Toni Morrison, Jazz

This month’s bookclub, looking at Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz, was one of the most animated and animating there’s been. Contributors wondered if their (almost wholly) positive responses were to do with the way the book combined relatively simple diction with relatively complex sentence structures, and shifting narrative perspectives with an over-arching cross-generational plot worthy of a classic nineteenth-century tome. In other words, this felt and sounded very modern (or modernist), but had a firm form. Although we noticed there were few blatant musical set-pieces (and none at the Cotton Club), with no walk-on parts for famous musicians, we also found that music saturated the novel, in terms of people’s obsessions (you’d abandon your baby for the right record!), and their mixed-up identities. African-American cultures’ diversity, and African-American’s inner conflicts, were lived in, or by, music: it poured from and through the city, yet with barely a ‘white’ voice in the book, it fell to ‘black’ figures who despised the way jazz seemed to lead their people astray to condemn it as ‘race music’. Participants wondered if we could syncopate the beginnings and ends of the book’s chapters, as if Morrison had composed a score with counterpoint and harmony. Did the riffs and repetitions in the prose evoke the brooding, communal conventions of great jazz lyrics and melodies? And was such repetition a way to make the past present, showing how we cannot deny our (sometimes horrific) histories, even after being ‘emancipated’ into the modern world? If nothing else, Jazz showed that no act is random, and the roots of behaviour lie deep, sometimes so deep they can be hard to put into words: if characters were unsure of who they were, due to histories of dislocation, family disintegration, self-denial and abuse, the shifting narrative perspectives rendered this as best as could be hoped. Were we on a stoop, listening to stories rushing by, or was this jazz itself, speaking the experiences that made it so vital? This rich account of the lives of ordinary African-Americans wore both its research and its wisdom lightly, but still profoundly.

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Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner (August 2012)

Daniel Mason’s 2002 novel The Piano Tuner was something of a publishing phenomenon – a first novel written while the author was still a medical student, it became an international bestseller. Litpop book clubbers testified to the reasons for its success – most declaring it a very readable and enjoyable novel. We all found its premise arresting – an unassuming piano tuner, Edgar Drake, is enlisted to travel from late Victorian London to colonial Burma at the request of an enigmatic British Officer, Anthony Carroll, whose methods are raising eyebrows in the imperial high command. This novel wears its literary influences on its sleeve and readers quickly identified parallels with Joseph Conrad’s modernist classic Heart of Darkness, also the reputed inspiration for the cult film Apocalypse Now. Many confessed a sneaking desire for a dramatic encounter with Carroll to rival that of Conrad’s Kurtz – but this was one of a number of ways in which Mason’s novel confounded its readers expectations. Just like Conrad’s novel before it, Mason’s narrative raised all kinds of questions about the author’s and characters’s attitudes to European colonialism – questions which are all the more powerful when seen from the perspective of contemporary multicultural Britain. Was the piano intended as a symbol of the ‘civilising’ influence of European culture? Or as a symbol of the absurdity of imposing one culture on another? The image of a piano being shipped upriver through a tropical landscape brought to mind Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, in which a man pursues an obsessive quest to build an opera house in the heart of the Peruvian jungle. We were, then, all the more intrigued to hear reports that Herzog is set to film an adaptation of Mason’s novel. Readers also detected allusions to Homer’s Odyssey and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – the mix of historical realism and fantastic journey was striking and we explored moments in the narrative where the line between reality and fantasy seemed blurred. We were all impressed by the extensive research invested in this informative novel – though there was a feeling that it gave rise to some rather implausibly learned character monologues. Mason’s novel provided an interesting departure for the Litpop book club, with its focus on classical rather than pop music – but it confirmed our sense of music as an endlessly rich source of fascination for both writers and readers.

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Nick Coleman, The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss

It isn’t unusual for people to have deeply personal responses to books, whether they’re fiction or non-fiction: that is a large part of why many of us read, to find some connection, some identification, that helps us make sense of who we are by seeing how someone else thinks about who they are. Likewise, as regular Litpoppers will know, these personal responses are a great starting point for discussing how the book we’re looking at does what it does. This week’s book was a slightly different, and special case. The evocative details of one man’s loss of hearing, balance (in all senses), identity, and love for life, were set against no less evocative accounts of growing up with music in the provinces (in this case, East Anglia) the later 1960s and into the 1970s. Accordingly, many members of the group, whether or not they had endured comparable traumas or histories, found much that resonated within themselves in Coleman’s work, and offered profound and moving accounts of why this was so. This was particularly interesting given the book’s own concern, even obsession, with the idea of subjectivity – being defined by, or locked in, what goes on in your own head (good and bad). In writing about this, perhaps Coleman reached out, just as he shone a light on other books we’ve looked at, most notably Bob Dylan’s Chronicles I.

As ever, this didn’t mean critical and intellectual faculties were suspended. Some people noted the book’s abrupt shifts in period and tone – maybe these expressed Coleman’s difficulties in putting the fragments of his life back together, but it did make it feel a bit like two books, with the traumatic material squished in to make the memoir sections more unique. We also wondered about why the story ended when it did. Yes, on one level Coleman seemed to have come to terms with his condition, and music was opening up to him again. But that was a resolution in the here and now; the memoir section didn’t seem to have a natural endpoint, and was fixated on what was, by the book’s admission, a key phase of music appreciation: the teenage years. But where was some account of how he got into journalism, and so of how he got from there to here? We also speculated about whether the book could be seen as different to or continuous with his music-writing – did he write like this in both contexts?

Though Nick Hornby-esque, and very English in its reserve and mannered style, there seemed to be an implicit sense that the book was a form of therapy – it recovered memories and musics (and mixtures of the two) that Coleman thought he’d never attend to again.

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Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

The diversity of the LitPop Book Club once again proved its strength at our June meeting at The Sage. For some readers Sara Marcus’s 2010 book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution opened an entirely new chapter in rock history – one which placed legendary Riot Grrrl groups like Bikini Kill centre stage, while consigning major rock players such as Nirvana to minor walk-on parts. For others, Marcus’s compelling account of this explosive 1990s, Washington DC based scene provided a Stateside counterpart to personal memories of teenage rebellion and Huggy Bear gigs on Tyneside. For yet another generation of readers, it became vividly clear that Riot Grrrl is a living part of an important feminist legacy inspiring new waves of creativity and activism, including a thriving zine culture. We were all struck by the unique voice which Riot Grrrl gave to the experiences and aspirations of teenage women – and by the candid way in which Marcus recounted the tensions which can result from a heady combination of youth and idealism. The crises caused by movement’s encounters with the news and music media establishment (and its often patronising and reductive coverage) seemed very much of its era – we reflected on how the mainstreaming of alternative rock and the advent of social media have transformed the politics of pop. The impact and influence of Riot Grrrl gave rise to some lively discussion. Some wondered whether such a diverse and anarchic movement can ever achieve lasting change and whether any subculture can escape being co-opted by mass culture – what happens to feminist politics when Riot Grrrl becomes ‘girl power’? However, the marginalisation of women musicians in the recent BBC4 Punk Britannia documentary series provided a timely reminder of the vital importance of books like Girls To The Front in setting the rock history record straight – or, more aptly, askew! And the testimonies of the book club members – both female and male – was all the evidence we needed that feminism is alive and kicking in popular culture in the 21st century.

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes

This month’s discussion of the five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes did what any good discussion of a book, and so any good bookclub, should do: changed minds (not least mine!). In giving their ‘first impressions’ most – but not all – people said they found the book easy to read, but consistently commented on how ‘flat’ the tone and texture of the stories were: there was wry, sometimes farcical, humour, but no biting satire; there was love and loss (as in ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, and ‘Crooner’), but both were couched in muted, resigned tones. There was no anger, no passion, no spark. It was even remarked that this kind of ‘flatness’ worked against the point of short stories – to condense, intensify, and often confound in their conclusions. But as discussion progressed it became obvious that what some people (myself included) dismissed as flatness could be seen another way: as ambiguity, or deliberate, pointed inarticulacy (emphasised by the number of narrators and characters expressing themselves in a language that was not their own). A way into complicating our understanding of Ishiguro’s efforts here came with the final story ‘Cellists’. We speculated about how the events of the story could be described so vividly, through a first-person narrator not present. And was the non-playing female ‘virtuoso’ a deluded (and derided) charlatan, deliberately (and perhaps troublingly) silenced, or a stereotypical muse, or, genuinely, a virtuoso, adept at helping others express themselves if not herself? In this story, at least, passion, or its memory, did at times invigorate the prose. And if flatness was a feature, well, that suited the grey, half-lit, sometimes edgy worlds of characters on their way down, if not out (even as they were often trying to make it to the top) . Whether or not someone was like the narrator of the title story, who practices saxophone in a toilet while his wife philanders outside, endures plastic surgery to get on (and get her back), and ends up with his hand up a dead chicken, celebrity culture, especially that of the US, was exposed as full of compromises. It certainly isn’t what it was when, as we’re told in ‘Crooner’, the covers of a schmaltzy singer’s record gave hope to clandestine Eastern Bloc listeners, proving that music matetrs in ways we don’t anticipate. As such, Ishiguro had found perfect vehicles for his themes in these far from reliable voices on the margins of success, in transient touristy locales, with their memories of perfect musical moments, their very personal meanings for music, and their dissatisfactions with and yearnings for things they couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. The question remained, though: why and in what ways did music provide a connective tissue for these stories?

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Bob Dylan: Chronicles, Volume 1

This month’s session of the LitPop book club attracted a (relatively) large, lively and (very) well-informed crowd, composed of both gig-hardened Dylan fans and those with a less ardent interest in him. What emerged from discussions, though, is how hard it is not to take an interest in Dylan’s if you’re interested in popular music – in Chronicles he sees himself as a conduit for other people’s stories and songs, in a true folk tradition, but LitPoppers also affirmed how he had become part of their life-stories, in various ways.  The fact that the life story Dylan recounts in Chronicles jumps around chronologically, doesn’t always tell you what you want to know, and tells you lots of things you didn’t know you wanted to know, only made it more intriguing to the book club.

Debates ensued about why he chose to focus on the parts of his life he chose to focus on: who was he writing this book for anyway? Himself, to commemorate the personalities and intense moments that made him who he was; or the world he shied away from at the height of his fame? People appreciated the way Chronicles was bookended with tales of New York, with the last section providing the payoff so tantalisingly promised in the first. People also valued the account of making Oh Mercy with Daniel Lanois in New Orleans, for the insights it gave into making – and failing to make – a record. Dylan’s ability to both reveal and conceal the processes at work in how he worked stimulated and frustrated readers, as too did the shifts in style, from breathless city prose to more relaxed Woodstock airs as he fraternised with Archibald McLeish. After considering how to define someone who resists definition (was he best described in loose terms as an ‘artist’?), and who confounds expectation simply by doing what they, not you, want them to do, the group came to some sort of resolution about why what we expected in the book wasn’t always there: the reason he had to keep singing new songs (and avoid old ones), is because he wasn’t the same person. In fact, as numerous conversations in the book revealed, he always felt and acted like lots of people, or like lots of people could have been him (something borne out in the 2007 film I’m Not There).

On that note, in addition to pining over the next instalment in the Chronicles series, we were left with one question: who was this ‘Ike Zinnerman’ who taught the early-twentieth-century blues-legend Robert Johnson how to play? Was he, in the mixed-up time-frame of Dylan’s (and popular music’s) stories, a fragment of Robert Zimmerman himself?

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Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity

Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity is often credited with launching the ‘lit pop’ publishing boom – so it seemed a natural choice for the LitPop book club. Reading – or re-reading – it in 2012 we were struck by how much the consumption and circulation of popular music has changed since the novel’s publication. Hornby’s affectionate depiction of an independent record store staffed by eccentric but expert music aficionados prompted fond memories of similar establishments and their formative role in our musical education. It also moved readers to speculate on how Rob’s labour of love business would fare in the world of iTunes and Spotify – and to wonder whether the ‘drag and drop’ CD compilation retains the same romantic charge that the painstakingly crafted cassette mixtape has in Hornby’s novel. Rob’s devotion to his vinyl record collection – and his pleasure in cataloguing it – was met with approving recognition by some readers. Others wondered if the collecting was more important than the music and whether Rob is more of a music snob than a music lover. Readers felt that Hornby’s solipsistic anti-hero narrator was now a rather familiar type in fiction and film but also acknowledged how refreshing this candid portrayal of introspective masculinity must have seemed when the novel was first published. High Fidelity does seem to trade on the stereotype of music fandom as an overwhelming male pastime with its cast of male music connoisseurs and long-suffering girlfriends with poor pop taste. A discussion about the representation of women’s perspectives in pop and rock writing served to inspire our June book club choice: Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front: A True History of the Riot Girrrl Revolution. In the meantime we next meet on Tuesday 10th April at 7pm to explore the first volume of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles.

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Jonathan Lethem: You Don’t Love Me Yet

Valentine’s Day proved an aptly ironic occasion for our discussion of Jonathan Lethem’s 2007 postmodern anti-romance You Don’t Love Me Yet. An initial survey of reader responses quickly revealed that Lethem’s wry depiction of the interpersonal politics of a fledging LA rock band was not to everyone’s taste. The narrative voice exasperated some as insufferably pretentious and delighted others as a knowing parody of hipster-speak. The romantic misadventures of Lethem’s bass-playing female protagonist, Lucinda, also divided opinion and prompted a discussion about sexual double standards where women in rock are concerned. There was general agreement that some of the novel’s comic set-pieces were witty and memorable– the urban desolation of the city zoo (and the existential angst of its kangaroo escapee), the Warhol-esque ‘Aparty’ at which the band play inaudibly to party-goers listening to Walkmans, and the art installation complainer’s call centre. This 21st century American novel evoked parallels with JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and while many felt that the novel was not of the same company, it certainly prompted some fascinating conversation.

Wonder if our next book – Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – will prove as provocative?! Do join us at 7pm on Tuesday 13th March to explore the novel sometimes credited with kick-starting the litpop boom.

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Welcome to LitPop: A Book Club for Music Lovers!

LitPop was launched in October 2011 and is welcoming new members every week.  So far we have explored Morvern Callar by Alan Warner, Just Kids by Patti Smith, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Life by Keith Richards and You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem. We look forward to exploring many more books about music with fellow music-lovers and welcome readers’ suggestions for future titles.

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