An addendum to my review of Dana Spiotta’s terrific Stone Arabia, the best novel of the year so far. Is it, however, the best rock novel ever written? But how many rock novels are there? How many are any good?
The comprehensive guide to rock novels that my former student Michael Schaub compiled is already five years old, but a top-ten list drawn up by Tiffany Murphy for the Guardian last year adds little new — beyond claiming that Wuthering Heights was a rock novel, because, you know, “the ultimate rock star was Heathcliff.” Just before Michael published his guide, D. J. Taylor wrote in the Independent that the great rock novel had yet to appear, but was bound to. After all, “there are any number of fortysomething writers prepared to take the lyrics of Mark E. Smith at least as seriously as the novels of Julian Barnes.”
I’m not so sure. How many great jazz novels are there? When Reggie Nadelson rattled off the titles of the ten best jazz books, only three were novels — and, except perhaps for Roddy Doyle’s, it is doubtful that any will stand up in another five years. (Nadelson doesn’t mention Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn, which can still be read with pleasure, but he did mention Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, which deserves its place on any list of good books.) There may only have been one great novel about music ever written. Namely, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.
As for rock, I wonder if it isn’t anti-literary, for all the reasons that Dana Spiotta suggests.
Update: Readers have raised the question whether Stone Arabia is really a rock novel. My friend Mark Athitakis, who writes American Fiction Notes, says in a tweet that Nik Worth’s “vision of rock music”—and thus Dana Spiotta’s—“is a funhouse-mirror one,” and not the least realistic.
Not so. In an interview four years ago, Spiotta said, “Rock music has been such a large part of youthful rebellion in the last 50 years. And it’s also a place where the culture is constantly absorbing that rebellion and selling it out.” There in a sentence is the premise of Stone Arabia. Nik’s secret life as a rock star is an effort to preserve the purity of his rock rebellion. But it doesn’t follow that his music is “fake,” even if his life is. Here is Denise’s reaction to Nik’s last record:
It had nine songs—actual songs—of sad, mostly acoustic music with low, searing vocals. It was, simply, beautiful. It was not dirgy or depressing; it was enigmatic and darkly funny. It was undeniably an end, but an interesting, fecund end that could have been explored for years. Or not.
The music is actual; beautiful, really. Only the career was virtual. The desire for pure art, not absorbed and sold out by culture, is a genuine one. Nik’s pathos was to have confused his life with his art.