A little preamble…..
It’s been a while since I wrote about fiction here, probably because of how dumb the last book I wrote about was. I opted for a short story collection next but it really was a big whole heap of nothing, a would-be poet masquerading unsuccessfully as a fiction writer with story after story of eerie non-events which seemed to teleport between blunt emotional trauma and meaninglessness and worlds populated by motiveless people living in insular worlds, surrounded by sock-puppet supporting characters. In short, it was crap. It was this.
I tell you, friends, never trust a book that has to label itself “Fictions” under the title. And never drink a spirit that labels itself “spirit drink” instead of being able to qualify under the name of any specific existing spirit. I learned the latter lesson on New Year’s Eve 2005.
Anyway, I wanted something down to earth and not endlessly navel gazing. Thank god this book was.
The book is about the early days of a rock band, and not the first book I had read on this topic.
Toby Litt’s early short story volumes blew me away when I first read them. When I found out that he had expanded Tourbusting I and Tourbusting II from these collections into a full novel, I was excited (not least because, now a long term hardcore fan his previous book was a low). These were excellent stories about a sensitive and sidelined drummer in a band of extroverts obsessing over memories of never-again-to-be-seen European girls and early fans/supporters left behind and abandoned once success came calling. Okay was good but the energy of this rising star band was largely gone – most of the added material covered their slow bloated decline and the original core stories seemed to be the only vibrant life and beating heart, certainly the only stories that appeared fleeting and real, the other chapters kind of obvious and heavy.
And now, the actual book discussion…..
This isn’t a book that hides it’s structure and purpose. It says so right there on page 63 after their first gig:
They all had this compulsion to know exactly what the others had been thinking on stage, as if you could add up the four streams of consciousness – the way you mix together different instruments on a four-track – and came up with a single song of memory, a studio-produced and cleaned-up version of the truth.
The four tracks are four stories from the four band members of their lives and what drives them to want to be in a band. The book is full of smart commentary, metaphors and a curt, down to earth prose style that makes poetic moments without having to use a fake-poetry voice. The text feels very real, managing in simple terms to describe things that have a reality and weight to them. However, as the quote above also shows, it’s a book that is not particularly subtle but never the less enjoyably well crafted.
The cover quotes suggest that this is an expose novel on being in an indie band. While this might be true in terms of the psychology of wanting to be in such a band (making something of an outsider self-image, wanting to be famous even when pretending you artistically want nothing of the sort), it’s pretty light on the actual details of practising, writing, gigging and touring. The band doesn’t have a manager, only plays one gig and the writing process goes from one band member having a few ideas into a full set list without much in between. The cover quotes sort of miss the point though.
Music is the setting of the book and the hook but the real subject matter is in the title (the band is called the Exes because it is formed of four members from two ex-couples). This is a book about people who were in relationships, break up and stay friends and what that means. More specifically it seems to be how the whole thing is a doomed endeavour and that what being an Ex really means is continuing to think of someone as “yours” or “belonging to you” when they aren’t. The relationship breaks up but the feelings don’t disappear and in being elevated to being an “Ex” and not just a friend, the person continues to assert a kind of claim of greater intimacy, often destined to lead to cruel treatment.
Hank and Lilly’s whirlwind romance seemed to have burnt out prior to the novel’s opening and though they both seem certain of this fact, as the book goes on, the permanence of this situation is unclear. Lilly and Hank connected over creativity and music and as their post-break-up band project begins to succeed, both find it difficult not to return to old patterns and rekindle their relationship. It’s unclear whether Hank and Lilly really have much affection for each other at all but what they do have is a sense of ownership over each other, like someone owns a pet, even though it’s unclear who is at which end of the lead. Maintaining this relationship assumes a kind of importance that justifies lying to each other and their other halves and resuming old habits re-ignites a kind of rock-star selfishness that is all about making yourself feel cool and important. Lilly’s attempt to escape this cycle and return to a mature settled life is frankly a nose-dive.
Shaz and Walt are barely comparable in that only Walt really feels that they were ever a couple to begin with but it’s still a lesson in cruelty as Shaz caught up in her own romantic storms is content to lead Walt around like a ring-nosed prize bull, ignorant and frankly uncaring that he only really speaks to her because he is still recovering from his feelings for her.
The focus on the book in on the themes and characters, rather than the plot. The plot itself is a rather stripped down narrative: the birth of the idea of the band, the recruitment of Shaz and Walt, the practise sessions, the first gig and first tour. The focus within is far more on the background and identity of each character each of whom is allotted one quarter of the book. The characters are the strength of the novel and do feel real, exciting and yet fallible all at the same time.
Hank – In many ways Hank is the lynch pin of the novella. His motivations seem simple in a sense. He’s the one who most of all wants to be in a band, wants the fame and the glory. More than this while he wants adulation from fans, he wants to appear completely aloof and uncaring and doesn’t want anyone to comment on the contradiction. In many ways Hank is something of a poser. He’s a record store clerk who latched onto an exciting girlfriend because he recognises that he can piggyback on her talent. Nevertheless, it’s hard to feel that the band would exist without Hank’s ambition and so in a sense he is the driver of the whole thing and does deserve some credit (not least teaching Lilly to actually play.
So, while Hank’s motives seem simple, he is something of a contradiction. He wears the clothes and attitude of somebody in a subculture but at heart he’s a jock in disguise. His attitude to sex is school-boy locker room childish and he views almost everyone around him with a sort of arrested-development competitiveness of always wondering who is best and who is getting what they want. For him, being an artist is just another fashion to attract attention and compliments. It’s not clear if any of the other band members actually like Hank or feel that they really need him (Hank knows that he needs them signed on to his plan) but by virtue of being the one most committed to the band, Hank has a buy-in to everything that happens (and in fact, thinks of the band as ‘his’ band).
The portrayal of Hank isn’t perfect. At times his crass sexuality is spot on (second paragraph on page 14, which I won’t repeat on this page here because of the high tone I consistently uphold) but at others the source material seems to be a twelve year old, not even a teenager (his conversations with Dieter aren’t in the slightest bit convincing). I have often read the accusation that certain male writers cannot write for female characters, though this would be the first time that a female writing for a male felt off the mark. However, overall the character feels very real and very knowable and insightful. Hank is the spirit of playing paid gigs and making records – the spirit of wanting to look really cool but being really quite uncool about coordinating everything to be and look exactly the way they want for maximum fame and money. Hank is rock and roll and every band probably has at least one Hank.
Lilly – Unlike a real set list, the novella starts with it’s strongest performances first, leaving little for encore. Much of Hank’s chapter is about Lilly and her own chapter is really most of the heart of the book. In fact, while the ending is satisfying, the end of Lilly’s chapter really would have been an equally satisfying ending and in my opinion is closer to dealing with the real themes of the novel.
Lilly is the actual artist at the heart of the band, the born performer. While on one hand Lilly is one of those amazing inscrutable people who are able to be spontaneously original and produce great and lasting ideas, she is pretty full of herself. The fire of her oevre is fuelled precisely by being front and centre and being the centre of attention. Lilly doesn’t scheme or dwell on her ambitions in the same way that Hank does but she does pretty much solely market the band. Her ambitions are not to cut so many records or to be so famous but merely to keep things moving, to keep the bad playing new venues, to open up new horizons: to keep moving forward like a shark, not to stay still and die.
You might wonder if Lilly is not a kind of dreadful manic pixie girl but each character in the novella has more than enough realism to feel much more grounded than this. Whereas Hank is aware of his shortcomings and seeks to hide them, Lilly has a much more visceral need to appear brilliant and talented which I entirely bought into. Lilly like many of us is running away from her school days when she was the odd, weird girl who everyone said smelled weird. She’s always trying to be more than that – never mainstream but never odd – always brilliant, always talented…and this can lead her to be a mess. Of all the characters, Lilly’s ending is perhaps the most bleak. Having betrayed her insipid boyfriend Dieter (easily the worst, most flat character in the novel – a bundle of nerves without a face as far as I can see) by having an affair with Hank which is pretty much planned out for weeks, her decision (which again is the decision of a shark always moving forward, always with new ideas) is pretty horrific. Lilly is a pretty impressive and memorable character – at once one of the bright sparks that Jack Kerouac was always talking about that can’t help but impress but also in so many ways somebody you might not want to be flatmates with, perhaps somebody you’d want to miss off the invite list for a party. Maybe after a while, nobody that you would really, honestly want to know.
Shaz – Shaz is essentially an exercise in the reader’s pop-psychoanalysis. So much of the book is about what people need to do to look cool. Hank is cool but needs Lilly’s credibility. If Lilly needs to be a rock star, then she needs to fall back into a relationship with Hank the cool kid, not Dieter the wet blanket. Shaz’s musical skill and aloofness means that nobody in the book ever doubts her coolness but yet she is somehow the most internally self-torturing character. The thing seems to be that for her nothing is separate from sex. When she first moves to a city, of course she finds accommodation by moving in with Walt and sleeping with him. When she moves out, she stops seeing Walt. This isn’t to say that Shaz is consciously using sex to get what she wants – the idea never crosses her mind – but she simply doesn’t distinguish that the sex in that context means anything, even when it’s clear that to people like Walt it means a lot. Shaz is nominally bisexual but her relationships with women are simply extension of friendships. He long time girlfriend Kate is basically a really good friend, almost a sister, but certainly not and never was a lover. There’s no indication that any relationship with a woman contained any passion. Again, Shaz lives with Kate while they see each other and when she lives alone, she doesn’t any more. Both of them continue to see men throughout their relationship.
Finally, though music and being in a band is her passion, again it’s not something that can be separate from sex. Most of Shaz’s chapter (and indeed all of her concern in the novel) is in getting over her recent bad break up with Mickey, the only character for whom she shows any passion. Mickey is never presented by the author as anything other than a disaster. He’s a smokey, pretentious craggy man. Character description, except his cigarettes, is light so Kennedy probably means us to never see him as an empathetic person, more just a dark actor. His ego and sense of importance know no bounds – the sort of person that would go up to a woman (Shaz) in a lesbian bar and try to seduce her (successfully) and recruit her into his band all in one go. He’s a leathery, horrible old thing but Shaz is drawn to his confidence and essentially falls into a pattern of just doing what he says. The culmination of the story is of course, that in the end he cares a lot more about losing her from his band before the tour than he does losing her as a lover.
Shaz’s story is summed up by her own assessment, “I’m such an idiot. I know when something is wrong but I let myself get talked into it anyway”. Obviously this isn’t what people truly, deep down actually think about themselves. You could accuse Kennedy with Shaz of falling into an author’s fallacy where characters who are mysterious to others are also a mystery to themselves (not least the Asian girl, rounding out the stereotype). However, I don’t think that this is the case. Shaz sees her motivations as a mystery because she doesn’t want to confront them and undergo a kind of self-criticism. She wants to see all her problems as other people talking her into things because she avoids introspection at all costs. Why? Kennedy is very clear that a key motivation for the character is running away from the idea of being a “good Muslim girl”, someone who might go to Pakistan to marry. In this context, it’s tempting (at least for me) to see the character as constantly rejecting the traditional staid existence in order to be an aloof rock star, even when it trips her up when the runaway misses her family or the person for whom sex is a handshake actually falling in love.
Shaz is a sympathetic character but at the same time, she’s very hard to like. Whilst nobody wants to see her messed around by Mickey, depressed and dabbling in alcoholism, she lives in a very self centred world. She doesn’t really acknowledge Walt’s possible discomfort at being in a band with her, doesn’t try to talk Lilly out of her terrible decision and doesn’t even actually acknowledge or describe any of the other members of Mickey’s band in her story. She’s the sort of person who will walk out on a band right before a tour, then join another band and do it again. She’s the sort of person who lives to be a Rock Star but is utterly unable to live that kind of life without torturing herself with bad relationships, drink and exhaustion, not to mention distrust of the other members of both of the bands she joins. She’s the tortured navel-gazing artist rock star. She’s Kurt Cobain. Easy to love as an icon, probably quite difficult to actually like as a person.
Honestly, I went back and forth over Shaz. At one time I viewed it as a weak part of the book because her plight was so self-conscious and self-invented that it can only be explained through reader-psycho-analysis. At another time, I viewed it as the author stepping outside herself somewhat – viewing someone as too impenetrable and “other”, a mystery of sexuality (Mickey genuinely sounds about as a attractive as a brick – maybe she was aiming for a Lou Reed type) and whose motives are a mystery even to herself. After I let it settle, I came back around though. Shaz’s story is essentially another coming of age – she considers living alone for the first time, not relying on others, not always sleeping in someone else’s bed, living in a tidy flat, maybe even marrying – that is until the Exes take her back out on tour. Shaz’s story is the end of a party that you wanted to go to but was full of sweat, vomit, loss and heartbreak. Too old to stay wild, too scared to go tame. Rock, fame and touring is so easy for Hank and Lilly, the book would probably be missing something without the other side of it, without Shaz.
Walt – Walt’s story is the simplest of the four and so is used as a kind of buffer and resolution for the band, going on their first successful tour. Essentially Walt is someone who fell in love with Shaz and never got over it. I mentioned at the start that the theme of the book was still feeling like you mean something to someone – and Walt can’t really let go. This could be viewed as kind of creepy but it’s mostly just tragic.
Having lived with him essentially for somewhere to stay, Shaz just moves on. She never discusses being with Walt beyond admitting that he is an Ex and so she should ask him to join the band. What was nothing to her but an arrangement (not even a relationship, or if so only by implication of the word Ex), to him is a horrible break up, spiral into depression and medication. That Shaz is so unaware of his feelings so much so that she asks him to join the band (as if they had an amicable relationship, as if it didn’t basically spark a break down) seems cruel but it’s probably not meant as such, she just doesn’t really think about Walt a whole deal. To her, he’s a nice guy, but a “weirdo”…..but he plays drums and has a van so let’s get him to join the band. Walt follows her like a puppy dog even as he admits that he shouldn’t be hanging around her any more.
Kennedy plays Walt as a sympathetic innocent – a Prince Myuskin or a Forrest Gump. His story is finding a new girlfriend with a normal human amount of anxiety and excitement – so much removed from the superhuman or inhuman cool rock-star-ness of Hank, Lilly or Shaz in their sexual conquests. Walt is that ordinary guy who somehow ended up in band – maybe a Ringo. I have the feeling that having drawn some ambiguous, conflicted characters that Kennedy wanted to end on someone more empathetic and positive. It works and the ending is satisfying, but I wouldn’t have minded just focusing on Lilly and have let all the wildness hang out. That’s the thing about this kind of novella without a complex plot is that, even when perfectly executed, it is often a story about the start of something without resolution….the trick is inspiring dissatisfaction to some degree. In this case, the band leaves you wanting more.