What I’ve been Reading in February 2021

Paul Morely, A Sound Mind – How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite its Entire History): I picked up this one because the premise seemed right up my alley: An aging rock/pop critic writes about his late-in-life exploration of the classical music canon. I’m here for any non-traditional approach to classical music, anything that scratches at the veneer of the classical-industrial complex. Unfortunately, I had to stop reading after 100 pages or so. The writing suffers from idiosyncrasies that may be fine for a review in the New Musical Express or Pitchfork but I cannot stomach 500 pages of it. Take this opening sentence for a chapter on the Classics for Pleasure label:

When I was growing up, deep in the last century, the sort of comfortably lo-falutin and soft, accessible music presently found at the top of the current classical charts tended to be readily available, mostly in Woolworth’s and WH Smith’s, on the friendly, budget-priced, slightly camp and tacky Music for Pleasure label.

Morley is stacking the adjectives and subordinate clauses which jerks me, the reader, forward – except we’re not really going anywhere. It’s more like pogo dancing in place, kind of fun and then exhausting. To be rather honest, I may have a particularly negative reaction to this because it reminds me of issues I’m battling in my own writing …

Beyond these stylistic quirks I was turned off by the incessant namechecking. On a single page in the chapter on Frank Zappa I counted 35 (!) references to other artists and bands, mostly rattled off without much context. I happen to get that “Joni” (in a list between “Janis” and “Lennon”) is Joni Mitchell but when I can’t place the names I’m alienated. Again, this may be typical in music criticism but in long-form non-fiction I want less riffing and more exposition. Here it opens a gulf between writer and reader that I feel betrays a perhaps unstated intention of the book: creating a supportive environments for others to find their personal key to classical music.

Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles: When Houellebecq drops a new novel it’s bound to be followed by controversy. I’ve been aware of his shit-stirring tendencies ever since this breakout novel came out in 1998, though I never cared enough to understand what the fuss is about. Well, now I do, or do I? This has certainly not put me in the mood for more Houellebecq.

The novel follows the lives of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, whose mother abandons them, preferring to ride a wave of sexual liberation from France to California and back – this is a sort of original sin in the story. Not that the fathers care much more about their sons. Bruno grows up in boarding schools and is stricken with a hyperactive libido that will derail his life many times. In stark contrast, Michel is essentially asexual and aromantic. He’s raised by his grandmother and becomes a molecular biologist, uncharismatic but devoted to science.

At times Bruno reveals shockingly misogynist, racist, homophobic and borderline pedophilic views. I suppose this is where controversy kicks in. I can’t shake the feeling that Houellebecq planted those sections as provocations calculated to generate PR for the book. The fragments of Bruno barely add up to a real character; he is also a teacher, boringly and solidly middle class, prone to launching into monologues on literature and sociology. Some of his rhetoric, supposedly borne out of sexual frustration, reminds me of incel manifestos. On the other hand, he gets married, fathers a son and is actually quite adept at picking up women (in the social minefield of nudist vacation colonies, no less) – so not really an incel. After one mental break too many he checks into a psychiatric institution for life where he finds contentment in medication that amounts to chemical castration. Is he just all the failings of late 20th century materialism rolled up into one person? It comes across rather as sloppy construction, and it would likely work fine without the provocations.

In the end, I don’t know what to make of Bruno. I can think of another character that thrives on shock value, American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman. His utterly disgusting violence in that book (seriously – I’ve never felt so ill reading anything else) at least has a function: it’s laced with a litany of brand names and marketing copy to taint those tokens of consumerism in the reader’s head. It’s quite a neat cognitive trick. Houellebecq seems to throw bombs just because, which brings him uncomfortably close to endorsing Bruno.

Michel takes on less of a profile until late in the book. There is a kind of sci-fi subplot woven into the novel that only fully plays out in the epilogue. Michel develops the foundation for a transhuman science and philosophy which directly leads to the replacement of mankind with a new race of clones, free from the agonies of love and sexual reproduction since they are all genetically identical and immortal. (I guess those are the two options for man’s redemption – this or the loony bin.) Michel’s arc strikes me as the more original one, and I might have enjoyed a short story based on that more than a whole novel constructed around it.

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