Okay, I’ve always had a problem with novels and music. When I was a starving student, my problem was how to afford them. I was an addict and needed a constant new supply of songs and literature. Now, many years later, my problem is where to store all my books and recordings. They are spilling off the shelves, and on to the floor, and I’ve stuffed boxes of those bad boys into every available spot in the garage.
But I have another problem about literature and music. I love ‘em both, but they don’t always mix. They don’t play together well. Very few great novels have been written about music, and even some of our finest authors have stumbled trying to create one—witness William Gaddis’s Agapē Agape or Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet.
But I’ve found ten novels that meet my most stringent requirements. They are stellar works of fiction, but also manage to pull off the almost impossible task of capturing the magic of music on the printed page. Here they are, those rare volumes that allow me to indulge both my addictions at the same time.
The LoserBy Thomas Bernhard
Don’t read Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser if you want to learn about Glenn Gould. The eccentric Canadian pianist shows up as a major character in the book, but the biographical facts are all wrong. With his trademark stubbornness, Bernhard rewrites history to suit his story. But definitely read this novel if you want a glimpse of what musical genius demands of itself—and how it can destroy others, less talented, who struggle in its shadow.
Telegraph AvenueBy Michael Chabon
Telegraph Avenue ranks among my favorite novels of the last decade. Chabon brings back the neighborhood record stores of my youth in all their disorganized and haphazard glory. After reading this novel, you will understand that these were more than more just places to buy vinyl. For the true believer, they could be shrine, classroom, community center and encounter session all rolled into one.
A Visit from the Goon SquadBy Jennifer Egan
Are you searching for the ‘great rock novel”? Well, this comes as close as any book I’ve read. My only caveat: Egan deals with a lot more than music in these pages. But when she takes on the rock scene, she manages to catch all the sociological dissonance and subtle countermelodies. You see how rockers can combine pomposity and innocence, wisdom and naïveté, and squeeze the whole paradox into a three-minute song. Egan even dishes up a sci-fi scenario that predicts the future of commercial music. Let’s just hope she got that part wrong.
The Tin DrumBy Günter Grass
Is this book really about music? The protagonist Oskar Matzerath loves banging on his tin drum. But almost everything in this novel serves as a symbol, especially the musical elements. Yet Grass’s virtuosity in turning the history of modern Germany into a biography of an obsessive percussionist earns my respect and deserves your attention. If you want to explore music as a metaphor for sociopolitical affairs, this novel is the place to start.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of LoveBy Oscar Hijuelos
We love reading about the superstars of music. But the failed stars and might-have-beens make for even more compelling narratives. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1989 by the late Oscar Hijuelos, we encounter two Cuban brothers who enjoy a short-lived notoriety—performing a minor hit song on the I Love Lucy sitcom—and learn that even this brief taste of fame may be too much to handle. Hijuelos, who passed away a few days ago at age 62, was the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and this book deserves a spot on any short list of outstanding Hispanic-American fiction.
High FidelityBy Nick Hornby
The music industry operates on glamor, but by the time you get to the lowest level in the business—namely, the dude at the cash register in the record store—all of the glitter has vanished. You must settle instead for nerdiness and esoterica. Many have tapped into the humor and neuroses of this subject (see Michael Chabon’s book above for a more recent example), but Nick Hornby created the blueprint for all later variations on this theme in his brilliant and funny 1995 novel High Fidelity.
Dr. FaustusBy Thomas Mann
How did Thomas Mann learn so much about music? I often asked myself that question while reading Dr. Faustus, his reworking of the Faust legend into a novel about an iconoclastic modernist composer. But then I found out that Mann drew on firsthand advice from his buddies Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Okay, that explains a lot. But the end result is no less impressive. Like Günter Grass in The Tin Drum, Mann presents the dysfunction of the Nazi era in terms of music, but many of the passages on composition and counterpoint could stand alone as textbook examples of music criticism and analysis.
Bel CantoBy Ann Patchett
What’s the most tired cliché about music? I’ll point to that tedious proverb about music “soothing the savage beast.” Judging by most of the nightclubs I’ve visited, very little soothing takes place and the beasts get backstage passes. But then Ann Patchett brings the cliché back to life in this bittersweet novel about terrorists and hostages in a standoff with the authorities. Here opera arias prove more effective than a S.W.A.T. team and diplomats combined at resolving an international incident.
The Song is YouBy Arthur Phillips
We know that fans get fixated on their favorite musical stars. But what happens when a rising pop star become obsessed with a fan? In this instance, singer Cait O’Dwyer finds herself under the influence of an admirer she’s never met in person, but encounters via emails, phone calls and postings on the web. Can this strange relationship possibly turn into a real romance? The story of the starry-eyed music fan is a familiar one, but here Phillips delivers a surprising new twist on an old plot.
The Bear Comes HomeBy Rafi Zabor
I want to praise Zabor’s book as the most honest and realistic jazz novel you will ever read. But how can I say that when the protagonist is a talking bear who plays the alto sax? Okay, not everything in this book meets the standards of realism as practiced by Balzac and Zola. But I stick by my claim. This bear (and his creator Rafi Zabor) are the real deal. If you are seeking the great jazz novel, go no further.
Honorable Mention: A few works outside my top ten deserve acknowledgement. I criticized Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet as a failed rock novel, but his faux essay on soul music from The Fortress of Solitude (2003) deserves inclusion in any anthology of fictional music criticism. I also loved the passages on the rock life from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men—but these are small subplorts and not central enough to warrant inclusion on my top ten list. Finally, I’ll recommend Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam and Josef Škvorecký’s novella The Bass Saxophone, short works that may not qualify as masterpieces, but come pretty darn close. Or, as the musicians say, close enough for jazz.