Jazz etc, by John Murray

A Cumbrian magical surrealist jam session
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The Independent Culture

Since his mid-Eighties debut, Samarkand, John Murray's career has followed a predictable path. Every three years or so, Murray produces a novel, published by a small provincial press and dealing, generally in surreal-to-magic realist terms, with some aspect of his native west Cumbria. Radio Activity (1993) was a swingeing satire on the local nuclear industry; John Dory (2001) featured, among other enticements, a talking fish from the Maryport aquarium.

Since his mid-Eighties debut, Samarkand, John Murray's career has followed a predictable path. Every three years or so, Murray produces a novel, published by a small provincial press and dealing, generally in surreal-to-magic realist terms, with some aspect of his native west Cumbria. Radio Activity (1993) was a swingeing satire on the local nuclear industry; John Dory (2001) featured, among other enticements, a talking fish from the Maryport aquarium.

On publication, the half-dozen or so critics who regard him as, in Jonathan Coe's words, the nearest thing we have to a modern-day Flann O'Brien, turn pink with excitement. The book sells a thousand copies, and then everything goes quiet for another three years.

There are advantages, of course, in this kind of tenuous barnacle-hold on the national literary consciousness. For one thing it means that, within certain broadly defined limits, you can write what you like. You can write in the way you like, too, with the result that Murray's novels digress all over the place, ramble drunkenly through forests of phonetically rendered Cumbrian dialect, and frequently stop dead out of sheer exhaustion. This is part of their charm, while calculated to alarm the general reader avid for plot, pace and resolution.

Jazz etc is probably the most commercial book Murray has ever written, but even that is not saying a great deal. As in all his work, hardly anything "happens" in the conventional sense, and the story could be sketched on the back of a cigarette packet. Enzo Mori is the bright and self-absorbed son of Italian ice-cream vendor Vince, who moonlights in a trad ensemble called the Chompin Stompers. Enzo leaves the drably outlandish nursery of his parents' Sixties Whitehaven boarding-house for Oxford, where he meets and is entranced by the avant-garde jazz guitarist and fellow-Cumbrian, Fanny Golightly. Simultaneously, the novel tracks the apprenticeship, begun in grinding Salazar-era poverty, of the Portuguese jazz prodigy Toto Cebola, with whose destiny Fanny is sadly fated to become entwined.

As ever, though, devious metaphorical strands are snaking out to ensnare the cast. Just as Reiver Blues (1996) turned into a meditation on the idea of debatable lands, whether on the Anglo-Scottish border or in Central Europe, so Jazz etc soon projects the noise of the title into what Enzo calls "a convincing intuitive description of nearly all aspects of human behaviour, as well as the idiosyncratic notation of a particular branch of music".

It is also hugely funny. Murray reveals once again his distinctive gift for giving the ordinarily homespun a luminous sheen, in his account of the members of the teenage Cebola's cosmopolitan band enjoying some highbrow relaxation – sax player, drummer and bassist are each reading Sartre's The Age of Reason in separate translations – or of Vince stumbling incoherently back from an extra-marital tryst in the Cumbrian forests ("Chenfer has an hoodspent on the rix" = "Jennifer has a husband on the rigs"). It would be nice if readers beyond his core constituency could take an interest.

DJ Taylor's biography of George Orwell is published next month

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