Love or Confusion

by Ray Davis

"The way I write things, they are just a clash between reality and fantasy. You have to use fantasy to show different sides of reality." -- Jimi Hendrix.

"Don't particularly like the Beach Boys. Makes me think of a psychedelic barbershop quartet." -- Jimi Hendrix.

To get the Consumer Guide business out of the way, Lewis Shiner's Glimpses is a very good novel, well worth your reading. This didn't prevent my disagreeing with it pretty much all the way through. What follows is my side of the quarrel. I expect it won't prevent your disagreeing with me, and I hope it won't dissuade you from the book.

The hero of Glimpses is Ray Shackleford, a nice guy who's in a midlife crisis precipitated by his father's death. Most of the methods Ray uses to get out of the crisis are pretty familiar: Examine past. Make new friends. Leave marriage. Stop drinking. Fall in love. Get a hobby.

Ray's hobby is slightly less common. First, he researches a period. Then he decides what aspects of reality he'll change in it. Then he vividly imagines the new events in sequence.

In short, Ray writes historical fiction.

OK, there's also a fantastic element: The music. Ray's fiction concerns sixties musicians, and he's able to bring the music back from his fiction into the framing fiction, which he also narrates. He imagines the making of imaginary music, and the music magically materializes in the "real world" of Ray, his family, and his friends. The book is insistent that this music is the only artifact produced by Ray's narrative imagination, despite the evidence of his narration.

Of course, as readers of the book, the descriptions of the music are all we get. The visible results of Ray's creative process, right down there on the page, are the descriptions of those vividly imagined events. Unlike us, Ray gets to hear the music, but, like us, he's much more changed by the process itself (the "writing") than by the process's supposed product (the "music").

Ray's intimates get to hear the music, again to muted effect. The closest relationship in the book, between Ray and his new love, Lori, isn't changed by the music at all. On storytelling alone, Ray could've met a music fan who runs a record company. On fantasizing alone, he could've freaked out his wife. The only other role played by the music is moneymaker, and selling a novel's TV rights to Oliver Stone would take care of that.

There's little pretense that the music drastically changes the world at large, either. Sure, people would buy another Doors album or another Beatles song, but no one really needs them. The book doesn't pretend otherwise.

So the music is just a hook, an entryway. A way to disarm narrative expectations, to distract us from the story-ness of Ray's stories, and to defer our questioning the motives of that storytelling. Stories are nice, but their connection to Real Life is too obvious. If your hero produces stories, the readers are going to be looking hard for hidden motivations. Instead, Ray's producing "music," and that doesn't need justification. All it needs is a hook.

Now, the hook of a pop song isn't disguised. It isn't baited. On the contrary, the bait of the song is the hook. It's the hook of a drug, in which the thing sought is the feel of the hook itself, a new emptiness having been defined which can be filled only by that hook. Junk music, perfectly adapted to late capitalism.

The hook offers re-experience rather than development. On that lure, pop music can provide at its best a sense of inexhaustibility, a constant gesture upward, outward, never quite completed, until the heart aches with the conviction that it's found transcendence, or that it's somehow been tricked out of it. A great pop song exists in a now which no amount of heavy rotation can truly extend.

I wrote that thinking of classically melodic pure pop, but great rock songs also achieve a sort of atemporal transcendence through identification. In rock's case the identification rests on physicality. Or, to put it another way, "We'll go dancing, and then you'll see / How the magic's in the music and the music's in me."

Either way, or both together, you have atemporality. I remember being at a club when the power went off two-thirds the way through a song. There was a mass groan as we were wrenched out of the music. We shuffled around aimlessly. Then the song started where it left off, and all of us hopped back into our places as if the intervening time had never happened. A perfect splice.

And not without its comic aspects. Whether applied as dance or as soundtrack, pop lends grace to life, but it's a tense, off-center, Laurel-and-Hardy grace, and its transcendence, like most, comes through clownishness.

Shiner's novel is partly about loving pop music, but it rarely connects to that kind of amour fou. The lure of the eternal now, an antinarrative impulse, might explain Shiner's occasional shift, for a sentence or two at a time, into present tense. There's one really good dance scene, but it's not exactly rock'n'roll. Otherwise, the music seems a little fussy, or a little muffled.

The particular brand of pop music on which the novel focuses may be one cause of my bad connection. In a way, Glimpses is a late sixties book -- or, as many of us say, "another late sixties book."

Oh, I love some music from then; the Velvet Underground and Tommy James, for example, neither of them accepted by Woodstock Youth, and neither of them in Glimpses. But I think the late sixties was rock's weakest period. Studio costs went up, filtering out the garage bands and the lunatics. LPs became bigger business than 45s. Radio became re-segregated via the new FM formats. The very concept of pop music changed. You could see it happen in the media coverage. It's not that coolness (or, to a much vaguer extent, rebellion) stopped being commodified. Commodification isn't an easy process to reverse, and why would we want to? But self-righteousness was added to the marketing pitch. A remarkable number of people began to believe that buying a product not only made them "cool" and "interesting," but also "anti-establishment." Which all led on the pop hand to a plague of prim-lipped-in-natural-fabrics singer-songwriters, and on the rock hand to a tediously narrow range of "virtuosity" (let Cream stand for all) which received the sort of attention usually only expended on baseball cards.

The late sixties has been very attractive to writers, and I admit that my take on it is a mite idiosyncratic. From my idiosyncratic point of view, the period's popularity isn't due to its strengths, but rather to its peculiar weakness. Self-righteous and self-pitying rhetoric comes much easier to prose than does the intricate formalism, slapstick grace, and physical energy of the best pop. Even more attractively, the late sixties scene supplies closed narratives, as opposed to the atemporality of most music and the quotidian nature of most musicians' careers.

Glimpses' chosen musicians are Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Jim Morrison, and the Beatles. All have associated myths. All are stories as much as they were musicians. The stories are what attract Ray (or Shiner -- tough to make a distinction here) to them.

As it happens, the only one who means much to me personally is Brian Wilson, and I like Smiley Smile and Wild Honey more than I like "Good Vibrations," which kind of spoils the usual telling of The Brian Wilson Story. As for the Doors or Hendrix, I would've gotten just as excited over questions like, "What if Moby Grape's second album had been better than the first one?" or, "What if Love hadn't looked like such dorks?" More excited, really; I've already seen enough background on Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson and Jimi Hendrix, but Arthur Lee is virgin territory.

Not that I don't have my own little generation-linked fantasies: What if the New York Dolls had somehow stayed together under Malcolm MacLaren's management? What if Richard Hell had remained the lead singer of Television? What if Patti Smith hadn't broken her neck and gotten cranky?

But, much as I love returning to these questions, they wouldn't make sense to me as a lifeline or an escape, as a dive into the big deep blue or a way out of a floundered marriage. They concern great art, but staking my life on the questions themselves just wouldn't make sense. Merchandising didn't get canny enough to make poor consumers confuse categories like that again until late seventies British punk. And sure enough, the most embarrassing moment in the novel is Ray trying to sum up twenty years of post-1970 music to Jimi Hendrix:

"There was something called punk at the end of the seventies, that was pretty exciting, only it got commercialized too fast. Now there's rap, which is drum machines and chanting, not much music in it at all."

Kids today, I swan.

I don't know; if I was talking to Hendrix, I might mention George Clinton, Prince, Public Enemy, and Sonny Sharrock, for starters. But the oddest aspect of that quote is, "it got commercialized." How does Ray think he heard about late seventies punk? For that matter, how did he get the idea that Hendrix wasn't commercial?

He got that idea because he bought the story, and what the companies successfully sold was that commercial story. The sporadically OK Sex Pistols supplied the soundtrack to the fabulously successful Sex Pistols story. And the end of the successful Sex Pistols story, like the ends of the equally catchy late sixties stories, is failure. That's the narrative hook for Ray. Take a sad story, and make it better.

Although failure is clearly not an intrinsic part of music, it's omnipresent in these stories, and it's presented as inevitable in Glimpses. The late sixties replaced the paradoxical excess of pop with a promissary note for Real Change. Instead of milking a groove, you were expected to constantly expand. The corporate growth model was transplanted into the hippie brain.

The excess encoded in the music then did what it almost always does when you try to turn it into narrative; it fell through, or dissipated. Either way, at some point in the narrative, it's simply lost. Or, to look at it another way, late sixties rhetoric loaded on so much bullshit that the required "return" to normality -- not that the long, strange trip could be anything but a virtual vacation, given the travel agent -- is bound to fizzle, and to seem a retreat.

In Glimpses, Shiner blends this archetypal late sixties tragedy of fizzle with another narrative archetype. It's fiction's job to misdirect the reader, and one time-honored misdirection is to require payback for retreats into fantasy. That is, to punish, or at least jerk back, those magic-wielding characters who point out the fictionality most forcefully, those characters who play the part of the fantasizing writer and reader. Ray, in this case.

At first, Ray retreats to his fictions but stays safely on the outside, using the minimum of authorial intervention. The fantasy's lesson: "You can't get what you want here unless you take more responsibility." Then the fiction draws Ray in, making him a character in his own fiction, and turning the narrative voice into a narrator. The lesson: "You can't get what you want here unless you risk yourself." Finally, the fictions refuse him altogether: "You can't get what you want here."

Or, even more condensed: In a crisis, Ray starts writing and making music, thereby meets people, and then (therefore?) gives up writing and making music.

Summarized like that, it sounds pretty dismal, but Shiner is actually refreshingly upbeat about it. Ray approaches art as therapy, or self-expression. Whereas it's actually a living and an industry. So he has to stop eventually, "and that's OK," as we Californians say. It's not like he doesn't push it as far as he can. It's not like he's a coward. He almost dies, for crissakes. He earns his right to stop.

Like Scheherazade's, when Ray's need to tell stories dries up, it's not a tragedy of lost possibility. It's a happy ending. It feels good, it feels right.

And I still don't trust it.

The structure tells its own story. After 300 pages of escape, everything the novel claims is really important really gets resolved in the last 30, with everything you do really. You know, when you're not escaping. Therapy, relocation, relationships, family; Ray even manages to reform his drinking buddy. We've seen Ray through the hard times, through the crisis, through the fantasy, but we have to rush through the nominal resolution, because the crisis is over, the story is over, and a finished story can't hold a writer or a reader.

I wonder whether it can hold Ray.

The novel seems to say that time healed Ray, and beauty and adventure spiced the time. That you can't change some things, and that once you've got that lesson under your belt, magic disappears. That you'll find the right person, and then you won't need adventure, thank god. That we only raise the big questions when we're upset, and eventually we get bored with them and wander away again.

"Why do men worry about death all the time? I mean, the point is like to live. Live until you die, and then it's over. Am I right?"
Once I thought about it, it did seem that most of the people who rail against death and struggle for immortality are male. My mother says she's ready, whenever her time is up. "It's hard to argue with," I said.
-- p. 183
"Heroin is like a little taste of death for me. So peaceful. But men are so afraid of death. It's not like that for women, I don't think. Why should that be?"
"I don't know."
-- p. 266
As it happens, Ray ends the book living with his mother and his (female) lover. The only male friend mentioned at the beginning of the book, Pete, is never mentioned again. Ray's new pal, Graham, has seen the cozy light as well. The limits hold.

Which is all cool, but doesn't it sort of feel like, OK, we did our Guy Shtick for the night (or decade); time to get back to what is really real? It's as if the book wants to be just a boy's night out. After you shout at each other at length about (say) music, after a good mope over the mysterious workings of the soul, you reach a happy mellow agreement that, hey, you're both right, a reconciliation as specious in its extremity as the earlier grasping at bones to pick was in its extremity.

Then you go home.

Oh, men.

Well, like a lot of guys, when I get excited about music I get obnoxious. If you've read this far, you probably don't need more evidence.

Lewis Shiner isn't obnoxious. That's one reason his book is so good. The family scenes; the marriage scenes; scenes of falling in love and falling apart: gorgeous, moving, working hard at honesty, all of them.

But he raises questions that traditionally are settled only by unconsciousness or walking away. He does the right thing; he walks away. Still, there are those pignecked questions sitting there, muttering insults and swilling Coors, waiting to close down the bar. And we have to wonder why he brought us here and introduced us to them. "We won't leave a tip," doesn't seem enough of an explanation.

Like I say, after the bar rap comes the reconciliation. It feels a bit tardy and inadequate, but I guess it always does.

Don't get me wrong; I love bar raps. Don't get the book wrong, either; it's terrific. It's not even like there's that much music in it. It's more about family, about irreparability, about love and the American heterosexual male. . . .

It's just that the music aspect is so hooky. That's why it's there, right?

Anyway, arguing with someone doesn't mean you dislike them. Responding to something -- writing about something -- is different from experiencing it.

Which is why, even though Glimpses is not truly about music, it is a true response to music. If I could trace the response straight back, I think the music would be a sad song with a beat, mystically reconciled to those down-to-earth needs which will not go away. Like Sam Cooke's "Having a Party," or Smokey Robinson's "I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying." And this review would be in the background chorus, calling out the usual background request: "Just a little bit louder."

Copyright 1994 Ray Davis