Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March/April 2012
- A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg—John Guy
- Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark—Brian Kellow
- Ready Player One—Ernest Cline
- Skylark—Dezsö Kosztolányi
- Townie—Andre Dubus III
- Pulphead—John Jeremiah Sullivan
- The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss—Nick Coleman
- You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup—Peter Doggett
- Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark—Brian Kellow
- A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg—John Guy
I have known Nick Coleman for something like thirty years. He is one of the few people in my life that ticks every single one of my conversational boxes. (For the record, the conversational boxes are: books, family and relationships, football, music, writing, films, television, and the health of the psyche, although not necessarily in that order.) I value what he has to say on any subject he chooses to address, but when he turns his attention to music, I am likely to make mental and sometimes even actual notes, because, even now—and the qualification is not an insult, as I’ll explain later—Nick has fantastic ears. He loves all the people a serious popular-music critic is supposed to love, Marvin and Miles Davis and the Stones and Tom Waits and so on; but he listens without prejudice, too—he is so unwilling to judge, in fact, that he can even take pleasure from English folk music, a form that can create almost irrepressible homicidal urges in less-forgiving souls—and as a result, he is able to find gold in the most unpromising terrain. It was Nick who told me about Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a Tanita Tikaram album that I still love to this day, at a time when everyone, me included, had made up their minds about Tanita Tikaram, in my case without having heard her. (And it was only years later, after Revolutionary Road had been republished in the U.K., that I realized she’d taken the title from a Richard Yates collection. That should have told me something, but I needed to be as well read as she was in order to understand it.) It was Nick who insisted that I gave Sade’s achingly beautiful and bottomlessly soulful Lovers Rock album a chance, at a time when everyone, me included, had decided that Sade was best heard in a Body Shop in an earlier decade. You may already have come to your own conclusions about these two records, and as a result feel that you have Nick’s number; well, you’re wrong on both counts—unless, that is, you agree with us. I like to think that I can occasionally reciprocate with books that I know he will love, books he might otherwise have missed, and I know that I am wholly responsible for the clasping of Friday Night Lights to the Coleman family bosom. But music recommendations last in a way that book and TV recommendations never can, sadly; tracks pop up in the car on playlists, decades after they came into my life, and as a consequence, I probably thank Nick more times in an average month than he thanks me.
And then, a few years ago, something catastrophic happened to Nick’s ears: One morning, he found that the hearing in one of them was gone, suddenly, with no warning. He lost his balance, he started throwing up, and the thuds and bleeps and wails of tinnitus made him feel as though his head was going to explode. And music, when it was not causing him physical pain, no longer sounded like music. Since that first terrifying day, some things have got better, slowly—he walks without a stick now, and he has found ways to hear and to listen; but he remains half-deaf. The perfection of the cosmic joke becomes apparent pretty quickly: what better way to create a wonderful memoir (and yes, Nick is a friend, but this is a wonderful memoir nonetheless) than to screw around with the hearing of a music writer—someone whose ability to describe sound and rhythm and feel is valued by a much wider circle than its owner?
The Train in the Night is about the distress of his loss, but it’s about an awful lot more than that, too; the catastrophe has given Nick the opportunity to explore, at length and with enormous intelligence, the subject of taste. (I can’t call him “Coleman,” by the way, even though that’s what you’re supposed to do when writing about books, as though every writer is a lowly grunt in some literary army, and critics are officers, barking orders.) A couple of years ago, I told you all to read Carl Wilson’s brilliant little book about Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, in the 331⁄3 series, although I don’t suppose you bothered. Well, Carl Wilson and Nick Coleman would find a lot to talk about other than love, although they’d probably get on to that in the end. Wilson wrote about whether taste can ever be trusted, or whether it’s always the product of sociology and psychology and geography. Nick’s book is about that too, but his brief is wider, and there’s an urgent personal involvement. Taste here is a complicated edifice that has been under construction since the early 1970s, and it’s now in danger of collapsing—not just because Nick’s relationship with his stuff has had to change, but because, in the new digital world, just about every form of engagement with art is up for reevaluation. What will it mean, when we all have access to every worthwhile piece of music ever made, and none of us own any of it, and none of us have had to save up for it, to choose between one album and another, to leave our homes to obtain it, even? Does that make us all the same? And what happens when your libraries disappear into one of Apple’s clouds, young people? How will you decide who to have sex with then, eh?
Sorry. The Train in the Night doesn’t contain the answers to these questions, and it doesn’t ask all of them, but this is the sort of thing it makes you think of. All that plus a fantastic description of the instrumentation on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and glancing, delicate examinations of a family under stress, and meditations on aging and mortality and grief… And on the back cover, there is a photograph of a plastic carrier bag that I never thought I’d see again. It’s not that I’d spent a great deal of time lamenting its absence from my life, you understand, but I did get a little pang when I turned the book over. (There is a French author whose name I am supposed to invoke here, but I don’t suppose a plastic carrier bag can be a biscuit. Or maybe it can. Maybe the whole point of the biscuit is that it can be a carrier bag, if you want. I’m not about to read some enormous novel sequence in order to find out, though.) The plastic carrier bag belonged to a very good independent record-shop in the university city where Nick and I used to live, and I used to see and hold one several times a week. I have often wondered why we insist on taking photographs of places we go to once in our lives, and ignore the places we go to every day of the week; the everyday places are the ones you miss, when they go—and everything goes, in the end. Right. That’s it. When I go to buy milk from the corner store this weekend, I’m taking a camera with me. I hope this book is published in your country, wherever you live. If not, you should move to England, although if you haven’t read Carl Wilson’s book when I told you to, you’re hardly likely to emigrate under instruction. Could you at least check for it on Amazon? Is that too much to ask?
The other music book I read this month, Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money, is about the Beatles, the greatest band in the history of the world etc., rather than Sudden Neurosensory Hearing Loss, and therefore you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was infinitely more likely to inspire and delight. You’d be wrong, though. It’s not Doggett’s fault, but rather the fault of the band itself: You Never Give Me Your Money is about the Beatles after the split, a subject I thought I might be interested in, but which only left me disliking intensely four people for whom I had only ever previously felt admiration and fondness. John and then Yoko, Paul, George, and Ringo spent most of the ’70s and ’80s suing—suing each other, suing management companies, suing record companies, suing computer companies with the temerity to name themselves after a piece of fruit that the Beatles had, inexplicably, been allowed to claim for themselves. This book gives the impression that the surviving Beatles are extremely likely to sue me for saying that they spent a lot of time suing. It had to be done, I suppose, a lot of it, and who is to say that any of us would have acted any differently? It’s not like all four constituent parts of the band were identical. That was one of the reasons the Beatles worked, because if you couldn’t identify with John, you’d be able to identify with Paul. Which Beatle were you? Or, more pertinently, which Beatle would you have sued like? Bitter John? Chippy Paul? Smoldering George? Or drunk Ringo? (Hey, good luck, Believer fact-checkers!) When the Beatles initially settled with Apple, by the way, the latter promised that it would never have anything to do with the music business. I don’t really follow the ins and outs of Silicon Valley, so I have no idea whether this is a promise that has held up.
Doggett’s grasp of the legal complexities is entirely admirable, and rather intimidating; ditto historian John Guy’s elegant presentation of the philosophical conviction that led to Sir Thomas More’s execution by Henry VIII in A Daughter’s Love, a book I read for professional purposes too nebulous to go into here. In fact, this month, one of the lessons I have learned from my reading is that I am unlikely to try my hand at biography. I loved every page of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, but the very first chapter, in which Kellow describes Kael’s early life in a tiny rural town in California, contains the following half sentence (I did read the rest of it, eventually, but I became distracted):
To Kenneth Kann, author of Comrades and Chicken Ranchers, an oral history of farm life in Petaluma, the town was “a community of idealists, people who were not so…”
Hold on a moment, you find yourself thinking. In order to write a biography of the New Yorker’s film critic—a pretty nifty way, it turns out, of writing about postwar cinema—Brian Kellow has to read oral chicken-ranch histories? Of course he does, because he’s a thorough and serious biographer. But… damn. There’s another job I can’t do when I grow up.
Pauline Kael was one of the people who made me want to write in the first place. I had never read the New Yorker before I came across a collection of her reviews on one of my very first visits to the U.S., when I was still in my teens. And I can’t remember now what made me pick the book up, other than that it was on the remainder pile in Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue in New York. But I loved her energy, her enthusiasm, her informality and her colloquialisms, her distrust of phoniness, even before I realized that these were qualities I wanted to steal from her. The art-house audience, she wrote in 1964, “accepts lack of clarity as complexity, accepts clumsiness and confusion as ‘ambiguity’ and as style.” (She’d be amazed, I think, to find that she could write the same sentence nearly fifty years later, on just about any page of any reviews section.) Stuff like that made me want to read her standing up.
What’s much harder to stomach is her frequent line-crossing: Kael, it seems, wanted to pal up with the important filmmakers of the day, while reserving her absolute right to excoriate them in print. “If Woody Allen finds success very upsetting and wishes the public would go away,” she wrote in a review of Stardust Memories, “this picture should help him stop worrying.” “After that, her friendship with Allen froze solid,” says Kellow. You don’t say. Meanwhile, Kael was frequently mystified and hurt by attacks that fellow critics and, occasionally, directors made on her. One of the most substantial came from Peter Bogdanovich, who forensically demolished her essay on Citizen Kane (an essay that relied heavily on the research of another, uncredited writer). It was Woody Allen who advised Kael on how she should respond: “Don’t answer.” Maybe Kael would have seen no contradiction in any of this. She wanted to hang out with people who made good movies, and when they stopped making good movies, she wanted to be able to tell them so, in print, and at length. Perhaps this is what good critics do, but that doesn’t mean you have to like them.