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The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban

Sometimes I think that we’re forgetting a certain kind of creativity in the hothouse world of genre fiction — a sense of freedom, actually, is what I mean. Yes, among us number the people who write the really weird stuff — audacious time travel narratives that turn all the tropes on their ear inteligently; stories of terror rooted in, well, something weird out the window — and a harrowing tale that one is (I’m thinking of Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber); stories imagining how, yeah, we are flushing the planet down the tubes, and what might happen to us as it goes down the pipes… we’re known for our creativity, if nothing else, aren’t we?

But look at jazz music. My favorite jazz musicians are the free jazz players — people who do things just as radical and wild and out there. John Coltrane later in his career; Eric Dolphy; Ornette Coleman; Albert Ayler; Rahsaan Roland Kirk; Keith Jarrett of a certain period (and Dewey Redman right there beside him, and Ed Blackwell somewhere around too); Sun Ra; Pharoah Sanders in all kinds of directions at once, and Sam Rivers; more recently, folks like Medeski, Martin, & Wood; George Adams and Don Pullen;  Matthew Shipp; and some of the more exploratory stuff that Branford Marsalis put out at times. Even some of Charlie Mingus’ music, I’d say, fits this category of radical — I’m not just talking about atonal music, I’m talking about work that was intensely exploratory. Miles Davis is another example; and Yusef Lateef, for me, represents this exploration aimed in another direction, namely a fusion of jazz and world music.

However, if you look at how jazz is depicted, taught, and seen by most people today — and it may always have been that way — you see this radical stuff, the really interesting stuff, is quite absent from the discussion. Not just absent: it’s disrespected, cast out, treated like junk. What’s found “radical” now is nuances in performance of classic styles, something like how Brad Mehldau has become a major name, or the way Holly Cole actually did become famous in jazz circles — notably, both of them performing rock/pop songs in a jazz style. This is not a criticism: not only have jazz musicians been working with all kinds of popular material forever — Miles Davis even recorded a Disney cartoon song as a gorgeous tune, after all —

— and I am fine with Cole and (especially) Mehldau, you know, well enough for things they do. But I find that in all that was done back in the late 80s and the 90s, to “revive” and “preserve” jazz, this radical side of the music’s history, and of the music’s present, was absolutely sidelined — and the great big stamp of approval on this sidelining of the radical side of jazz was applied by Ken Burns at the turn of the century, whammo. Suddenly, it felt like jazz was no longer so much about the music itself, but far more all about suits, about respectability, about celebrating a very narrowly selected set of roots to ensure a vindication of the music, of African-American history and art, and–of course–of the Marsalis family.

Don’t get me wrong. I think jazz should be respected. I think African-American history and art deserve great respect.

But here’s the thing: I think the way to respect is not through historical revisionism. It was not the way for white detractors and liars who said jazz was a white creation: we now hold those idiots in contempt. And it’s not the way for jazz revivalists, either.

Jazz is not more respectable for the exclusion of the avant garde; it is not more respectable for having embraced business attire. That’s not real respect, after all: it’s pseudo-respect bought with compromises. “Will you respect us now, if we lop off a major thread of the history of our artform? If we dress like businessmen from now on?” “Neocon” is a phrase a lot of critics seem to use for the cast of commentators that Burns invited to speak on his documentary, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis especially, and of course, like any group of conservatives, what we being conserved was very much a pick-and-choose affair — while great chunks of history were being tossed overboard as if they had never happened.

At least, that’s how it all looked like to me long before Burns, back in the early 90s when I, as a white Canadian teenager on the Canadian prairie, first discovering jazz right when all this started happening: and, yes, I should caveat, it was me observing all this stuff across multiple distances: racial, cultural, national, and generational boundaries stood between me and the people most involved in the “rebop” revolution spearheaded by Wynton Marsalis & Co.

I was tuning in to PBS, seeing concerts live at Lincoln Center, signing out LPs and tapes and CDs from the library in huge numbers, studying them, listening to them on loop and trying to play along on my tenor sax, really trying to understand. There was a disconnect that became apparent to me: Sonny Rollins, yes, he was being mentioned, and he was good. But Pharoah Sanders was good too, and really different, but he wasn’t being mentioned at all. I’d go listen to, say, Pharoah Sanders playing something called, say, “Astral Traveling” — on an album where he was pictured on the cover in, well, see for yourself:

… and I’d feel like, yeah, something crucial was being left out of the story of jazz, with all those hagiographic discussions of Louis Armstrong (great, but not really a God, in my books) and no mention of Sanders, of even Coltrane a lot of the time, and even limited discussion of Miles Davis, seemingly because fusion was somehow a betrayal of jazz history or something. (Forget hearing about Jaco Pastorius, despite his having done for the electric bass what Charlie Christian had done for the electric guitar; Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy and Ornette Colemen, they might as well never have picked up a horn, as far as the mainstream narrative was concerned. Half the time even Bird and Diz weren’t getting play!)

I see parallels here with the field of SF:

  • there’s an anxiety about the “death of SF” as a genre, or its museumization, and its ghettoization, despite its influence on mainstream literature, film, and so on;
  • there’s an anxiety about the respectability of SF as a literature (hence the constant rants about critics disrespecting SF — and yeah, I feel annoyed by it too, sometimes);
  • there’s concern about the viability of this artform in a capitalist setting — and I’d argue our literary world is more purely capitalist than it was in the days of, say, the New Wave… at least in those days, many more writers could starve off their writing, without having to be as popular as you need to be today to starve off your work;
  • there’s a marked growth in the “professionalization” of SF writers, which manifests in everything from the businessification of cons, to the way SF authors operate online, and so on…
Which brings me, finally, to the review I want to write about Russel Hoban’s The Medusa Frequency.  Perhaps the jazz analogy I thought about before will make more sense now. Reading this book was a little bit like listening to, say, Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction album for the first time. (Back when you couldn’t get the complete sessions.)

The whole thing sounds just a little bit beyond the edge of control and planning and good sense, and somehow is more wonderful for it. It’s a book about…

… well, I’m not sure, exactly. Sort of about narrative. Sort of about creativity. And sort of about a guy who is having conversations with the Kraken on his Apple II PC, and with the rotten, fleshless head of Orpheus that keeps appearing to him after he has a kind of weird pseudoscientific treatment of some kind. Oh, it’s kind of also about relationships, in the general sense and in a couple of specific senses. There’s some autobiographical stuff here, and there’s a fair bit of out-and-out bizarreness too. This is not urban fantasy, it’s not SF, it’s just plain weird fiction, and weirder than any book I’ve read in years. And kinda wonderful.

Not perfect, but certainly wonderful, and interesting, and strange. I realize, now, I’ve read more than Riddley Walker: I read a book called Mr. Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer, which I’m mildly surprised to find I reviewed here. And much of what I said about that book is true about this one:

But forget about all of that: the plot isn’t really the reason to read the book. The read is worth it because Hoban’s dark, funny, deep, and his characters are different from other characters you run across. For example, they all actually appreciate art. They all are actually aware of things, well-read, they know their art and they’re all crazy about music in an idiosyncratic way, which to me of course suggests more Gothicness, more of the feeling everything is actually the playing-out of interior fantasies and fears and worries. But that is not to the detriment of the novel. They are textured even when they are strange, solid figures one might see in a comic book (and this book would withstand the adaptation to comic book rather well, I think).

Reading this book, I’m reminded of something — of a few things. One of them is that if your characters are interesting and human enough, some readers will follow through through a fair bit. Another is that a book needn’t be long in order to be good. Also, a book can be wonderful even when it doesn’t make the kind of sense you expect books to make. And that language can be beautiful even in the midst of nonsense. That nonsense can be wonderful. Also, novels can be all kinds of things, including things unlike things that everyone out there is doing.

Which are heartening things indeed, of which to be reminded; I knew them already, but knowing Matthew Shipp is out there somewhere right now doing insane and wonderful things to a piano is not the same as seeing him do it live (or even on Youtube):

Whether I think The Medusa Frequency is a successful novel — well, it’s hard to say, but if I apply the critical approach I learned from Paul Park, judging texts by their own inherent criteria for success — I’d hazard a guess, after a mere first reading, that the book indeed is one. For those who just want a rollicking good story, this may not be the book to try, but for a splash of cool water on the face, and a reminder that the things you think you know are not absolutes, I think it’s quite possibly the very thing.

I’m very grateful to Justin Howe for passing this book to me, and will be checking out the other Hoban book he passed on to me, Fremder, later this summer. I only wish I had Mr. Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer back from the guy I loaned it to, so I could pass it to him… though, who knows, he’s probably read it already!

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