Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Others of My Kind by James Sallis

This could be James Sallis's oddest novel. At the same time, it could also be one of his best. Odd, not  because the narrative voice belongs to Jenny Rowan, a woman who, as a child, was abducted and kept prisoner for a several years. Finally, she escapes only to spend several years in a shopping mall some twenty miles from Harpers Ferry, living off whatever food and clothing punters discard. No, the novel's oddness has less to do with  those who inhabit it than with the manner in which the narrative moves, which at times is oblique enough to border on the surreal. Normally one thinks of the surreal in terms of imagery- here the image of Jenny as a young girl being kept in a box under her captor's bed- comes close. But Sallis's short novel approaches that category through its structure, coming across like the literary equivalent of a game of exquisite corpse, in which one body part is overlaid onto another; though, in this case, with characters and plot bouncing off one another,  it's more a matter of placing narratives next to each other, to see if and how they fit.  Like a narrative equivalent to poet Robert Duncan's concept of tone-leading.

As we've come to expect from Sallis, Others of My Kind is inhabited by vulnerable yet resilient people, capable of doing surprising things. Indeed, what matters is how Jenny responds to the twists and turns of the plot that has become her life. Found by a kind security guard, she's placed in the  child-care system until, at age sixteen, she gains her autonomy.  Not surprisingly, her life is anything but  straightforward. Likewise, her feelings regarding her abductor. Employed as a news and documentary editor at a TV station, she's contacted by a detective who asks if  she'd  assist him in a case regarding another young girl who'd been  abducted and sexually abused. Jenny visits and befriends the young woman. Though Jenny has carved out a life for herself, she can't help but be a victim of circumstances. In this near-future world- familiar yet skewered-  there's an even greater degree of political turmoil than now. Everything is in flux, no more so for someone with Jenny's history. About survival and how one plays the cards one's been dealt, Others of My Kind is a long way from the Sallis's Lew Griffin novels. But, on the other hand, maybe not. After all, they're part of the same world. Not a crime novel as such, except in the largest sense of the term.  Going from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from darkness to light, Others of My Kind is as moving a novel as anything Sallis has written. And however odd the structure, the parts  have a surprising coherence, equal to the whole; in fact, are crucial to its existence.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Sounds Like London- 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital by Lloyd Bradley

As the opening pages of Lloyd Bradley's book attest, black music has long been a mainstay of British culture, no more so than in the capital itself. West Indians, Africans and exiled black Americans, have for many years been making what has become the soundtrack to the city, often in cross-cultural circumstances. When I arrived in the early 1970s, ska, American soul, South African jazz  (the Blue Notes, Brotherhood of Sound), then reggae and West African-based music  were the sounds I heard.  But black music, as Bradley points out, is constantly evolving, with some forms falling out of fashion, often caused by the dictates of the market, for instance the creation and perpetuation of  the term "world music," or political factors, such as the demise of the Greater London Council, which promoted black music as part of their inclusive policies.

As the author of Bass Culture, Bradley is well-positioned to explore this vast  subject. It's not a bad attempt, though it has some drawbacks. For one thing, to do justice to the subject would take a book twice as long. I suppose that's part of the problem. Bradley, who attempts to cover the music from sometime around 1919 to the present, breezes through the early years, name-checking the likes of  jazzers and calypsonians like "Snakehips" Johnson, Rudolph Dunbar, Freddy Grant, Sam Manning, all of whom were heard in the capital long before the great Lord Kitchener arrived on the SS Windrush. Moreover, I would maintain that  the first couple chapters, like the rest of the book, alongside recordings of the music under discussion, in this case  CD anthologies like Topic Records' Black British Jazz, or Honest Jon's various volumes of London Is the Place For Me. For a more detailed account of the African diaspora's contribution to early British jazz, one could do worse than have a look at  Andy Simon's lengthy on-line account, Black British Swing, published in 2012.

In any case, Bradley, emphasising the relationship between history and the music, relies on some fairly solid informants. In the first two chapters, it's the legendary pianist Russell Henderson and his 1950s cohort, the steel pan virtuoso Sterling Betancourt. It's the informants that allow Bradley to delve into the music, the record labels and distributors active during the 1950s. The third chapter centres on South African jazz and is built around interviews with drummer Louis Moholo, Hazel Miller (wife of  bassist Harry Miller) and formidable musician and composer Mike Westbrook. Here Bradley outlines the impact that  the Blue Notes/Brotherhood of Breath had on the London music scene in the mid-1960s. The fourth chapter covers West African music in the capital, from Ambrose Campbell to Osibisa, from the viewpoint of Osibisa leader Teddy Osei, highlighting th importance of Sterns from its origins as an electrical supply shop to major record store and label, as well as the African Centre  in Covent Garden, which became a popular venue for West African music. The fifth chapter, entitled Bass Lines, Brass Sections and All Things Equals, includes interviews with the visionary Eddy Grant, who, amongst other things, fronted the 1970s group, The Equals, and maintained a recording studio in Stamford Hill, as well as the  the veteran singer from Carriacou, Root Jackson, who achieved cult status in the 1970s with the funk/soul outfit FBI, and who still can be heard gigging around London. But it's the following chapter on the creation and success of  Lover's Rock- The Whole World Loves a Lovers- that I found the most interesting. Lovers Rock was never a genre that appealed to me when it appeared in the 1970s. However, it was not only  a London phenomenon but, according to Bradley,  a reaction to hardcore roots reggae, which tended to marginalise young West Indian women. What began in London soon became popular in Jamaica. In examining the cultural importance of Lovers Rock, Bradley touches on the roots of London reggae, the record labels, distributors, producers, sound systems and DJs. For this he relies on the renown bassist, producer and mix master Dennis Bovell, who recalls that competitions would be held, with the winner recording a single (without pay). It served the purpose getting young women back onto the dance floor and created enough product for Bovell's company to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, for me, Bradley's book becomes less interesting from this point on, with chapters on BritFunk, recent sound systems, pirate stations and music in the digital age. Yet I still  learned a lot  from these chapters. Call me naive, but I had no idea that during the 1980s clubs had a quota for blacks at the door, even when black bands were playing. In the end, the book points out  that black music has been a music of migrants, one that mixes countries of origin and musical styles with relative abandon. For instance, someone like Ambrose Campbell could move from jazz to calypso to West African music. Likewise, Teddy Osei. To this day London black music, though no longer the province of migrants as such, remains cross-racial, rebellious, and often  cutting-edge.

However, there are problems with the book. For instance, someone should have told the author that most readers don't really care what football club he supports, that it has nothing to do with the book's subject matter. He also has an annoying habit of referring to interviewees by their first name even though it's sometimes been pages since he's last quoted them. Then there are self-conscious asides (no point in mentioning you are not related to someone simply you share a surname) and a deadline journalism  style that does the subject no favours. Minor criticisms, but a good editor should have been on top of that kind of thing. Though the most humorous, if not ludicrous, example of editorial slackness crops up when  Bradley attempts to name-check Airto Moreira, whose name comes out in the text as Ayrton Moreira- clearly a spellcheck chapeau to Peter Ayrton, the senior editor and  founder of the book's publisher, Serpent's Tail.

And maybe my memory is faulty, but I'm sure Bradley gets it slightly wrong when talking about record shops in the 1970s and early 1980s. Dobells on Charing Cross Road closed in 1980, but Bradley seems to be saying that it existed concurrently with Ray's on Shaftsbury Avenue, which wasn't the case. Though he could have been referring to an earlier period  when Ray's was Collet's on New Oxford Street, then Charing Cross Road. And why no  mention of Honest Jon's, whose Soho shop specialised in reggae, or the shop in Camden Town where could always flip through a rack of very cheap African records. And what about Daddy Cool in Soho?  Also, the book could have been improved by including a list of recordings, if only to make it easier for the reader to track down and listen to the music mentioned in the text. And what about a map so those unfamiliar with London could get a sense of how the music scene over the years shifted around the capital? In the end, with a little more research, more attention to detail- the opening chapter deserves a book on its own- and a more attentive editor, this could have been a much better book. While the definitive book on black music in London has yet to be written, Sounds Like London will do for starters.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Just like everyone seems to know where they were when JFK was killed or when the Twin Towers went down,  Pynchonites can usually recall  their first encounter with the man's writing.  For me, it was sitting in my Yellow Cab at the San Francisco airport at three a.m, reading The Crying of Lot 49,  hoping no one would ask for a ride back to the city. Reading Pynchon at an airport in the middle of the night seemed, at the time, more than fitting. Ironically, Bleeding Edge, an incendiary recollection rather than a prescient bombshell, turns  "where were you when..." on its head, portraying New Yorkers- from the manic, obsessive and greedy to the politically radical or absurd- in the days leading to and just after 9-11.

Centering almost entirely on Maxine, a discredited fraud investigator and Jewish flaneur,  Bleeding Edge depicts  America at a tipping point. The dot com bubble has burst, Bush and Cheney have only recently begun their onslaught, and the culture as a whole is rapidly moving off the edge. In that sense, it's a snapshot of a particular time and place, and of a condition from which we've yet to fully emerge. It's also an homage to the Jewish New York novel- perhaps the last of its kind. Even if Bleeding Edge isn't  as prescient as V, Gravity's Rainbow and the Crying of Lot 49, a line could still be drawn from Crying of Lot 49  to Bleeding Edge and it would make perfect sense, but only if  Pynchon hadn't written those other, later novels, which range from the mediocre  (Vineland, Inherent Vices) to the ingenious (Mason & Dixon) to the  impressive but unreadable (Against the Day). Something of a throwback, yet  a thoroughly welcome one, replete with the author's early trademarks: that smart and biting humour, a plethora of warning signs, riffs, and pop culture references, and an emphasis on  social control, synchronicity, and paranoia ("the garlic in life's kitchen, right, you can never have too much of it."), all chaotically wrapped in Marx brothers urban hipsterisms which tend to highlight that which separates Freedonia with the Land of the Free.

As Gramsci once said, with the old world dying, and new yet to be born, a variety of morbid symptoms appear in the interregnum. Whether boom and bust, crash and burn or shock and awe. And, as Bleeding Edge illustrates, perhaps  cyberspace is the most morbid of them all. Yet as that symptom expands so do the fissures and possibilities, though not all necessarily for the better. For the power of capital to adapt or reinvent itself remains.

"DeepArcher also has developers after it. Whatever migratory visitors are still down there trusting in its inviolability will some morning all too soon be rudely surprised by the whispering descent of corporate Web crawlers itching to index and corrupt another patch of sanctuary for their own far-from-selfless ends."

Reading Bleeding Edge in conjunction with Edward Snowden's revelations only gives that quote, and the book, added meaning. And those various Gramscian mutations could have otherwise gone undetected, at least to those old-school enough to appreciate literature and linearity. Not surprisingly, Bleeding Edge is as much a black hole as a narrative- characters come and go, some are lost and others found, while linearity, though it exists, is given a typically rough work-out. Still, despite the cartoon cut-outs, the circumlocutions and great American shit-storm, the novel manages to hang together, as does its critique. Moving through generations, Pynchon's novel  really does end up bleeding at its edges. With an array of characters navigating  the city, the emphasis, from pre-9-11 to post-9-11, gradually shifts from the street to the computer screen. Yet Pynchon's characters, whether on the street or screen, remain recognisable, whether by the reader or by Maxine. After all, what is fiction other than a form of virtual reality. Significantly, the novel ends with the next turn of the wheel and what remains after the wreckage.

As far as I'm concerned, Pynchon's latest is essential reading and maybe the first real novel of the post-9/11 era, one in which you might might meet yourself or some doppelganger from Pynchon's past.  Noir?  Could be.  Or simply a dystopia in which  that light at the end of the tunnel grows dimmer as wealth becomes more concentrated and technological advances become more enticing. After all, Bleeding Edge takes place is a city that never sleeps, played by a character actor familiar but beyond identification. Which is why Pynchon opens his novel with a quote from the great Donald Westlake: "New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn't going to tell." Which is the point.  Who will tell?  Indeed, who is capable of telling? Bleeding Edge might as close to that telling as we're going to get.