept, but, like The Fortress of Solitude, can never fully reach its potential because the accompanying music is absent. As Dylan later surmises: That it might be regarded as a disappointment to find not a single note of actual music inside Liner Notes: The Box Set never dawned on me. I can’t say why, exactly, except that a wish to place the writing on a par with the music was the purloined letter of intent at the project’s center. People liked to be fooled, and they like to fool themselves. I was twenty-three, and believed to my heart that music fandom needed Liner Notes: The Box Set. (Lethem, Fortress, 414)

It is a young man’s foolish ambition to capture an essence from one form that cannot be captured in another form. His words will always fail to grasp the essence of Barrett Rude Jr. and the sounds of the Subtle Distinctions. For Dylan, everything is a liner note. When he breaks into prison to give the magic ring to Mingus, he finds Mingus’s entire rap sheet. After reading Mingus’s criminal record, text to which the reader is also privy, Dylan muses,“So there it was: the inadequate liner note to Mingus Rude’s whole existence” (Lethem, Fortress, 458). Part of what motivates the novel’s progression is Dylan’s willingness to finally let go of his attempts to remediate the music he adores, the life he cannot seem to make sense of. As he moves to gain some closure regarding his absent mother, he achieves a rare moment of clarity:


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

For so long I’d thought Abraham’s legacy was mine: to retreat upstairs, unable or unwilling to sing or fly, only to compile and collect, to sculpt statues of my lost friends, life’s real actors, in my Fortress of Solitude. To see the world in a liner note: I am the DJ, I am what I play. (Lethem, Fortress, 501)

But Dylan moves beyond the trap of static solitude into movement and life. As the novel concludes: Abraham and I let ourselves be swept through the blurred tunnel, beyond rescue but calm for an instant, settled in our task, a father driving a son home to Dean Street. There was no Mingus Rude or Barrett Rude Junior with us there, no Running Crab postcard or letter from Camden College pushed through the slot. We were in a middle space then, in a cone of white, father and son moving forward at a certain speed. Side by side, not truly quiet but quiescent, two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream. (Lethem, Fortress, 511)

Dylan Ebdus must, ultimately, work out his desire to document and collect that which he admires most, the music of his life. Until he does so, he is nothing more than a cultural archivist or worse, as his girlfriend Abby forcefully reveals, falling well short of the sort of tributary hagiography he desired for Barrett Rude Jr. Dylan’s words fail to cross the threshold of remarkableness characteristic of soul music, despite his best efforts. The impenetrability of some aspects of The Fortress of Solitude should not be surprising. I argue that its recalcitrant nature, its stubbornness in revealing its secrets, neatly matches the idea of Superman’s frozen, impregnable stronghold. Yet the title’s allusion is not an Arctic wasteland, but, rather, an inner sanctum of music—soul music, to be precise. Dylan is made whole by the music of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and, most of all, Barrett Rude Jr. His archive of music and his encyclopedic knowledge of this genre of music are Dylan’s sanctum sanctorum. Add to this Dylan’s intimate knowledge of the Rude family, and it’s understandable how much Dylan is truly unable to express in words, even if he believes himself to be capable and willing. The music of his life is the key to his fortress, and, no matter how elegantly he narrates the mysteries of the blues or funk, we will remain on the outside looking in unless we have firsthand experience of the music itself. And that is something Dylan cannot give us. With so many invocations of songs that permeate the latter part of the 20th century, Lethem undoubtedly takes the risk of alienating his readership. Based on the critical response to The Fortress of Solitude, he succeeded in that outcome to some degree. The novel begs a specific kind of reader—an ideal reader that understands as much of soul music as Dylan and Lethem do. A kind of reader that has felt his or her soul stir at the sound of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” who feels the pain in Marvin Gaye’s voice when he sings “What’s Going On?,” who feels the cosmic unfairness of Otis

The Limits of Song in The Fortress of Solitude


Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” which became a hit just after Redding’s untimely death in a plane crash. But what reader can know the bittersweet notes sung by Barrett Rude Jr. besides Dylan Ebdus? Rude Jr.’s songs, as Dylan relays them to us, are hauntingly close. We can see the dates those songs charted, but we cannot hear them for ourselves. They forever remain as echoes within Dylan’s being, deep within his own personal fortress of solitude.

Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Wolf, “Music and Narrative,” 325–6. Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, xii. Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude, 44. Lethem, “Dylan Interview,” 322–3. Lethem, “Otis Redding’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” 330. Godbey, “Gentrification, Authenticity and White Middle-Class Identity in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude,” 133–4. Coughlan, “Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and Omega: The Unknown, a Comic Book Series,” 196. Dore, “The Rock Novel and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude.” Homans, “Fear of Flying.” Faber, “Lost Exit to Brooklyn.” Negus, Popular Music in Theory, 111. Iton, In Search of the Black Fantastic, 116. Radano, Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music, 13. Gaye and Terrell, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

Bibliography Coughlan, David. “Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and Omega: The Unknown, a Comic Book Series.” College Literature 38, no. 3 (2011): 194–218. Dore, Florence. “The Rock Novel and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude.” nonsite. org 8 (2013). Accessed May 2, 2013. http://nonsite.org/article/the-rock-novel-andjonathan-lethems-the-fortress-of-solitude. Faber, Michael. “Lost Exit to Brooklyn.” Guardian, December 19, 2003. http://www. guardian.co.uk/books/2003/dec/20/featuresreviews.guardianreview21. Gaye, Marvin and Tammi Terrell. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” You’re All I Need. Motown 635 142. CD. 1989. Godbey, Matt. “Gentrification, Authenticity and White Middle-Class Identity in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude.” Arizona Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2008): 131–51. Homans, John. “Fear of Flying.” New York, September 22, 2003. http://nymag.com/ nymetro/arts/books/reviews/n_9207/ Iton, Richard. In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008. Lethem, Jonathan. “Dylan Interview.” In The Ecstasy of Influence, 317–30. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011.


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———. The Fortress of Solitude. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2003. ———. “Otis Redding’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In The Ecstasy of Influence, 335–40. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011. Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997. Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2007. Radano, Ronald Michael. Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Wolf, Werner. Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, s.v. “Music and Narrative.” London, England, and New York, NY: Routledge, 2005.


Unrest and Silence The Faithless Music of the Contemporary British Novel Will May

In the various critical approaches to literary–musical history and theory, a rare given is that music, when accommodated by language, fails its host entirely.1 This is usually expressed in one of two ways: through an anxiety about interdisciplinarity, or what E. M. Forster called the “muddling”2 over the arts, or through the inability of words to represent music. As George Steiner has suggested, “more than any other act of intelligibility and executive form, music entails differentiations between that which can be understood—this is to say, paraphrased—and that which can be thought and lived in, categories which are, rigorously considered, transcendent to such understanding.”3 Language daubs music with the drab, perfunctory, and workaday. What Steiner calls music’s “messianic intimation” becomes mere imitation when translated to the verbal, its metaphors rendered “impotent” (Steiner, Real Presences, 19). Its epiphanic gift to literature is double-edged and debasing. As Aaron Ridley has noted, the majority of literary–musical criticism has tended to focus on the Western classical tradition, and to assume its wares are “pure music.”4 This casts the messy, dialogic polyphony of the novel—particularly the contemporary novel—in the role of unworthy hierophant, a zealous supplicant at the altar of high art. Meanwhile music, as Thomas Mann put it, is in charge of “gilding the mediocre.”5 Yet, observing this religious hierarchy ignores popular music altogether: writers might feel considerably less anxiety about fixing the meaning of a genre that is designed to be pervasive but ultimately disposable. Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) replaces the Orphic lyre with rock music in its picaresque journey through the late 20th century: the novel’s cultural cache is confirmed when U2 record one of the protagonist’s songs, and Rushdie appears in the accompanying video. Here, the novelist helps us to understand and value the apparently ephemeral as fetish, not to find a language for the transcendent.6 Popular culture rewards him in tandem. Contemporary classical music has even less a guarantee of cultural survival, and so, perhaps, prompts less authorial anxiety: Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (1998) apes Doctor Faustus for an allegory about contemporary classical music and plagiarism, yet, while his composer protagonist is ridiculed for rewriting Beethoven, McEwan goes on to take the Booker 227


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Prize. Here, it is the mediocre composer who is gilded with the touch of the literary, reversing Mann’s epigram. In both these examples, the complex transactions between the high and the low, and the ephemeral and the transcendent, cannot be mapped neatly onto the binary of music and language. Discussions of pure music are, in fact, always partial. Yet if contemporary culture is no longer sure of its faith in the Western classical tradition as pure music, its secular ideals find no other source of immanence. As Gerry Smyth has argued, “the waning of art music as a factor within the cultural landscape jeopardizes a crucial means of knowing and being in the world.”7 To be agnostic about “pure music” enacts a series of banal transformations for a contemporary novelist: the epiphanic intrusion of music, a way of transcending time, becomes instead just a way of passing it; it will tell us nothing more profound about a set of characters than their cultural affinities or social groups—what Charles Taylor has called “anthropological depth”;8 the supernatural and aesthetic become the workmanlike and the appropriate. These changes hint at literary doubts and apostasies for the contemporary novelist, too. Anthony Burgess has suggested that “the whole point of music is that it breaks Babel,”9 yet, if contemporary culture finds it without that force, what power might be left in figurative language? How does music’s prosaic return from the immanent to the temporal influence notions of literary narrative? If contemporary culture has a halting faith in the reference points of the classical musical tradition, what implications does this have for literary allusion and the Western canon? These questions are further complicated by the form of the novel itself, which, as James Wood has noted, is a genre that tends to question the believers rather than answer the skeptics: it is the “slayer of religions,” and the “scrutineer of falsity.”10 Even if we believe in it, Wood argues, our faith should only be provisional: Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case. Belief in fiction is always belief “as if.” Our belief is itself metaphorical—it only resembles actual belief, and is therefore never wholly belief. (Wood, The Broken Estate, xiii–xiv).

How might this quasi-faith “jeopardize” itself when it turns to an art form apparently relegated from the profound to the prosaic? What is a metaphorical belief when it begins to distrust its metaphors? The following essay explores these questions by examining three contemporary British novels that deal explicitly with the relationship between faith and music: Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club (2001), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2006), and Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations (2009). Coe’s novel focuses on a would-be musician who has a religious epiphany, Smith’s on a family momentarily brought together by a religious choral work, and Cusk’s on a househusband attempting to introduce the sacred into his daily life by learning to play the piano. Yet these novels’ concern with music and faith is not merely at the level of plot. The essay will argue that, through these scenarios, the novelists ask related questions about their own art and their faith in its ability to last. For Coe, these questions are framed explicitly around his

The Faithless Music of the Contemporary British Novel


novel’s planned sequel, a sort of literary resurrection: will his readers have faith in his story’s return? For Smith, the debate turns backwards to tradition, and whether literary allusion can prove an expansive, rather than divisive, means of communicating with her audience. For Cusk, the question turns on figurative language itself, and what transformative possibilities a metaphor may have for human experience. Focusing respectively on questions of narrative, tradition, and metaphor (or what we might call resurrection, creed, and transubstantiation), I will explore the ways in which these works seek to affirm or deny their aesthetic beliefs and so their faith in the novel itself.

Narrative Afterlives: The Rotters’ Club The end of Jonathan Coe’s sixth novel The Rotters’ Club (2001) is not the end: “there will be a sequel”11 the author’s note informs us, resuming his 1970s coming-of-age panorama in the 1990s. Yet, while the first novel was a critical and commercial success, its followup, The Closed Circle (2004), met with a muted response. Coe reflected later in an interview that his audience had read The Rotters’ Club (2001) as a discrete work, and seemed to have invested in the period he created rather than the characters or cliffhangers which might have required a sequel.12 Updating his story to contemporary Britain offered particular challenges; a writer figure in The Closed Circle (2004) worries self-consciously, “[W]hat about September the eleventh? How do I find room for that kind of stuff in there?”13 His readers’ lack of faith in the novel’s afterlife reflects Coe’s authorial anxiety in bending narrative to recent history. If The Rotters’ Club does not share these doubts, it raises them: throughout this earlier novel, the possibilities of music and faith are linked explicitly to the exigencies of narrative and the possibility of sustaining it. The musical allusions in Jonathan Coe’s sixth novel are balanced between period detail and impossible promise; they resist idealizing the past by retaining an unbridled optimism about the future. The novel focuses on Benjamin Trotter, a dreamy teenager from Birmingham with aspirations to be a composer and set his girlfriends’ poems to music; the title comes from the second album of an obscure Canterbury 1970s prog rock band, Hatfield and the North. Nostalgic references to popular music pepper the novel, from a political protest at an Eric Clapton gig to Benjamin’s brother trilling the Sex Pistols on his bicycle. Yet the tension between prog rock and a punk scene that, all too soon, as Simon Reynolds notes, “become a parody of itself,”14 means our musical focus is often elsewhere. When the characters dream of transcendence, it is through classical music: a school teacher rhapsodizes over a student’s mother by comparing their meeting to Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia; Benjamin imagines the rapturous response to the “works of my late maturity” (Coe, Closed Circle, 377). By contrast, narrative hindsight seems to poke fun at the possibilities of the punk era: characters talk idealistically of Richard Branson as a not-for-profit revolutionary, or have their love of the Clash rewarded with the opportunity to review the new ABBA single. This suggests a split between the immanent, transcendent narrative qualities of classical music versus the three-minute pleasures of Johnny Rotten. That the novel offers them


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

to us simultaneously creates a curious feeling of synchronicity: Benjamin looks forward to an immortal future of music-making; his brother, the music journalist, places each new single within its specific moment in time. This disjunct is echoed both by Coe’s formal innovations and the artistic ambitions of his protagonist. Benjamin plans to write Unrest, an epic novel-with-sound that will profoundly alter the relationship between words and music. Towards the end of The Rotters’ Club, Coe matches his hubris, giving Benjamin Trotter the longest published sentence in English literature, a 13,922-word stream-of-consciousness monologue that outlines, in ecstatic raptures, the joys of love and his hopes for the future. There is an implicit contrast here with the strict word-counts of his brother’s music reviews. The idealism of Benjamin’s sentence, its belief in the possibility of perpetual continuations, is in part an attempt to deny time—“how can I prolong this moment, how can I stretch it, how can I make it last forever” (Coe, Rotters’ Club, 363). It is his pledge to create art that may yet make him immortal. But it is also a proclamation of faith in the afterlife: it ends certain that God exists. Earlier, we have been given the comic account of Benjamin’s Christian conversion. One day at school, he has forgotten his swimming trunks, and knows his vindictive PE teacher will force him to swim naked in front of his whole class. Naturally shy and self-effacing, but pathologically law abiding, he makes a deal with a God he doesn’t believe in that, if, by some means, he could arrange for him to find a pair of swimming trunks in his locker, he will believe in God forever. By coincidence, Benjamin does find a pair of trunks in a locker, committing himself ever after to a life of faith, suddenly convinced that “Divine Grace was everywhere” (Coe, Rotters’ Club, 71). The bathos of his conversion narrative is tempered by the euphoria of his monologue: God, he reflects, must be a “comic Genius” (Coe, Rotters’ Club, 399). Yet by The Closed Circle, both Benjamin, his author, and his readers have lost faith both in this conversion narrative. He is no longer a believer, for reasons almost as implausible as those that prompted his conversion: he realizes his swimming trunks arrived not through divine serendipity but via a visiting writer with a predilection for boys’ underwear. Throughout the novel, we find characters have believed in the wrong things, taken signs for wonders: it opens with Benjamin hurriedly backing up 15 years of composing, sequencing, and recording onto CDs in fear of the millennium bug, only to find that “the calendar had clicked over to 01-01-2000 without a murmur of complaint” (Coe, Closed Circle, 41). As his faith wanes, so too does his faith in music, the gift he might offer up to a benign God. His ambitious project Unrest remains incomplete, his symphony unwritten, and he is ploughed into despondency. In this newly cynical world, the narrative sets itself the difficult job of redeeming Benjamin’s faith in something. A forgotten teenage recording he made of an early composition turns out to have seismic importance for another characters’ happiness. Yet this coincidence seems far fetched rather than redemptive, and cannot sustain the weight of narrative plausibility. Readers’ failure to accept Coe’s sequel in good faith might be linked to the novel’s provisional attempts at consolation. If classical music can sustain narrative, and popular music can flavor it, neither seem to be able to give it faith in itself.

The Faithless Music of the Contemporary British Novel


Allusions of Faith: On Beauty The next novel I’d like to discuss here shares The Rotters’ Club’s concerns about how to integrate popular and classical music references into its world, but its casualty is not narrative, but allusion itself. Its religious apostasy is not a worry about posterity, but about tradition. In 2008, Zadie Smith reviewed E. M. Forster’s BBC talks for the NYRB. While much of her article offered a magnanimous defense of the novelist and his puzzling mixture of “banality and brilliance,” she heard in his broadcasts “an element of the nervous party host.”15 So concerned was Forster about alienating his listeners, Smith suspects, he often condescended to them while trying to lead them by the hand. Reviewing a narrative version of The Magic Flute by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Forster remarked “unluckily it’s based on an opera by Mozart . . . many readers of the book won’t have heard of the opera, so won’t catch on the allusions . . . be prepared for some queer names” (Smith, “E. M. Forster,” 21). This prompts an uncharacteristically caustic response from Smith—“Who’s (this) afraid of The Magic Flute?”—before she checks herself: “it’s easy to forget what it’s like not to know” (Smith, “E. M. Forster,” 21). The anxiety she detects in Forster’s broadcasts is the same one she reveals in reviewing them; Smith assumes anyone reading the New York Review of Books will be, like her, baffled that someone might apologize for The Magic Flute, but then worries over that same assumption. Smith’s switch in tone weighs the redemptive possibilities of high culture against the social exclusion enforced by its gatekeepers. These concerns echo the novel that brought the review to her door: On Beauty (2006), which uproots Forster’s Howards End (1910) to New England and London as it follows the fortunes of two warring families, the Belseys and the Kippses, and two musical traditions, classical music and hip hop. Through her characters’ various interactions, Smith explores the virtues of state-supported education versus philanthropy, private acquisition versus community inclusion, and American individualism versus liberal consensus. Smith’s nod to Forster begins with the first line—“one may as well begin with their emails”16—and continues throughout the novel as the characters deal with the legacy of a family house now up for sale, a precious family heirloom mysteriously left to someone who is apparently no part of the family at all, and the responsibilities of educational institutions to provide resources to all those who might benefit from them. Reflecting her doubts about Forster’s cultural condescension in his radio talks, Smith’s acknowledgments are clear about the novel’s literary debt: “it should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E. M. Forster” (Smith, On Beauty, i). This authorial voice need not imagine a reader ignorant of Howards End. Yet, there is a telling contrast between the dogmatic statement in the acknowledgment and the provisional, generous, and accommodating novel she has chosen to pay homage to, raising questions about the faith Smith has in her readers, and the novel she offers them. This may account for the critical ambivalence about Smith’s debt to Forster. Discussions of the novel often downplay the homage, as if embarrassed by the unabashed humanism that might subsequently seep into their readings.17 Mozart and hip hop, the two competing soundtracks of the novel, explore these faltering creeds and the disciples that frame them.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

The novel’s most sustained musical and literary allusion comes in the performance of Mozart’s Requiem, echoing the Beethoven recital in Howards End. The Belseys agree to attend reluctantly: the son, Jerome, is wary about meeting Victoria Kipps, a girl he once believed was in love with him. Howard, his father, is desperate to atone for his adulterous affair with a colleague; a family outing seems a gesture that may go some way towards his rehabilitation. Smith’s third-person narrative shows us a number of ways of responding to the music. Howard’s wife, Kiki, reflects on the music’s mystery. Her daughter Zora, desperate to get an intellectual purchase on the world, listens to the requiem at the same time as her Discman gives her a running commentary over her headphones. Kiki’s son Jerome finds the music has him in tears, and Kiki takes a moment out of her reverie to reflect on her pride that she has raised a black son enamored of the Western classical tradition. She imagines addressing an imaginary guild of American black mothers on her success as a parent: “And there’s no big secret, not at all, you just need to have faith, I guess” (Smith, On Beauty, 71). Kiki’s word “faith” is significant here: it invokes Jerome’s recent conversion to Christianity, and the religious sublime that so offends Howard’s academic sensibilities—as Howard remarks once the performance is over, “I just prefer music which isn’t trying to fake me into some metaphysical idea by the back door” (Smith, On Beauty, 72). Yet Howard’s preference is not Smith’s, who follows Forster in providing what Frank Kermode has dismissed as “metaphorical bombast.”18 She crafts an authorial perspective by switching to second person when describing the music itself. It becomes an authorial voice speaking to us, leading us through a music that can delight and mystify in equal measure: Mozart’s Requiem begins with you walking towards a huge pit. The pit is on the other side of a precipice, which you cannot see over until you are right at its edge. Your death is awaiting you in that pit. . . . Your will is a clarinet and your footsteps are attended by all the violins. . . . This choir is the heavenly host and simultaneously the devil’s army. It is also every person who has changed you during your time on this earth: your many lovers; your family; your enemies, the nameless . . . the experience of listening to an hour’s music you barely know in a dead language you do not understand is a strange falling and rising experience. (Smith, On Beauty, 70)

The second person, after another paragraph, is eventually revealed to be Kiki, the woman who for much of the narrative is the focalizer. Eager to avoid the preciousness of the connoisseur, or the sneer of the dismissive, Smith attempts to construct the contemporary equivalent of the Forsterian narrator, the agnostic musical amateur. Kiki’s openness to the music, and her determined, if faltering, attempts to listen to it, tell us something not just about how Smith views music, but how art itself might function in a secular world. Kiki’s mock-effacing comment that “you just need to have faith, I guess” is not a statement excluding the secular, agnostic, or the atheist from Mozart’s work, but affords a provisional point of entry for all listeners. Yet, the partial humanist epiphany is undermined by the other soundtrack in the novel, and its apparently divisive difference. Carl Thomas is a black hip hop enthusiast

The Faithless Music of the Contemporary British Novel


without a college education, whose natural abilities and enthusiasm for music and literature lead to him being given a job at the prestigious Wellington University as hip hop archivist. Echoing Leonard Bast’s attempt to educate himself into the middle classes in Howards End, Carl never assimilates. He avoids death, but ends up disillusioned, sure he is only “just some experiment for [the middle class] to play with” (Smith, On Beauty, 418). In curious tandem, Carl’s story also becomes the novel’s “experiment” to play with: because of the novel’s dogmatic faith in the structure of Howards End, there is no possibility of transformation—the best Smith can do is deny him death. The novel has other further concerns about the appropriation and assimilation of hip hop into the mainstream. Howard, the English academic, provides embarrassed amusement for his family with the only line of hip hop he can remember: “A penis with the IQ of a genius!” (Smith, On Beauty, 64). His caricature reminds his wife why she loves him, that he is the kind of father “able to make his children laugh” (Smith, On Beauty, 64). Yet the lyrics are cruelly prophetic, given his subsequent affair with his rival’s daughter Victoria. Even Howard’s son, another hip hop fan, is only partially allowed to let the music be his literary soundtrack: “As sometimes happens, the song playing in Levi’s headphones ended the moment he put his hand to the gate of 83 Langham” (Smith, On Beauty, 82). For a moment, a character is permitted to sustain the illusion that music might be significant, but the “sometimes” returns it to occasional, everyday coincidence. While Smith deliberately fills the novel’s patriarch, Howard, with secular disdain for Mozart, the Forsterian structure of the novel works against this revision. This is what comes, perhaps, of Smith making a master of Forster, the professed amateur: Kermode notes that the Beethoven recital in Howards End brings forth a “familiar retreat into drollery” (Kermode, Concerning E. M. Forster, 36), whereas Smith offers the Requiem recital as a glimpse of the transcendental. Forster’s novel permits an everyday and sometimes baffled account of something apparently divine; Smith reawakens this now recondite music as something that may yet offer an epiphany. This creates a curious inversion. Through its musical pledge to the classical music, On Beauty makes clear its literary affiliations. It has faith in the tradition of the novel. Yet, its allusions to Forster excuse the troubling implications of its allusions to music, whereby the music that transcends difference—rather than attempting to assimilate it—must be part of the Western canon.

Figures of Doubt: The Bradshaw Variations Literary–musical criticism, as we have seen, often worries over the analogies language offers for music.19 In Rachel Cusk’s seventh novel The Bradshaw Variations (2009), this problem becomes both a thematic and stylistic concern, as its protagonist attempts to make domestic life sacred through a reverence for classical music. The final section of this essay will explore how the novel’s figurative language interrogates the gap between the musical and the spiritual. Cusk has been accused, often simultaneously, of living in “Metaphor Town” and a world archly self-conscious about its candor.20 Her prose departs into elaborate analogies yet is unswervingly, astringently, honest; it is compromised both of “exhaustive clarifications”21 and metaphors uncurling yet further


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

from the point to be clarified. Its obsessive figuration promises to rescue her characters from suburban banality, yet never quite makes good on its promise. It is too honest: it is too fanciful. The typical example: in The Bradshaw Variations, Claudia remembers, when Lottie was born, the prospect of self-sacrifice coming into view like a landscape seen from an approaching train; she remembers the steady unfolding of it, a place she had never seen before in her life, and her self inescapably bound for it; and then, after a while, the realization, pieced together from numerous clues, that this was where her mother had lived all along.22 Here, a character articulates the engulfing martyrdom of motherhood with an analogy so neat its dexterity might—perhaps—mitigate its horror. The Lawrentian near-repetitions (“unfolding of it,” “bound for it”) suggest a forward movement that is also a sort of inertia; the cumulative effect makes the “unfolding” also a refolding, a binding return. The train takes Claudia nowhere but back to a land her mother once inhabited. Her journey through this extended analogy is akin to our own readerly progress: Cusk’s metaphors trade in a mixture of recognition and estrangement, taking us further than we have been before, then leaving us resentfully close to home. She asks us to put together a brazen metaphor from “clues,” but, having solved them, we find that our world feels smaller. Discovery becomes sacrifice. “Variations” might be loaded word for a novelist whose style keeps reminding us of the unchangeable. The “variations” of Cusk’s 2009 novel might be explained in a number of ways: the protagonist, Thomas Bradshaw, learns to play the piano as a salve for becoming a househusband; there is an over-determined link in the novel between his frustrated attempts to master a fugue and his wife Tonie’s decision to go back to work, a kind of marital variation in itself. Through the novel’s episodic structure, we are introduced to his brothers and their offspring, and the subtle gradations of envy, difference, and affiliation prompted by familial comparison. Yet, despite its title, Cusk’s novel is drawn to the unvarying, and that which change fails to achieve. The Bradshaw Variations begins by asking “what is art?”—a stark narrative intrusion Cusk will repeat three times during the course of her novel (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 1, 70, 230). Only in the final pages, when the protagonist asks “what is money?” (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 247) are we afforded the variation promised by the title, though here, with some irony, the change is permitted on financial, rather than aesthetic, grounds. Tellingly, the only other phrase repeated verbatim in the novel is about an unwanted dog named Skittle belonging to Thomas’s brother Howard: he emits “nervous little squirts of urine” (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 50, 251) in each scene in which he appears, before being accidentally run over. The pairing of art and urine is not accidental: the novel is profoundly concerned with the discarded and the redundant, and whether art is capable of redeeming time and experience, and, if so, from what. To attempt to define the nature of art is not, as George Steiner has argued, a generic question, but a theological one.23 To ask that question within the frame of a realist novel is not a pretension, but a deliberate, itchy, affront, and one The Bradshaw Variations seems both determined, and apologetic, about making. Throughout, it is language of musical structure and form that provides Cusk the means of exploring it. Repetition offers art—particularly music—a pattern, and, so, a tendency to the wellmade; it offers life a habit, and, so, a tendency to the prosaic. Cusk explores this paradox

The Faithless Music of the Contemporary British Novel


with a risky strategy, mining tired clichés and musical analogies for characters and their interactions throughout the novel. These metaphors are littered throughout the novel, and “littered” is a verb I use deliberately, worried as The Bradshaw Variations is about waste, that which is no longer useful, and language, love, or a socially defined relationship that may have run its course. The staircase of the Bradshaw’s house is a piano keyboard, where footsteps go up and down “like arpeggios” (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 3); the kitchen is sonorous, with “static, structural confirmations” (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 4); morning conversations with the au pair are “interludes” that “never develop” (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 3). So attuned is Cusk’s metaphorical spirit to Thomas’s daily machinations at the piano that the novel’s figurative language becomes its own kind of obedient practice, working through the gestural exercises that make “messianic” music into its shabby verbal equivalent. At times, the narrative voice performs these excursions through Thomas, as in the account of his two brothers: [F]rom the beginning, it seems to Thomas, Howard was set in a major key and Leo in a minor, and though their lives are their own, to Thomas they will always seem to be resolving their harmonic destiny, as he himself, he supposes, will to them. (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 29)

The rather pat and equivocal conclusion suggests the failure of Thomas’s metaphorical power rather than Cusk’s: “it seems,” “he supposes.” She adopts Steiner’s “impotent metaphors” willingly, to articulate her characters’ own impotence. Playing music will fail to redeem him, while conceptualizing his world through music will offer him no means of escape. The novel turns towards “pure music,” but we discover it through a repetitive linguistic turn that calls up popular, or what Richard Middleton has called “the endless circulation of copies, performances, covers.”24 This reflexive and diagnostic reading of characters’ preoccupation with musical metaphor in Cusk’s work is borne out by its opposite partner, their tyrannical need to narrativize. All of her characters are obsessive in their need to structure and control their stories about the world. Tonie’s mother feels her daughter can be encompassed in conversation “without effort, in the way that a novelist encompasses a minor character” (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 102); she can make use of “repetition,” and present her as “a set of quirks, like a set of piano keys” (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 103). Thomas’s sister-in-law Susie can “make even the most horrible things seem harmless simply by retaining her ability to comment on them” (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations, 178). Yet, the novel is anxious about making music into narrative, or incorporating it into the known world. On the one hand, we are encouraged to draw explicit analogies between the novel’s soundtrack and its events. The novel opens with Thomas playing a CD of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, a piece that ends with a combination of wedding bells and funeral bells, and which accompanies a novel frayed by the possibility of divorce, infidelity, and death. Yet, this daily ritual of listening to music seems less a sacrament than a desecration. Here, the novel brings to mind Steiner’s anxious reaction about musical reproduction and sound technology: If we choose, we can put on Opus 131 while eating the breakfast cereal. We can play the St Matthew Passion any hour or day


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

of the week. Again, the effects are ambiguous: there can be an unprecedented intimacy, but also devaluation (désacralization). A Muzak of the sublime envelops us (Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 93). While Steiner seems close to Adorno here, Thomas is attempting not to make Schumann into Muzak, but, rather, to the make the “book of repetition”— domestic life—into a sacred book. This comes with its own attendant problems: when, later in the novel, Thomas turns the pages of Kobbe’s Complete Opera like “pages of the Bible” (Cusk, The Bradshaw Variations, 172), we sense a note of authorial disapproval, of misapprehended idols. This is made explicit in the novel’s closing scenes: as Thomas sits in a hospital waiting room, about to learn whether or not his daughter’s meningitis is fatal, he is drawn into a discussion with Olga, their lodger, about Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. The narrative flatly states that “as well as being what it is, the music has a symbolic function in the story” (Cusk, The Bradshaw Variations, 233) and Thomas is goaded into throwing the book away, with its description of “what cannot be known until it is lived, by which time it is too late to know it” (Cusk, The Bradshaw Variations, 230). While the novel’s final image is of a silence broken by a joyful bird “garlanding the still air with a ribbon of song,” Thomas’s piano has become a “grave” (Cusk, The Bradshaw Variations, 248); music turns away from the provenance of the intellect to the natural. To make music anything other than what it is, or even to attempt to define what it is, is crudely destructive. The novel’s turn towards the epiphany proves an impossible exertion. While The Bradshaw Variations (2009) is trenchant in its excision of popular music from its realist frame, classical music turns out to be another temptation too great; its terrible promise of a human world that might transcend the mundane is finally rejected.

Conclusion In 2003, the literary critic James Wood took the bold step of publishing a novel. The Book Against God is a first-person narrative about a depressive trying to write the book of the title, a rambling, polemical, catechistic opus that will prove to his Anglican father there is no God. Yet, any theological project so enraged by the adversary will have a hard time denying God’s existence, and so it proves. In its place, we find the protagonist, Tommy Bunting, desperate to find faith in art and, more specifically, his wife’s music: Jane once told me that talking to someone else who “really understands music” made her feel as if she had met someone of the same religious faith. She didn’t mean me; I was a pagan, unable to pray with her. But it was lovely to touch the hem of that faith.25

Music represents another religion our heathen subject cannot quite believe in, but, here, he plays the role of agnostic rather than heretic. He can merely “provide metaphors for Jane” (Wood, Book Against God, 26), translating her “religious” understanding into the prosaic and secular. There is a defeatist shoulder shrug here: this is a translator moving between two worlds that rarely want or need to communicate—what he

The Faithless Music of the Contemporary British Novel


provides is far from providential. Yet the novel’s elision of the “elusively ethical” and the “murkily musical” (Wood, Book Against God, 11) does more than simply replay the familiar debate about the efficacy of language when faced with music. Like Coe, Cusk, and Smith, Wood’s musical excursion is also a religious one. These are dangerous sorts of pilgrimages, likely to leave writers on the margins, or, as with Cusk’s protagonists, in a place they recognize only too well. By putting narrative, metaphor, and literary tradition to the test through the music of their novels, these writers also examine their own authorial creeds. The contemporary novelist, by linking the secularization of the world they describe with its increasingly fluid understanding of musical culture, explores the possibility of an absorptive and transformative art. The enemy, it seems, is no longer music, but transience.

Notes 1 See, for example, Adorno, “Music and Language: A Fragment,” which argues music must “distance itself ” (Adorno, 6); Conrad, Romantic Opera and the Literary Novel, which casts music as the “enemy of words” (Conrad, 113); and Benson’s Literary Music: Writing Music in Contemporary Fiction, which notes the “professions of inadequacy” made by literary theorists when discussing language (Benson, 3). 2 Forster, Howards End, 31. 3 Steiner, Real Presences, 19. 4 Ridley, The Philosophy of Music, 15. 5 Mann, Doctor Faustus, 269. 6 For a theoretical discussion of how popular music might respond to secularization, see Middleton, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei or, Imagine, I’m Losing My Religion (Hallelujah!): Musical Politics after God.” 7 Gerry Smyth, Music in Contemporary British Fiction, 99. 8 Taylor, A Secular Age, 356. 9 Burgess, Mozart and the Wolf Gang, 7. 10 James Wood, The Broken Estate, xiii–xiv. 11 Coe, The Rotters’ Club, 403. 12 May, “Closing the Circle: An Interview with Jonathan Coe,” 69. 13 Coe, The Closed Circle, 269. 14 Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984, xvii. 15 Smith, “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager,” 21. 16 Smith, On Beauty, 5. 17 See, for example, Fiona Tolan, “Identifying the Precious in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty,” or Andrzej Gasiorek, “E. M. Forster, Iris Murdoch, and Zadie Smith,” which notes “it would be a mistake to make too much of Smith’s importance to Forster” (Gasiorek, 176). 18 Kermode, “Here She Is,” 13. 19 A similar concern haunts musicology, too: see, for example, Allan F. Moore’s Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song, which questions the efficacy of analogies between words and music (Moore, 256). 20 Turner, “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation.” 21 Lasdun, “Disparate Housewives.”

238 22 23 24 25

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Cusk, The Bradshaw Variations, 51. Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 227. Middleton, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei or, Imagine, I’m Losing My Religion (Hallelujah!),” 345. Wood, The Book Against God, 26.

Bibliography Adorno, Theodor A. “Music and Language: A Fragment.” In Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1–6. London, England: Verso, 1992. Benson, Stephen. Literary Music: Writing Music in Contemporary Fiction. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. Burgess, Anthony. Mozart and the Wolf Gang. London, England: Hutchinson, 1998. Coe, Jonathan, The Rotters’ Club. London, England: Vintage, 2001. ———. The Closed Circle. London, England: Vintage, 2005. Conrad, Peter. Romantic Opera and the Literary Novel. London, England: University of California Press, 1977. Cusk, Rachel. The Bradshaw Variations. London, England: Faber, 2009. Forster, E. M. Howards End. New York, NY: Signet, 1998. Gasiorek, Andrzej. “E. M. Forster, Iris Murdoch, and Zadie Smith”. In The Legacies of Modernism: Historicising Postwar and Contemporary Fiction, edited by David James, 170–86. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Kermode, Frank. “Here She Is.” London Review of Books, October 2005, 13–14. ———. Concerning E. M. Forster. London, England: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009. Lasdun, James. “Disparate Housewives.” Review of Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk. The Guardian, 16 September, 2006. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/sep/16/ featuresreviews.guardianreview6. Mann, Thomas. Doctor Faustus. Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. London, England: Everyman, 1992. May, William. “Closing the Circle: An Interview with Jonathan Coe.” In From Self to Shelf: The Artist under Construction, edited by William May and Sally Bayley, 66–73. Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. Middleton, Richard. “Vox Populi, Vox Dei or, Imagine, I’m Losing My Religion (Hallelujah!): Musical Politics after God.” In Musical Belongings, 329–52. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009. Moore, Allan F. Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2012. Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984. London, England: Faber, 2005. Ridley, Aaron. The Philosophy of Music. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. London, England: Penguin, 2006. Smith, Zadie. “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager.” Review of The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster, 1929–1960: A Selected Edition, edited by Mary Lago, Linda K. Hughes, and Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, New York Review of Books, August 14, 2008; reprinted in Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind, 14–27. London, England: Penguin, 2009. Smyth, Gerry. Music in Contemporary British Fiction. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

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Steiner, George. In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture. London, England: Faber & Faber, 1973. ———. Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say? London, England: Faber, 1989. Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Tolan, Fiona. “Identifying the Precious in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.” British Fiction Today, edited by Rod Mengham and Philip Tew, 128–38. London, England: Continuum, 2006. Turner, Janice. “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation.” The Times, 3 March, 2012. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/non-fiction/article3335745.ece. Wood, James. The Book Against God. London, England: Faber, 2003. ———. The Broken Estate: Essays in Literature and Belief. London, England: Jonathan Cape, 1999.



The Rock Star’s Responsibility Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen D. Quentin Miller

“I realized I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I didn’t want to do that.” (Bob Dylan)1 Bob Dylan’s legendary escape from a demanding and devouring public in the late 1960s created an enduring legend for the postmodern novelist. Facing off against a crushing industry and ravenous fans, Dylan insisted upon his right to create music on his own terms, to cultivate a mystique that replaced any depiction of a stable, predictable self, and to reinvent himself consistently in spite of (or in defiance of) shifting trends and tastes. Given the premature deaths of so many rock and pop stars from the late 1960s through to the present day,2 all of who seem to have been the victims of fame in one way or another, Dylan’s temporary hiatus from the rock music scene can be viewed as self-preservation. The key question for the novelist is: What happens in the aftermath of this pattern of defeat and retreat? The possibilities range from obscurity to the perseverance of artistic integrity. Bucky Wunderlick, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s novel Great Jones Street (1973), is modeled closely on Dylan. His agent encourages him to commit suicide, and/or to release a set of tapes that he recorded only for himself. No matter which choice he makes, his actions will profit the industry and gratify his fans’ expectations at the expense of his artistic integrity and sense of self. Two more recent novels—The Fortress of Solitude (2003) by Jonathan Lethem and Freedom (2010) by Jonathan Franzen— revisit the figure of the exiled rock star and deepen DeLillo’s assumptions about the contemporary musician’s range of choices. The three novels can be productively contextualized against the backdrop of the tug of war between the music industry and the artist’s struggle for autonomy. Although the artist lacks absolute control in all three novels, there is a subtle improvement in the ability of fictional musicians to survive, to sustain their influence, to fight back against demands for their talents, to regain control of their artistic efforts, and to insist upon their privacy. The similarities between DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick and Dylan are evident, and have been analyzed elsewhere.3 Bucky’s snarky putdowns to intruding and somewhat stupid 241


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

interviewers are reminiscent of the Dylan persona famously captured in Pennebaker’s important film Dont Look Back (1967) and amplified in Scorsese’s more recent and more thorough documentary No Direction Home (2005).4 Bucky refuses to give in to the prescribed fate of a rock star: to sacrifice himself for his public. Like Dylan, who stopped touring following a 1966 motorcycle accident that some skeptics feel was a hoax,5 Bucky attempts to withdraw from the public eye by holing up in his girlfriend’s apartment on an obscure street in lower Manhattan. Bucky’s retreat into solitude is compromised repeatedly, as a host of figures from the music industry as well as emissaries from underground political groups and even from shadowy unknown departments of the U.S. government troop into his private space.6 Surrendering to the intrusive demands of the rock audience, Bucky gives one interviewer license to fictionalize his life: “Go home and write whatever you want and then send it out on the wires. Make it up. Whatever you write will be true.”7 DeLillo reveals and scrutinizes a contemporary truth: the rock star has no control over the story of his life, or over the sanctity of his private life. As a result, rock stars are incomplete or fragmented individuals. When his former bandmate Azarian asks him when he will return to the public eye, Bucky responds, “Not yet. I’ve been set back. Have to reassemble myself” (DeLillo, 123). When his girlfriend Opel dies suddenly, he wanders around in a disintegrated funk: “Aloud I repeated three sounds: wun der lick” (DeLillo, 192). Even his obviously created stage name has fallen apart, and he cannot summon the resources to put himself back together or to replace himself with a stunt double. Similarly, toward the end of Scorsese’s film, an overwrought Dylan (whose name is also invented) says to his band, “I’m gonna get me a new Bob Dylan. Use him.”8 These performers exhibit a state of utter exhaustion brought about by a demanding and unforgiving public, the relentless mass media, a brutal industry that forces its artists both to record new material and to tour as a way of promoting it, a culture that is both rapidly changing and resistant to change, and a restless artistic spirit that refuses to produce the same material repeatedly. Bucky begins to doubt his own existence, and, like Dylan, whose desire to invent a new copy of himself and “use him” immediately preceded the motorcycle accident that was allegedly serious enough to take him off the road for eight years, Bucky’s only recourse is to withdraw. This impulse to withdraw coupled with the frivolity of death in the novel leads to this bitter conclusion in Bucky’s opening address on the novel’s first page: “Perhaps the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide. (Is it clear I was a hero of rock ’n’ roll?)” (DeLillo, 1). Even suicide, which could be interpreted as the ultimate act of self-control, seems prescribed in Great Jones Street. The fame that Bucky describes is associated with “a devouring neon” (DeLillo, 1) and “the nibbling skills of [a camera’s] enormous jaws” (DeLillo, 129), indicating his feeling that he is a product rather than a producer. He imagines that his fans want to consume him, and plenty of precedents exist from rock culture of this era. Take, for example, the fans on the Rolling Stones’ tour leading up to the tragic free concert at Altamont, as seen in the documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), or the violent rebellion at the end of the Who’s rock opera Tommy (1969, 1975), in which the former pinball-wizard-turned-messiah (a stand-in for the rock star) is shocked by his fans’ chant, “We’re not gonna take it!” as they swarm to destroy him. Rock fans during this period demanded sacrifice as musicians became stars, and then gods, and the

Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen


suicidal deaths of stars like Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison became morbidly commonplace. Just before he goes into exile, Bucky notices a change in his fans, suspecting that it is possible that “the culture had reached its limit”; he says: Those without tickets didn’t storm the barricades, and during a performance the boys and girls directly below us, scratching at the stage, were less murderous in their love of me, as if realizing finally that my death, to be authentic, must be selfwilled—a successful piece of instruction only if it occurred by my own hand, preferably in a foreign city. (DeLillo, 2)

Sensing the pathos of his realization that his fans’ demands would never be satisfied on his own terms, he takes the only action he feels is available: to hide. And yet, this exile on Great Jones Street is part of a larger quest to rediscover or reinvent the deeper meaning of his music, thereby reasserting his identity in a culture determined to rob him of it. Typical of both the fictional postmodern antihero and of the rock stars of his era, Bucky is profoundly alienated. He regards his fans as murderous, but his attitude toward them is equally violent and heartless; in an interview he declares, “We make noise. We make it louder than anybody else and also better. Any curly-haired boy can write windswept ballads. You have to crush people’s heads. That’s the only way to make those fuckers listen” (DeLillo, 104). Early on, he expresses his belief that his audience suddenly wants “more than music, more even than its own reduplicated noise” (DeLillo, 2). Noise is the flip side of silence in the novel. Silence is represented continuously: in the disconnected phone that Bucky pretends to speak into; in the mute, disabled character known as Micklewhite’s son in an adjacent apartment; and, of course, in the aphasia drug that is being smuggled through Bucky’s apartment and that he is eventually forced to take. Noise and silence constitute the polar forces that make up Bucky’s world. Together, they represent the range of the culture he seeks to capture in his music and in his retreat from it, otherwise known as his public and private worlds. However, noise and silence don’t offer anything in the way of communication, which should be at the heart of the performer/audience relationship. Just as Bucky’s responses to interviewers tend to deconstruct or negate meaning—when one reporter says “Peace” at the end of an interview, Bucky replies, “War” (DeLillo, 24)—so too do his lyrics work against meaning. His most famous song is entitled “Pee-Pee-Maw-Maw”; it begins, “Blank mumble blat / Babble song babble song / Foaming at the mouth” (DeLillo, 118). These lyrics can be seen as a parody of some of Dylan’s more obscure lyrics during his surreal period of the mid–1960s,9 but they also reveal part of the anxiety that Bucky is wrestling with: that he doesn’t know whether he has anything to say. He confesses to Opel: I can’t go out there and sing pretty lyrics or striking lyrics and I can’t go out there and make new and louder and more controversial sounds. I’ve done all that. More of that would be just what it says—more of the same. Maybe what I want is less. (DeLillo, 87)


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

This is part of his quest to “minimize,” but it doesn’t offer a path out of the apartment into the culture at large. Bucky’s own interpretation of the lyrics to “Pee-Pee-Maw-Maw” is presented in the novel as part of the novel’s second section, a break from the first-person narration entitled “Superslick Mind Contracting Media Kit: ’The Bucky Wunderlick Story’ Told in news items, lyrics and dysfunctional interviews. Prepared by Esme Taylor Associates, a division of Transparanoia” (DeLillo, 96). This section’s existence is deeply ironic given that it purports to tell “the Bucky Wunderlick story,” but does so by interrupting Bucky’s own version of his story. It is a product of his corporation, which he originally created, but which has been thoroughly co-opted by the industry to the point that the very apartment he is hiding in is owned by Transparanoia. All of the lyrics contained within the “Superslick Mind Contracting Media Kit” are copyrighted by the corporation— meaning creative control and authenticity are undermined by this central section, and the reader must question what has been omitted from the official “Bucky Wunderlick Story,” or why his corporation has chosen these particular lyrics and interviews to tell it, or even how this section came to be placed in the middle of Bucky’s narrative in the first place. Another lyric within this section is a telling confession of Bucky’s feelings about his relationship to the industry. The lyrics to the song “Diamond Stylus” play on the conceit that the singer is indistinguishable from the records he produces: “Tracking force / Is the way I die / It scratched out lines on my face. . . . They give me five hundred hours / One thousand sides /. . . Sound is hard to child-bear/ Skin inked black” (DeLillo, 112–13).10 Again, Bucky is attempting to produce something, to “child-bear” his music, but he is rendered into a vinyl product with no way to combat the vague “they” who limit and enumerate what he can do. The face of this vague “they” is Globke, who is quite explicit about what he demands from Bucky; he says: You took away my action. We needed product, see. You were failing to deliver product. Product is something that matters deeply. You owed us product. Contracts in our files specified what product you owed, when it was due, how it was to be presented. (DeLillo, 186)

The emphasis on “product” here is doubly significant in the context of the novel: not only does Bucky understand himself to be a product to be consumed, but the package containing the aphasia drug (and its replacement containing the Mountain Tapes) that Opel brings into the apartment is also referred to as “the product.” Mark Osteen concurs: “A third person even to himself, Bucky is just another consumer product.”11 Bucky equates himself and his products in “Diamond Stylus,” and the chilling reality behind that comparison is revealed in no uncertain terms here. The battle over the socalled Mountain Tapes is thus the novel’s central conflict, and its resolution demonstrates how powerless Bucky has always been in terms of creative control. Bucky argues with Globke repeatedly that the Mountain Tapes are sacred; he says, “I can’t go out before crowds and do those same songs. The effect of the tapes is that they’re

Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen


tapes. Done at a certain time under the weight of a certain emotion. Done on the spot and with many imperfections” (DeLillo, 188). Globke denies the validity of this claim as he insists that Bucky go back on tour: “Don’t think of it as a performance. Think of it as an appearance. . . . We build up incredible interest this way” (DeLillo, 198). Bucky wryly responds, “And the day after my funeral you release the tapes” (DeLillo, 198). His life and life’s work are sacrificed to the demands of the marketplace and the profit motive that has enabled Globke and the Transparanoia corporation to flourish. Bucky is especially defensive about the Mountain Tapes because they represent to him the purest form of artistic creation. The industry has conspired to render him inauthentic, as is clear from Globke’s assertion that appearance has replaced performance, and that the point of the tour is simply to generate “interest” so Bucky’s fans will purchase not only concert tickets, but the Mountain Tapes, released on a double album. Bucky holds onto the Mountain Tapes as something pure, spontaneous, and individual; he says: On the tapes were twenty-three songs, all written and sung by me, all played by me (without accompaniment) on an old acoustic guitar, the first I’d ever owned. . . . I refused to discuss the tapes with anyone. I declined to release them, to re-record the songs, to accept any offer concerning this material. (DeLillo, 147)

He intuitively understands that the tapes represent the essence of his privacy, and thus must be preserved and protected from the public. The elaborate plot involving the violent destruction of the Mountain Tapes and the simultaneous injection of Bucky with the drug that renders him mute emphasize DeLillo’s insistence that the rock star’s fame is paradoxically his destruction. As Bucky puts it, “Fame is treble and bass, and only a rare man can command the dial to that fractional point where both tones are simultaneously his” (DeLillo, 149). Bucky is clearly not that rare man, and DeLillo questions whether that man exists. Of the other rock stars in the novel, one (Watney) crassly sells out to the market, and the other (Azarian) is murdered, his head stuffed grotesquely and symbolically into a television set. Fame may be an ideal balance of treble and bass, as Bucky believes, but the rock star is denied access to the dial that controls them. Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude asks similar questions about musical fame. The title alludes not only to Superman’s headquarters in the DC Comics graphic series, but to the production of art. Bucky’s anechoic chamber, where he produced the Mountain Tapes, is just such a fortress. Lethem’s novel deepens DeLillo’s inquiry into the relationship between audience and performer, and continues to probe the philosophical underpinnings of this relationship: Does art only matter if the artist is acknowledged, and is a paid, public figure? Is the act of producing art its true value or do its products need to be widely influential over a large portion of the population? Art is manifested in eccentric forms in Lethem’s novel. The protagonist, Dylan Ebdus (named after Bob Dylan), goes through a phase as a graffiti artist, an art that many consider nothing more than a crime. His lifelong best friend Mingus Rude is his leader in this pursuit, and


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Mingus is later able to parlay his artistic talents into drawings in prison, which are variously used as blueprints for tattoos, stationery for letters to loved ones, or contraband pornography. Dylan’s father Abraham becomes famous for drawing cover art for science fiction novels, but he publicly denounces this pursuit and praises his own obsessive pursuit of true art, which involves meticulous hand-painting on film, panel by panel. Dylan’s absent mother sends him cryptic poetry on postcards. All of these artists deliberately retreat into the lonely fortresses of solitude that will enable them to pursue only the private aspects of its pleasure. It is Dylan’s challenge, and the plot of the novel, to contemplate whether or not such private artistic pursuits are ultimately beneficial to both the artist and the populace. Arguably the central figure in Dylan’s maturity is Mingus’s father, Barrett Rude Jr., a pop–soul sensation turned drug addict. Like Bucky, Barrett has withdrawn from public performance after becoming exhausted. Barrett’s story is every bit as depressing as Bucky’s: he enters the novel as a pathetic has-been who drinks and snorts his way through his days and neglects (or even corrupts) his son while his gold records hang meaninglessly on the wall. As in DeLillo’s novel, the second section of The Fortress of Solitude changes narrative modes: it is presented as the liner note for a re-release of Rude’s work: “Bothered Blue Once More: The Barrett Rude Jr. and the Distinctions Story.”12 The crucial difference between this boiled-down version of a pop star’s life and the one presented in DeLillo’s novel is that this liner note was prepared by the novel’s protagonist rather than by a corporation. It marks the shift from the novel’s thirdperson narrator to Dylan’s first-person narration, and thus is the key to freeing his creative voice. Dylan’s attempts to recover Barrett Rude’s story highlight the novel’s connections between human empathy and art, connections that do not survive in Great Jones Street. The Fortress of Solitude is a sprawling novel that deals with race relations, parental abandonment, sexual awakening, and magical superhero powers, to name only a few of its topics. It may be audacious to isolate a central conflict within its layered plot. And yet, Barrett Rude’s evasive presence within the novel is certainly a primary catalyst for Dylan’s exodus from Brooklyn and his fervent attempts in adulthood to make peace with the city of his youth. Dylan is an obsessive type from an early age who unconsciously seeks an outlet for his active imagination. One of his earliest acts is to improve upon a rudimentary childhood game called “skully.” His efforts reveal the game’s essential deficiency, and he realizes, “Maybe to perfect a thing was to destroy it” (Lethem, 22). This early defeat puts him in danger of following in the footsteps of his fellow white outcast Arthur Lomb, whose archetypal nerd obsessions (chess, first-edition comic books) are creative dead ends. Unable to capitalize on his intellectual gifts, Arthur ends up dropping out of school and indulging in excessive drug use with Mingus. Dylan could have become a nihilist like Mingus or Arthur in the absence of some true creative outlet. Mingus ends up in prison and Arthur becomes a crass entrepreneur who heartlessly gentrifies the Brooklyn of their youth. Dylan manages to escape their fates, and it could be argued that Barrett is his inspiration. This assertion might seem absurd, given Barrett’s characterization in the novel. He is introduced first through his gold records, which sit amidst a heap of detritus on his

Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen


dresser, then in person as a debased king: “Barrett Rude Junior sat enthroned before the [television] screen in blue satin pants and an unsashed silk robe, his thick arms fallen to either side, palms open, legs sprawled halfway to the television” (Lethem, 72). His fortress of solitude is no longer art, but simply withdrawal from a rich past into a pathetic hedonistic present. As the novel progresses, Barrett slides down a steep spiral involving alcohol and cocaine. He offers drugs to both Mingus and Dylan, and he even attempts to procure sexual favors for Mingus on his birthday. He avoids the watchful scowl of his own father, a disgraced minister who openly scorns him. To call Barrett Rude Jr. an unlikely role model would be a gross understatement. Barrett’s career was simultaneously tragic and inspirational because he was undervalued and exploited. His spiral begins when he receives complimentary tickets to a Ray Charles concert and feels jealousy and contempt for the famous musician who has survived and flourished. Bending down to snort cocaine, he reflects on the differences between himself and Ray Charles and becomes conscious of his stance: “It was like singing, a matter of what distant quadrants in your belly and chest you could find to offer up. Commitment on a deeper level” (Lethem, 103). This commitment amounts to nothing for the true artist such as Rude who is unable to control his career; he realizes: Atlantic had ripped him off in his incarnation as the lead voice of the Servile [sic] Distinctions, siphoned royalties from his account like draining a pool. Then as final insult brought in Andre Deehorn and some no-name scab singers and built tracks around unfinished vocals, for release as a bogus final album . . . after he quit. (Lethem, 104)

Left with resentment and self-loathing, he gives his Ray Charles tickets to Mingus (who sells them) and spends the afternoon wallowing in narcotics and regret. Barrett does little else throughout the novel, except to record briefly with a disco–funk band who enable him to sing on their track without identifying himself; a band member tells him: “We’ll put some other name on the sleeve, call you, huh, Pee-Brain Rooster. . . . Anyone with ears is gonna know it’s you the minute you open your mouth, man. Minute you let out that motherfucker of a voice” (Lethem, 131; italics as per original setting). The band, a collection of outrageous performers known as Doofus Funkstrong, emerge from Barrett’s apartment and he stands on the stoop behind them, hoping for a little neighborhood notoriety: He might have basked for a second or two in Dean Street’s eyes on him: Shouldn’t they know he was a star? Damn, time they learned. Problem with being in a group, no one ever knew your name, just the group, the Distinctions. (Lethem, 154)

Though he briefly desires fame, Barrett is not poised to enjoy it. His “motherfucker of a voice” is all he ever had, and not only has it been swallowed up by an industry that manipulates him, but it is also lost on a public that does not care enough to idolize a star unable to sustain his fame. Doofus Funkstrong produces a brief hit; the narrator observes:


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

Anyone trusting their ears knew Doofus Funkstrong was a disguise for the legally hamstrung, hence recording-under-pseudonyms. . . . Fewer ears would place the name of the vocalist whose melismas decorated just the last thirty-eight seconds of the single edit, credited on the album jacket, as according to plan, as Pee-Brain Rooster: under his own name Barrett Rude Junior was a voice from radio’s middle distance, years out of rotation, not yet an oldie. (Lethem, 198)

He goes on to say, “the song died. . . . call Doofus Funkstrong an album-oriented act, euphemism for Who cares? . . . History, basically, wasn’t made” (Lethem, 199). And so ends Barrett Rude’s career, pathetically, in obscurity. Barrett’s story seems even bleaker than Bucky’s because he winds up an invisible footnote to music history. Yet his importance is as the subject of Dylan Ebdus’s creative work. During the first third of the novel, when it is still narrated in the third person, the narrator argues that “nerd connoisseurs were left to savor [Doofus Funkstrong’s hit] later, to champion or slag it in their endless tinny dialogue” (Lethem, 199). This put down of nerd connoisseurs gradually gives way to an appreciation of anyone who pays careful attention to non-commercial art. Dylan matures into just such a figure, and his “liner note” at the center of the novel demonstrates that sustained fame is not the only possible triumph that a rock star can enjoy. The recordings Barrett Rude made with the Distinctions are, like Bucky’s Mountain Tapes, true art. They only need to be recovered, preserved, and appreciated to function as such. Dylan’s elaborate and creative liner note begins with the assumption that we occasionally hear a song that has the capacity “to retie the frayed laces of [our] years,” but we cannot properly identify or place it: “What’s missing . . . is the story, the context, the space the song lived in” (Lethem, 294). Dylan’s attempt to tell the story of Barrett Rude as “one of the most elusive and singular figures in pop-music history” as well as “one of the greatest soul singers who ever lived” (Lethem, 295) leads to his ability to tell his own story, which he does during the novel’s third section. Although the artist has been chewed up and spat out by a ruthless industry and a largely inattentive public, the fact of his genius is so strong that it outlives him. The man steadily degrades, but his art lives on, and, in turn, generates more art, which may take a form as humble as a CD liner note or as ambitious as the novel that contains it. According to the postmodern novelist, following Bob Dylan’s example of how to negotiate between the demands of the industry and the public and the need for true artistic expression, fame is both inevitable and detrimental. Artists who develop wariness of or even contempt for their public are battling back against the forces that might kill them, literally or metaphorically. DeLillo’s Bucky predicts a resurrection in his final pages, realizing that his muteness is temporary: “When the season is right I’ll return to whatever is out there. It’s just a question of what sound to make or fake” (DeLillo, 265). (DeLillo asserts that “the book is the narrator’s way of resurfacing,”13 but this assertion is problematized by the novel’s intrusive central section). Barrett Rude is resurrected not through his own actions, but through the painstaking efforts of Dylan Ebdus to honor his legacy with his own careful analysis and appreciation. A third

Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen


model is posited in the character of Richard Katz in Franzen’s Freedom. In this case, the rock musician has always been wary of the pitfalls of commercial success, and he realizes before it is too late that, “it seemed clear that he was never going to be a star and so it was better to be an anti-star.”14 Richard is an aggressively antibourgeois brooder whose contempt cannot be disguised. His model, again, is the Bard of Hibbing: “[Richard] said that . . . Bob Dylan was an asshole, the beautifully pure kind of asshole who made a young musician want to be an asshole himself ” (Franzen, 132). Like Bucky, Richard and his band the Traumatics play music at a volume so intense that it threatens to crush skulls, and the novel’s flawed protagonist Patty is warned to wear earplugs to his concert. Despite his bluster, Richard has the soul of a true musician in that he “couldn’t live without making music” (Franzen, 151). The difference between him and the other two fictional characters is that he deliberately avoids the lure of fame, and largely succeeds in deconstructing it to avoid his own destruction. His best friend Walter laments this situation, “raving” to Patty about the merits of Richard’s new album “and the debased taste of an American public that turned out by the millions for the Dave Matthews Band and didn’t even know that Richard Katz existed” (Franzen, 145). Walter’s earnestness notwithstanding, Richard’s obscurity may ultimately be regarded as a virtue rather than a pity. The fortress he builds is not entirely one of solitude, but of a deliberately limited audience just as the real-life Bob Dylan has not courted charttopping success since the peak of his fame in the early 1970s. Franzen’s title Freedom has many connotations, one of which is the freedom allowed to the rock star we’ve come to label “indie” or “alternative.” When Richard achieves the fame he never courted after he forms an alt-country band, he not only retreats from the public eye to take up work as a carpenter, but he also makes subtle progress toward becoming a more ethical person—a rare transformation in this novel populated with morally repugnant characters. Just as Barrett Rude’s recordings had a profound effect on Dylan Ebdus and Bucky’s Mountain Tapes had a similar effect on himself, Richard’s songs are deeply unsettling to Patty during their brief affair at the lake house: she cannot even bear to let him continue to sing because her emotions are so stirred. By sidestepping the industry, Richard is able to cultivate the kind of art that affects individuals rather than entire cultures. Franzen, who rejected unparalleled literary fame by refusing to allow his novel The Corrections to be included in Oprah Winfrey’s televised book club, is sensitive to the tension between the individual artist and the mass public, and wary of the media that stand between them. Like The Fortress of Solitude, Freedom is a sprawling novel with a large cast of characters and a number of plotlines. Richard is an outsider to the Berglund family whose story constitutes the main plot of Freedom. His role—and thus the role of rock music—in the novel is to catalyze the crisis at the heart of Walter and Patty’s marriage: that they are unable to reconcile their individual desires with the demands of interpersonal relationships. Richard, the lifelong rival of his best friend Walter, is the instinctive, magnetic alpha male who deliberately flouts convention. He scorns Patty and all women who desire him sexually. He is the rock star whose existence is the antithesis of stable, monogamous, middle-class existence, and, since Patty and Walter are looking for excuses to sabotage their own role in that world, Richard is able to draw


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

them out of their monotonous orbit. His most fruitful periods of creativity come during times of personal and national distress, and in the middle of the presidency of George W. Bush, he is prepared to start creating music again, but cannot because of “the accident of success” (Franzen, 193). Following a spectacular, almost parodic rock-star meltdown involving cocaine, arrest, withdrawal, and impoverishment, he retreats into building decks and hopes for anonymity. Richard is like Bucky in his withdrawal following a period of success and in his anxious suspicion that his music is culturally unimportant. Walter even quotes the first sentence of Great Jones Street, “Fame requires every kind of success,” to Richard and reminds him, “we used to talk about that” (Franzen, 206).15 The difference is that Bucky seems at the mercy of an industry that is in control of every aspect of his life, whereas Richard is only at the mercy of a public that occasionally recognizes him and expects him to behave like a rock star. For the most part, once he has retreated from the public eye and refused to return on anyone’s terms but his own, he manages to control his story. His one mistake—which he realizes even as he is committing it—is that he succumbs to a client’s son’s desire to interview him. The interview is meant to be private, and designed to lure a teenage girl to Richard’s worksite, but in the Internet age the private interview goes viral, and Richard’s popularity is again renewed. He makes this mistake not out of genuine desire to have sex with a barely legal girl, but rather out of a need to steal her away from his teen interviewer Zachary, whom he instinctively dislikes and wants to “squish” (Franzen, 198). This interview thus replays his competitive/seductive dynamic with Walter and Patty Berglund which is the main conflict of the novel. He is drawn back into the spotlight that he had dodged by becoming a “demon of professionalism and Protestant virtue” (Franzen, 195), working an honest job, as opposed to fulfilling the prescribed role of the rock star who enacts a spectacular public disintegration. The irony of Richard’s interview is that its extreme cynicism about the state of rock music is embraced as rebellion even though it negates his own influence. When Zachary has the gall to ask him about the “MP3 revolution,” he sounds off: It’s great to hear the word “revolution” again. It’s great that a song now costs exactly the same as a pack of gum and lasts exactly the same amount of time before it loses its flavor and you have to spend another buck. That era which finally ended whenever, yesterday—you know, that era when we pretended rock was the scourge of conformity and consumerism, instead of its anointed handmaid—that era was really irritating to me. I think it’s good for the honesty of rock and roll and good for the country in general that we can finally see Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop for what they really were: as manufacturers of wintergreen Chiclets. (Franzen, 200)

The interviewer asks him if he’s saying that rock has lost its subversive edge, and he retorts, “it never had any subversive edge. It was always wintergreen Chiclets, we just enjoyed pretending otherwise” (Franzen, 200). This statement, ironically, catalyzes Katz’s public rebirth, even though it is an attempt to kill and bury his famous self. He even acknowledges, when the teen girl finally comes to his worksite to meet him, that

Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen


the game of seducing young women, like the creative, subversive potential of rock, is over: “To die would be the cleanest cutting of his connection to the thing—the girl’s idea of Richard Katz—that was burdening him” (Franzen, 347). Burned out like his one-time models Bob Dylan and Bucky Wunderlick, Richard feels the pull of suicide, especially once he returns to the Berglunds, whose marriage he finally wrecks by doing exactly what he does in this interview: exposing the reality beneath the surface of people who pretend that something is more meaningful than it actually is. And yet, if the rock star in Franzen’s novel were only a more cynical version of the rock star in DeLillo’s or a more burned-out version of the rock star in Lethem’s, it would be difficult to argue that there is any hope for the trajectory of this fictional figure over the past four decades. Bucky and Barrett are, like Richard, suicidal or morbidly selfdestructive in the years following their rise to fame. Richard, answering the question about whether “successful musicians have a responsibility to be role models,” again ties his profession to crass consumerism: “Me me me, buy buy buy, party party party. Sit in your own little world, rocking, with your eyes closed. . . . [rock musicians] already are perfect Republican role models” (Franzen, 202). He eventually flees from Walter’s request to build on his fame to do some actual political good, which is what he claims rock musicians can do. But his final gesture is to record something like Bucky’s Mountain Tapes—not just for himself, but for Walter, as a way of restoring music to what it was before it was just a product like chewing gum: that is, an earnest attempt at communication. Richard sends a unique CD, Songs for Walter, to his wronged and damaged best friend, and Walter’s “smiling and weeping” (Franzen, 557) reaction is the novel’s final catharsis. Based as it is on discussions they had in college, Richard describes the CD as “a little friendly shout across time zones” (Franzen, 537), a response to his friend’s silence. Like Patty’s third-person autobiography, it is an attempt at creative, sustained communication in a world that seems intent on preventing such communication from happening. The muted triumph of Richard Katz is to survive, and to continue to make music on his own terms. Bob Dylan is, again, the model for this fictional figure since Dylan has done exactly that over a career now half a century long. When they are denied their commercial potential, the limited-audience recordings that rock musicians make can cause extreme, cathartic emotion, as in Walter’s case, or personal, genuine awe, as in Dylan Ebdus’s. As the music industry struggles to figure out its next move in the Internet age, rock stars and their fans should heed these models and consider whether they want to continue to play host to parasitical money makers. Meanwhile, novelists should continue to scrutinize the rock star in exile and find creative ways to write stories that respond to the rhetorical musical question: “How does it feel to be on your own?”

Notes 1 Heylin, Behind the Shades Revisited, 264. 2 Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Duane Allman, Keith Moon, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, and Amy Winehouse, to name the most familiar examples.


Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction

3 See DeCurtis, “The Product: Bucky Wunderlick, Rock ’n’ Roll, and Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street”; Osteen, American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture; Keesey, Don DeLillo (Keesey, 49); and Smith, “ ‘Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine’: A Rock Star’s Guide to Abandoning Your Audience.” 4 Dont Look Back, directed and written by D. A. Pennebaker; No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese. 5 See Rogovoy, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (Rogovoy, 108) and Heylin, Behind the Shades Revisited (Heylin, 267). 6 The parallel in Bob Dylan’s life came in 1969 when his retreat in Woodstock, New York, was overrun in the lead up to the famous Woodstock festival; he says, “It was like a wave of insanity breakin’ loose around the house day and night. You’d come in the house and find people there, people comin’ through the woods, at all hours of the day and night, knockin’ at your door. . . . We had to get out of there” (Heylin, 307). 7 DeLillo, Great Jones Street, 21. 8 No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese. 9 Boxall interprets Bucky’s lyrics as “parodies of late [Samuel] Beckett” (“DeLillo and Media Culture,” 51). 10 For a more thorough interpretation of the lyrics to “Diamond Stylus,” see Osteen, American Magic and Dread (Osteen, 52). 11 Osteen, American Magic and Dread, 49. 12 Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude, 293. 13 DePietro, Conversations with Don DeLillo, 12. 14 Franzen, Freedom, 72. 15 Walter misquotes DeLillo, substituting “sort” for “kind.”

Bibliography Boxall, Peter. “DeLillo and Media Culture.” In The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo, edited by John N. Duvall, 43–52. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008. DeCurtis, Anthony. “The Product: Bucky Wunderlick, Rock ’n’ Roll, and Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street.” In Introducing Don DeLillo, edited by Frank Lentricchia, 131–42. London, England: Duke University Press, 1991. DeLillo, Don. Great Jones Street. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1973. DePietro, Thomas, ed. Conversations with Don DeLillo. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Dont Look Back. Directed by D. A. Pennebaker. New York, NY: Docurama, 1967. DVD. Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Heylin, Clinton. Behind the Shades Revisited. New York, NY: Harper, 2001. Keesey, Douglas. Don DeLillo. New York, NY: Twayne, 1993. Lethem, Jonathan. The Fortress of Solitude. New York, NY: Vintage, 2003. No Direction Home. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Los Angeles, CA: Paramount, 2005. DVD. Osteen, Mark. American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Privacy, Industry, and Artistry in Novels by DeLillo, Lethem, and Franzen Rogovoy, Seth. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet. New York, NY: Scribner, 2009. Smith, Adrian. “ ‘Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine’: A Rock Star’s Guide to Abandoning Your Audience.” Literature, History of Ideas, Images and Societies of the English-speaking World 2, no. 2 (2004): 90–106. http://lisa.revues.org/index2992. htmløcto1n1.



Music in Contemporary Fiction: Select Bibliography Ackroyd, Peter. English Music. New York, NY: Ballantine, 1994. Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly, 1995. Atkins, Ace. Crossroad Blues. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 1998. Baker, James Robert. Fuel-Injected Dreams. New York, NY: Dutton, 1986. Becker, Geoffrey. Bluestown. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1997. Bell, Madison Smartt. Anything Goes: A Novel. New York, NY: Pantheon, 2002. Bhattacharya, Rahul. The Sly Company of People Who Care. New York, NY: Picador, 2012. Breedlove, Lynn. Godspeed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003. Briggs, Matt. The Remains of River Names. Mill Creek, WA: Black Heron, 1999. Brothers, Megan. Supergirl Mixtapes. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2012. Capó Crucet, Jennine. How to Leave Hialeah. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2009. Chabon, Michael. Telegraph Avenue. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2012. Childress, Mark. Tender. New York, NY: Ballantine, 1990. Cody, Liza. Gimme More. Ann Arbor: Bywater, 2009. Coe, Jonathan. The Close Circle. London, England: Viking, 2005. ———. The Rotter’s Club. New York, NY: Vintage, 2003. Crace, Jim. All That Follows. London, England: Picador, 2010. Curry, Richard. Lost Highway. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Cusk, Rachel. The Bradshaw Variations. London, England: Faber, 2009. Dalton, David. Been Here and Gone. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2000. DeLillo, Don. Great Jones Street. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Denton, Bardley. Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede. New York, NY: Avon, 1992. Dick, Philip K. Radio Free Albemuth. Westminster, MD: Arbor House, 1985. Dodge, Jim. Not Fade Away. New York, NY: Grove, 1987. Doyle, Roddy. The Commitments. London, England: Vintage, 1987. Dunn, Robert. Meet the Annas. New York, NY: Coral, 2007. ———. Pink Cadillac. New York, NY: Coral, 2001. Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York, NY: Knopf, 2010. Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. New York, NY: Vintage, 1991. ———. Less Than Zero. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Ellison, Harlan. Spider Kiss. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley, 1975. Fahey, John. How Bluegrass Music Ruined My Life. Chicago, IL: Drag City, 2000. Fitzhugh, Bill. Radio Activity. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2004. Flanagan, Bill. A&R. New York, NY: Random House, 2000. ———. Evening’s Empire. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2010. Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Fuller, Jack. The Best of Jackson Payne. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001. George, Nelson. Seduced. New York, NY: One World, 2007.



Music in Contemporary Fiction: Selected Bibliography

Goldmark, Kathi Kamen. And These Shoes Keep Walking Back to You. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 2002. Greenman, Ben. Please Step Back. New York, NY: Melville House, 2009. Greer, James. Artificial Light. New York, NY: Akashic, 2006. Guralnick, Peter. Nighthawk Blues. Boston, MA: Back Bay, 2003. Hiaasen, Carl. Basket Case. New York, NY: Warner, 2002. Hijuelos, Oscar. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. Holland, Matthew. Dizzy Z. New York, NY: Soho, 1998. Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity. New York, NY: Riverhead, 1995. ———. Juliet, Naked. New York, NY: Riverhead, 2009. Joy, Camden. Boy Island. New York, NY: Harper, 2000. Kay, Jackie. Trumpet. London, England: Picador, 1998. Kaye, John. The Dead Circus: A Novel. New York, NY: Grove, 2002. Kennedy, Pagan. The Exes. New York, NY: Scribner, 1999. Kluge, P. F. Biggest Elvis. New York, NY: Viking Adult, 1996. ———. Eddie and the Cruisers. New York, NY: Viking Adult, 1980. Kuehnert, Stephanie. Ballads of Suburbia. New York, NY: MTV Books, 2009. ———. I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. New York, NY: MTV Books, 2008. Kunstler, James Howard. The Life of Byron Jaynes. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1983. Kureishi, Hanif. The Black Album. New York, NY: Scribner, 1995. ———. The Buddha of Suburbia. New York, NY: Viking, 1990. Lane, Joel. From Blue to Black. London, England: Serpent’s Tail, 2001. Lappert, Rolf. Islands of the Dying Light. Boulder, CO: Owl Canyon, 2012. Lazar, Zachary. Sway: A Novel. Boston, MA: Back Bay, 2009. Leonard, Elmore. Be Cool. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999. Lethem, Jonathan. The Fortress of Solitude. New York, NY: Vintage, 2003. Lindquist, Mark. Never Mind Nirvana. New York, NY: Villard, 2000. Luna, Kari. The Theory of Everything. New York, NY: Philomel, 2013. Mackey, Nathaniel. Bass Cathedral. New York, NY: New Directions, 2008. ———. From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Baghostus’s Run, Atet A.D. (Vols. 1–3). New York, NY: New Directions, 2010. Martin, George R. R. The Armageddon Rag. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1983. Martin, Stephen. Superchick. Cork, Ireland: Mercier, 2004. McCrumb, Sharyn. The Songcatcher. New York, NY: Signet, 2002. McEwan, Ian. Amsterdam. New York, NY: Nan A. Talese, 1998. ———. On Chesil Beach. London, England: Jonathan Cape, 2007. Moody, Rick. The Ice Storm. New York, NY: Little, Brown, 1994. Moore, Alan and David Gibbons. Watchmen. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1987. Mosley, Walter. RL’s Dream. New York, NY: Norton, 1995. Murray, Albert. Train Whistle Guitar. New York, NY: Vintage, 1998. Nicholson, Geoff. Flesh Guitar. New York, NY: Overlook, 1999. Ondaatje, Michael. Coming Through Slaughter. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1976. Pearson, Allison. I Think I Love You. New York, NY: Chatto & Windus, 2010. Perrotta, Tom. The Wishbones. New York, NY: Berkeley, 1997. Rushdie, Salman. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1999.

Music in Contemporary Fiction: Selected Bibliography


Ryu, Murakami. The Popular Hits of the Showa Era: A Novel. Translated by Ralph McCarthy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2011. Sales, Leila. This Song Will Save Your Life. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. Shiner, Lewis. Glimpses. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1993. Spitz, Marc. How Soon is Never? New York, NY: Broadway, 2003. ———. Say Goodbye: The Laurie Moss Story. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1999. Spencer, Scott. The Rich Man’s Table. New York, NY: Knopf, 1998. Taylor-Hall, Mary Ann. Come and Go, Molly Snow. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. Trott, Roger. Getting in Tune. New York, NY: Coral, 2008. Tucker, Lisa. The Song Reader. New York, NY: Downtown, 2003. Tyler, Anne. A Slipping-Down Life. New York, NY: Ballantine, 2004. Warner, Alan. Morvern Callar. New York, NY: Anchor, 1997. Welsh, Irvine. Trainspotting. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1996. Whitehead, Colson. Sag Harbor. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2009. Winton, Tim. Dirt Music. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2001. Womack, Jack. Elvissey. New York, NY: Tom Doherty, 1993.


Index A Abba 229 AC/DC 46 Acoustic 32, 34, 245 Adaptation 9, 13, 43, 59, 64 Adolescent/adolescence 28, 37, 74, 101, 104–05, 117, 161, 170, 202 Adorno, Theodor 57, 62, 236, 237 Aesthetic 2–4, 10–11, 20–23, 38, 40, 44, 55, 59–60, 63–65, 69, 81, 126, 129, 164, 169–70, 174, 202, 228–29, 234 Aesthetic Play 64 Afrika Bambaataa 174–75, 179 Afro–Cuban 192–93 Agency 33, 47, 92, 133, 159, 164–65 Albright, Daniel 52 Allman, Duane 251 Alt–country 34, 38, 249 Alternative Music 19, 34, 21, 37, 39, 70, 79 Ambiguity 146–47, 152, 203, American Dream 163 American Segregation 144 Armstrong, Louis 91, 97, 218 Anderson, Benedict 87, 90, Androgyny/androgynous 114–15 Anglo–Indian 140 Annesley, James 28 Azerrad, Michael 19, 22–23, 105 Authentic/authenticity 2, 5, 32–36, 40, 44, 47, 49, 58, 65, 70–73, 75–76, 80, 91, 93–94, 102, 124, 129–31, 133–34, 172, 183, 186, 189–92, 194–95, 207, 243–45 Autonomy 241 B Bale, Christian 55, 63 Barker, Hugh 32, 34, 195 Barricelli, Jean Pierre 12, 52 Barthes, Roland 71 –72, 79 Basehead 169 Beach Boys 23

Beatles 62, 112, 139–42, 144, 147, 150–51, 160, 178 Beebe, Roger 76 Beethoven, Ludwig van 4, 12, 227, 232–33 Bell, Thomas L. 78–79 Belonging 140, 142–44, 149, 165, 184–85, 189–90, 216, 234 Benjamin, Walter 2, 12 Benson, Stephen 12, 52, 161, 167, 237 Bilton, Alan 20–21 Binary 72, 101, 103, 143, 157, 195, 228 Blake, Andrew 86–87 Blondie 176–77, 179, 207 Blues 13, 42, 47, 49, 52, 61, 217–18, 220, 224 Bon Jovi 58, 62 Borthwick, Stuart 129, 132 Bourdieu, Pierre 10, 12, 38, 55–56, 58–61, 63, 65 Boundary 128, 157, 165, Bowie, David 115, 123, 125, 139–41, 150, 152 Boym, Svetlana 131–32, 201, 203–04 Branch, Andrew 114–15 Breedlove, Lynn 100–08 Brown, Calvin S. 12, 53 Brown, James 6, 145 Burgess, Anthony 12, 228 Butler, Judith 146, 151 Buzzcocks 31 C Capitalism/capitalist 8, 12–13, 48, 55, 61, 70, 79, 86, 89–90, 100, 102, 118, 204 Cassettes 148, 173, 175–76 Carlisle, Belinda 62 Carpenters 172 Caveney, Graham 23 Charles, Ray 247 Clapton, Eric 13, 218, 229 Clark, Dylan 79 Clash 22, 162, 229


260 Classical Music 3–4, 12, 43–44, 52, 62, 65, 85, 89–90, 93–94, 111, 227–33, 236 Cleaver, Eldridge 144–45 Cobain, Kurt 69–70, 73–81 Coe, Jonathan 228–30, 237 Collins, Phil 60 Colonial 13, 50, 100 Cold War 55, 199, 203, 205–06, 210 Commercial/commercialism 2, 11–12, 35–36, 39, 55, 59–61, 64, 70, 73, 76, 78, 112–13, 129, 174, 229, 248–49, 251 Community 11, 46, 90–91, 130, 139, 141–50, 164, 170–71, 176, 186, 188, 200–01, 205–07, 219, 231 Connoisseur 174, 232, 248 Consumerism/consumerist 20, 33, 36, 65, 79, 250–51 Consumption 3, 8, 26, 56, 58–59, 85, 134, 169–70, 172–73, 175–76 Cook, Richard 88 Cooke, Sam 217, 221, 224 Corporate 22, 32, 79, 177, 207 Cosmopolitan/cosmopolitanism 155–56, 164–66, 207 Counterculture/countercultural 2, 33, 73, 90, 92–93, 105, 142, 200–01, 206, 208 Costello, Elvis 1, 20–21, 24–25, 206, Crace, Jim 85, 87–88, 92–93, 95 Crucet, Jennine Capó 183–94 Cruz, Celia 183, 185–95 Cultural Capital 47, 55–56, 58– 61, 64–65, 71, 75 Cultural Imperialism 162, 164 Cusk, Rachel 228–29, 233–37 D Dave Matthews Band 37, 249 Davis, Fred 131 Delillo, Don 5, 8, 13, 161, 201, 241–48, 251 Depeche Mode 174 Devo 206–07 Dewey, Joseph 111–12 Digable Planets 177–78 Dont Look Back 34, 242 Double Consciousness 171–72 Dowling, Robert 41 Du Bois, W.E.B. 170–72, 177, Dylan, Bob 12, 34, 155, 163, 199–201,

Index 203–06, 208–09, 214–25, 241–43, 245–52 E Eckstein, Lars 93 Edelman, Lee 108 Egan, Jennifer 123–34 Electric Light Orchestra 173 Elitism/elitist 39, 57, 59–60, 85 Ellington, Duke 88, 218 Ellis, Brett Easton 5, 13, 19–29, 55, 57–66, 69, 102 Ellison, Ralph 87, 177–78 Ensminger, David A. 127 Ethnic Connections 165 Everly Brothers 160 Exile/exiled 157, 186 –88, 192, 195, 241, 243, 251 F Faith 227–33, 234, 236 Fantasy 24, 86, 118–19, 146, 157, 163, 203 Fascism 20, 22, 24–26, 95, 150, 207–09 Faupel, Alison 116 Feminine/feminism/femininity 89–90, 96, 103, 105, 107, 115, 120–21, 124, 145–46 Fisk Jubilee Singers 172 Fitzpatrck, Kathleen 37 Forster, E.M. 227, 231–33, 237 Franzen, Jonathan 1, 31–41, 216, 241, 249–51 Freedom 7, 36, 38, 40, 86, 104, 108, 139, 141, 144, 148, 156, 163–64, 249 Freese, Peter 21–22, 25 Frith, Simon 12, 53, 63, 147 Fundamentalism/fundamentalist 142, 147–50, 156–57 Funk 62, 145, 218–20, 223–24, 247 G Gaye, Marvin 145, 217, 221, 224, 251 Gabriel, Peter 60–61 Gender 11–12, 37, 72, 74, 77, 80, 85–89, 93–96, 101, 104–06, 113–17, 120–21, 124, 126–27, 130–31, 133, 142–47, 150–52, 186 Genesis 60, 62 Generation X 76–78, 81

Index Genre 1, 3–4, 8, 11–13, 19, 32, 59, 70, 72, 85–86, 105, 111, 115, 125, 162, 166, 184–86, 195, 216, 224, 227–28 Gilroy, Paul 151, 172, 177, 179 Gimme Shelter 242 Gioia, Ted 91, 97 Globalization 155–56, 166 Gonzáles, Carla Rodríguez 96 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five 170, 175, 179 Griggers, Cathy 102, 106 Grunge 33, 69–81, 112 Guillory, John 56, 59, 61, 64–65 H Halberstam, Judith 101–02, 104–05 Heap, Chad 38 Hebdige, Dick 19, 25–26, 126 Hedonism 120, 14–42, 144–45, 149–50 Hendrix, Jimi 101, 112, 123, 140, 145, 172, 243, 251 Heteronormative 102–04, 106 Highbrow 35 High/low Culture 32 Hip 33, 38, 63, 66, 86, 112, 114, 118, 187 Hip–Hop 38, 71, 112, 169–70, 175, 179, 185, 214, 218, 231–33 Hippy 24, 125, 130, 145, 208–09, 24 Horkheimer, Max 57, 62 Homosocial 90, 100, 103, 113–14, 121 Hooper, Giles 78, 80 Houston, Taylor Martin 113–14, 120–21 Houston, Whitney 60–62 Huey Lewis and the News 60, 63, 66 Hughes, Tim 78–79 Humanity 87, 158, 166, 204–06 Huq, Roopa 77–78 Hybrid 5–7, 13, 85, 87, 145–46, 164, 166, 177 I Idealism 124, 131, 144, 201, 230 Ideology 19, 21–23, 26, 28, 31, 74, 77, 89, 99–100, 103, 141, 144, 191, 210 Imagined Communities 87 Independent Music 32–33, 35–37 Individuality 7, 32, 63–64, 71, 86, 88, 141, 231


INXS 62–63 Intertexts 1, 25, 213 –14 Ishiguro, Kazuo 161 Iton, Richard 218 J Jackson Five 140 Jackson, Michael 62, 166, 251, Jagger, Mick 62 Jameson, Fredric 12, 202 Jazz 7, 12, 38, 61–62, 65, 85–96, 111, 117, 217 Jenkins, Henry 170 Johnson, Robert 47 Johnson, Steven 170 Jones, Brian 243, 251 Joplin, Janis 112, 243, 251 K Kay, Jackie 87, 92–96 Kermode, Frank 232–33 King, Martin Luther 145 Kingsmen 62 Kinks 162 Koolen, Mandy 93–94 Kraftwerk 175, 179 Krims, Adam 71 L Laine, Cleo 95 Latino 183–194 Lawley, Guy 125 Led Zeppelin 21–22, 24, 101, 116 Lennon, John 141–42, 150, 155, 162–63, 251 Les Misérables 58–59, 60, 63 Lethem, Jonathan 1, 160, 161, 207, 213–25, 241, 243–48, 251 Liner note 24, 52, 214, 220–24, 246–48 Lindberg, Ulf 53, 130 Lindquist, Mark 69–78 Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam 176 Little Richard 145–46 Lipsitz, George 13, 26, 47 Lucas, George 171, 178 Lydon/ Rotten, John 126 Lyrics 146, 161–63, 174–75, 178, 187–188, 203, 205, 208, 214, 233, 243–44, 252

262 M Madonna 59, 140, 142, 145–46, 151–52, 166 Mainstream 10, 21–22, 26, 32–33, 35, 40, 57, 71, 73, 80, 87, 100–05, 107, 140, 179, 186, 188, 233 Mann, Thomas 12, 161, 227–28 Marcus, Greil 200 Marginality 11, 32–33, 35, 37, 47, 65, 77, 85–86, 89–90, 93, 101–02, 104, 126–27, 140, 171, 185, 190, 214, 237 Marsh, Dave 24–25 Marx, Richard 63 Masculine/Masculinity 65, 74, 86–96, 99–100, 102–108, 113–16, 118–19, 121, 124, 127, 130–34, 146 Mazullo, Mark 28, 32 Mazzarella, Sharon R. 79–80 McCain, Gillian 25 McEwan, Ian 227 McFadden & Whitehead 177 McFerrin, Bobby 62, 65 McKay, George 86 McNeil, Legs 25 McRobbie, Angela 12, 105–06, 126 Melville, Herman 170–73 Mercury, Freddy 155, 167 Middleton, Jason 129, 134 Middleton, Richard 12, 235, 237 Middlebrow 35, 58–62 Mingus, Charles 216 Misogyny 121 Mix Tape 44 Mobility 55, 156, 183–85, 192 Monkees 207 Moody, Rick 111–121 Moon, Keith 251 Moore, Alan 1, 199–210 Moore, Allan F. 47, 129, 237 Moore, Ryan 78 Morrison, Jim 24, 112, 243, 251 Mourning 44, 48, 50–52, 57–76, 132 Moy, Ron 129 Mozart, Wolfgang 12, 231–33 Musicalization 46 Muto, Jan 80 Muzak 46, 49, 59, 236

Index N Negus, Keith 111, 119, 166–67, 172, 179, 217 Nehring, Neil 80–81 Newton–John, Olivia 173 Nirvana 69–81, 162 Noise 19, 31, 63–64, 243 Nostalgia 9, 11–12, 23, 33, 59, 117, 124, 128–33, 199, 201–06, 209–10, 216 Novoselic, Krist 73, 79–80 P Palahniuk, Chuck 80 Patriarchy/patriarchal 74, 77, 80, 87, 89–90, 93–94, 113, 117, 151, 233 Phallus/phallic power 91–93, 100, 102–107 Pennebaker, D.H. 34, 242 Performance 3, 26, 31–32, 38–39, 47, 52, 59, 31, 88, 90–96, 102–03, 103, 120, 128, 131, 139, 142, 156, 169, 175, 183, 185–88, 192, 194, 200–01, 205, 232, 235, 243–46 Plater, Alan 81–91, 95–96 Pink Floyd 116, 125, 208 Poitier, Sidney 172 Pop, Iggy 24, 55, 64, 128, 250 Pop Music 2–4, 8, 13–12, 19–25, 28, 59–60, 63–64, 79, 116–117, 119, 121, 139, 142, 144–45, 147, 150, 173, 218, 221, 248 Popular Culture 4, 9, 14, 39, 86, 111–15, 119, 121, 166, 217 Postcolonial/postcolonialism 11, 13, 43, 50, 100, 155, 167 Postmodern 2, 6–8, 10, 12, 88, 146–48, 206, 216, 241, 243, 248 Powell, Enoch 140 Presley, Elvis 139, 144, 155–56, 163 Prince 62, 140–152, 174, 176 Prisonaires 222 Private life 69, 72, 242 Proust, Marcel 12, 128–129 Punk/Post–punk 7, 13, 19–26, 31–40, 70–73, 77, 79, 99–100, 104, 106, 112–13, 124, 134, 139, 162, 207–208, 214, 229

Index Q Queen 167 Queer 100–108, 147 R Racism 28, 46, 55, 85, 142–44, 148–150, 193 Radio 2–3, 46, 55, 85, 142–44, 148–50, 193 Rap 12, 62, 66, 71, 162, 175, 217 Ramones 25, 49–50, 207–08 Rebellion 26, 32, 40, 74, 80, 242, 250 Redding, Otis 9, 148, 221, 224 Reddington, Helen 126–27 Repetition 7, 72, 234–36 Representation 12–13, 31, 39, 72, 88, 126, 130–32, 183–86, 189, 192 Resistance 25, 69, 73, 129, 142, 150, 157, 162, 165 Reynolds, Simon 19, 22–25, 134, 169–70, 175, 229 Righteous Brothers 160 Rolling Stone 60, 70, 207, 217 Rolling Stones 141, 218, 242 Rock Against Racism 142 Ronettes 59, 62 Roth, Philip 216 Rose, Tricia 12 Rufus and Chaka Khan 214 S Sahlin, Nicki 25 Sampling 169, 175 Scher, Steven Paul 52 Schmutz, Vaughn 116 Schumann, Robert 236 Segal, Lynn 87 Self–destructive 76, 111, 126 Self–invention 93, 141, 152 Self–identification 111, 121, 158, 172 Sex Pistols 126, 128, 134, 139–40, 229 Sexism 46, 55, 101, 107, 127, 142 Shank, Barry 39 Shanté, Roxanne 175 Shirelles 62 Shockley, Alan 52 Simawe, Saadi 52 Singer, Marc 113 Singer–songwriter 32, 178, 215 Slumming 24, 38


Simone, Nina 155 Smith, Norman “Hurricane” 178 Smith, Zadie 228–29, 231–33, 237 Smyth, Gerry 12, 52, 228 Soft Cell 21 Sold Out/Sell Out 39 Soul 5–7, 130, 214–21, 224, 246, 248 Soulsonic Force 174–75 Soundtrack(s) 174–75 Spectacle 26, 33 Spin 38, 173 Springsteen, Bruce 14, 206 Star Wars 114, 171, 178, 202 Steiner, George 227, 234, 236 Stipe, Michael 38 Stone, Sly 145 Strong, Catherine 74, 76, 78, 80–81 Subculture(s) 4, 26, 70–71, 74–80, 100, 126, 129, 190 Supremes 160 Szwed, John 86 T Talking Heads 62, 207 Taste 5, 10, 37–38, 55–60, 32, 34, 195 Taylor, Yuval 32, 34, 195 Television 207 Teenage/teenager 101, 104, 112, 114, 116, 118, 121, 230, 250 Terrell, Tammi 221 Tew, Philip 87 Thatcher, Margaret 140, 144, 149 Tokens 59, 62 Tommy 125, 242 Traber, Daniel S. 125–126 Travelling Wilburys 63 Turner, Tina 155 Turntables 169–170, 176–77 Tweedy, Jeff 38 W Waksman, Steve 106 Weisethaunet, Hans 53, 130 Weliver, Phyllis 52 West, Cornel 85 Whitehead, Colson 5, 169–179 Whiteness 6, 13, 31, 36–38, 47, 62, 74–77, 80, 85, 93, 140–41, 143–48, 152, 171–72,

264 175, 177, 187–88, 208, 215–20, 223–24, 246 Whitman, Walt 177 Winehouse, Amy 251 Winfrey, Oprah 32–37, 249 Wild Cherry 218, 223 Williamson, John 52 Wilson, Brian 155, 160 Winton, Tim 43–53 Wolf, Werner 46, 213 Wood, James 228, 236–37

Index U U2 61–62, 162, 167, 179, 227 U.T.F.O. 173–75 X X 20–21, 24, 27 X, Malcolm 145 Z Zwerin, Mike 95 ZZ Top 46, 49