Pairing Novels and Albums: Two Attempts

If we can pair wine with food, why not novels with albums? The subtextual kinship between certain titles lends itself to some investigation. Westin Glass, trained as an architect and currently playing drums in The Thermals, curates two such pairings. Let us know what you think in the comments, and feel free to suggest other pairings.

I. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon and Amnesiac by Radiohead

Matching up Thomas Pynchon with Radiohead is a no-brainer. It’s no secret that the Oxford boys are fans of Pynchon’s paranoiac ziggurat-novels (their online merch store, W.A.S.T.E., is named after a worldwide underground postal service in his novel The Crying of Lot 49), and I like to imagine that the mythically reclusive author appreciates Radiohead’s alienated surveillance-camera view of the world. Amnesiac and Gravity’s Rainbow are among these artists most celebrated works—dense, complex masterpieces that greater minds than mine have examined at length. They pair beautifully.

Gravity’s Rainbow was Pynchon’s third novel, published in 1973, and remains my favorite. It is a headlong stumble through a vast and convulsing patchwork of World War II battlefields, gray zones, and improvised economies, where pawns and knights of many powers are concerned with seeking pleasure, and with making a quick profit first and serving their often faceless masters second—or not at all. From this ground-level perspective, World War II appears more a clusterfuck than a chessboard. Humanity, unprepared, has suddenly found itself in control of enormous destructive power. New communications technology and rapid travel have made all parts of the globe accessible, and therefore exploitable.

Pynchon’s characters (the book has more than four hundred) are disconnected from anything previously known as reality—they are blown about by the chemical winds of distant looming forces, which act for mysterious and seemingly arbitrary reasons. While we come to know the players on all sides, from grunts to men in command, we are always aware that the hierarchy of power reaches ever upward. We never see the ultimate puppet masters. We, along with the novel’s characters, begin to wonder if they exist. Answers are not forthcoming; chaos proliferates.

Death hovers over everything: the novel’s uniting element is the constant threat of sudden annihilation via German supersonic V-2 rockets. Most of the characters are on one or the other end of the rocket’s parabolic path. They “move forever under it . . . as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children.” Some are in London, constantly aware that a V-2 may vaporize them without warning: “[They] won’t hear the thing come in. It travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you’re still around, you hear the sound of it coming in.” At the other end of the Rainbow, the megalomaniacal SS officer code-named Captain Blicero (white death) commands a German rocket company. He moves through Axis territory, launching V-2s at Allied targets and acting out sadistic sex rituals. At the end of the story, he combines the two activities into a bizarre and disturbing climax of sacrificial love-death.

Amnesiac makes a perfect soundtrack, musically and thematically, for the eerie green-lit global theater of Gravity’s Rainbow. With vocals like ghostly radio transmissions, unsettling mechanical rhythms that abruptly start and stop, strange artificial strings and pianos, and a general sense of over-sanitized postmodern disconnection (“nothing to fear, nothing to doubt”), the record invokes a melancholy alienation, a mechanization of humanity—the trademark which Radiohead has come to own. Poignant sentiment is packaged, controlled, neutralized. Uncanny glows emanate from hidden places, as robot-angel choirs and mellotrons enter songs mid-phrase, sometimes to disappear just as quickly, other times to linger after the rest of the instruments have exited. Loneliness and isolation give way to strangely dispassionate hostility (“You and Whose Army?”). Those omniscient, faceless powers are noted, too, as Thom Yorke repeats “someone’s listening in.”

Both works take paranoia as their main theme, exploring its manifestations in the architecture of power and domination, and the human obsession with war, death, and sex. Impossibly complex mathematics and sinister technology are sublimated into near-occult mysticism, albeit a sanitized and impersonal version, in conflict with the corporeal and emotional needs of the individual. “Life in a Glasshouse,” the final track of Amnesiac, begins with a glitchy computer loop, quickly giving way to a ragtime jazz combo playing a tense, strange theme that clashes with the loose, lazy feel of the performance. Radiohead vocalist and lyricist Yorke begins by singing about a lovers’ quarrel: “Once again / I’m in trouble with my only friend.” This story quickly takes on a sense of global catastrophe, of bomb shelters and tragedy on a vast scale: “Once again / packed like frozen food and battery hens / Think of all the starving millions.” This song echoes the opening sequence of Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice dreams of a crowded wartime evacuation on an underground train with “no light anywhere” which pushes “into older and more desolate parts of the city,” growing increasingly claustrophobic, “a judgment from which there is no appeal.”

Themes go unresolved, expectations are violated. Anomie and fear are overwhelming. Ultimately nothing is solved, no grand resolutions revealed. In spite of these gloomy topics, I find both works to be uplifting, to provide a feeling of release. Pynchon’s generous use of humor, both wry and ridiculous, shows the reader a way out of the madness. In the case of Radiohead, the music soothes and satisfies just enough to compensate for the heavy content. With the help of both works, the reader/listener can find comfort in letting go of the paranoid compulsion for control and omniscience—accepting that the world can be a giant uncaring machine, one that threatens to “crush your little soul,” but simply choosing not to be disturbed by it.

II. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño and In/Casino/Out by At the Drive-In

The twin border cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, comprise a single sprawling urban complex that is the home of the American progressive post-hardcore band At the Drive-In and the setting for the violent climax of Chilean-Mexican author Roberto Bolaño’s breakthrough novel The Savage Detectives. Rubbed raw by the friction between American affluence and Mexican poverty, the border erupts into a seamy conurbation of nearly three million people. The harsh Sonoran Desert stretches out on all sides. Violence and injustice pervade. In The Savage Detectives and At the Drive-In’s record In/Casino/Out, both released in 1998, young artists confront these surroundings with an enchanting combination of worldly-wise toughness and deliberately ingenuous idealism.

Both In/Casino/Out and The Savage Detectives exploded with a surprising amount of mainstream crossover appeal, and in both cases success came, in a way, too late. Within a few years, At the Drive-In would break up; Bolaño died in 2003.

Bolaño’s novel is a fictionalized, romantic autobiography in which Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, young poets in Mexico City, stand in for the author and his best friend, José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda. Fiercely idealistic, they denounce nearly all the established Latin American poets and start a group of renegade poets called the “visceral realists.” They wander Mexico City, living hand –to-mouth, stealing books, and selling drugs. The novel spans twenty years, beginning in 1976 with the journal of Juan García Madero. He is a seventeen-year-old poet who joins the visceral realists and goes with Belano, Lima, and a prostitute named Lupe on a journey into the northern Mexican state of Sonora. Though Lupe’s murderous pimp is pursuing them, Lima and Belano remain committed to their trip’s original purpose: the search for “vanished poet” Cesárea Tinajero, whom they consider to be the mother of visceral realism.

The middle third of the book comprises decades of testimonies by numerous characters who describe their encounters with Belano and Lima throughout the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. In the introduction to the English version of The Savage Detectives, translator Natasha Wimmer describes Bolaño’s 1976 manifesto of infrarealism, the real-life basis for visceral realism:

The true poet, he said, should abandon the coffeehouse and take the part of “the sharpshooters, the lonesome cowboys” . . . the cunning, the lonely, the unnoticed, and the despised . . . for the next two decades [Bolaño] would live by his words, drifting from one menial day job to another and writing by night.

Belano and Lima follow much the same path, leaving strange stories and misremembered conversations in their wake. We become detectives, following their trail but never directly encountering them.

In the last third of the novel, we return to García Madero’s journal. His journey into Sonora comes to a brutal end on an empty desert road outside of Santa Teresa (Bolaño’s thinly fictionalized version of Ciudad Juárez). It is only here, at the end, that the depth of the story’s tragedy is revealed—the agonizing folly of Lima and Belano’s quest and the romantic dedication with which they adhere to it, in spite of the consequences.

Every bit as idealistic and tough as Bolaño’s poets, At the Drive-In was five intense young musicians from the 1990s El Paso hardcore scene. They were determined to create a new aesthetic and put themselves and El Paso on the map. Omar Rodríguez-López and Jim Ward played guitar, Paul Hinojos played bass, and Tony Hajjar was on drums. Cedric Bixler-Zavala wrote the lyrics and shouted, spit, screamed, and sang them over the band’s precisely chaotic assault. For years, they self-released recordings and toured relentlessly in a 1981 Ford van, bringing their emotional, anarchic live performance to handfuls of kids in bars and basements. In true hardcore DIY style (and paralleling the visceral realists) they eschewed the music-industry “establishment” and made their own career from scratch. Their legend grew in the underground; they gradually built a fanatical following.

In/Casino/Out was recorded and mixed by producer Alex Newport over six days in June 1998 and released that August on the small California label Fearless Records. It captures the explosive fury of their live show while also showcasing their immense songwriting talents. It also perfectly expresses the mood of late-1990s El Paso/Ciudad Juárez. The song “Shaking Hand Incision” illustrates a scene of pollution, poverty, and tragedy, but also establishes a resolute stance of resistance—a passion that might be a young person’s only defense against overwhelming gloom.

in the choked mouths of rivers
parted like a sea of loaded infidelity
best keep your stitched lips
starched in a giggle
homeless makeshift triggers
you’ll never walk again

in piles of clothing sleep the dead
no wire coat hangers
never again.

Their hardcore roots show through in angular song structures, which progress according to a strange but highly satisfying logic. Bixler-Zavala spews impassioned verse crossways over dissonant chords, spinning webs of surreal and violent imagery. His lyrics are churning black storm clouds shot through with stark bolts of realism. It’s more appealing and accessible than traditional hardcore, and free to explore farther-reaching territories of rhythm, emotion, and melody. In the song “Lopsided,” Bixler-Zavala sings, “if your map is torn, navigate, navigate / it all makes sense now.” At the Drive-In was running on pure vigor, unafraid to produce something new and challenging, unconcerned with commercial appeal. This spirit proved to have a visceral, long-lasting appeal.

While At the Drive-In and Bolaño have both been heaped with posthumous accolades, their fates have been very different.

Bolaño and Pineda led vagabond lives that seem to have been even rougher than those of their fictional counterparts. They traveled and wrote in constant poverty. Bolaño said that “over the years he lost most of his teeth, leaving them behind ‘like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs’ in the countries he visited on his shoestring travels.” Pineda died at the age of forty-five in 1998, the same year that The Savage Detectives was released in Spanish, and Bolaño died five years later at the age of fifty.

The Savage Detectives was released in an English translation in 2007 to a firestorm of acclaim; a large number of Bolaño’s other works followed to appease a hungry new readership.

The alternative-music community fell in love with In/Casino/Out, and At the Drive-In went to work with industry hotshots Ross Robinson and Andy Wallace on their follow-up, Relationship of Command. This album created a fever in the mainstream similar to the one that the band’s previous work had inspired in the underground. At the Drive-In achieved brief mainstream success before splitting up into the prog-hardcore outfit the Mars Volta and the more straightforward pop-punk band Sparta. Both bands have had successful careers and released albums on major labels. Rumors of an At the Drive-In reunion regularly circulate among fans, and their records are a touchstone for a significant segment of a generation.

Just as In/Casino/Out pointed the way to the fully realized sound that At the Drive-In would achieve on Relationship of Command, the style and characters established in The Savage Detectives reach their apex in Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666. Bolaño and At the Drive-In were underground artists whose work would effect major change on their respective cultural landscapes, but for both, recognition came after their own passions had either burned out, due to changing artistic aspirations, or been extinguished by death.

The difference between their fates could be dismissed as the difference between a world of struggle and one of opportunity, between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, between the poor world and the rich one. A bookstore owner in The Savage Detectives “theorize[s] that the underprivileged youth [are] left with no alternative but the literary avant-garde,” a pursuit that requires only pen and paper (and a few stolen books), while their American counterparts might find it easier to acquire musical instruments and go on tour.

Their divergent fates are more accurately explained, however, by the difference in their chosen media. Bolaño knew from the beginning that poetry—pursued with the purity of motive he required—was a lonely and poverty-stricken calling. Infrarealism was his answer, embracing and romanticizing the most unglamorous aspects of his noble mission. He began writing fiction late in life, in a canny and ultimately successful ploy to make money and provide for his family. At the Drive-In grew up in a supportive music community and pursued an art form to which an audience is integral. Their motives were no less pure, but their medium was naturally inclined to publicity.

In any case, The Savage Detectives and In/Casino/Out are monumental works, revolutionary and challenging. Despite the ugliness they deal with, they are quite enjoyable, and their aesthetics complement and enhance each other. I give them both my highest recommendation.

The Thermals’ most recent album is Personal Life (Kill Rock Stars).

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  • http://notdrinkingpoison.blogspot.com aaron

    v well chosen! although i would have included a critical aside about the tendency of both bolano, and, to a much greater extent, ATDI to indulge in meandering strings of imagist nonsense. bolano does it better. (cf by night in chile.)

    i do this sort of thing often on my paris wine blog, incidentally. wines & pop songs.

    not drinking poison in paris:
    notdrinkingpoison.blogspot.com

  • C B

    Both pairings are perfect! As a book and music fan, I’d love to see more.

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  • F.H.

    It’s goddamn creepy that you picked Gravity’s Rainbow to go with Amnesiac. For years I’ve read and re-read Gravity’s Rainbow with “I Might Be Wrong” on repeat.