Thursday, 19 May 2011

New song

Phonkee Philip by timsterne

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


For a long time I wanted to write a novel about a pianist. The pianist was going to be a jazz pianist and the novel was going to be called 88 Tuned Drums, which is how someone once described Cecil Taylor's aesthetic. At first it was going to be a Bernhardian monologue by the pianist's obnoxious brother or best friend. Then I decided it would consist of eighty-eight short sections that could be read in any sequence, with different sequences having particular harmonious or discordant effects. What a great idea! I thought, patting myself on the bottom like I was my own teammate in a ruggedly masculine and not-at-all-homosexual sporting team. Form and content: together at last! But the novel never came together because a) I realised I would have to learn a lot of stuff about music and life as a musician if I was going to make it work, and I was too lazy to get into all that; b) I became obsessed with my ingenious structural conceit to the point that I had no interest in developing characters and incident and story; and c) I realised there were already a gajillion novels about pianists and nobody was clamoring for another. Seriously, a gajillion. Just off the top of my head there's Bernhard's The Loser, Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, Wladvslaw Szpilman The Pianist, which was adapted into the movie by Roman Polanski. (There are lots of movies about pianists, too.) I'm sure you can think of your own examples, and if not, just make some up. (The Middle C by Christos Tsiolkas, say, or Pianofortress by Matthew Reilly.) If a novel or movie is about a classically trained musician you can bet they'll be a pianist, violinist or cellist, unless they're a principal opera singer or composer. Why aren't there (as far as I know) any novels about glockenspiel or trombone virtuosos? (The Tromboner's Wife has a lovely ring to it.) Are you telling me a novel about a French hornist - maybe even a horny French French hornist - wouldn't totally rock? It's time for literature and cinema to give equal consideration to the non-"sexy" instruments, like those anti-rockist rock bands who set up the drums at the front of the stage so as not to privilege the guitars or whatever. Thank god I didn't finish my piano novel. I would only have become part of the problem.

Other novels I have started, and in some cases written quite substantial portions of, include: a blatant Terry Pratchett/Robert Rankin rip-off about two young men who spoke using an absurdly rich and pompous vocabulary (I was sixteen and had recently discovered the thesaurus) and had wacky fantasy-based adventures of some sort; a Tarantino-esque lovers-on-the-lam pulp fiction in which an oversexed, wise-cracking couple went on a road trip/crime spree and inexplicably (I distinctly remember this part) shot up the toilet block of a Merimbula caravan park; The Critic, an alleged satire about a sharp-tongued tv critic and his entanglement with a Sam Newman-esque ex-footballer/media sensation. (I was in thrall to Martin Amis when I wrote this, which is funny because nowadays I'd be more inclined to write a satire about MA than emulate him); City, a grim fantasy set in an isolated city called City, because what could be more imaginative? These putative novels were all produced in my late teens/early twenties, so I probably shouldn't be too harsh on my callow self-of-old, nor should I make my self-of-now feel miserable by pointing out what, say, Keats had accomplished by the age I was drafting chapter one ("Bright Tights, Big City") of my city-based fantasy novel City, featuring John "City" City, a city guardsman whom the city has pushed too far...


One of my friends is always going on about how future generations will laugh at our often hesitant, hand-wringing approach towards revolutionary technology.

Of course, future generations will be swimming in our shit, so they'll have to find humour where they can.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

There Is No Year, Blake Butler (2011)

My flippant twitter review of this book went something like:

A family moves into a house, weird shit happens to them for 400 pages. Some of these pages are grey for no apparent reason.

Yes yes, and Moby Dick is a book about a whale, as the joke goes. Yet the sort of reductionism being mocked in the line about Moby Dick depends on the book in question having more going for it than can be so readily condensed. I'm not sure There Is No Year falls into that category. A family moves into a house, weird shit happens to them for 400 pages. Some of these pages are grey for no apparent reason. That's the book.

I admit I may not have understood There Is No Year. If it is "about" something, then whatever it is passed me by. The weird shit that happens to the family could I suppose be read as an allegory of suburban malaise, in which case zzzzzzzzzz, or the modern condition, or whatever, but it doesn't seem to have any symbolic or metaphoric consistency. Weird shit happens, then some other weird shit happens, then some more, then (you'll never guess) the weird shit keeps on coming. I'll grant that some of the weird shit is distractingly, even frighteningly, weird. The why of it remains a mystery, however.

And look, I don't expect novels to conform to some weekend liftout standard of plot and theme and structure. Butler's earlier Scorch Atlas, a collection of short stories and prose poems loosely depicting an apocalyptic cataclysm, is one of my favourite books of the past few years. Everything in it - even the bits that were too obscure or dense to be fully understood, or too pretentious to be taken seriously - felt vital. The pages of that book are designed to look stained and forgotten, the book itself a relic of the end days it describes. There is very little vitality, conceptual or otherwise, in There Is No Year. Instead there are repetitive, tedious descriptions of weird shit, and some of the pages are grey for no apparent reason.

I wonder how I would feel about the book if it were 200 pages, or 100. I've tried opening it and reading portions at random, and it's amazing how much better they work in isolation. You get these bursts of weirdness, of odd juxtapositions, of Butler's unusual syntax and vocabulary. Over the long haul the good stuff starts looking less good, the tics and tricks start to grate. You get the feeling Butler could keep going, keep churning out this book until the end of time. Good for him, I suppose, but frankly it's a drag to read.