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Thursday, 25 June 2015

Coming Through Slaughter - Michael Ondaatje (1976)



Buddy Bolden is standing second from the left.





Charles Joseph Bolden (Buddy Bolden) is credited as being a principal originator of jazz, a new form of music that emerged in the dying years of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth. Bolden and his band played ragtime, added some blues and gospel elements and most importantly improvisation, which lies at the heart of jazz. This kind of historical knowledge about the origins of jazz, in particular narrowing it down to one man, is like finding the source of a great river that begins as a trickle before winding down the slopes of great mountains, through crazy rapids and into massive cataracts of water before spilling into a sea of infinite possibilities. Jazz truly is something wild and, even now, untamed; drawn deep from the inner creative soul of humankind. Ondaatje’s portrayal of Buddy Bolden and his milieu is like the above grainy black and white photo come to life and examined from multiple viewpoints.

Coming Through Slaughter is structured like jazz, with a narrative arc that is fragmented into vignettes that continually lead back to the main narrative motif. That motif is the life of of Buddy Bolden and his sudden disappearance. Bolden abandons both his life in New Orleans and his band apparently due to the onset of schizophrenia that eventually led to his incarceration in an old civil war asylum near the town of Slaughter in 1907, where he finally died aged 54 in 1931. Not a great deal is known about the life of Bolden accept a few fairly concrete facts coupled with a great deal of myth and conjecture. There aren’t even any recordings of Bolden and his band in existence, although there are rumors of recordings on cylinders that weren’t made for general consumption and ended up in the hands of collectors, although none have ever surfaced. Much of what occurs in the novel is therefore either exaggerated or fictionalized, however this benefits Ondaatje and allows Bolden and New Orleans to really come alive.

What Ondaatje offers is historical conjecture filtered through experiments with narrative form, such as switching without warning from a third person omniscient point of view to the first person point of view Bolden himself. Text from interviews (probably not real) and descriptions of films are some of the other forms used. To Ondaatje’s credit this narrative blend works well to give a fascinating take on Bolden and the birth of jazz. Central to the novel is the only surviving photograph of Bolden, along with his band, taken by E.J. Bellocq, the photographer known for his images of prostitutes (he’s portrayed here as a hydrocephalic). There’s an inferred connection between Bolden and Bellocq that seems to suggest that artistic brilliance is the domain of those who suffer, a tragic subtext that gives the novel emotional frisson.

Despite the brevity of Coming Through Slaughter and its unorthodox structure, it’s an absorbing read. The novel is regarded as one of the best jazz novels (is that a genre?) and jazz aficionados should certainly give it a read. I can’t help but feel that Bolden is too good to be true, a wild blower of the cornet, pioneer of the kind of inspirational improvisation that would establish jazz as one the great musical genres and sufferer of a mental illness that would be both his undoing and perhaps also his source of inspiration. If Bolden didn’t really exist then someone would have to make him up, and in a way that’s exactly what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The First Bad Man - Miranda July (2015)





Miranda July is a renaissance woman who’s career has encompassed film, music, performance art, directing, acting and writing. I first encountered Miranda July via her film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), which turned out to be a brilliant encapsulation of what July is all about. Her style is self consciously arty and kooky and explores psychological themes such as neurotic behavior and social awkwardness whilst also flirting with existentialism. July manages to successfully skirt the fine line between pretension and authentic emotional connection and when she is on the money this approach works extremely well, but when she isn’t there can be a strong whiff of mawkishness. Although July’s work is somewhat of an acquired taste, The First Bad Man mostly hits the mark nicely.

The First Bad Man’s
principle protagonist is Cheryl Glickman, a typical July character; Cheryl is plain, awkward, neurotic and has a decidedly kooky outlook on life. Initially both the character of Cheryl and July’s writing grates with neurotic self-consciousness, but fortunately before long Cheryl becomes endearing and at the same time the novel begins to venture down some untrodden narrative pathways. The First Bad Man contains the only portrayal of a female misogynist that I’m aware of, although I’m sure there’s more out there in the wild world of literature. Cheryl’s unwanted house-guest, a young woman called Clee, is the instigator of one of the most unusual and ultimately affecting relationships I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Clee is young, beautiful and buxom, but has unbearable foot odor, questionable personal habits and behaves in an unreasonably aggressive manner toward Cheryl. However as the novel progresses Clee transforms Cheryl’s life in unexpectedly positive ways.

The First Bad Man evoked a wide range of emotional responses; at times I was frustrated at Cheryl’s inability to engage with life in a functional manner, yet I was also appalled at the treatment meted out by Clee. I ended up being entirely caught up in Cheryl’s life and found myself desperately hoping that everything would work out for her. Having seen her films I couldn’t help but picture July as Cheryl throughout the narrative, but fortunately this worked for me. July clearly has a knack of exploring the more extreme elements of human psychology whilst also making the character sympathetic. Without this the novel could have very easily been an exercise in neurotic irritation, but instead it becomes an ultimately heartwarming story. Also I’m sucker for a novel with a reference to David Bowie; in this case his song ‘Kooks’ is used as a mental tool for stopping obsessive behavior.

As with July’s films, The First Bad Man is not for everyone, in fact many readers may not be able to stomach her unique take on human psychology and her idiosyncratic writing style. Personally by the end of the novel I wasn’t ready to let go of Cheryl Glickman; I’d become as attached to her as she was to Kubelko Bondy, and that’s really saying something. Who’s Kubelko Bondy? You’ll have to read the novel to find out, and besides, Cheryl would love you to join her in her lover’s story, you won’t be sorry....







Miranda July, looking suitably kooky