Books: A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 08 August 1998
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. After all, the critics and theorists sank their intellectual teeth into the sounds and stars of our century as soon as it began. T S Eliot's best-loved essay pinpoints the louche appeal of Marie Lloyd; Philip Larkin bracketed Charlie Parker with Pound and Picasso as one of Modernism's demon kings; and so it goes, up to the latest rapt exegesis of dance culture, reviewed on this page.
Turn to the novel over the past 40 years, and the cupboard looks almost bare (although Irvine Welsh and his epigones have been working fast to fill the shelves for the later 1990s). It may be that the creative imaginations best equipped to capture this musical golden age in fiction - from Ray Davies to Jarvis Cocker - have been busy writing songs instead. Or else, like the man said, if you can remember the Sixties, you weren't really there. At any rate, Salman Rushdie's avidly-awaited rock epic, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, will land in a surprisingly empty space next year.
All the more reason, then, to give a whooping, whistling, beer can-hurling roar of welcome to Pagan Kennedy's The Exes (Simon & Schuster, pounds 10). Small but very neatly formed, the second novel from Boston's priestess of PopCult follows an indie band composed of former partners who try to use their cooled-off liaisons as 'a rehearsal for some deeper connection'.
Admittedly, Kennedy's CV sounds a touch too cute for comfort: the 1970s trivia anthology; the cult cable TV show; even the fanzine devoted, Tracey Emin-style, to Herself. Well, perhaps the girl can't help it, but she can write with grace and zest (Spinsters justly reached the Orange Prize shortlist), she knows her subject inside out, and she succeeds in turning the music into what Eliot might have called an 'objective correlative' for shifting states of mind and heart.
The action unfolds among the bright slackers who loom so large in pre- millennial US fiction. Its viewpoint passes cleverly from one member to another, like a relay-race baton, as the Exes rise from garage-band obscurity to the threshold of fame. Throughout, performance acts as a counterpoint to character, from the vocalist who feels, in her private Wonderland, that the chord of G minor 'bullied her around like the Red Queen', to the solitary drummer, a drop-out Harvard scientist, who hears at last how 'his drums sound raw and naked without the other instruments'. Free of gush and grandiosity alike, Kennedy makes the music matter while sensing that the 'inherently juvenile' nature of this close-knit collective life will bring it to a stop. And she does all this without a fatal overdose or trashed hotel suite in sight. There has to be more to the rock-driven plot than This Is Spinal Tap.
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