Monday, January 25, 2010

Three novels explore music, fame and intimacy

It’s never fair to compare novels, but it’s hard not to when three books come out around the same time and each – on face value at least – cover similar territory.

In this case, it’s formerly famous musicians dealing with the legacy of fame, each working towards some sort of emotional redemption and relationship maturity.

I’m talking about The True Story of Butterfish by Nick Earls, Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby and 88 lines about 44 women by Steven Lang.

All three central characters were part of the creative force of their respective bands, and all three have sought out some form of seclusion and anonymity to “recover” from their experiences with fame.

In The True Story of Butterfish, Curtis is a keyboard player returning to Brisbane to escape the glare of publicity following the split of his mega-selling band Butterfish. In a quiet suburban street, Curtis tries to concentrate on his new role as a producer, slowly reconnecting with the real world around him.

But things get a little messy when he gets to know his neighbours: an attractive single mum recovering from a bitter divorce, her gothic teenage son, and her 16-year-old daughter, who thinks the only way to connect with Curtis is through sex.

Curtis’ attempts at a “normal life” are further complicated when Butterfish’s hard rocking lead singer turns up on his doorstep unannounced.

With any Earls story, Brisbane itself becomes a character, but this can actually be distracting as a reader when it’s your own home town.

Earls is a very likable writer – he’s always a favourite at festivals and after seeing him at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival I know why – and of the three muso-focused novels, this is certainly the gentlest and safest.

On the surface, Julie Naked is another of Nick Hornby’s trademark lad lit offerings about a man whose relationships take a backseat to a more pressing obsession.

The man is Duncan and his obsession is Tucker Crowe, an American singer-songwriter from the 80s. Tucker has lived as a recluse for 20 years, but thanks to the power of the internet, his fans have been able to keep his music alive. They call themselves Crowologists, and Duncan is their king.

His long-term girlfriend Annie has ignored the cracks in their relationship for too long, so when a stripped-back version of Tucker’s best known album is released, Duncan’s slavering reaction to it finally pushes her over the edge.

She writes a scathing review on Duncan’s blog, much to his horror. But on the other side of the Atlantic, Tucker himself reads the review, respects it, and makes contact with her…

Ultimately this is Annie’s story, although we do get chapters alternating between her perspective and that of the two men.

Through Juliet Naked, Hornby explores the nature of creativity and fan obsession, but it’s also about loneliness and the struggle for intimacy. It features Hornby’s trademark wit and insights. And – like High Fidelity – made me want to trawl through my music collection and reacquaint myself with my favourite albums (in a non-obsessive way, of course…).

The capacity for emotional intimacy and honesty is the driving force of Steven Lang’s excellent 88 lines about 44 women.

Like Earls’ Curtis, the central character is a keyboard player-songwriter who has returned to a place of his youth solace and escape – in this case the bleak Scottish Highlands.

Lawrence Martin was once part of one of the biggest bands in the world, but it all fell apart after the death of his model-actress wife in calm waters not far from Sydney.

This intelligent and well crafted novel is less concerned about the music and Lawrence’s drug-fuelled career than it is with issues of male sexuality and how men find – and lose – intimacy with lovers, family and friends.

88 lines about 44 women (named after a song by The Nails) asks the questions: “Are all men emotionally disconnected? Does true intimacy bring redemption or is it the other way round?”

Despite the title, the novel is really about two women: the beautiful but damaged wife who compounded his emotional frailty, and his intelligent and well-grounded new neighbour, who may his hope for the future.

When a call from his former best friend and songwriting partner reveals a past Lawrence’s has omitted to share with the locals, he finally attempts to deconstruct his past experiences and how they’ve influenced his ability to be intimate.

As a narrative character, Lawrence is articulate, insightful, painfully honest and frequently vulnerable. Even in his self awareness, his blindspots are obvious, and as a reader, you hope he works them out.

For me, 88 lines about 44 women was the pick of the above novels, purely for its rare insight into the male psyche and the skill with which Lang uses words.

1 comment:

Placey said...

One down, two to go!
With two of my favourite past-times - reading and music - combined, how could I not rise to the challenge of these three offerings! Thanks to the luck of the library reserve lottery, 'Juliet, Naked' was the first cab off the rank. Nick Hornby puts the fun into reading, doesn't he? I loved the little breaks in chapters that included Wikipedia entries on Tucker Crowe and the album 'Juliet', emails, and my favourites - the blog threads on the Tucker Crowe fan website.
When we heard Nick Earls speak at the Brisbane Writers Festival this year, you might recall that the topic was 'What's in a Name?' - about the naming of characters, places and book titles. I bet Nick Hornby had some fun coming up with the song, album and band titles for this book. Thoroughly enjoyable!