Fictional Musicians In Real Books

Here at the Bushwick Bookclub Seattle we love books and we love music, but our favorite is the intersection of books and music. (And smiling. Smiling’s our favorite too.)

Musicians frequently reference literature in their songs. Dylan quotes from The Great Gatsby on his album Love and Theft. The Beastie Boys claim they’ve “got more stories than J.D.’s got Salingers”. The Police reference Humbert Humbert in their song Don’t Stand So Close to Me“He starts to shake and cough just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.” Alanis Morrissette references Dickens’ Great Expectations“I’m like Estella — I like to reel it in and then spit it out”. Both the Beatles and Insane Clown Posse have a thing for Poe (and yes, these two bands absolutely do belong in the same sentence together.)

But writers love musicians too. In the past two years two literary heavyweights have featured fictional musicians in their blockbuster novels, one winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

A_Visit_From_the_Goon_SquadA Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s prize-winning book, starts with Bennie Salazar, former punk rocker and now executive at Sow’s Ear Records. Bennie is allright but the more intriguing musician in the book turns out to be Bennie’s old bandmate from his Flaming Dildos days, Scotty. We see Scotty in his prime in 1979 – “Scotty actually built his instrument: bent the wood, glued it, painted on the shellac. Everyone gathers around, There’s no way not to when Scotty plays.” – and then years later when he’s turned into a reclusive janitor in New York, catching fish in the East River and wondering things like, “Does the chemical composition of Jagermeister cause a craving for string beans? Is there some property of string beans that becomes addictive on those rare occasions when they’re consumed with Jagermeister?” But don’t worry, everything is fine because Scotty goes on to write a hit children’s record.

Jonathan-franzen-freedom_2In Freedom, the Literary God of 2011, also known as Jonathan Franzen, introduces us to Richard Katz, a sexual dynamo despite his uncanny resemblance to Muammer el-Qaddafi. Katz fronts a punk band called The Traumatics and seduces his roommate’s girlfriend. When his band starts to make it big, Katz has an existential crisis and quits to build roof decks in Manhattan. It is clear that the author loves Katz more than his protagonist; Franzen even went so far as to compile a playlist for his fictional musician, which he published on Oprah.com.

But here are a few of my favorite fictional musical characters:

1. Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Here’s how “Fred”, the otherwise unnamed narrator, first notices Holly’s guitar. Described by Capote,

“She played very well, and sometimes sang too. Sang in the hoarse, breaking tones of a boy’s adolescent voice. She knew all the show hits, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill; especially she liked the songs from Oklahoma!,…But there were moments when she played songs that made you wonder where she learned them, where indeed she came from. Harsh-tender wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie.”

Not exactly Audrey Hepburn crooning Moon River, but you can’t blame Hollywood for choosing Johnny Mercer’s song over Oklahoma! showtunes.

2. Roxanne Coss, the opera singer in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.

Invited to perform for a Japanese billionaire in an unnamed South American country, Roxanne Coss is taken hostage along with all the other guests at the party by a terrorist group. As the only female captive, Coss remains the bitchy assertive, confident diva and continues to practice every morning, causing most of the poor, uneducated gunmen (and gunboys) to fall in love with her. The singer chooses Mr. Hosokawa to share her bedroom with—she’s the only hostage allowed a room of her own (you go, girl!)—and they fall for one another despite the fact that neither speaks a word of the other’s native tongue.

Patchett writes of Mr. Hosokawa:

“…he believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music. True life was kept safe in the lines of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin while you went out in the world and met the obligations required of you. Certainly he knew (though did not completely understand) that opera wasn’t for everyone, but for everyone he hoped there was something. The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love.”

3. Stobrod Thewes, the fiddle player and wayward father from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

It isn’t just any fiddle, but one with the tail of a rattlesnake housed within it, which Stobrod catches himself. I particularly love this character because he doesn’t find his affinity for music until he’s asked to play the fiddle for a dying girl, who requests an original song.

Stobrod realizes,

“One thing he discovered with a great deal of astonishment was that music held more for him than just pleasure. There was meat to it. The grouping of sounds, their forms in the air as they rang out and faded, said something comforting to him about the rule of creation. What the music said was that there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift but have shape, an aim. It was a powerful argument against the notion that things just happen.”

Lots of other musicians come to life on the pages of novels. Which ones are your favorites? Who am I notably leaving out? Feel free to let me know – tweet about your favorite fake musicians @iReadAndSing #fictionalmusicians or leave a comment below.

  • Mike Votava

    The plot of Bel Canto reminds me of the plot of Die Hard, only with more singing and less killing

  • Kerry Garvin

    I loved Bel Canto and didn’t care for A Visit from the Goon Squad, but my favorite band in a book is Scott Pilgrim’s Sex Bob-omb.

  • Kerry Garvin

    Oh wait! I also love The all gay band (with a straight bass player) The Jerk-Offs in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

    • Kerry Garvin

      Oh no! Michael Cera was in both the movie adaptations of these books! He’s in the Sex Bob-ombs and the Jerk-offs!

      • oh man, you got Cera-ed

        • Kerry Garvin

          ugh! That’s the worst.

  • First off, I send apologies any self-promotion. But the coincidence leading me to this post seemed too serendipitous to ignore. Please allow me to explain.

    The Bushwick Book Club began following me on twitter today. Being the twitter novice I am, I looked to see who they were and read about the intersection of music and books that your group explores. My novel is a blend of genres – historical and general fiction, coming of age, family drama, and a key element involving a love between two men at a time when the topic was unspeakable.

    Yet music is key to the story, a critical element at times of realization and self-awareness for the young protagonist.

    – In one instance, a singer in wartime Paris, Gabrielle Dupont, mesmerizes an audience with her ballad and touches the young protagonist who will soon find himself on the front lines:

    “The song came to an end, and the emcee returned. Though he’d found the song lyrics indecipherable, Joshua could follow the host. The man introduced the next performer, Gabrielle Dupont, in glowing terms. He said she sang of truth, with a voice from her heart.

    A mature woman with dark wavy hair stepped onstage. Unlike the jovial baritone, she neither smiled nor interacted with the patrons. Her presence was like a shadow passing over on a sunny day, yet enthusiasm bubbled through the audience.

    Claire sat up. “I’ve heard of her. Lily said her voice is mesmerizing. Apparently she’d been in the cabaret years ago, before becoming a shopkeeper. Most of the villagers didn’t even know she sang. But when her son was killed, she began to perform again.”

    The woman gestured to an old man at a small piano near the bar. He leaned over the keyboard and began to play.

    The first notes were soft, aching chords, each line a shifting echo of the one preceding it. With deliberate pacing a melody emerged, a simple tune that sounded both new and familiar, like a lullaby one barely recalls. Joshua found it entrancing, a stark contrast to the lively performance moments earlier.

    After a time the piano faded, and the woman began to sing. With a powerful alto, she launched a variation of the haunting composition. Her gaze journeyed over the crowd, caressing each individual.

    Closing his eyes, he grew lost in the melody. He saw forests and streams and fields. He stood above the deadly pond then inside the bombed-out church. At the time the encounter had been fleeting, just part of the exercise. But now, given freedom to hover, he pondered its fate. The battle must have been savage, reducing centuries-old walls to rubble and pitting the belfry. He wondered if men had died. And the parishioners, were they all gone, part of the exodus from the front? Would they find their way home, someday when the war ended?

    Until now, he’d dismissed such glimpses of destruction. It had all come before him, and somehow that lessened the impact. But come next week, it would be his war. He would move from witness to insurgent. He’d be responsible for his decisions, his actions. There’d be no one to blame, no one to answer for him.

    The realization startled him. His eyes flew open, and he found himself back in the dim corner of the tiny café. He glanced about, self-conscious. He noticed the piano had begun again. The playing intertwined with the woman’s voice until the tunes joined, reaching the closing in unison. The final note hung in the air.

    Kelley, John J (2012-12-19). The Fallen Snow (pp. 156-157). Stone Cabin Press. Kindle Edition.

    • Kerry

      Cool! Thanks for posting this John. I’ll check out your book.

  • Again I apologize for the length. My point is simply that our music does shape us all, even non-musicians. So of course it can, and should, play a significant role in the characters authors create.

    It’s only natural that it would.