Live-blogging Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels

Edward-St-Aubyn-melrose-books

The Picador single-volume edition of the first four Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn — Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk — is quite the extraordinary bargain at a price of $12.98 on Amazon (although hey, you can afford to buy this one from your neighborhood store).  It had been sitting in a stack in my bedroom for quite a while because I began the first book, Never Mind, and was genuinely concerned that getting to the scene in which the five-year old Patrick Melrose is raped by his father (a scene narrated from Patrick’s own perspective) would give me such disturbing nightmares as not to be worth it.  But now I’m about halfway into the remarkable series and will certainly keep reading to the end.

James Wood describes these novels as seeming to be “not only books about trauma but traumatized books, condemned to return again and again to primal wounds.”  (The novels are apparently highly autobiographical, based on St Aubyn’s own experience of childhood sexual abuse and his years of drug addiction from age 16 to 28.) Wood adds that “St. Aubyn’s novels have an aristocratic atmosphere of tart horror, the hideousness of the material contained by a powerfully aphoristic, lucid prose style. In good and bad ways, his fiction offers a kind of deadly gossip, and feeds the reader’s curiosity like one of the mortal morsels offered up by Tacitus or Plutarch in their chatty histories.”

I’d agree that Never Mind in particular (first published in 1992 – I’d be curious to see reviews/ response to it at that point) reads like Evelyn Waugh meets Tacitus. Or, that Patrick’s father David Melrose is kind of like Wilde’s cruelly witty Lord Henry meets Caligula. The Roman references are woven into the text: David loans a “friend” a copy of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, of which we’re led to assume that the chapters on Nero and Caligula must be his favorites.

Never Mind is quite amazing — I can’t think of anything quite like it.  There’s witty, there’s savagely witty, and then there’s this, something beyond that. I remember a critic’s observation that Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) reads like a jaundiced, deeply disillusioned return to the Jane Austen world of wealthy, aristocratic European leisure a century later, from within the knowledge of that world and that class’s self-destruction. St. Aubyn extends this logic further in the most corrosively savage, and yet very funny, depiction of dead-end English country-house elites ever.

Here’s one dinner guest, for example, Vijay Shaw, an old Eton acquaintance of Victor, the social-climbing philosopher whose wife Anne’s perspective is articulated here (the only vaguely sympathetic characters, aside from the five year-old Patrick, are women; are the men are repellent, although Victor the least so):

[S]pending just a few days with him convinced Anne that each hideous feature had been molded by internal malevolence.  His wife, grinning mouth was at once crude and cruel.  When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting lead thrown onto a fire.  Obsequious and giggly with older and more powerful people, he turned savage at the smell of weakness, and would attack only easy prey. His voice seemed to be designed exclusively for simpering… Like many flatterers, he was not aware that he irritated the people he flattered…. A little Indian guy being sneered at by monsters of English privilege would normally have unleashed the full weight of Anne’s loyalty to underdogs, but this time it was wiped out by Vijay’s enormous desire to be a monster of English privilege himself.

The Roman/ Caligula references crystallize the novel’s emphasis on social life as a species of mutual torturing, and St Aubyn also suggests that the English aristocratic fox-hunting ethos has been literally miniatured and trivialized in David Melrose’s ongoing torture of ants:

David Melrose, tired of drowning ants, abandoned watering the garden. As soon as the sport lost a narrow focus, it filled him with despair. There was always another nest, and terrace of nests. He pronounced ants ‘aunts’, and it added zest to his murderous pursuits if he bore in mind his mother’s seven haughty sisters, high-minded and selfish women to whom he had displayed his talent on the piano as a child…

David held the burning tip of his cigar close to the ants and ran it along in both directions as far as he could conveniently reach. The ants twisted, excruciated by the heat, and dropped down onto the terrace.  Some, before they fell, reared up, their stitching legs trying helplessly to repair their ruined bodies… With his cigar he caught a stray ant which was escaping with signed antennae from his last incendiary raid…. The ant ran away with astonishing speed, was about to reach the far side of the wall when David, stretching a little, touched it lightly with a surgeon’s precision. Its skin blistered and it squirmed violently as it died.

The ants/ aunts discussion also made me think of Roald Dahl, of all people.  There may be a tiny touch of James and the Giant Peach in St Aubyn’s gleeful anatomizing of the selfish cruelty of an English family.

And yes, the rape scene is hard to take, and audacious– I’d imagine many readers in 1992 of this first novel by an unknown author must have thrown it across the room.

Bad News resembles the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Philip Roth’s Paternity in focusing on a son’s experience of his father’s death, and specifically of his father’s corpse: here, David Melrose’s incinerated ashes in a can that the 22-year old Patrick carries up and down New York City with him on a celebratory heroin, alcohol, and cocaine bender.  (His appetite for drugs is bottomless enough, and his trust fund still for the time being sufficiently ample, to demand almost continual negotiation with various dealers to keep the supply coming.) Of the two novels, I found Bad News less original; what ant-torturing scenes were in Never Mind (actually way more so), excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the injection of heroin and cocaine speedballs into often recalcitrant veins are in this novel, and at times it becomes a little too Bret Easton Ellis, although it’s never less than brilliantly witty.

I’ve just started Some Hope, in which Patrick is 30 years old and struggling to stay sober after a few bouts in rehab, and — having squandered much of his inheritance — is studying to become a barrister.  St Aubyn suggests a link between aesthetic & personal style and addiction in that Patrick, off drugs, is forced to explore new attitudes, ways of behaving, forms of speech and verbal habits.  He is

trying to stop observing by becoming unconscious, and then forced to observe the fringes of unconsciousness and make darkness visible; canceling every effort, but spoiling apathy with restlessness; drawn to puns but repelled by the virus of ambiguity; … desperate to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning only what irony could convey.

That says a lot about the novels themselves, which seem to be, much like Knausgaard’s books, an attempt at once to tell the truth about the author’s own experience but to fictionalize, ironize, and transform it.

The year of Wrong Living: Jenny Offill’s *Dept. of Speculation*

I loved the new Jenny Offill novel Dept. of Speculation.  (Here’s a good piece on it by Elaine Blair in the NYRB, and James Wood also wrote about it recently in The New Yorker (March 31 issue)… And here’s the NYT review.)

As Blair comments, and Wood may draw the same parallel, in voice and form it slightly recalls Renata Adler’s cult novel Speedboat (recently reissued by the New York Review of Books press) and the essays of Joan Didion.  But imagine that kind of witty, cool, alienated young-female-intellectual voice combined with, I don’t know, something like Tina Fey’s memoir.  (Maybe Sheila Heti’s work would be the most obvious current analogy.)  It’s an autobiographical novel, sort of, but also can read like a philosophical essay, comprised of brief, gnomic chapters, often consisting just of an observation or two, an anecdote, decontextualized quotations, chunks of prose that seem patched in from some other genre entirely, etc.  It eventually reveals itself as the narrative of adultery and divorce, as the 40-something narrator, “the wife,” a novelist in Brooklyn struggling to write her second book, realizes that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman.  It’s also a book about motherhood, chronicling the narrator’s experience as a mother to an infant who becomes an early school-age girl in the course of the book.  It has some of the best, truest, and least sentimentalized evocations of the experience of taking care of a baby & toddler I can remember (in this and some other things it reminded me a little of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle vol 2).

Offill explains how she came to the novel’s form in a recent interview with NPR:

Well, the book came from the ashes of another book, which was much more linear in construction. But at a certain point, I realized I wanted to capture more of the fragmentary nature of thought, and especially of the way emotion moves in and out of people. And I began to write on notecards and shuffle them together; and I started to find these startling juxtapositions, which I thought were interesting, and led me down this path.

That makes perfect sense, and explains the sense of freedom the book conveys in the playful, unforced way it shifts between voices, styles, tones, and forms of address.  (Shuffling around the index cards.)  As Elaine Blair points out, the form and the approach is that of experimental, avant-garde fiction, but one never loses the thread of the story and of the organizing consciousness.

Here is the holiday letter that she would have written (her husband “won’t let me write one. We send a smiling picture instead”).  The “bugs” refers to the family’s epic struggle to rid their daughter and their apartment of lice & bedbugs.

It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes.

Great material on yoga throughout, which she takes up therapeutically in the midst of the breakup:

The Yoga People always travel in pairs, their mats under their arms, their hair severely shorn in that new mother way. But what if someone sucker punched them and took their mats away? How long until they’d knuckle under?…

The wife goes to yoga now. Just to shut everyone up. She goes to it in a neighborhood where she does not live and has never lived. She takes the class meant for old and sick people but can still hardly do any of it. Sometimes she just stands and looks out the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to have to take yoga live. Sometimes the wife cries as she is twisting herself into positions. There is a lot of crying in the class for old and sick people so no one says anything.

I wished the book had been longer (you can almost read it at a sitting)!

Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion? Five great recent world music cds

For some reason most of what I’ve wanted to listen to for the past few weeks has been these more-or-less “world music” albums (and Otis Redding– I’ve just wanted to mainline the most pure vocal emotion & soul, I think).

  • Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu.  Not on Spotify, I bought the cd at Landlocked Music in Bloomington.  (And just to suggest how cool this store is, they had a copy in stock.)  Here’s a piece on NPR about it; I learned about it from Robert Christgau’s year-end best-of (he ranked it his #5 album of the year).  It’s the soundtrack of the annual festival in Mali which is “inspired by traditional festivals held by the Touareg people” but is in fact a polyglot modern hybrid; Western rock stars like Bono and Robert Plant have performed at earlier Festivals, but this CD is all-African and skews pretty raw.  A few tracks reminded me a little of the Konono Nº1 Congotronics cds (which are very primitivist, musically, but are themselves very far from any kind of pure “folk” music).  Inharhan sounds very much like the Malian desert blues of the great Tinarawen (here’s an earlier post of mine about them); Douma Maïga jams mesmerizingly on the kurbu which seems to be a simple guitar-like instrument; Mauritanian Griot singer Noura Mint Seymali is passionately amazing.  Here’s a bit from an interview with her that conveys a sense of the authentic-modern-polyglot synergy that characterizes all of the music on the cd:

WCP: What singers do you like to listen to?

NMS: I enjoy several Mauritanian singers, like Dimi Mint Abba of course, and Arab singers, blues singers like Etta James, and must admit to faithfully following the Arabic version of TV series, The Voice, and Arab Idol.

WCP: Who influenced your husband’s guitar playing?

NMS: Jeiche loves Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix. There are several great Mauritanian guitar players as well who have influenced his playing.

WCP: Who does he like to listen to? Certain African artists? American funk or soul artists? Which ones?

NMS: All kinds of stuff—roots and dub reggae, Senegalese mbalax, some Malian artists like Oumou Sangare, blues artists like Magic Sam and Albert King. And we have both been listening to more Indian classical music since collaborating with Jay Gandhi, an Indian classical flute player whom we met at a festival in Senegal…

  • Qat, Coffee & Qambus – Raw 45s from Yemen.  Again, I bought at Landlocked.  This cd of Yemenese music from the 60s and 70s is incredible.  At $12 it includes beautifully elaborate packaging and liner notes, so quite the bargain, as well.  I have probably played it through a dozen times, and like it more now than the first time; it has that rabbit-hole-into-the-unknown quality that I especially love in so-called world music, in a big way.  The tracks sometimes verge on a cappella, often just a voice or two accompanied by a simple rhythmic oud and drums. From the label’s site:

Compiled by Chris Menist, Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen features vintage oud and vocal music inspired by the qat-chewing, coffee-sipping, qambus-playing culture of Yemen. Although part of the classical Arabic musical tradition, the music of Yemen takes its rhythmic lead as much from the East African coast (a mere 20 miles across the Red Sea) as the surrounding Arab Peninsula. Little has been written about the music and culture of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and each 45rpm disc gives a small glimpse of the poetic tradition, the unique local oud styles as well as an insight into people’s day-to-day lives, or the highs and lows of human relationships. Overall, the compilation gives a flavor of the sights and sounds of Yemen, with detailed notes that tell the story of the hunt for music that has mostly lain forgotten in the antique markets of the capital, until now.

One detail I enjoy, three of the nine tracks’ titles begin with “hey” or “hello!” in translation: “Hey You, Passenger!,” “Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion?” (incredible!), and “Hello, Welcome.”  Another great title: “They Made Me Fond of Love.”

Here’s one track, “Haya Abu-Saif” by Amna Hizam:

  • Orchestra Baobab La Belle Epoque 1971-1977 (Syllart).  On Spotify.  Orchestra Baobab were formed as the house band at Club Baobab in Dakar, Senegal, and started to attract a global audience in the 1980s.  If you’re going to start with them, you might go for the Nonesuch albums Pirates Choice, Specialist in All Styles, and/or Made in Dakar, but this is wonderful too.  Robert Christgau: “Jazz, r&b, soul, disco, reggae–no African band has ever emulated a New World music as gracefully as this Cuban-style unit… They released many (shortish) albums back when they were the toast of the post-colonial elite at downtown Dakar’s Club Baobab. Salsa was the rage of Senegal’s emergent ruling class, and there was always clave near the heart of Baobab’s groove. But cosmopolitanism was also on the agenda of a multi-tribally multilingual unit that could bring off its worldwide ambitions because its band sound was as solid and unmistakable as the Rolling Stones’.”  Pure pleasure; it is difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying this graceful, sinuous, beautiful, funky music.  Not weird and raw in the same way as the last two, probably more accessible.
  • Rokia Traoré, Beautiful Africa.  Another Malian singer.  This is the most conventional, cross-over-y of the five — she is a classic world-music chanteuse/ diva — and in truth I don’t love it quite as much as the others, but it has some high points such as the absolutely gorgeous and moving “N’Téri.” Here’s an intense live performance of that one:
  • Débruit & Alsarah – Aljawal. On Spotify. This one’s a bit different, yet less-“authentic” and more of a hybrid than any of the others I’ve mentioned, and arguably falling partly outside of “world music” as a category– kind of a trance-y dance music record. (I may have learned about it from this NPR world music top 10 of 2013 list, can’t remember for certain.)  Recorded in Brooklyn, “a modern, haunting take on Sudanese music heard through the sonic lens of French artist / producer, Débruit and the poetic, ethereal lyrics and melodies of Sudanese-born singer Alsarah.”  In the same universe as someone like DJ/ Rupture (and/or his radio show- I would be surprised if DJ/ Rupture were not a fan of this album), with Alsarah’s soaring vocals and Sudanese folk melodies woven through stuttering, throbbing electronic beats, loops & rhythms.  Probably my favorite is the amazing “Alhalim” (video below) and “Alhalim Suite” which has an electronic melodic line one might find on a Radiohead album.  “Louila” is nearly a cappella, beautiful, could almost be one of the 30-year-old more traditional tracks from the Qat, Coffee & Qambus cd.

Support authentic/ inauthentic/ weird/ indigenous/ global pop & folk music!  And consider actually buying music from your local record/ music store once in a while (I love Spotify – so wonderful to be able to, e.g., browse through Otis Redding’s entire catalogue when the spirit so moves- but I try to keep the cd purchase stream going too.)

BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD: two great stories by Deborah Eisenberg and Kelly Link

I picked up the O. Henry Prize Stories 2013 volume and was blown away by the first two stories I read (both of which were among the three faves chosen and written briefly about by the volume’s editors).

Deborah Eisenberg describes her “Your Duck is My Duck” as being about “the ravages of climate change, including the growing populations of climate refugees; the worldwide plight of the embattled and looted middle class; the co-option and trivialization of art; and the relationships — especially in regard to the use of resources — between the middle class, the looters, the artists, and the new wretched of the earth.” It is narrated by a painter who hates her day job in a photo studio, and thinks she might get let go anyway; she is complaining at a party to a wealthy acquaintance of hers, Christa, who invites her to join her and her financier husband at their “beach place.”  This turns out to be somewhere in the tropics, where the painter is set up in a lavish guest house with another visiting artist, an avant-garde puppeteer who puts on a show about a revolution against a king and queen and the brutal subsequent repression of the revolt by the generals:

There was more mechanical moaning and creaking, and up from the earth in front of the castle rose a line of skeletons — serfs, bats, and donkeys – linked by heavy chains.  The generals, now in the highest turret, swigged from a bottle of champagne, and as the grand finale, the skeletons, heads bowed, sang a dirge in praise of martial order.

In the awkward moment after the first act, the host, Christa, comments hilariously, “We love to have artists working here.  It’s an atmosphere that promotes experimentation.”  Meanwhile, outside the estate, the island is collapsing from flooding and can no longer support the local residents, who are attempting to flee.  The story is an allegory of artists today who experience themselves as “serfs” to the wealthy, whom they are expected “to entertain, to distract, to diffuse, to buffer.”  It reminded me a bit of Eisenberg’s husband’s Wally Shawn’s blackly satirical plays.  Completely great!

And I also found amazing the Kelly Link story “the Summer People.” It’s a fairy tale with Alice in Wonderland qualities narrated by a teenage girl whose father has abandoned her, very sick with the flu, to their family’s job as caretakers for “the summer people,” who turn out not to be human.  They are never quite seen directly, but are experienced via the strange, enchanting, sometimes malevolent toys and devices they construct.  They live in a house that is marked with signs offering cryptic advice: “BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.”

There was a sea serpent made of tubing and metal rings that swam endlessly in a circle. There was a sluggish river, too, closer to the door, that ran red and stank and stained the banks.  The summer people were always setting up miniature bridges over it, then blowing the bridges up.

Come to think of it, the “summer people” have a certain amount in common with the wealthy “looters” of Eisenberg’s story, although their motives and character are harder to assess.  They are figures of imagination and creativity: “They make things.  That’s what my mamma called them, makers.  They give away things.  Like the toys. They like children.  When you do things for them, they’re beholden to you.”  But they can clearly do harm to those who fail to follow the rules of the house, who may disappear or find themselves transformed.

It is seriously creepy and magical!  I have been curious about Kelly Link, and definitely need to read some more of his her stuff (just picked up Magic for Beginners).

Now I need to read some of the other stories in the collection, although I will be surprised if they can match these two.

I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era

David Letterman Kayaking

David Letterman on CBS’s Battle of Network Stars, 1978

Based on a passing recommendation by Marc Maron on his podcast, I just read I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder.  It’s a juicy group biography about the late 1970s/ early 1980s scene that developed around Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in L.A. and the emergence of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, and Richard Lewis, along with some now comparatively lesser-known figures, like Letterman’s best friend George Miller, whose 2003 funeral begins the story, and Elayne Boosler, who is a key figure in the development of female stand-up — I wrote about her in re: the book We Killed: the Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen a while ago.  (Interesting parallel between the two book titles – a lot of killing & dying in stand-up.)  Another significant lesser-known player in the narrative is a guy named Steve Lubetkin, a comic who was Richard Lewis’s best friend and whose tragic arc of disappointment provides a throughline for the book.

Letterman and Leno both come across as, along with Richard Pryor (whom they all worship) and Robin Williams, probably the most talented of the bunch, also standing out for their sobriety (neither one did drugs, un-coincidentally) and their generally hard-working, stable qualities.  Letterman especially is depicted as a mensch who is universally liked and respected by his peers, which was a little bit of a surprise given how well-known he is today for his prickly qualities; there’s a joke in the book about how he is known for his loyalty to old friends, and for the fact that he had not made a new friend since 1979 when his career started to take off.  There are some charming photos of Letterman and various others in uniform in 1979 on the Comedy Store “Bombers” basketball team that would play pickup games at the Van Nuys YMCA.

I had not realized how close Letterman and Leno had been.  “They quickly formed a mutual admiration society, watching and learning from one another.  Night after night at the Comedy Store, when they weren’t onstage, they were standing together in the back, taking it all in, studying everything.  Their fellow comics came to think of them almost as a team, connected by an ampersand like Abbott & Costello.”  That changed later.

The second half of the book is about the labor dispute that erupted when all the comics in Mitzi Shore’s stable asked her to consider paying  a token payment (as little as $5 per set was first proposed, as gas money!) for their shows.  The concept was always that the Comedy Store was a “showcase” where comics could work on their acts and gain visibility, and thus did not need to be paid.  This stopped making as much sense when the club was grossing thousands of dollars a night, and some of the performers who had not managed to land lucrative gigs elsewhere were still sleeping in their cars because they did not earn a penny.  The strikers eventually triumph, more or less, but the book depicts the strike as a necessary and just cause that nevertheless marked the end of an era of camaraderie and relative innocence in the scene.  Letterman comments at the end, “I have undying affection for those times and for all those people, because the older I get, the more I realize that they were the best times of my adult life.”

One shocker for me was that Gary Shandling was part of the small group of comics who sided with management against the working comics who went on strike.  “Gary Shandling was the scion of a family with manufacturing holdings and decidedly antiunion views. He had not shared the struggling comic experience.”  Once he crossed the picket line, Mitzi Shore rewarded him with a regular standup gig that he hadn’t previously been able to attain.  “Regarding Gary Shandling, the only strikebreaker who went on to achieve bona fide stardom, [one of the main strike organizers Tom] Dreesan said [years later], ‘I wish him all the success in the world.  He’s a funny guy as a good writer, but as a human being, as a man, I don’t have any respect for him.'”

Very disappointed about Shandling’s role in this!

Re: “That’s A Bad Lyric And You Know It”- Thinking About Value in Pop Lyrics

Eleanor-Friedberger

Eleanor Friedberger

BEST-COAST

Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino

I have some sympathy with this piece on the NPR music blog (by James Toth), since I too care a lot about lyrics within pop music, and I’m grateful to Toth for making me think more about the question of how we think about lyrics in pop today. I think the analysis is limited, though, in its treatment as an unaccountable oversight what is actually a highly developed and historically-conditioned ideological-aesthetic stance.  Toth complains that

a person taking a survey of several leading print and online publications might be forgiven for concluding that a song’s words are no longer a measure of its failures or successes, but an arbitrary component unworthy of serious discussion. Albums instead seem to be judged on a criterion of attitude, atmosphere and that nebulous catchall imprecisely referred to as “production.”

What would have been worth explaining, and thinking more about, is the degree to which post-Robert Christgau/ Ellen Willis/ Lester Bangs/ Greil Marcus pop/rock criticism (that is, something like Village Voice criticism as opposed to Rolling Stone criticism, in the 70s/80s context– at some point in the 1990s, the strands merged) defined itself significantly according to the tenet that the pop lyric must not be understood as poetry but as words-accompanying-sound. Christgau articulated this position in his 1967 piece “Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe).”

Perhaps you are one of those people who plays every new LP with the treble way up and the bass way down so you can ferret out all the secret symbolic meanings right away. Personally I think that spoils the fun, and I suspect any record that permits you to do that isn’t fulfilling its first function, which pertains to music, or, more generally, noise.

It is by creating a mood that asks “Why should this mean anything?” that the so-called rock poets can really write poetry–poetry that not only says something, but says it as only rock music can. For once Marshall McLuhan’s terminology tells us something: rock lyrics are a cool medium. Go ahead and mumble. Drown the voices in guitars. If somebody really wants to know what you’re saying, he’ll take the trouble, and in that trouble lies your art.

Christgau influentially argued that the worst rock lyricists were those who, like Paul Simon (Christgau actually later became a big Simon fan, FWIW), create highly-crafted, self-consciously poetic lyrics, as in

Simon’s supposed masterpiece, “The Dangling Conversation,” which uses all the devices you learn about in English class–alliteration, alternating concretion and abstraction, even the use of images from poetry itself, a favorite ploy of poets who don’t know much of anything else–to mourn wistfully about the classic plight of self-conscious man, his Inability to Communicate.

Christgau made the case here (and in all his subsequent writing) that the greatest rock/ pop lyricists were those who managed to create just the right compelling, memorable, weird, charismatic combination of language, sound, and noise. Like the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, or Lou Reed, or Patti Smith.  Their lyrics might or might not be “poetic”, but in tandem with their bands’ often-abrasive sounds, they became an autonomous art, rather than imitation poetry.  Bob Dylan was a truly great rock poet, but this was not because his lyrics functioned as poetry on the page, but because of a completely different alchemy that occurred in the performed and recorded musical song; “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/ Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” wasn’t in fact great poetry, but in Dylan’s timbre and with Al Kooper’s organ, Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, etc., it became unforgettable.  Same for David Johansen’s “Something must’ve happened over Manhattan.”  Or Lou Reed’s “I’ll be your mirror/ reflect what you are/ in case you don’t know.” And so on.

This position subsequently allowed hip critics to defend disco and seemingly “vapid” pop music against “rockist” Rolling Stone canonizing-type critics in the 1970s and 80s who tended to defend “well-crafted,” “lyrically-complex”, yet boring music in a singer-songwriter tradition (James Taylor, say) and to woefully under-rate the most exciting contemporary music in which lyrics were often minimalist and intentionally simple or even “stupid” (punk rock, Funkadelic, etc).  So, the argument gets extended to, say, the Ramones: “Beat on the brat/ Beat on the brat/ Beat on the brat with a baseball brat/ Oh yeah.”  Or Chic: “Good times/ These are such good times.”

What gets tricky here is to consider the difference, if there is one, between an effectively demotic/ colloquial lyric, on the one hand (a lyric that is good without being “poetic”), and on the other, a lyric that perhaps has no particular value on its own, but that works effectively within a great song.  So, is the Chic line itself “good”?  Or does it kind of not matter?  (I would argue that almost always, the lyric does matter, but that a strong lyric defines its own context and conditions for assessment.)

In any case, hip modern pop music criticism came to see as perhaps the worst possible critical error the knee-jerk, “rockist,” former-English-major tendency to approach pop music as lyrics that happen to be put to music.  Looking back, we were all very embarrassed to see some of the boring, over-crafted singer-songwriter dreck that was praised to the skies in the early Rolling Stone guides, while truly innovative, ground-breaking music was often dismissed as primitive or dumb.

So a critical de-emphasizing of pop lyrics became strongly linked with the championing of punk and disco and a denigration or at least down-grading of folk & rock singer-songwriters.

One could take a sociological perspective here to think about a disciplinary tension between literary analysis as taught in English and literature departments, vs. more musical or musicological analysis.  The average pop music critic was much more likely to be a former English major than a music student (or a musician), and he or she came to be a bit embarrassed about any analysis that invited the accusation of treating pop recordings as primarily verbal– precisely because that was what often came most naturally.  (I’m speaking partly out of personal experience here…)

I do think Toth has a good point that this “anti-poetic” perspective on lyrics has by now become so absolutely dominant within pop music criticism that it has, arguably, gone too far, to the point that a more old-fashioned, important American pop tradition of intelligently crafted lyricism, in the Tin Pan Alley or Cole Porter mode, say, tends to be under-rated.  Toth is right, I think, that “intelligence” and craft in lyrics sometimes is a good thing, that sometimes verbal “stupidity” and vapidity offers nothing beyond its surface, and that pop music today could probably use a greater degree of lyrical craft.

But, Toth should do more to acknowledge the context and historical development of the current critical stance.   And to admit that there is no way properly to evaluate pop lyrics purely on the page or as text. He implies that Eleanor Friedberger’s line “Today was perfection — the axis of bliss/ I was calm in your arms waiting for the kiss that never came” is self-evidently superior to Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino’s “And I don’t know why/ The sun’s in the sky.”

But it is pointless to argue over that without consideration of the context of the songs’ music, noise and attitude.  Since if either of these lines say anything at all, they say them as only pop music can.

Teju Cole’s Superfluous Man: *Open City*

I  loved Teju Cole’s Open City–  it’s the best new novel I’ve read in quite a while. Everyone cites W.G. Sebald, and yes, it definitely recalls him in its wandering, melancholy, essayistic qualities (no photos, though, too bad!), and the impression it conveys of a permeable boundary between the fictional and the autobiographical– although the tone is lighter and the voice more (albeit ambivalently) American than in Sebald’s work, immersed in the media-saturated everyday of the 21st century U.S.

It would be a great novel to teach as a test case in an introduction to critical theory; it has a lot to say about mourning and melancholy, memorialization, repression, urban space, race, class, and identity, violence, whiteness, empathy, migration, nationalism. And about classical music (Mahler plays a key role) and literature, and psychiatry and medicine: its Nigerian narrator Julius is a psychiatric intern at what seems to be Columbia University, working on a research project about affect and depression in the elderly. This may all sound heavy-handed or a bit much, but these topics emerge naturally within the thought process of a narrator who simply happens to be educated, intellectually curious and interested in philosophy, theory, and such.  (Also in humbler topics like bedbugs.) The episode in which Julius, on a visit to Brussels, befriends a politically-radical Moroccan named Farouq also reminded me of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. James Wood comments about the passage in which Farouq explains how his academic advisors failed his dissertation on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space that it is “one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person.”  Nicholas Dames in N&1, similarly, counts Cole as a member of a new “Theory Generation” of novelists for whom critical theory is taken for granted as part of the intellectual atmosphere: “what allies [Sam] Lipsyte’s Milo, Cole’s Julius, and [Ben] Lerner’s Adam …is how fundamentally diagnostic they are. Theory has taught them to treat the world as a set of deceptive signs; they doubt, reflexively, the communications of others.” [I love those novels too, btw: Sam Lipsyte's The Ask and Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station.] Julius reads, among other books, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and once back in New York, he sends a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism to Farouq as a sort of guilt offering; Farouq is one of several less-privileged interlocutors who inspire guilty responses from the psychiatrist-in-training Julius, who struggles in locating himself in relation to “blackness,” class, and Africanness. The question of whom he calls “brother,” and vice versa, recurs throughout.

Another book Open City recalled for me, although I read this many years ago and so my recollections of it are pretty vague, was Saul Bellow’s early novel Dangling Man. Like Bellow’s narrator, Julius is a “superfluous man,” a free-floating wanderer in the wartime city, in danger of drifting loose from all social connections.

It’s certainly one of the best, if not the best, “post-9/11″ novels I’ve read, fundamentally concerned with the question of how nations, cities, and individuals mourn, memorialize, and repress trauma. And although it can feel nearly plotless, I’ll say without any spoilers that there is more to the story than may initially appear to be the case, and that Julius emerges, only towards the very end of the book, as a more morally-complex and less “reliable” narrator than he’d previously seemed to be. It’s a novel that looks different in hindsight, so that now I feel I need to go back to reconsider various details that seemed random or happenstance when I first encountered them.

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