I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is ‘Extended Play – The Elastic Book of Music’ (Elastic Press 2006) edited by Gary Couzens. As ever, I shall attempt to draw out all the stories’ leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt.
The book seems just begging for this sort of treatment, because I (as Nemonymous editor/publisher) understand the stories were initially chosen blind-anonymously by the editor.
The stories and interludes, as I understand it before reading this book, are written by Jean-Jacques Burnel, Marion Arnott, Gary Lightbody, Andrew Humphrey, Sean ‘Grasshopper’ Mackowiak, Becky Done, Rebekah Delgado, Nels Stanley, Iain Ross, Tim Nickels, Lene Lovich, Emma Lee, Tall Poppies, Tony Richards, jof owen, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Chris T-T, Philip Raines and Harvey Welles, Chris Stein.
As I understand it, all stories were to be music-based but otherwise written separately by the various authors in the normal independent way. Consequently, I say, there should be no connection between these stories unless it is by the purely serendipitous strength of ‘The Synchronised Shards of Random Truth and Fiction’ or, to coin a new phrase from that old one of mine, ‘The Random Shards of Synchronised Truth and Fiction’! (DFL)
This review will be written here … slowly, savouringly, in real time, so please do not look back more than once every few days (even weeks) for additions.
All my real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
I shall be merely making a short quote from each of the ‘Interludes’ and reviewing the stories in detail.
Interlude One: Intro – Jean-Jacques Burnel
“Songs and music have often been inspired by literature and here, within these pages, the literature is conversely inspired by songs and music.” (3 Sep 09)
The Little Drummer Boy – Marion Arnott
“It was as if without his anger Dad was no one.”
This is a very powerful story of a boy whose ‘sideways’ moments lead to animalistic retributions against the dysfunction this his violent Dad and chain-smoking Mum and others have induced in him. Musically, it is the most basic: the rhythm of blood’s drum beat. Without exaggeration, this story is truly a classic, one that will live with you forever. Much telling detail of boyhood in, I guess, modern UK. Here lycanthropy and its ilk are more than just the product or possession of role-play. The devil’s not in the detail. It’s out of the body in the open. And I am the devil’s advocate. As Sandy Nelson once said: ‘Let There Be Drums’. (3 Sep 09 – three hours later)
This first story presents possession as the ultimate or optimum karaoke, tuning drumbeat with drumbeat, on full song, on a (drum)roll… (4 Sep 09)
Interlude Two: Sexual Heaney – Gary Lightbody
“…as green as spring […] I was writing thunder and dirge up from the basement…” (4 Sep 09 – three hours later)
Last Song – Andrew Humphrey
“Cal played in a band for a while […] This was in the mid-nineties when Oasis and Blur were cool..”
This story is quite long with a style that flows like silk. An old-fashioned, almost ‘Romance novel’, style that I don’t normally enjoy, but here it works limpidly as well as insidiously with things that turn out to be even darker when compared with darkness’s light expression: telling of narrator musician Josh and his self-diminishng rivalry with his elder brother Cal and his detached posh parents and music performer Lucy whom he and Cal meet in the present day (not the mid-nineties) at a gig in a club which one can imagine featured in a Joel Lane novel. The sense of the music is conveyed with a sure brushstroke. The characters are shown to have tantalisingly semi-fathomable pasts while their present moments are recorded by Lucy in exercise books in the form of all her verbatim conversations. But can any fount of information be trusted implicitly, especially as to who darkens doors the most? A sense of being filmed and recorded for posterity as touched upon, even eaten into by exegesis and cut-up. Brilliant stuff. [In ‘Little Drummer Boy’, the animals are possessed temporarily; here, it is one stage further, where the end result is cruelly enforced non-existence.]
“After a moment Cal says, ‘She says it’s all recorded anyway.’ / ‘What?’ / ‘Everything we say.’ / ‘You mean, Big Brother…'” (4 Sep 09 – another five hours later)
Interlude Three: Etcetera, Etcetera… – Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiack
“In other words, we would like to celebrate that there is a congeniality of feelings that are present in the audience as well as the performer; an invisible connection.” (4 Sep 09 – another hour later).
Tremolando – Becky Done
“Tamsin found Stravinsky to be useful in most situations.”
Well, for me, this substantial story has everything going for it. Well-written, of course. A compulsive, well-characterised plot. And it is centred upon my passion: Classical Music (with many nifty prose ‘movement’ sub-titles from that field) – with believable references to the twists and turns of tractable Elgar, Britten, Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, etcetera, etcetera… And, for once, a major character (Joseph) who is of the same age group as me! 🙂
The story centres on a String Quartet group called ‘Viol’ (two young women, a young man and Joseph) who regularly meet and play in Joseph’s home. There are many cross-currents, initial congeniality of connection, then rearing sex, later mysterious or blameworthy pasts, drugs and, apparently, madness of sorts, and connections that are invisible to the reader except, possibly, until when the reader reaches the story’s end.
I enjoyed it immensely but perhaps I didn’t really understand the ending or the ending is fraught with implications too subtle for me or it is simply as over-melodramatic as I suspect it may be… Yet, when one thinks about it, Chamber Music (such as a String Quartet) is deceptively stylised and subtle but, intrinsically, as one begins to live with the music time and time again — even with, say, Haydn, let alone with, say, Penderecki — it starts brimming with passion and mystery towards a true ending of stridency-by-sensibility via an invisible connection between audience and performer if not via the actual up-front ‘noise’ of the music itself. Given me plenty to think about. Bravo!
“He’s almost thirty years older than her. The thought of it was vile.” (4 Sep 09 – another three hours later)
Interlude Four: Watch What You Say – Rebekah Delgado
“…tragedy without the melodrama; quiet tragedy that knows its name but doesn’t speak out.” (5 Sep 09)
Some Obscure Lesion of the Heart – Nels Stanley.
This story is a mosh pit of words. First of all, let me say that its linguistic style is based on a formula around a semantic / syntactic structure typified at its simplest by: “Her cheekbones were so sharp I could’ve cut my hand on them.” There are many variably complexer and complexer variations on that deep transformational Chomskyan structure (or theme-by-musical-dincopation), encompassing the naming of real rock traditions, legends and conceits from the Death Cult that the type of music embodied here generates. The story plotwise is also very impressive, involving a serendipitously-challenged music journalist as narrator, sometimes expressing himself in scorching satire about the job he does, sometimes expressing himself in sheer blood and thunder from the basement of an almost religious gospel of this melodramatic music world.
It also features a girl called Vinnie who reminds me of Lucy in ‘Last Song’. Here, for example, about Vinnie: “‘It’s OK,’ she went on, as if she could read my internal dialogue straight though my skin.”
It makes an interesting contrast with the Chamber Music in the previous story. A contrast that somehow brings home that it is not a contrast at all. But the same thing. (5 Sep 09 – four hours later)
Interlude Five: Living in a Bear Suit – Iain Ross
“..the same kind of ‘broken future’ I try to set my songs in.” (5 Sep 09 – another hour later)
fight Music – Tim Nickels
“Wall clocks created from viola carcasses.”
This review ought to be my first blank review. Here we have a story of novella-length that seems to be a prequel of my own novella ‘Agra Aska’ that I wrote in the eighties. No, how can that be? ‘fight Music’ has had a major effect on me, with its fluid interpenetration of plot, so much more effective than special effects, so much more musical than music. It tells of an institution that reminds me of the children in Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’, but so vastly different. It has music and is music. There are frogs and organ music and a post-holocaust that is the holocaust itself. I did leave this review blank at first to match my own interest in silent music. I vowed to come back and re-read and review it anew, and perhaps I shall. Review means to view again, after all. A moto perpetuo review. It will never let me go.
“We’d howl at the moon if there was one.” (5 Sep 09 – another seven hours later)
Interlude Six: Half Magic – Lene Lovich
“I am tied to the madman, I go where he goes.” (5 Sep 09 – another 30 minutes later)
First and Last and Always – Emma Lee
A new day. A new palate. “‘You’re so uncomplicated. And that’s a compliment.'” Indeed, but never so complicated as a map. The female narrator’s life (a record collector whose purchased records throughout the years form a sort of map of her rite-of-passage) and the story that tells this life is, at first, delightfully uncomplicated in the telling, but ‘at the end of the day’ nothing’s so complicated as life. (“All clichés have a germ of truth at their core.”)
An effective contrast, then, between, the told and the telling. Even the telling grows textured, with simplicities like promotional “polysterene cups of coffee with a complimentary plain digestive biscuit” followed later for the reader to remember why a kiss “tasted of sludge and sawdust…”
The protagonist’s life is told compellingly, her boy-friends, her collecting, her strengths and weaknesses, her boy friend’s strengths and weaknesses all on the record, the record-collecting road map, until we hope she replaces the sat nav with her own brain’s autonomous course beyond the story’s end.
One boy friend is an eventual madman who strings himself up. Another is a rock star whose actions remind me of Last Song‘s Lucy’s verbatim-maps of dialogue (and of those of Obscure Lesion‘s Vinnie) because, similarly, this boy friend meticulously includes account of the female narrator’s doings in the lyrics he writes for his songs. The Told and the Telling in harmony.
The story’s harmony tells of disharmony? Depends on the music taste of the reader, I guess. I really enjoyed this story, against all my initial expectations.
“…it felt like I was missing from my own life.” (6 Sep 09)
Interlude Seven: Singing the Classics – Tall Poppies
“…concepts and style of a writer infiltrate one’s thoughts during the period of time that it is being read…” (6 Sep 09 – seven hours later)
A Night in Tunisia – Tony Richards
“In jazz there is no destination, just the road itself.”
And no road map at all, I guess. A very powerful story with an extremely original ending (that reminded me, in an oblique way, for those who have seen it, of an inverse Torchwood: Children of the Earth and also, consequently and illuminatingly, of the novella ‘fight Music’). But let that rest for a moment. Ranging from premature burial to politics, this is an extremely touching story of an Englishman’s friendship with a black jazz saxophonist. A story that also artfully winds along a road-map that cross-sections time itself, almost haphazardly … but you feel safe in the narrator’s hands, and believe that there is an essential truth here, and, as you later realise, you are not only safe in the narrator’s hands, but also in the actual author‘s hands as he collusively leads you through this compelling story. Story? We are told early on that it is 90% true, but not told which 10% is untrue. Possibly, a bit like the book ‘Extended Play’ itself as a whole: i.e. approximately 90% being the truth of fiction stories and 10% being the fiction of the Interludes-and-the-Contributors’-Notes! (6 Sep 09 – another three hours later)
Interlude Eight: how the boy least likely to became – jof owen
“…drawn to things that were written from the perspective of things that weren’t human…” (7 Sep 09)
In The Pines – Rosanne Rabinowitz
This is a story of connections through music, aptly suiting my everpresent ‘Only Connect’ quest with my book reviews. It’s the turn of folk music here, later towards discordancy and dincopation, within three areas of time: 1875, 1973 and 2015, in each of which finely-etched plot-scenario this novella-length ‘tour de force’ forces us as a feminine spirit gradually to pack ourselves with new literal-realities of self and myth and monster … to journey, to gather experience, to move on with our own version of Rabinowitz’s “dissonant symmetry” / “etcetera etcetera“, Mackowiack’s ‘invisible connection’, Iain Ross’s ‘broken future’…
As previously with ‘fight Music’ (here, ‘fight Mathematics’?), I dare not dwell too long on quotes and details or else I shall be writing a review as long as what I am reviewing! The story itself is rather like its own sung-of train, its body of carriages still leaving from the station even when its front engine (its head) is a great distance away in the pines. It’s still moving. In all senses of moving.
[Just one aside, the thalidomide pine-needles remind me of ‘the children of the earth’ in ‘fight Music’ and ‘Night in Tunisia’.] (7 Sep 09 – seven hours later)
Interlude Nine: Time Travel – Chris T–T
“Too often, time goes missing from the equation…” (7 Sep 09 – another hour later)
The Barrowlands’ Last Night – Philip Raines and Harvey Welles
“That silenced Paul, which was fine by Cam because he hated Paul doing Big Brother in public.”
Cross-sectioning time-chunks of life in a two-tier part of the city, this is another mosh pit of words describing the ultimate rave where the Mosh Demon choreographs the unchoreographable-others-of-his-kind for Touchpaper’s performance at the Barrowlands venue’s last gig before it’s redeveloped. For me, the chaos of many vertical Clive-Barkeresque giants now become an unpent huge horizontality of humanity with traditional names for each passing prancing protoplasm of people. Or am I exaggerating? Reading too much into and from…
Two brothers in symbiosis (Cam and Paul): who’s rescuing whom? A story that has its readers rioting individually in their homes and in other-reading-places along the lines of Jungian flashmobs……………..
“It’s a force that can set a time in stone or trigger a revolution, it can unite a city or drive apart two communities.” (7 Sep 09 – another three hours later)
Interlude Ten: Lower East Side (revisited with reflections) – Chris Stein
“The artistic character of the neighbourhood was in a direct line to the Beats and the jazz era of Slugs…”
The ‘Interludes’ are my name for them. The book has no distinction in the contents list between them and the stories.
A term I often use in my book reviews – leitmotif – is basically a musical term, e.g. in the Wagner cycle. It is a ‘direct line’ as a Ring that this Gollum reviewer seeks. And in this great book he thinks he’s found it.
Music makes an interesting contrast with fiction. A contrast that somehow brings home that it is not a contrast at all. But the same thing. Don’t fight it. (7 Sep 09 – another hour later)
Having slept on it, this is indeed a truly great book. All the stories with famous musicians’ ‘interludes’ ensure this is the case. Two novellas: ‘fight Music’ and ‘In the Pines’ are worthy of fiction Heaven. Truly. ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, likewise. But it is invidious to pick stories out. All the stories, I repeat, are wonderful. They ensure that the ‘shape’ of this anthology is matchless – an experience I regret delaying as long as I did.
‘fight Music’ is unreviewable. I’m sorry I did not do it justice above.