April 23, 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.
James Kelman's latest novel Mo Said She Was Quirky is a powerful and understated stream of consciousness tale that explores important themes of gender, class, and race.
The Independent wrote of the book:
"This is a brilliant novel which portrays the multi-faceted ways in which a working woman and her daughter are susceptible to severe hardship, while also presenting the fraught social realities of being a child, an immigrant, an Asian, a Muslim, a mixed-race couple, a homeless person, or poor in the widest sense. The sort of threadbare life lived by Helen is so rarely given any unsentimental coverage in fiction that - in a time of massive state withdrawal, which is putting special pressure on poor women - Kelman might just have written his most important novel yet."
Somewhere in the world a woman comes home from work of an evening, draws the curtains, pours herself a glass of wine, kicks off her shoes and pads to the stereo-unit; inserts Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, settles down on the couch, closes her eyes. Who is this woman? Who could she be? Does she exist?
In my new novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky, the central character is Helen, a young woman. Her daughter is six years old. Helen is divorced from the girl’s father. She virtually escaped from him, and is now living with her boyfriend, Mo. They live in London, England. She works full-time nightshift in a West End casino. Mo is a waiter in a restaurant. They live in very cramped circumstances: one room, one bathroom and one kitchen with dining area. Helen listens to music on the radio while she does domestic chores. At least she thinks she listens. The truth is she scarcely notices whether she does or not. She may forget to switch on the radio. If she does have music playing, her daughter comes along and switches it off. Helen doesn’t notice.
The absence of art in the life of any human being is significant. Music is art, central to human existence. Characters switch on the radio and hear music; they enter a store and hear muzak. A woman walks along the street humming to herself; she lifts her guitar and plays music; she goes to a gig and listens to a band; she attends a school concert and not only hears her daughter singing, she “sees” her daughter singing. In prose fiction music may be incidental but it can have a role. Can it go more deeply than that? Perhaps so.
Art is more than decoration although for most people it barely exists at all. Most fiction we read in books or see in movies concerns the lives and loves of people who don’t have the slightest economic problem. They can fly to Austin, Texas, for Sunday brunch; to Seattle on Thursdays for that special fish stew, or that new little place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the one that serves an extraordinary homemade pasta every second Friday lunchtime. This kind of nonsense is what we are used to in contemporary storytelling whether on screen or between the covers of a book. The cares and tribulations of 90 percent of the population barely exist in the popular imagination. We are fed fantasy; "reality programmes," national karaoke, "talent" shows. These programmes offer the illusion of an inclusive society. It is hammered into us that we all begin from an equal footing. Everything that happens in life is in consequence of our own actions. If only we chanced to be in the right place at the right time, and were to work incredibly hard, with incredible forbearance, and fostered within ourselves an incredible never-say-die attitude, why then, good things might one day happen to us, just like all these cool celebrities on television.
For most of us the truth is rather different. Helen works constant nightshift in a casino. She confronts the conflicts in society on a daily basis. Not only is her personal situation very poor economically but she is in continual contact with squandered resources and waste, with gamblers and spendthrifts frittering away money on the roulette, baccarat and blackjack tables. Some who are so wealthy they don’t even know that taxis cost money, that people have to pay not only for cups of coffee but for gas, electricity and water.
The combined weekly income earned by Helen and her boyfriend is regularly won or lost on the turn of one card. Her "uniform" is designed to attract male customers. She is very used to being "looked at" by men and must conceal any emotional response she has to that. It is part of the job. Anyway, she barely notices any longer. Helen has learned to live “outside” reality, to “not see” what goes on roundabout her. For the sake of her sanity, her mental stability, she has had to learn this.
Each morning she returns home from work around 6 a.m., does a little housework and tries to stay awake to see her daughter taken to school by her boyfriend. She goes to bed from 8:30 until early afternoon but sleeps lightly. Her boyfriend goes off to work later in the afternoon, around 4:30 p.m. Mo is no D.I.Y. expert but he is a trier. He has managed to transform a walk-in cupboard into a child’s bedroom. Helen worries that the shelving unit he built above the tiny bed will come crashing down on the child’s head. Mo is a good man but he can be thick at times. Why is he so thick? He takes risks. Why does he take such risks? Mo is from a Muslim background. What if he is attacked and abused, assaulted because of his race? Doesn’t he realise she worries? She worries about him, worries about her daughter, worries about her mother, her long-lost brother, her dead father; worrying about this, worrying about that.
Helen has never been inside a prison in her life but is "imprisoned" to an almost unbearable degree. Art requires space. None is available. Where is the space for music? In Helen’s life there is none. Music is art, never one thing, embracing diverse parts of our life. Through art we find solace; we communicate, enter dialogue; we dream, create unimaginable futures. The freedom to breathe, where anything is possible, where potentiality exists: future relationships, future travel, meetings with friends and family at a time in the future. This is the space Helen cannot find. That this may be an absence in her life does not occur to her.
The situation she confronts appears insurmountable. Her working life is so public yet she spends it in isolation. At some point the question can arise: what music would Helen listen to, had she the opportunity? The trouble is such an opportunity is inconceivable, unless she were to change her life. There is no "route" to freedom. This is the lie of the fantasy programme. Society does not offer an escape. Individuals must confront reality on their own behalf, they must create the route, and make their escape. Nobody will do it for her. There is no panel of celebrity judges who will welcome you into their fold. Helen, like the rest of us, has to create the passageway and enter blindly, groping her way along.
My musical tastes and knowledge belong to an earlier generation. If ever Helen had the time I think she would listen to music that presented an affirmation; that suggested a woman winning through struggle, or coming to a sad end tragically, in a manner that is somehow positive. Her musical taste would veer toward soul music, soulful songs, popular songs; music that offers an immediate impact, physically demonstrative music, that might allow her to sing, to strut and to gesture, alongside her six-year-old daughter. My knowledge of contemporary music is limited. I have two daughters who play music together and whose listening is very broadly based. They were brought up on Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Joni Mitchell, Maria Muldaur, Emmylou Harris, Hazel Dickens and the McGarrigle Sisters. Helen was not fortunate enough to have been exposed to that in her childhood. She hears only what is broadcast through television and radio.
Novels differ from movies. In a movie, music functions at two primary levels: 1) within the logical framework of the story itself and 2) "outside" the story, either as integral to the narrative, or as an aid to it.
In an earlier novel of mine, How Late It Was, How Late, music operates at that first level. The central character spent eleven years in prison. Music exists for him as an aid to survival. Songs are referenced within the narrative, either lyrics quoted or in some other way. Although the novel is set in Glasgow, Scotland, the music he listens to mainly is country: old-school outlaw; his musicians are Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash; also George Jones, and Bob Dylan too; and others are present. This is the music that kept him sane during his years in prison and it is the music that allows his inner life to drive him through hard times. This is as it is for many working-class males whether in Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh or Huntsville; Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester or Belfast. It did occur to me that an adventurous publisher might include a CD album between the covers of this novel, but it didn’t happen. However, I listed individual songs myself and made an album of them for a few people.
The music of that novel belongs to the central character. Nothing like it exists for Helen. Even in prison that guy had more inner freedom than she did.
If ever a movie is made on Mo Said She Was Quirky then music will certainly feature but only at the second level referred to earlier. It will provide a soundtrack. This is the music that cannot be heard by the fictional characters. In this context music features at a richer level. Through its use we learn more about the character. It helps us gain access into the character’s inner psyche and emotional state. The rhythm of the drum reflects the beating heart, the quickening rhythm indicates a higher pulse rate. This music is a crucial element within the narrative and we see the character within it. This music is inseparable from the action, pushing it on or traveling alongside. Occasionally it is pushed too far, and tells us what to think. It is an imposition and produces an insufferable sentimentality. Watching cowboy movies as a kid we always knew the bad guys, not only because they had black moustaches, but because the "cheery music": changed and we heard "baddie music," sombre music, variations on Bach's cello suites. We had music for cowboys and music for Indians. A wagon train of colonising settlers (i.e. cowboys) heading through the wide open spaces to a soundtrack of airy music created by an orchestra of wind instruments: then it shifts into oomba oomba oomba oomba and we know to expect a warrior tribe of indigenous locals (i.e. Indians) to appear on the horizon.
It has to be better than that I hope, if ever a movie is to be made. Periods of quiet also should exist. The music will have no vocal. In my novel the streets of London do feature, late in the wee hours, the mysterious hours, and Helen has to walk them, which is where Mahler's Fourth could also enter into it. But it may be a more contemporary "classical," a form of "mood" music; the kind I used to associate with parisien settings in black-and-white movies; slow piano, clarinet, sax or cornet. Perhaps not the Miles Davis of Kind of Blue, more from Bitches Brew. Or maybe Nina Simone, alone on her piano, singing only to herself. Yes, Helen’s life, the absence of music; maybe Nina alone could achieve that.
James Kelman and Mo Said She Was Quirky links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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