On Coincidence, Constraints, and Matthew Stadler’s Cover Novel

July 14, 2011 | 3 7 min read

Let me begin with coincidence. Last summer in Portland while ambling about, I encountered Publication Studio’s storefront, a pane of glass tucked away on a side street, situated next to a pub that resembled something of a used bookstore, and across the street from yet another pub that as I recall had great deals on beer flights. It was getting on in the evening, but the storefront was still occupied by a man working feverishly, standing over what looked to be a photocopier. I gathered from the writing on the windowpane, among other evidence, that the store housed a small press. I wanted to return when they were open for business, but this was the end of my trip. The next day I made a final stop at Powell’s where in their candy-store offerings of a small press section I encountered a Publication Studio book, Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha, written by the very same Matthew Stadler who had founded the press, who may have been the same man I’d seen standing over the copier the night before. The book itself looks cunningly spare in the same way that most Publication Studio books are packaged, its clean white pages bound within what appears to be a file folder cut to size, a title stamped on the front and a date on the side.

At home in Brooklyn I unpacked my many pounds of Powell’s lit booty and started perusing Stadler’s book and flipped to the afterword, “This Book Is a Cover.” In his addendum, Stadler discusses his intention of writing the book as a cover novel and outlines how he borrowed the structure, pacing, and some of the language (including a character’s name) from a John le Carré novel in order to write his own version of the book. He argues, and I agree: “A good cover is both a tribute to the original and its own new song.”

coverHere’s a second coincidence. I’d just spent the previous weeks working on a story that considered a similar conceit, about an author who considers herself a kind of translator. She borrows the architecture of established novels and rewrites the books in new styles and settings and even new genres to produce her own creations. I had been reading about Marina Abramović’s performance of  Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim, during which she preformed six seminal pieces from other artist’s oeuvres, including Vito Acconci’s Seedbed and Valie Export’s Action Pants. In the book that documents these performances, Abramović outlines and attempts to implement a system where performance artists can stage reperformances of other artist’s work. This was something she must have considered at length while training artists to preform her own work for The Artist Is Present, MoMA’s large-scale exhibition of her her work,  and their first-ever performance retrospective. I visited the exhibition a number of times that spring, observing the performances and walking between the two nude bodies in the doorway of Imponderabila while Abramović sat for her own performance downstairs. And so I was already thinking of artists preforming other artists’ work, which seemed analogous to musicians playing other musicians’ songs, and also made me think of the cover song and how a musician can take someone else’s song and make it their own. Johnny Cash singing Trent Reznor’s Hurt is far more devastating for me, with Cash’s raw voice, his stripped down performance. I was contemplating what would be the literary equivalent.

That I had stumbled upon Publication Studio, and then Stadler’s book, after spending the summer in Oregon made me feel like I’d somehow unwittingly tapped into some part of the scene. Fast-forward to another summer, this summer, and I hear that Matthew Stadler is touring to promote his cover book, the same one I had picked up. There’s a new version, with a new cover, and a new larger-scale release. And so after meaning to for months, I sat down to read it.

coverChloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha is based on John le Carré’s Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, A Murder of Quality. In le Carré’s whodunit, Stella Rode, the do-gooder wife of a master at an old British boarding school is murdered. The book is concerned with class and institutional insularity, as well as the ways that institutions create their own rules and often function within archaic, inherently flawed systems. Stella Rode wasn’t a woman of convention, but she was a woman of great charity who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or go against the grain, and in doing this she made many enemies. The book’s issues with propriety and a wife who steps out of line by ruffling too many feathers seems slightly dated. And honestly, the le Carré isn’t a book I’d typically pick up, as I’m not one for murder mysteries nor the British boarding school system. Unsure about the original, I wondered how much I could like the cover.

A journalist for the San Francisco Weekly voiced his own concerns about reading a cover novel a few weeks ago, after hearing Stadler read during his book tour. Even if he unfairly dismisses the book on the basis of its being a cover, his critique articulates a way that covers are associated with inauthenticity and often relegated as second-rate:

What does it mean to be an author if you are merely replicating particular tensions and filling in the plot dots? I admit this sounds like a fantastic exercise, but I don’t see the merit in (or need for) distribution. But then I never cared for cover songs; they always make me feel like there are too many artists and not enough things to be said.

covercoverIncorporating other’s material into one’s art by way of sampling and mashups and collage is now de rigueur, but covers still get a bad rap. Of course there are awful cover bands and songs that would have been better left untampered with, and certainly the musicians and bands dedicated solely to covers are often sentimental and well, rather blatantly unoriginal. They evoke a certain form of pity–or contempt–in their diligent devotion and nostalgic reverence. Elvis impersonators are more actors than singers surely, but who would question the point of listening to Glenn Gould perform a stunning rendition of of Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Or who held it against Zadie Smith for reworking Forster’s Howard’s End for the twenty-first century in her novel On Beauty?

Perhaps in this light, I should say it’s misleading to judge Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha simply as a cover. While the plot and structure and pacing have been lifted from the le Carré, Stadler’s imagination and transposition of the book to contemporary Guanajuato, Mexico, make the book a work that, in spite of its borrowed parts, stands entirely on its own.

I actually prefer Stadler’s novel to le Carré’s, and I likely appreciate the le Carré more because of the Stadler. For one, La Cucaracha is not as driven and dry. It takes pleasure in lingering, whether while depicting the landscape or painting nuanced relationships during the lavish dinners where Carl Silas listens and observes in order to uncover who is to blame for Rebecca Osorio’s murder. Rebecca Osorio, like Stella Rode, is married to a man who’s fought long and hard to achieve his status, but who cares little for propriety herself. Rebecca worked as a social activist. She’s venerated within radical communities far beyond Mexico, even into the Pacific Northwest, but she’s also too committed to sit comfortably within her own. Too idealistic for her husband Rafael’s political ambitions, and also for Kimberly Dwyre, head of her family’s mineral company, who with NAFTA jumped at the opportunity to set up shop in Mexico, Rebecca’s presence threatened the status quo. And it falls on Carl Silas to sift through many possible motives and culprits behind her murder.

Guanajuato is a hub for American transplants like Carl, a former student radical who like many others moved in a band between Berkeley and Mexico City, “grazing on a conveyor belt of causes and cheap house sits.” He’d escaped to LA briefly and worked a stint as an AP photographer, but in the face of personal misfortune, he made his way back to Mexico. Carl is described as a “cipher” and “servile” and is accustomed, as a photographer, to observing. He found himself invited to many dinner parties, and arranged for others under the pretense of penning Osorio’s obituary. Like le Carré’s detective George Smiley, people open up to Carl and his manipulations go unnoticed, as he’s a somewhat affable fixture who’s skilled at extracting information from conversations.

Despite the book’s parallels, the most exquisite part of Stadler’s performance is what he brings to it anew–including the setting in Guanajuato (which is also where he also wrote the book). By scrutinizing the power of multinational corporations, the merits and the faults of the community of activists who fight them in a post-NAFTA world, Stadler revives the somewhat musty murder mystery of the le Carré. The entirely male faculty of the of boarding school  has been dispensed with, and women are also powerful, manipulative, and cunning–like the heiress Kimberly Dwyre. The novel is rife with radicals and drifters who float up and down the West Coast, and their ideals are sometimes misaligned and their tactics often inefficient. Corruption only gained a foothold when multinational corporations migrated south of the border on the cheap, at the natives’ expense. No one who lives in Guanajuato escapes entanglement in this web, what varies is the type and degree of involvement. Stadler also shows the impossibly difficult task of attempting to counter these forces, to effect change.

And so the key to Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha lies in Stadler’s skill as a writer and his capacious imagination, in knowing how far he can deviate from the original and in performing another’s work without parroting. Stadler writes that he first published the book under the pen name Chloe Jarren because the style deviates so greatly from his usual work. His style isn’t wooden, nor is it as pointed and blunt as le Carré’s. It’s an homage, yes, but not merely a practice of precision in a connect-the-dots or paint-by-numbers routine. Covers often fail because of the strictures imposed upon them. Whether the performance lacks talent or vision or retains too much reverence for the original, bad and even adequate covers are often a practice in repetition. Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha succeeds in spite of, and even because of its limitations. I like to think of Stadler’s decision to write a cover novel as a large-scale Oulipo constraint. The constraint provides the scaffolding that allows the author’s imagination to fly, the resulting book impresses not only for the obstacles it clears but also for the form it takes while leaping.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She currently lives in Chicago, where she's at work on a novel. Read more of her work here: http://annekyoder.tumblr.com.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for this thorough consideration of the Stadler/LeCarre cover book. I was writing about this concept for my own blog, and I linked to this article for your coverage of Stadler’s book specifically.

    My project, Typetrigger, helps writers by providing constraints, and I think that the cover is a perfect method of exploration that could help people find new ground. Not all will handle it as deftly as Stadler has, but I think that it is valuable to practice and to read.

  2. My goodness, is this legal? Are there other “cover” novels than the ones mentioned in this article? In our litigious, copyright-crazed age, I’m honestly surprised to hear open discussion of such a thing. Of course, writers are and always have been inspired by other writers’ works, but to actually announce that one has written a novel that uses plot, situation, characters from another novel – and one recently published – would make me fear an expensive court case, especially when that other novel is from a big bestselling author. Fascinating. I want to know more.

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