Arts: Pop goes the writer

As recently as 10 years ago, fiction and pop music kept little company, but since Hornby's High Fidelity they've become firm friends. And what's this? Salman Rushdie himself is about to publish a rock epic
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This newspaper's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, recently wrote that "fiction's failure to register the impact of popular music on the post-Elvis generations must rank as one of the strangest dog-that-didn't- bark stories in postwar writing". Be that as it may, the preponderance of novelists currently seeking to redress the balance is striking. Salman Rushdie's forthcoming book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, has been described by insiders as a rock epic partially inspired by U2; American writer Pagan Kennedy's new novel, The Exes, documents the rise of an alternative-rock band in Boston; and recent books by Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Robert Newman have all featured protagonists with more than a passing interest in their favourite bands. Add to this the fact that Iain Banks recently co-wrote songs for a BBC Radio adaptation of his 1990 novel, Espedair Street, and you get a sense that pop and fiction are rubbing shoulders with renewed enthusiasm.

I say with "renewed" enthusiasm because that crossover has always been there. If you opt for the broadest definition of "popular music", you could argue that even the way Kerouac drew inspiration from bebop in On the Road fits the bill. You might also assert, as Alan Warner does, that the heady brew of sci-fi and hard rock featured in some of Michael Moorcock's Seventies novels never got the critical recognition it deserved. For Nick Hornby - whose own book, High Fidelity, is still regarded as one of the "pop novel" genre's milestones - the key work came later.

"I read Roddy Doyle's The Commitments when it came out, and it was a big deal for me," he says. "When I was growing up, popular culture was much more important to me than literary culture, so the idea that you could write about music that simply and directly, and still get serious reviews, was incredibly refreshing."

Moorcock and Doyle may have been amongst the trailblazers, but the unique and mutually distinctive ways in which Warner, Hornby and Kennedy have appropriated pop culture mark a further progression. In Morvern Callar, admittedly less music-fixated than High Fidelity or The Exes, Warner takes a more impressionistic approach. The compilation tapes that the book's eponymous heroine listens to on her Walkman allow the author to drop a whole litany of band names without the faintest hint of a clang. The sheer artistry of the book also makes a nonsense of claims that pop culture references have no place in the serious literary work.

"The music on Morvern's tapes is a way for her to maintain contact with her dead boyfriend," Warner explains. "She's using it to get by after his suicide, and also to remind her of things past." There's a stark passage where Morvern decapitates her boyfriend's body wearing tinted swimming goggles and noseclips, her Walkman plugs firmly Sellotaped into her ears as she listens to a specially prepared compilation. It's almost as though she's bandaging her senses.

Like Hornby's High Fidelity, Kennedy's The Exes uses its characters' pop and rock obsessions as an over-arching framework, while she explores the dynamics of their romantic and platonic relationships. The Exes are a band, and their moniker - the brainchild of guitarist Lilly - alludes to their line-up featuring two pairs of ex-lovers. They're an indie Fleetwood Mac.

While on one level, the book pays homage to the alternative scene in Allston, Boston, which Kennedy once immersed herself in, the former fanzine writer is quick to point out that there's more to the book than lip-gloss and sound checks: "I wanted to capture something that's going on socially, and not just in bands", she says. "The fact that most of us of a certain age now have a string of monogamous exes that we have to integrate into our lives is interesting, but I don't see anybody talking about it." She describes The Exes - which one critic dubbed "High Infidelity" - as "a perverse take on that issue".

It's Nick Hornby's view that, perhaps fearful of dating their books by mentioning, say, a Smiths album, British writers have generally been slower to make direct references to pop culture than their American counterparts. "In the 1980s, you wouldn't be surprised to see the name of a band in a Raymond Carver or Jayne Phillips novel," he says. "And I liked that, because it made me feel that they understood the world in which I was living. Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? came later, but there's a beautiful passage in that where, at a party, someone puts on "Little Green" by Joni Mitchell and one by one all the woman stop talking and drift off. Most people can relate to that."

In High Fidelity, Hornby's lead character Rob owns Championship Vinyl, a second-hand record shop. Rob and his employees' fixation with compiling their own tapes and listing charts for ever more ridiculous categories allows Hornby to take cross-referencing to its logical extreme. "When I was writing the book, I remember noticing that lists and charts were becoming part of the culture more and more," he says. When I ask him if he's noticed how those l00-best-albums-of-all-time-type features are still a staple of the music monthlies, he laughs. "A friend who's completely mad on music says his ideal magazine would just have lists of good stuff he hasn't heard yet. No journalism - just titles!"

While Hornby's obsessive males in High Fidelity are stereotypes, the male music-bore is a character with whom most of us are familiar, and some of us may even have recognised in the mirror this morning. Those completists - those characters who must own every Kinks release regardless of its quality - tend to be blokes. Kennedy agrees: "I think males have a tendency to hoard, and that obsessive thing does seem to be gender-linked. I know a bunch of people who I think of as `the collector guys', and they have to have these huge, warehouse-sized apartments just to house their records. I say, God bless them, though, because if I need to check some obscure song title I know who to call."

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the current literature/pop crossover is the extent to which boundaries seem to he blurring. When Alan Warner befriended Joe McAlinden of the Glasgow band Superstar, he opted to write the group into his latest novel, The Sopranos, and the book's preface juxtaposes a quote from McAlinden's song "Every Second Hurts" with one from Wuthering Heights (and that's Bronte's original, not Kate's single). Warner has also done readings at Superstar gigs, and with The Sopranos about to be made into a major film, there's talk of Superstar collaborating on the soundtrack.

Kennedy, too, has recently experienced life imitating art: "I asked some musician friends of mine to pretend to be The Exes at this reading I did, and now they've become a band in their own right," she laughs. "There's this bar in Jamaica Plains called the Midway Cafe, which I mention in the novel, and the weirdest thing was when they called us and asked us to play there. I gave the guy who owns the place the book and he got up and read the appropriate bit." If Kennedy seems to be enjoying all this, perhaps even using it to exorcise a few ghosts, it's understandable. At college, she was in a "camp-psychedelic" band called Planet Love.

Irvine Welsh collaborating with Primal Scream, and the hall-of-mirrors effect experienced by Warner and Kennedy might seem like a lecture in post-Modernism's wet dream, but Warner himself is quick to remind us of the legacy. "It's Moorcock again, isn't it? He wrote this amazing limited edition piece in 1980 which based characters on the Sex Pistols and Lemmy from Motorhead, and in 1977 he released an album called The Deep Fix, and The Deep Fix were a band featured in his Cornelius Quartet books. That's why the thing of Iain Banks writing songs bores me. Moorcock used that interplay between reality and fiction much more interestingly."

A more appetising prospect, perhaps, is Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It will be intriguing to see how a writer of his stature gets to grips with the pop genre, and to see whether this prompts other literary heavyweights to follow suit. Captain's Corelli's Akai Sampler, perhaps? A metaphysical take on Czech drum 'n' bass from Milan Kundera? Don't hold your breath.

`The Exes' by Pagan Kennedy is published by Simon & Schuster