June 12, 2008

Book review: "The Words of Every Song," by Liz Moore

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The Words of Every Song
By Liz Moore
Broadway Books / 978-0-7679-2642-3

Uh-oh; another musician's written a novel about the music industry. I don't know about you, but this always tends to be my first thought whenever hearing about a famous non-literary artist who's written a novel, especially when it's a novel about the industry in which they first got famous, whether that's an actor or a musician or a dancer or whatever. And there's a very good reason for that, too -- most of these books suck, they suck very badly, and the only reason they were published in the first place is because that artist is already famous for doing something else, therefore it's guaranteed that their book will sell a decent amount of copies just for curiosity's sake. And that's...well, I'm not going to get into the morality of the publishing industry, or the ethics of any executive within that industry, but let's just say that as a fan of smart literary projects, I usually try to avoid such novels like the plague.

The Words of Every Song, by Liz Moore

But see, I'd actually heard a lot of really good things in the last six months about the debut novel by musician Liz Moore, a complex look at the New York side of the music industry entitled The Words of Every Song; and I just happened to stumble across a copy of it at my neighborhood library a couple of weeks ago, so decided to check it out and take a chance on it. And boy, am I glad now that I did; although not perfect by any means, it is indeed a much better music-industry novel by a musician than usual, a book that made me laugh and cry and believe it or not actually understand the music industry just a little better than I did before. And this is because Moore avoids a lot of the typical cliches and traps that many authors in her position fall into, and does complex things with her manuscript that you usually don't see in these situations; in effect, it makes the book much more intellectually engaging than the usual crap about beautiful 25-year-olds with guitars and expensive haircuts, the kind of book that makes you want to hand out copies to aspiring authors and say, "See, here's how you write a book about the music industry. This is how you do it." It has its flaws, which I'll be getting into in a bit; on the whole, though, I found it a thoroughly entertaining read, something I'm very glad now that I took a chance on.

So what exactly did Moore do with this novel that so many others haven't? Well, for starters, instead of concentrating on some earnest indie label like so many of these types of novels do, she takes a surprisingly complicated look at a Geffen-type major label (that is, one started by an eccentric rich maverick, that has grown into its own multinational corporation), and of all the different types of things such a major label does at any given moment. And the reason this is so smart is that it gives Moore a lot more material to work with than the usual music-industry novel; not just stories about self-absorbed cock-rockers and angry Ani-DiFranco wannabes (although they're in there too), but also introverted violinists recording classical CDs, weight-conscious 15-year-olds in girl bands, even the failed musicians who make up the label's secretarial staff. Moore backs this up, then, by making the book technically a collection of themed stories with shared characters, much like Tama Janowitz's early-'80s look at the Manhattan art scene, Slaves of New York; each story concentrates on just one or two characters filling out this milieu, while others from previous and future stories serve as background characters.

And let's face it; the reason most musicians who write a novel don't do this is because it's hard to do, with most of those musician-turned-authors simply not good enough to pull such a thing off; it takes real talent, after all, legitimate plotting talent, to balance 30 or 40 characters in a single manuscript like Moore does here, to slyly show us the ultimate fates of such characters precisely through little throwaway lines in the backgrounds of other characters' stories. Like, let's just take the character Tom, for a good example; a middle-aged former alcoholic, new father, and most famous musician on the entire label, at the beginning of the novel an entire story is dedicated just to the beginning of his newest tour, which by the end of the story has turned into a disaster. But see, it isn't until about halfway through the book that we learn of the repercussions of that disastrous tour, during a story about a studio engineer that is otherwise completely unrelated; one of the background things that happens in that story is Tom having to be quietly ushered out a back door of the studio by someone else, because of being off the wagon again and too drunk to even play his guitar, a scene that lasts no more than a few lines in the overall story about the unrelated engineer. And then near the end of the book, once again as a background detail to someone else's story, we learn of the ultimate fate of Tom; he has sobered up once again, and has decided to take his wife and kids on the road with him this time, since it was his pain over their absence that made him fall off the wagon to begin with. And again, this takes up no more than a paragraph or two of the overall story itself, which again is mostly unrelated to Tom and his particular circle of acquaintances.

Now imagine multiplying such references by 30 or 40, and you can see what I mean by how difficult such a novel is to pull off; put in the hands of a lesser writer, such a thing would quickly turn into an unintelligible disaster. It's to Moore's credit, then, that she not only pulls off such a thing herself, but actually elevates it beyond the level of mere gimmick, and gives us these deep portraits of the people populating her stories, portraits that simultaneously ring true and present something new and unusual about each of the people mentioned. This is the thing that so many of these damn music-industry novels seem to miss, especially when written by musicians; that although they are a part of the very industry they are writing about, the characters they present always tend to be two-dimensional cartoons more than flesh-and-blood people, with those authors tending to wallow in the most cliched stereotypes concerning such characters that exist.

This is what Moore gets that so many other musician-authors don't; she finds and shows us the scared little child on the inside of all these people, even as she's masterful at showing us the hard outer shell that New York and millions of dollars have built around that child. So many novels about the music industry, I think, want to concentrate on the glib, surface-level part of it all; the clothes, the coldness, the undisguised greed. Moore instead digs underneath all of these things, really shows us why these people got involved with the industry to begin with, really makes us understand why people sometimes go so nuts over rock stars in the first place, and she does so in a highly intense way that deliberately screws with your emotions. For example, I dare you not to get goosebumps when reading the dream sequence in the story "Gregory Gets a Kiss," the one where our teenage hero dreams of his favorite musician in a way both angelic and homoerotic; I dare you not to say, "Yes, YES, this is EXACTLY how it feels, this is EXACTLY how it feels to develop a crush on a musician." This is probably my favorite thing about the book, in fact, that it touches such deep emotional truths in such a profound way, and I happily admit that The Words of Every Song made me at points both laugh out loud and literally cry in public, a rare feat for a contemporary novel that I always take as a good sign. (Ah, crying in public because of a novel; is there any more thrilling a pleasure for introverted book nerds?)

Now, like I said, this novel has its problems as well, mostly centered around the moments that Moore does indeed lapse back into lazy music-industry cliches, and especially when she has a personal axe to grind; for example, the middle-aged female Cruella-DeVille label executive seen here is handled with all the subtlety of one of those pink-covered piece-of-sh-t chick-lit novels, while the story "Thoreau's Pen" can be effectively replaced with the phrase "J-SUS F-CKING C-RIST DO I HATE ROCK CRITICS" repeated over and over for 15 pages. In general, though, this book was a real surprise, an infinitely pleasurable surprise, one that I was especially grateful for this month, after recently slogging my way through half a dozen books that I didn't care for at all. (By the way, tiny little reviews of those bad books will be coming this Saturday, during my usual weekend micro-review roundup.) For all of you who are constantly on the lookout for great novels about the music industry, let me please enthusiastically recommend The Words of Every Song to you; and now I'm off to actually listen to some of Moore's music for the first time, and to see if she's as talented a songwriter as she is a novelist.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.5
Characters: 9.2
Style: 8.6
Overall: 9.1

Read even more about The Words of Every Song: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:37 PM, June 12, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |