I just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, his rock and roll take on the Orpheus myth. While I am a huge Rushdie fan (Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children, and The Moor’s Last Sigh all killed me, as did his wonderfully literary children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories) this novel was a disappointment. With a writer as talented as Rushdie, even failed novels are worth reading; there are passages of incredible virtuosity and insights of real brilliance sprinkled throughout the book. But the main characters never take on the mythic import necessary to carry the story. They seemed less like gods and more like the self-obsessed celebrities that the music world is full of in real life. (Perhaps that was his point, but it didn’t work for me.) And for a book about the power of music, and a fictional band that could change the world, I could never hear in my head what they were supposed to sound like. I never got a real sense of their music, so there was no way I could believe its transformative power, and ultimately, I couldn’t believe the story itself.
This illustrates how fiendishly difficult it is to write about music. Rushdie has tackled some pretty big topics rather successfully (the nature of god, the history of India), and in The Moor’s Last Sigh, he beautifully uses visual art as the central metaphor. But music trips him up.
At the Aardvark Orchestra concert I played at on Sunday, I got into a discussion with Jay Keyser about the relationship between words and music, as Jay argued for the primacy of language (as the most essential component in the development of humanity as a species) and I argued for music (as the only fully transcendent, ephemeral form of human expression). (One of the reasons I enjoy playing Aardvark gigs is the chance for this kind of discussion. Jay is a fine trombonist, but also a professor emeritus of linguistics from MIT and close associate of Noam Chomsky and occasional NPR commentator. Perhaps not the wisest choice for me to debate with on language…it’s like picking a fight with the six foot six, three hundred pound guy at the bar.) Of course, this was ultimately just a difference in aesthetics, between someone who loves words but lives by music and someone who loves music but lives by words. But again, I present the difficulty of writing about music, of truly expressing the indescribable beauty and power of organized sound, as proof of music’s stronger magic. (But here I am talking about magic…that shit don’t fly at MIT!)
With this in mind, I’ve been trying to think of novels that successfully deal with music, or musicians. Of all that I’ve read, I can only think of two that really worked, Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed and Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje.
Mumbo Jumbo is one of my top ten all-time books. In his brilliant, hilarious, and absurdist fashion, Reed deals with music by not writing about music itself, but by constructing a whole narrative about a hoo-doo epidemic (called Jes’ Grew) taking over the country that is somehow the clearest description of African-American music’s influence on American culture I’ve ever read. A truly classic novel, and the only book I’ve yet encountered that stylistically comes close to capturing the flow and dance of improvised music.
Coming Through Slaughter is a relatively short and less-known early work by Michael Ondaatje (famous for The English Patient) that follows the story of Buddy Bolden. It’s part detective story and part historical fiction, and it draws upon the few real artifacts that remain of Bolden’s life. He doesn’t try to conjecture what Bolden might have sounded like, but captures how he might have lived. Unlike the rock stars of Rushdie’s novel, Ondaatje’s Bolden character seems deserving of legend, and the reader comes closer to hearing the music.
My friend Bill Lowe, always a source of sage advice (he’s the one that first got me to read Mumbo Jumbo fifteen years ago), also recommended Bedouin Hornbook by Nathaniel Mackey, so I’ll have to pick that up. Any other thoughts or recommendations on fiction that successfully deals with music are always greatly appreciated.