‘Hands that knew’ Intermission – Owen Martell


The relationship between music and language is intuitively close, but fiendishly difficult to understand. Rhythm, metre, cadence, intonation, and interplay all serve and are served by both. Structurally, too, there are analogies between pieces and poems, stories, novels, collections. Yet to move beyond analogy and metaphor to any actual affinity between music and language, music and writing, the experience of listening to music and that of reading literature, is a challenge. Thus to attempt in a novel to both capture something of the nature of jazz in one’s prose and structure, and to explore the minds of four people, one of whom was something of a genius in his field, is a tall order. Perhaps too tall.

 the fundamental question is one of life, of how to live, precisely, in music.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby are widely acknowledged to be two of the greatest live jazz albums. Both emerged from sets played by the Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard in New York on 25th June 1961. Evans at the piano, Scott LaFaro on bass, Paul Motian on drums: each attuned and in melodic sympathy to the other two, pushing forward with their material as only this trio could. Ten days later LaFaro died in a car accident. Evans was devastated by the loss of someone with whom he had so deep a musical communion.  In Intermission Owen Martell addresses what happened next as Evans is passed like a theme between his brother Harry, his mother Mary, and father Harry Sr, before the devastated pianist completes the quartet. Each has their own baggage: a less talented older brother, an unhappily married wife, a father who has retired and lost his purpose. Bill’s presence seems to absorb the cares of others, bringing them either to consummation or to crisis.

 ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.’

As the Miles Davis epigraph suggests, Martell’s aim is to explore the central tragedy by implication and allusion, to create, as it were, a negative image of Evans’ turmoil. This is a really interesting idea, but it does not quite work. What made this trio great is precisely what undermines Intermission. Evans, LaFaro, and Motian are each masterful, each capable of producing great work. Yet it is in their interplay, their cohesion, and the resultant exploration that the Vanguard recordings become so special. Martell produces passages of beautiful writing, probing what might be tired themes by spreading into unexpected thoughts and rhythms, much like Bill himself. There is a lovely line of thought emphasising the contingency of every act of musical expression. But too often the thread is lost as the balance tips too far toward the odd and occasionally dissonant line. Too many paragraphs end with a short punctuation mark of a sentence, an offbeat following a flowing couple of sentences.  That period halts rather than syncopates Martell’s rhythm; and each repetition lessens any effect.

 a competition of brothers

Evans’ family view him through a prism of working-class immigrant aspiration, waning tradition, and parental pride. But for all the depth of feeling, this novel can feel cold. And in that sense Martell is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough. Less emotional detachment coupled with more modest aims surrounding the themes of inheritance and home – admittedly rich veins from the point of view of a standards-centric jazz tradition – might have created a greater focus whilst allowing the prose to retain its exploratory tone; and some of that prose is very satisfying indeed. In what is the strongest section, ‘The Colour of Saying’, Harry Sr. considers his and his wife’s aging:

 It isn’t a realisation, however, more like catching up with an evidence. Something he’s known well enough for some years already, having seen the decline as it was happening. He didn’t always pay it particular attention but there it was all the same, in the way everything remade itself as present, in flickering permanence, like television. It was the very real evidence of nothing being actually past. Mary’s smile, his hands. What he sees now, all he has before him, is everything he’s ever seen. Before going to meet Mary, he used to scrub his hands with wire wool, inspecting them carefully for signs of manual labour, then thrust them into his jacket pockets. Twenty-five years later, they’d be swollen and hot when he woke up on mornings after nights before. And all this is perfectly visible, he thinks, in the fact that they now tremble.

That is a wonderful paragraph: flowing, slipping through time, tied up in an affecting image. Martell is particularly fine on that silent accumulation of present moments which seem so still and yet encompass entire lives. It is clear, however, that a variation of this paragraph could lose itself in its own exploration. I think that happens with several passages, particularly in Mary’s section ‘All Night Vigil’ and in Bill’s ‘Acknowledgement’. Bill’s section doesn’t work for me. Again, it is not the absence of fine writing. Perhaps the problem – bound within the very title – is that the intermission, the absence of music in Bill’s life, requires that the music be present such that the reader misses it, such that they feel something of that loss. Without being particularly familiar with Evans’ life and work this can be a barrier. It becomes unclear why this is a book about Evans in particular, rather than any person in such family circumstances who suffers a tragedy – at least until the very end, when Martell  comes to Evans and ‘the particular tones of his fragility.’

 What would remain of them, she thought, was bound to be unsaid.

Fundamentally, Intermission is a great idea that does not quite come together and feels mannered as a result: a problem when writing of and in a jazz mode. The subheadings within each of the four characters’ sections clearly relate to the theme in their musical terminology, reference to standards, or liturgical hours, but they feel far from necessary. If you are looking for a jazz-infused and reflective book I would head to Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful. Intermission is worth a read for some great passages of writing, but I think it could have been so much more.

I really recommend listening to the Village Vanguard albums. These links are to Spotify.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Waltz for Debby

The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961

Intermission is out on 3rd January from William Heinemann

My thanks to William Heinemann for this review copy.

Best of 2012: My These Little Words Guest Post

Copious notes

These Little Words has posted my selection of a few of my favourite books of 2012. I’ve enjoyed an awful lot of books this year, so this list is by no means exhaustive.

Review: ‘Dirt’ by David Vann

David Vann’s Dirt presents something of a dichotomy. This is a novel deeply concerned with fragmentation and disjunction, oppression and dysfunction. And yet Vann’s fragmented and oppressive delivery renders Dirt ultimately unsatisfying despite very compelling and unsettling passages. It is 1985 in Sacramento, California, and 22 year old Galen lives with his self-deceiving and emotionally immature mother in their old family home which is surrounded by neglected land and a walnut orchard. They live on the money of Galen’s grandmother, the survivor of an abusive husband, who has been parked in a home as her memory fails. The anguish and violence of Dirt centre on this money which Galen’s aunt and her 17 year old daughter Jessica feel they are being denied by his mother. Whenever the family convenes snide comments and resentment and selective memory suffocates all feeling. Eventually, in a cabin in the mountains, all hell breaks loose; all the familial fragmentation that accompanies Galen’s desired material dissolution becomes complete. What happens then is testament to Vann’s undeniable power to shock.

Galen’s postprandial purging is the literal manifestation of the corruption festering inside his family. Violence and hatred and despair concentrate in a stream of vomit.

He found a stand of smaller pines providing enough cover, braced against the largest of them, leaned over, pushed is finger back hard into his throat, and let all the piggy grease and egg drool and pancake and syrup come out, purged himself, made himself clean again. If only there were some way he could throw up his family and not have them inside him anymore.

Galen is symbolic of the thematic tensions of Dirt. His bulimia bespeaks a revulsion for the physical, for the dirt and soil of the garden, for his desire that this too too solid flesh would melt, his world bounded by the grounds of the family estate: an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. Galen’s relationship to the contents of that garden, to the dirt and detritus which surrounds him, comes to define the novel.

Galen seeks detachment from the world and the most corrupting attachments of those around him are to the memories they hold dear of an alternately idyllic and dysfunctional childhood in the house and garden which looms large in Dirt. They would do better to let them go, and yet in Galen’s grandmother Vann implants a warning against the kind of detachment he seeks: ‘Do you know what it’s like to not remember? It’s like being no one, but still having to live anyway.’

Substance, weight, matter lie behind all of this. How do people become substantial except through memory and attachment? Each character has different memories, different attachments, and so the heft of the world is different for each. The air, the sun, the earth resist, substantive each in their own way. For Galen, the desire to dissolve and the substance of the world become interwoven.

‘The point was the struggle. The air thickened here so that he would labor. The shovel felt heavy so that he could feel he was doing something. The world provided resistance, and as we struggled through, we learned our final lessons.’

Vann’s writing allows no escape from the physical and from exertion. His is an intensely embodied language, continuously frustrating the Galen’s ascetic aims; never more so than when Galen’s cousin Jennifer arouses his lusts, reinforcing his embodiment and his attachment in the starkest terms possible. Vann pulls no punches in his depiction of their broken relationship, rejecting the dualism of the New Age and Buddhist mishmash to which Galen subscribes, but leaving little by way of consolation.

This is a very good but not a great novel. Ultimately, it doesn’t quite cohere and, in a sense, it is not meant to. Vann conjures the disjointed welter of images, thoughts, sensations, and frustrations Galen experiences effectively, but at too great a length.

‘Everything we knew was fragment. Streams held together to appear as solids. The fundamental nature of all things.’

To an extent repetition and the visionary are effective, and some of Vann’s writing is breathtaking both in its subject and delivery, but beyond a certain point it becomes somewhat numbing, which undermines the intended effect. The final third of Dirt is gripping, but even there Vann’s writing can feel overcooked. It is deeply unsettling to read and that is testament to the way Vann plays out the horror and dissolution of his subject.

Amazon: Dirt

Fooling Houdini: Adventures in the World of Magic – Alex Stone (William Heinemann)

Out in paperback 5th July.

I have a confession to make. When I was a teenager I was something of a magic obsessive. I used to spend hours practising sleights in front of the mirror and dying for someone to ask me to do a trick (or ‘effect’ – I cared about the difference) as I sat shuffling cards at school.  I’m also a philosopher who researches the nature of our perception of the world around us: how our senses operate and interrelate, how our attention affects what we perceive, and how this all jumbles together to constitute our experiences of everyday life. So when I heard about Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini I was rather excited. Stone is a PhD student in physics at Columbia University in New York, but he is also a magician whose ambition is to pass muster amongst the greatest practitioners the world has to offer. From abject failure on of one magic’s greatest stages to redemption on another, Stone interweaves the compelling narrative of his magical development under his brusque master Wesley James with an account of the cognitive, perceptual, and probabilistic underpinnings of the tricks of the magic trade, taking in the history of will to believe and the willingness of con-men to take advantage of human psychology. In the course of his investigation he discovers his identity as a magician and reveals the learning lying behind what many dismiss as mere trickery.

A card, freely chosen, perhaps signed, is returned to the middle of a deck of cards; that card appears on the top of the deck, is replaced in the middle, jumps to the top again, and does so in ever more mystifying ways. Perhaps the deck has a rope tied around it to prevent the magician meddling with it after the card is returned; perhaps a bend (a ‘crimp’) is put in the signed card to differentiate it from the rest: it nevertheless leaps, visibly this time, to the top once more. This is just one version of the ubiquitous Ambitious Card routine which all close-up card magicians have in their repertoire in some form. My version ends with the signed card appearing face­-up on the top of the deck, but there are many more impressive routines. It is, if you will excuse the pun, the calling card of the close-up magician. This is the effect with which the great Dai Vernon fooled Harry Houdini seven times one night in 1922. Flummoxing other magicians is the Holy Grail of legerdemain, requiring consummate skill and imagination. One of the most adept is Richard Turner. Blind from a relatively young age Turner is one of the greatest and most obsessive ‘mechanics’ in the history of magic. His sense of touch is so developed that when the United States Playing Card Company changed their production process he not only noticed but could tell them about alterations in texture, weight, and shape of which they were oblivious. They duly appointed him their ‘Touch Analyst’.

One of the major contemporary debates within the philosophy of perception centres around how we should go about determining the nature of the senses: in other words, how we go about understanding each sense and thereby differentiating sight from touch, smell from taste, hearing from sensing vibration and so on. Turner claims that he can see objects – his cards – as he handles them. This allows him to perform astonishing feats, cutting to cards in the middle of the deck by feel alone. Scans of the brains of blind individuals reveal that they do indeed seem to see with their fingers: the visual cortex is activated in a way associated with viewing objects rather than touching them in sighted subjects. This cross-modal (inter-sense) interaction undermines the traditional model of five distinct senses inherited from Aristotle. It is not only the blind who can experience the world in this way. Indeed, all magicians – myself included – come to develop a greater tactile sensitivity as they manipulate their cards, coins, cups and so on. I once rather shocked some friends at school who had sneaked two or three cards from my deck by asking for them back. I hadn’t seen them; I could just feel the difference.

‘Magic, at its core,’ Stone tells us ‘is about toying with the limits of perception.’ In perhaps the most fascinating part of Fooling Houdini Stone delves into the quirks of our attentional mechanisms which make misdirection possible. Whilst we see a great deal of what goes on around us, we do not, it seems notice everything: we don’t respond to it, and we can’t recall it. Competing cognitive tasks – counting the number of passes made with a basketball in a video, for example – can mean we miss an intuitively obvious perceptual stimulus – a woman in a gorilla suit waving her arms in the midst of all the passing. It is this kind of perceptual and cognitive limitation which makes some of the most celebrated effects possible. Such intentional blindness is at play when Stone steals the watch from the wrist of a prominent researcher into attention. Misdirection is all about manipulating attention, rather than simple distraction, and takes advantage of the potentially misguided intuition most of us have that we perceive a lot more than we actually do.

One of the real strengths of Fooling Houdini is the way it communicates the depth of learning and dedication the greatest practitioners achieve. The individuals magicians admire are not simply the rich or famous, but the most creative, penetrating, and dedicated. It’s little wonder that so many scientists, mathematicians, and intellectuals turn out to have a side-line in magic. Magic allows one to toy with perception, probability, order, and, of course, people, in a way few ethics committees would allow. Alex Stone’s judgement was flawed when, as a teenager, he thought that magic would make him less of a nerd, but he has produced a compelling and deeply interesting book on magic and the mind. I’m just never letting him near my watch.

JOY – Jonathan Lee (William Heinemann 2012)

Jonathan Lee’s JOY is a shifty novel. The best novels are. The narrative swirls around the fall of Joy Stephens from a second floor platform to the marble floor of her City law firm. Four people converge on her broken form and, in the relative safety of a counsellor’s borrowed office, begin to converge on Joy in quite a different way, struggling to understand the rationale of apparent self-destruction. Each grasps a small part of her, understanding some aspect of a more complex whole, before being whisked away by contours of thought and preoccupation. Lee occupies each voice near flawlessly: the academic husband, the handsome, obnoxious lawyer, the OCD personal trainer, and the aged and resentful PA. Particularly wonderful are the digressive footnotes of the English lecturer Dennis, forever qualifying statements in a manner I find uncomfortably familiar. The dissembling lawyer’s lewd desperation to impress and seduce recalls the dialogue of Edward St. Aubyn’s fractured individuals; and like St. Aubyn Lee manages to render this desperation amusing and absurd in equal measure. The threat of caricature looms large, but this is slowly stripped away as Lee shifts their speech from public to intimate.

Only Joy is permitted an interior monologue, and it is her embodied experience which allows Lee’s lyricism free rein. Throughout her language of thought is intensely sensual as Lee delves beneath the superficiality of her working and married life, contrasting this with the sexual language of those who move and speak around and of her. Sensual and sexual are not the same thing, of course, and this contrast serves to highlight one of the central themes of the novel: the disconnection between speech and thought; or, better, the apparent gulf between how we feel or intuit ourselves to be and the person others get to see – and judge. In the case of mental distress this is particularly clear: as William Styron writes in his memoir of depression Darkness Visible, ‘Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.’ Lee reclaims such distress for the everyday, situating it in an office whose shallow preoccupations threaten to implode.

Such imaginative sympathy is the prerogative of the novelist, for each character is bounded by their own concerns, each, to steal a phrase from JOY itself, recreating people and events according to their own private ambition.  The contingency of perception on preoccupation and its coupling with the distortions of memory and motive contributes to narratives of persons and events we rarely question except in extremis. That everyday life can deliver such prompting extremity is masterfully argued here. In a forthcoming book which might be marketed as a companion to Joy the late Peter Goldie considers the ways in which people understand their past and the nature of grief and self-forgiveness. At the heart of Goldie’s account is a narrative sense of self whose instability is evidenced by Lee as each character returns to the counsellor’s office and slowly sheds their simplicity.

That grief and its ideal corollary self-forgiveness are the axis around which this novel turns is not immediately obvious, at least not in the way one might expect, but then Lee constantly surprises the reader. With great control he moves us through the day preceding Joy’s fall and through each person’s recollections of it. A vortex forms around her, as each tries to understand their role in her life – and her role in theirs. The final act is affecting and unexpected as self-narratives break down; their acts finally, perhaps, matching their thoughts. In the central passage on Hampstead Heath and throughout in certain elements of the whole book it is hard not to see an echo (or perhaps more) of Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale, ‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret’. Indeed, it is here that Lee’s writing is at its strongest: ‘Something deep and dreamy about this realm of woodland. Trees bunched like troubles. They crowd around unexplained clearings in which only earth seems to grow – within itself, swelling against its own skin.’

There are times when JOY threatens to buckle under the weight of its varied voices and their revelations and misunderstandings. Yet it never does, and that tension serves to underline its emergent humanity. This is a generous and intensely human novel which achieves a great lyrical intensity in its exploration of the depth of our ignorance of ourselves and others, the sheer contingency of life where everything is visible but nothing seen, and where two contradictory statements can be equally true of the same person.  Goldie’s book is titled The Mess Inside. It is hard to think of a better summation of Lee’s project in JOY. In the collapse of his characters’ narratives Lee has constructed a stunning one of his own.

Buy JOY 

Amazon: Joy

Or from your local bookshop!