April 19, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Jake Arnott's The House of Rumour as ambitious and curiously constructed a novel as I have read in years, a linked collection of stories that brilliantly blends history with fiction.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"An audaciously ambitious novel that takes great creative risks and, against considerable odds, makes most of them pay dividends."
The Voyager probe has just left the solar system – David Bowie and Judy Garland sing a duet in outer space –but wait, that's the finale. The House of Rumour's soundtrack takes us from London, Munich, Los Angeles, Havana, Guyana, the moon and beyond. With songs from the nueva trova of the Cuban Revolution to the New Romantic scene of the 1980s…
The central character, pulp writer Larry Zagorski, is part of the science fiction scene in Los Angeles in the 1940s, from the fan meetings at Clifton's Cafeteria to Robert Heinlein's Mañana Literary Society salon in Laurel Canyon. Larry loves Mary-Lou but she's besotted by Jack Parsons the charismatic rocket scientist. There's got to be some theremin music for this weird and wonderful world and what better than Bernard Hermann's soundtrack for 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' with Samuel Hoffman on Léon Theremin's great invention, first called the etherphone. Emerging from the avant garde concert hall to provide the eerie theme of the Cold War B movies, I think all of the anxieties of the 20th century can be heard in the tremulous wail of the theremin.
We jump across to London during the Blitz and hear the plaintive strains of Vera Lynn singing 'There'll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover'. Ian Fleming, spymaster for Naval Intelligence, visits occultist Aleister Crowley. There's a plan to lure the deputy führer on a peace mission to Scotland. Perhaps it's an exercise in disinformation; maybe the whole thing has been foretold by a dystopian novel written in 1937. Crowley only has one short scene in the novel but his influence hovers everywhere, so we'll have his Tango Song sung with such elegant passion by my good friend Marc Almond.
The spine chilling version of Brecht and Weill's 'Pirate Jenny' by Nina Simone is next (kill them now or later? right now. RIGHT NOW!). There actually is a character called Pirate Jenny in the novel who names herself after the servant girl who dreams of pirates coming to murder her masters. My Jenny is a female to male transsexual, part of the New Romantic 'gender bender' scene who styles herself in anticipation of Vivienne Westwood's buccaneer look ('she was stateless, that's what made her a pirate'). In 1980 she get's hired as an extra for the video for David Bowie's 'Ashes to Ashes' (cue the gorgeous art funk intro). Filmed on location on a beach in Southend and in between takes she talks with Bowie about the occult references in his work. But she goes a bit too far...
1958, it's Havana just before the Triumph of the Revolution so let's have Carlos Puebla's 'Hasta Siempre Comandante'. My Cuban character is an SF writer and a member of the Posadist Revolutionary Workers Party who believed in the necessity in making contact with UFOs –if such things exist, it was argued, they must be piloted by socialist since only the most advanced form of society would be capable of interstellar flight.
'Musclebound' by Spandau Ballet. London 1987, a prostitute picks up a retired spy. He has been called back by the Service, he tells her, to investigate the suicide of Rudolf Hess in Spandau. 'Like the Spandau Ballet?' she asks. 'Yes,' he replies (not knowing what she is referring to) 'it was rather like a dance. A sort of quadrille between the Four Powers.'
'It's 1977 now and Martin has been listening to a lot of reggae recently' says Sharleen Stirling (former B movie actress and first wife of Larry Zagorski) about her 11-year-old son, 'and he tells me that there is a Rastafarian prophecy that great changes will come the year that the two sevens clash.' This is the roots classic 'Two Sevens Clash' by Culture, inspired by the predictions of Marcus Garvey. There is much about prophecy in the novel, and of false prophets too. 1977 was the year that the Voyager spaceship was launched. It was also the year that Sharleen and Martin went to Jonestown, Guyana.
Los Angeles 1997. Burnt-out rock star Danny Osiris is out cruising in his silver Mercedes. Pursued by the Church of Scientology; addicted to prescription drugs and bad wisdom. He hopes that Larry Zagorski can help him deal with the frightening secrets of the universe. 'They wound down through Laurel Canyon Boulevard onto Sunset with the radio on. As they drove through the strip, 'Set Adrift on Memory Bliss' by P.M. Dawn was playing. Danny felt his heart flutter. He wondered if it was a side-effect of the Adderall or just a scattering of the emotions. He had a fleeting vision of another version of himself, in another universe, crying uncontrollably.'
Berlin, 1969. Rudolf Hess sits in his cell, listening to the moon landings on the radio and remembering his own space mission –his flight in 1941 to make a peace deal with the British. 'He flew north over Hanover and Hamburg, over the North Sea coast, tuning his radio compass to the Kalundberg radio station in Denmark that was on the same latitude as his intended landfall in England. Kalundberg transmitted directional beams, interspersed with classical music. That night Wagner's Parsifal was being broadcast.' Wagner's metaphysical opera seems to anticipate relativity and quantum theory. In the first act Parsifal declares: 'I hardly move, yet far I seem to come'. To which the older warrior Guernemanz explains: 'you see, my son, time changes here to space.' As Hess descends into madness he sees himself as Parsifal: the innocent seeker, the pure fool.
But let us keep soaring up through space where we might here the true music of the spheres. A specially commissioned piece for the ending, perhaps. There's lots of imaginary music in The House of Rumour. The early seventies funk band Muthaplane and their album Afrostronomy; Pirate Jenny's post-punk group Black Freighter ('a ship of fools come to liberate the world from reason'). But for the last number I want a mash-up song imagined by Danny Osiris. As Voyager 1 boldly goes, with the recorded voice of suspected war criminal Kurt Waldheim offering a message of peace to the Galaxy, those two bright stars of the firmament David Bowie and Judy Garland sing it on its way with their heavenly duet: 'There's a Starman, Over the Rainbow' It works, go on, try it at home.
Jake Arnott and The House of Rumour links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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