Books: This really is Spinal Tap
Sunday 08 March 1998
CRITICS have compared Geoff Nicholson (who has 10 novels under his belt) to Evelyn Waugh, Georges Perec and Will Self. His latest novel should prove, once and for all, that Nicholson is incomparable. This is a collage of apocryphal anecdotes, wild imaginings from the pen of a man in love with the electric guitar. And like the music he aims to describe, his story is full of "the sound of planets melting, of death factories imploding, of mythical beasts being slaughtered, the sound of air moving and valves dying".
His timeframe is "early post-nuclear holocaust", and his wonderfully nonplussed heroine, Jenny Slade, makes her entrance walking into an "end- of-the-world watering hole" where she pulls out her instrument, "part deadly weapon and part creature from some alien lagoon" (actually, it's Greg Wintergreen who, we later find out, woke up one morning to find he'd metamorphosed into an electric guitar), and with a long, loud, improvised solo, blows away her audience and disappears into the night, never to be seen again.
Arriving too late for this valedictory gig, her number-one fan, Bob Arnold, fills in the barmaid on her extraordinary CV. Bob is the founding editor of JOSS (The Journal of Sladean Studies), and his discourse on Jenny and the history of the blues guitar provides the structure of the novel. Jenny is the Po-Mo Queen of avant-garde music, forcing her audience to redefine their relationship to music, performance and pleasure. Take her "Hot Solo": she plays a standard I-iv-V chord progression with her left hand, while her right hand takes an ignited blow lamp to the strings; or her equally inflammatory "Errol Flynn Solo" in which she straps on a dildo and uses it to strum the chords of "Mull of Kintyre".
But Jenny doesn't just play the guitar. She goes back in time to hang out with other guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Frank Zappa, none of whom can get the measure of her. She also finds her way round Aboriginal songlines by playing "Route 66" and "By The Time I Get to Phoenix". While others burn out (her mentor Captain Ahab stage-dives to his death, the Hormone Twins beat themselves to a pulp in rhythmical accompaniment to one of her soaring solos, and her accompanist is massacred in a prison riot triggered by the feedback from her guitar), Jenny keeps on playing.
Jenny is brought down by the media, and Nicholson ends his meditation on the infinite possibilities of the ultimate 20th-century instrument by acknowledging the precision (and anaesthetising qualities) of machine- generated music. But not before he has reminded us of the vitality, diversity and soulwrenching capabilities of this combination of songs, plectrum and amp. As Bob says of a Slade gig, Nicholson doesn't just give you what you want, he gives you what you never even knew existed.
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