When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the writer and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton outlined what he called “the myth of the trauma hero.” It goes like this:
Every true war story is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.
After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.
The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.
So goes the myth of the trauma hero.
Scranton locates the origins of this myth in the 18-century Romanticism that valued individual experience above all else. He tracks the myth through two world wars, Vietnam, and up to the United States’s most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last few years have seen an outpouring of memoirs, novels, and films about these two wars, and many of the most commercially and critically successful offer their own take on the trauma hero. Scranton, however, finds this myth dangerous, saying that it “serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy.” He doesn’t fault the writers of such narratives as much as their readers, eager to honor the tales told by trauma heroes, and in so doing avoid hearing stories of war that detail the victims of violence, and — more to the point — those responsible for it.
The Infernal, a novel by Mark Doten, seeks to tell that kind of story, one that accounts for those involved in the War on Terror at nearly every level, from the grunts lugging 80-pound packs to the residents of dusty villages on the other side of the world to the highest echelons of American power. I fear that this description, however, might give the impression that the book has the dutiful, even-handed tone of an episode of Frontline. That is not the case. The Infernal is certifiably insane, a monstrous, cartoon nightmare of a book.
Open up the book, and you’ll find a “Dramatis Personae” section, like in a 19th-century Russian novel. This one doesn’t track family trees and patronymics, however; characters include Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as more inscrutable entries for “The Omnosyne” and “The Memex.” What is going on? Is this a postmodern swipe at American society like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, a novelization of the Rosenberg trial that featured Richard Nixon as its protagonist? A gloss on celebrity like Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, in which Michael Douglas appears as a hologram of a character? The action and language of The Infernal are of the moment, but you might have to go all the way back to the novel’s namesake to get an idea of what Doten is up to. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri placed all his enemies from 14th-century Florence in Hell, where they gave accounts of their sins while suffering elaborate, ironic punishments. Doten wants to place these historical figures in his fiction where they will be forced to explain themselves, as this is unlikely to happen in the real world.
The novel begins in the Akkad Valley of Iraq, at a geological formation known as Al-Madkhanah, or the Chimney. Strange clouds appear at the peak of the Chimney. A patrol of soldiers goes to investigate. One of them climbs to the top, where he discovers a boy burned almost beyond recognition. The soldiers return the boy to a base. He cannot speak, sign, or communicate in any way. But the Commission, a shadowy organization that seems to catalog and thus control the world, needs the information that the boy has. They decide to bring the traitor Jimmy Wales out of prison so he can use his invention, the Omnosyne, to extract a confession from the boy.
Jimmy Wales? Isn’t that the guy who created Wikipedia? That is indeed who he is IRL, as they say, but in the universe of The Infernal, Wales was a student at Dr. Vannevar Bush’s Institute for Youth Advances, where he helped create the Memex, a worldwide network of knowledge that served as a kind of precursor to the Internet, except it was only available to the Commission. Wales broke with Dr. Bush and the Institute, however, when he invented the Omnosyne, an information-gathering tool that is half lie detector, half torture device. To use the Omnosyne, an elaborate system of wires are inserted into the subject’s tongue and spine, extracting the essential information from his very nerves and bones. The wires are hooked up to what looks like a typewriter, printing out the subject’s confession in Omnotic Code, which only Wales can decipher. Once he created the Omnosyne, however, Wales killed a dozen instructors at the Institute for Youth Advances, at which point the Commission placed him in jail for life and mothballed the Omnosyne. The Commission is desperate for the Akkad Boy’s confession, however, so they bring Wales and his device to the Akkad Valley.
Due to the invasive nature of the Omnosyne, an extraction results in the death of the subject. This is deemed acceptable, as the Akkad Boy’s confession will surely prove invaluable. When Wales hooks him up to the Omnosyne and begins the extraction, however, the pages that are printed out in Omnotic Code give not the boy’s confession, but rather the confessions of a host of different people, all involved in the War on Terror in one way or another: Osama Bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi woman named Noor, and on and on. These polysyllabic confessions form the text of The Infernal, which can read as if William Faulkner were blogging about current events, as in this passage written from the perspective of Bremer, Presidential Envoy to Iraq.
Not much in the way of running water, friends, mostly this here’s a porta-potty town, Jay told us, I told Condi on the cell.
Meanwhile Saddam flew past . . .
Meanwhile Saddam flew right past us . . .
And meanwhile Saddam in statue form, poster form, some billboards, too, and murals of Saddam, that sonofabitch just kept on flying on past us, One hell, I said, one hell of an Ozymandian tribute, Jay with no idea, Florida State University, then Shippensburg, never overcame those early obstacles…
Elsewhere, Osama Bin Laden, holed up in a cave, has his followers construct a new dialysis machine, which quickly devolves into violent slapstick; two drone-strike survivors named Rashid and Hakim stumble around like Laurel and Hardy; US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez crawls through the air ducts of Guantanamo; Iraq War Veteran Tom Pally hobbles around his ranch house on an artificial leg, trying to make dinner plans for his and his wife’s anniversary, instead getting accosted by the vengeful maitre d’ of the restaurant. In the background of all this, there are intimations of a New City coming into being, a realm of pure information that the Commission plans to upload themselves into, leaving behind the corporeal world.
At this point in the review, I’m guessing that you either really want to read The Infernal, or you really don’t. It seems like an ideal object for the enthusiastic scholarship of a devoted cult, and I sincerely look forward to the WikiLink page that will explain all of the book’s mysteries. But Doten has written his idiosyncratic book about events that will be familiar to many, perhaps even overly familiar, and it’s worth asking why.
Part of an answer may lie in Doten’s biography. Doten is currently the literary editor at Soho Press, the publishing house whose renaissance The Millions covered last year. Before that, Doten was an associate editor at The Huffington Post, working for the site at its very beginning in 2005. (Andrew Breitbart was one of the site’s cofounders, though he soon left after a falling-out with Arianna Huffington, and The Infernal has a great, nasty joke made at his expense.) Doten is sure to have edited hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories about the War on Terror and its many players, to the point where they very well might have seemed less like human beings and more like hallucinations, the characters in a compensatory power fantasy dreamed up by a traumatized, vengeful public. That’s not the kind of story you can tell as a journalist, however, and it’s possible Doten looked to the role of novelist as a way of telling the deeper, spiritual truth about our disastrous recent history, the kind of truth that fiction is still best-equipped to tell.
Debts to postmodern fiction aside, the book that The Infernal most reminded me of was George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer’s book is nonfiction, drawing on extensive interviews with ordinary citizens (remember when journalists did that?) as well as secondary sources for accounts of big name movers and shakers, but it’s structured very much like a novel, using the stories of its constituent characters to tell a larger, cohesive story about our current social reality, and what led to it. In fact, Packer explicitly modeled his book on novelist John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, an account of the tumultuous events of the early part of the 20th century. Packer’s goal in the book is quixotic, using the tools of serious journalism to try and offer a diagnosis of the sickness afflicting the body politic, the reporter doing the work of the artist.
Doten also thinks that 21st-century America is sick, but The Infernal isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a bloodletting. As the Omnosyne extracts the Akkad Boy’s confession and the voices of those in power and the powerless inculpate themselves with every profession of innocence, the reader has the sense that all the lies and deceit of the last dozen years, the courage shown and the suspicion that it meant little, have been brought together in one place, between the covers of a single book. Here’s hoping that people open it.
 A little inside baseball: Scranton’s essay is, in part, a response to George Packer’s essay on recent books about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for The New Yorker. Scranton takes Packer to task for only considering works that fulfill the trauma hero myth “while ignoring works that don’t fit that frame, such as John Dos Passos’s epic U.S.A. trilogy.” Writer, read thyself.
In his introduction to Letters, the collected letters of Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist Dan Wakefield writes of his friend, “Nothing came easy for him. Nothing deterred him…” He goes on to list the things that did not deter Vonnegut, among them: “the many editors and publishers who rejected his books and stories…the Guggenheim Foundation, which rejected his first application for a fellowship…his Cape Cod neighbors who didn’t read his books and expressed no interest in what he did for a living.” Rounding out the list of doubters and haters with the right-wing Christians, Wakefield concludes, “Anyone who imagines a writer’s life has ever been easy — even one who eventually achieves fame and fortune — will be disabused of that fantasy after reading these letters. And they will be inspired.”
Vonnegut had such a fine grump-humanist sensibility, and such a surprising turn of phrase — now-goofy, now-eviscerating — that his collected letters were destined to bring forth bounty. (Here is the man who writes to the Junior League of Indianapolis to chastise them for renaming their headquarters, signing off: “Perhaps Indianapolis deserves its inferiority complex after all, since it is rapidly becoming nothing but a real estate development and a so-so football team stolen from Baltimore.”)
So yes, in my own sour little way, I was inspired by these letters, because I am inspired by a friendly humanist with a great work ethic and a dark sense of humor. But I also found them pretty sad. While it’s true that the life of Vonnegut did not appear to be easy, reading these letters, it wasn’t indifferent awards committees or prudish readers or the Chicago anthropologists who jumped out as the major roadblocks in the man’s life. Reading these letters, it seemed like Kurt Vonnegut’s biggest obstacle to happiness was Kurt Vonnegut.
The danger of publishing someone’s letters is that people will use them to form opinions that might horrify anyone who actually knew the subject. That said, please bear with me as I tell you about a kind of stuffed meatball you can get in Turkey. In Turkish, the meatball is described as “with insides,” which is also how you say “sensitive.” Thus it happens that in Turkey you routinely see English menus touting “sensitive meatballs,” which is just about the most poignant anthropomorphism in history.
Reading the letters of Kurt Vonnegut evoked this meatball: emotional, touchy, absurd. It shouldn’t surprise me, because I am pretty sure it’s some kind of trope, but I am nonetheless surprised that a successful, vital, and by most accounts delightful man, who was always coming out with important books and fine statements, should have so often felt the need to convince other people of his worth — and particularly, that he would engage people from the three demographics least likely to budge from a position about one’s merits or lack thereof: critics, philistines, and one’s own children.
I thank you for your comments on how slowly my literary reputation is dying. Part of the problem, surely, is that all my books remain in print, and people continue to give me credit for having written them. There is also the confusion caused by Jailbird, which was much too good to have been written by someone at my stage of decay…
Next, a word to the book-burners of Drake, North Dakota:
I gather from what I read in the papers…that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of rat-like people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War Two, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work…
And finally, he writes to his children. I’m a sensitive meatball myself, so it was almost too much to read these letters during the long, November slide to the holidays, when family things, anyone’s family things, seem more raw and proximal than they usually do. I squirmed at Vonnegut’s many letters to his daughter Nanette, in which he tries to set her straight about his divorce and his new companion, Jill Krementz. When she, teenager-like, flakes on an appointment, he writes:
I don’t like the way you treat me at all. You have totally wrecked me with your absent-minded, dumb Dora promises to come see me, and with your equally fog-bound, last minute announcements that your life has become so complicated, hi ho, that you cannot come. I would find such indifference to my feelings painful, even if it came from a little kid. You are chronologically a grown-up now. But you are clearly unable to imagine me as a living, interesting, sensitive, vulnerable human being. God only knows that you think I am.
Around the same time, Vonnegut writes to thank the scholar Peter Reed for his favorable criticism and tells him, “I have sent your book to my eighteen-year-old daughter, so she can be absolutely certain that she has a keen old man.”
(Nanette is now a grown-up and a writer and, lately, the subject of a nice interview at The Rumpus. It’s on the record that she’s absolutely certain she had a “keen old man.” So that worked out. But it’s still sad to read those letters, and it’s sad that he tells Nanny about how nourishing and egalitarian this new relationship is, and then we read how she’s cheating, and then, when he is quite an old man, Vonnegut writes that he is “living one day at a time, and have to, Jill is so volatile.”)
John Irving was a student of Vonnegut’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Maybe it is something in the water there; Vonnegut’s communique to the book burners reminded me of the letter Irving’s character T.S. Garp, himself a novelist, writes to an incensed reader in The World According to Garp. In response to Garp’s lengthy explanation of the ways that she has misapprehended his work, the reader writes, “I can see by your letter that you believe in yourself and I guess that’s good. But the things you say are mostly garbage and nonsense to me, and I don’t want you to try to explain anything to me again, because it is boring and an insult to my intelligence.”
Perhaps Vonnegut’s letter really did make the censorious Mr. McCarthy (his actual name) of Drake, N.D., see the light about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I have my doubts. I think it takes more than a letter, even a letter from a letter-writer like Kurt Vonnegut, to change the mind of a person who would burn a book. And it surprises me that someone with Vonnegut’s sense of irony, Mr. So-it-Goes, would deem it worth trying.
Vonnegut was highly attuned the value of time and effort, as in the dollar value, something that creative types with no money generally have to spend a lot of time thinking about (and have to try not to spend a corresponding amount of time talking about). One of the most interesting (and also disheartening) things about Vonnegut’s letters is his exegesis of the financials of being an artist; necessity made Vonnegut a horse trader and kind of a hardass. I laughed at his advice to his son Mark, an aspiring artist:
You might give the next guy who wants to buy a painting from you a lesson in art appreciation that goes like this: A small tube of paint costs a dollar, a canvas costs two dollars, and the minimum legal wage in this country is now a dollar and a quarter an hour. Percy Leen did me the big favor of admiring my paintings and actually hanging them on her walls. I figure this honor cost me about forty bucks or more every time she awarded it to me.
And when an Indiana librarian asks him for a $7.50-copy of his latest novel, he asks whether the asphalt makers will likewise be asked to furnish their wares free of charge to the state.
I can’t imagine that a person who thought of time and work in those terms would write a sassy letter to Anatole Broyard on a lark, to be cute, to waste the day. I read touchiness and need in his letters — to set the record straight about himself, about the way things are. When the sensitive meatball’s need to persuade confronts the unwillingness of people and life to be persuaded, it makes for great reading. But it must have been exhausting to live.
“I have forced myself to contradict myself, in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes,” said Marcel Duchamp in an interview in 1945, seemingly describing the temperament of César Aira, the Argentinean fiction writer who would be born four years later, and whose fictions swerve with a barely controlled weirdness. Like for Duchamp, contradiction and incongruity are Aira’s bread and butter. He takes hold of, toys with, and throws by the side of the road any number of genres, moods, and plots, all in the space of a hundred pages, a length his 60 or so books almost never exceed.
Aira doesn’t give the impression of trying to be clever, but instead of escaping his own boredom. His prose has a euphoric, blindfolded momentum; the events that take place are at once inevitable and unimaginable. Fate, that otherwise unfashionable narrative antique, has a hand in everything. To read Aira is to hurtle, and it’s not always pleasant. As one of translators, Chris Andrews, has put it, “Once you’re addicted to Aira, you can be disappointed by a swerve […], but somehow you prefer being disappointed by him than satisfied by many other writers.”
Part of the way Aira makes disappointment preferable to satisfaction is by keeping his characters in perpetual motion. In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, a German artist hits the road in South America. In The Literary Conference, a mad scientist travels to Venezuela in order to clone Carlos Fuentes. In The Seamstress and the Wind, a mother mistakenly thinks that her son has been kidnapped and orders a taxi driver to take her to Patagonia. Aira’s novels are never without a parade, a chaotic sense of procession that spills over from the form of his writing into its content and back again. This is fiction as a never-ending car chase, and you might just get away if you can only stop your vehicle from turning into a lampshade.
So it is in both the newly-translated Shantytown, in which a kindly middle-class bodybuilder walks daily to the slums of Buenos Aires out of a sense of camaraderie for the people who collect rubbish by hand, and The Hare (first published in the UK in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail, and now reissued by New Directions), the story of an English naturalist traveling in the wilds of Argentina in order to catch sight of the eponymous animal. If half the challenge of reading Aira is just keeping up with him, then to enjoy him is to fight the reflex to make sense of the sometimes beautiful and almost-always hilarious pandemonium as it passes by.
This idea – that things just happen, don’t ask why – is something that the narrator of Shantytown spells out early on. Maxi, the well-to-do bodybuilder, works for the rubbish collectors just because it was, “something he did, that was all. It was spontaneous, like a hobby.” It’s not just his own motivations that Maxi doesn’t interrogate, it’s the world: watching people scavenge in the rubbish, he “didn’t ask himself why they were doing what they did.” Very quickly this refusal to interpret or make sense comes to seem like a metaphor for how Aira writes: not exactly unconsciously, but certainly not self-critically. “If Maxi had stopped to wonder whether or not they’d accept his help, or tried to find the right words,” the narrator tells us, “it would never have happened.” So there you have it: a writer describing how he writes about writing by not thinking about writing – by way of a metaphor about rubbish collection. An odd situation, to be sure.
But none of this is any less than completely deliberate. Aira has a way of writing that doesn’t allow for inaction (but does allow him to commentate his own process). He refers to this method of writing as flight forward, which Andrews has described as, “not going back and rewriting, but attempting to redeem the errors or inadequacies of what he has already written by adding, by writing more, by improvising retrospective explanations.” Just like in life, you can’t undo the past. But you can build elaborate and fanciful justifications that no one believes: “Officer, my friend asked me to carry that stuff for him, he said it was medicine, and I decided to carry it in my sock so it wouldn’t get lost, I swear.” Yeah, right.
In Shantytown, the plot seems to hinge on a drug called proxidine (Aira’s plots never actually hinge on anything other than his own whims), the effect of which, “was to increase the proximity of things, applied above all to the elements of a problem: by bringing them into sudden contiguity, it brought them closer to the solution.” Proxidine isn’t just a made-up drug, but also an analogy for the made-up device with which Aira resolves the puzzle-like plot of the book itself, drawing together its various elements for a final outrageous, overflowing denouement. This is where Aira’s likeness to an artist such as Duchamp dissolves (and there is a puff quote on the cover of The Hare proclaiming Aira to be “the Duchamp of Latin American literature” – so it’s not just me). The games Aira plays with plot and character aren’t cool, high-minded, chess-like things, but more like Twister, only with rules that no one seems to know (it would be too easy, of course, if there were no rules at all).
The Hare, too, is possessed by Aira’s restless indifference to realism, the plot unfolding as capriciously as an exquisite corpse, as Clarke, the naturalist, and his traveling companions lurch across the Argentinean countryside from one misunderstanding with the local Indians to another (social conventions and traditions being important to Aira because they can be distorted and deformed). But there’s a slow, darkly syrupy quality to prose that is noticeably different from his other titles available in English. Clarke, visiting a remote part of the country, catches sight of oxen that, “had taken on the appearance of Japanese bulls, with swollen dewlaps and so many folds of white skin dangling from their backs that they appeared to be covered in sheets of marble, like Bernini statues in Rome.” That heaviness and the reference to Baroque art seem immediately at odds to the pragmatic, crash-and-bash prose style of Aira’s other books.
“The impossible,” Aira writes early in The Hare, “is the first thing to become reality.” But does anything ever become reality in an Aira fiction? Things hover near authenticity, threaten to become real, seem for a moment to impersonate truth…and then just don’t. Halfway through The Hare, I suddenly thought: no two Aira characters ever really understand what the other one is saying. The meta-fictional dialogue in his stories is only for that one notable onlooker, the reader. In a very anti-modern way, plot is something that happens to Aira’s characters, rather than something that is determined by their actions.
But what holds everything together is Aira’s refusal to repeat himself, his insistence upon contradicting himself, and his way of keeping proportion and perspective in states of constant flux. The size and the meaning of the world itself change from sentence to sentence according to an unknowable internal logic of ideas – things never in short supply when Aira’s around – about reality, perception, expression, and, above all, writing. Returning to more normal contemporary fiction after reading Aira – or simply to flesh-and-blood life itself – is a little like that odd childhood sensation of dismounting a trampoline, and feeling a heaviness rush back into your legs as you walk across solid ground. You ask yourself: was it always this boring?
Near the end of Listen to This , his newest collection of essays, Alex Ross quotes the philosopher John Dewey in his 1934 treatise, Art as Experience: “When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience.” It would be near impossible for Ross’s readers to be as well-versed as he is in classical tradition—it takes a well-schooled listener to distinguish one opus from another, a chacona from a zarabanda. But Ross has established himself as one of today’s most valuable cultural critics for one particular reason: he can not only show you the qualities of music, but makes you understand why the qualities matter. He makes believers out of know-nothings.
In Ross’s book, a collection of work published in The New Yorker, he brings the same characteristic clarity and enthusiasm that made his first book, The Rest is Noise, such a runaway success: Ross writes from an informed yet never didactic perspective, even when he is giving his take on modern recording technology’s effect on the way we experience music. He says “Music is no longer something we do ourselves, or even watch other people do in front of us. It has become a radically virtual medium, an art without a face.” Ross’s major passion, as both a critic and fan, is to bridge the gap between how we talk about music and how we feel about music.
When Ross writes about classical music, you can tell he knows his stuff: try to find another music critic working today who was steeped in Berlioz before he discovered the Beatles. But perhaps Ross gained an unusual advantage by coming late to the pop music game: he writes about all genres with a consistent and thorough approach to each genre’s structure and theory. His essay on Björk, compares a piece of music she’d written at the age of 15 with the beginning of the second part of The Rite of Spring. (One can only imagine what his treatise on post-breakdown Brittany Spears might read like.) And his take on Bob Dylan in “I Saw the Light” isn’t so much an actual study of Dylan as it is a take on how the rest of the world is trying to pin him down. Ross rails against the marginalization of classical music as a dead and unpopular art form, and he plays defense against accusations of classical music being arty and too, well, classy for pleasure listening.
Every music fan, classical or contemporary, will find something to savor in this collection. Among Ross’s subjects are Mozart’s struggle to find emotional balance in his work and his personal life; attempts to revitalize the Los Angeles Philharmonic audience, and the emergence of Western classical music fans in China. His brief portraits of Cobain and Sinatra are fun, but it’s John Luther Adams and the St. Lawrence Quartet who get the rock-star treatment. (He may also make the New York cabaret act Kiki and Herb the hottest ticket in town.) His essay on Radiohead could sit with the best of Rolling Stone’s think-pieces, except Ross has the ear for the band’s classical roots. “The doubling of the theme, a very Led Zeppelin move, has thunderous logic, as if an equation had been solved. The interplay was as engaging to the mind as anything that had been done in classical music recently, but you could jump and down to it.”
The one previously unpublished essay, and the highlight of the book, will blow the minds of even the best-read music aficionados. “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues” is Ross’s study of the basso lamento, a repeating bass line meant to represent sorrow across multiple styles of music, from the earliest flamenco melodies to modern-day blue riffs. (He points the reader to both Bach’s 1714 cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” and Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman” as viable examples of this weepy progression.). He traces this melodic marker not only as a strand of sonic DNA across different genres, but as a narrative device that marks storytelling from different kinds of musical authors. (The book’s illustrative playlist is available on iTunes for $20.00, or you can go to the book’s website to sample mentioned songs for free.) It would be a shame to read Ross’s criticism without your headphones on: his description of Marian Anderson’s voice is lush and accurate—“caressing little slides from note to note and a delicately trembling tone adding human warmth”—, but one has to listen to the recording to get the full effect. His affection or derision is so perfectly pitched, you want to run to your radio, your iPod, whatever source you prefer, to share in his enthusiasm.
Ross can make you hear his interviewees as well as their music: the laugh of the pianist Michiko Uchida (“wildly oscillating . . . like a flock of songbirds ready to be transcribed by Olivier Messiaen.”) He gives life to the most wooden of composers—who knew the instability of Schubert’s personal life could explain the way his compositions fluctuated between the light and beautiful and the harmonically violent? But it’s in his chapter on the crisis in music education, “Learning the Score,” that the real thrust of Ross’s argument emerges. His time at the Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey is an impassioned defense for music in elementary education. It only takes a few lines of Ross’s description of a child tentatively approaching a piano and churning out his own West End variation on Beethoven’s Fur Elise, juxtaposed with the ever-increasing cuts in the availability of such opportunities, to see the vulnerable future ahead for classical music.
Real music appreciation, whether it comes to us through nuanced research or infused criticism, is not easy to find. Ross sees audiences falling into a rut: we repeat the classics over and over, canonizing them and crippling their ability to move us. He fears the increasing sterility of music: “Celebrity maestros and virtuosos assumed ersatz creative roles, lending a patina of novelty to superfamiliar music. Living composers became curiosities and nuisances. Almost nothing about the enterprise had any tangible connection to contemporary life.” Yet in Ross, we have heard one wildly entertaining basso lamento that bemoans, and celebrates, the qualities of great art.