Friday, October 20, 2006

Jean-Claude Izzo's "Total Chaos": Music and Poetry

I'm nearly through Total Chaos, the densely atmospheric and downbeat first novel in Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles trilogy.

A few notes before a full-scale comment in the next day or two:

1) Too many noirish writers these days use a protagonist's musical tastes as shorthand for his or her state of mind. I'm not sure when writers started doing this in a big way; maybe Ian Rankin's John Rebus popularized it, with his taste for the Rolling Stones. In any case, the device has become a cliche, and it can seem cheap. You know, the author is too lazy to write how his hero feels like a boozy piece of crap, so he types the words "Tom Waits" and feels that he's done his job. (I wonder if writers picked this up from the by-now stereotypical moody saxophone soundtrack of countless crime movies and TV shows.)

Two things set Izzo apart from this group. The first is that his Fabio Montale's musical tastes are better and more varied than those of most modern noir protagonists. He listens to Paco de Lucia and lots of Michel Petrucciani, for example. French singers. Italian singers. Other characters listen to Marseillais rap or to rai. This music is different enough that it serves as a real character marker and mood setter rather than just an easy label.

The second is a frequent poignance of presentation. Montale hears music coming from another room or from inside an apartment. Outside, he muses on the music and the person playing it, and on his separation from her. This, I think, contributes to the sense of wistfulness and fatalism that some have seen in the trilogy.

2) There's poetry here. Characters recite it, read it, talk about it, reminisce about it. The poetry is usually intense and romantic, and so is the effect. In only one scene does the poetry seem an affectation, because there is too little poetry, and too much talk about poetry. I felt torn from the novel's fictional world and plunked down in a lecture from Izzo about what he liked. When reading a novel, I care nothing for the author, everything for the characters.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter, I intend reading Total Chaos from all that you've said. It sounds fascinating. I look forward to hearing more. Your comments on a protaganist's music tastes are interesting and instructive, and I especially like your remark "When reading a novel, I care nothing for the author, everything for the characters."

October 20, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re. your comments about the music. What bugs me very much along these lines is when authors use a well-known movie (TV) star to describe a character. It seems to be prevalent. You just know: (1) the author is lazy to state that the character looks like Brad Pitt or whoever; and (2) the author has a not-so-secret hankering to have a movie/TV version of the book, with the character played by the "lookalike".

I don't find the music analogy as bad as this, perhaps I feel it is less "lazy". For example, I do like the Rebus books a lot and I rather like learning about Rebus's varied musical tastes. This could be because I am not much of a music buff (I'm classical), perhaps if I already knew all that stuff I would find it irritating.

BTW I felt old when I once went to a party given by (I think) one of my younger sisters, where one could ask the DJ to play music of one's choice. I asked for something by the Stones -- the reply came: "who"?

So maybe Rankin is burning the torch, who knows?

October 20, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm surprised anyone would use those Brad Pitt-type comparisons. That's a standard "do not" in any guide to writing fiction. But you get the idea: I resent any kind of lazy labeling.

I didn't mean to single out Rankin as the worst, just one of the first. One could argue, in fact, that he is reinfusing the Stones with that original excitement they once had. Maybe he's reminding readers that, as rock critics like to say, their music once mattered and, to listeners of a certain age, still does.

It's funny you should mention that you like classical music. As I wrote these comments, I started thinking about how noir writers could use classical music:

"She's the kind of a woman you only meet once, and now she was gone, fading like the dying notes of Mahler's Lied Van Der Erde."


"I felt punch-drunk after they worked me over, as silly as Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony."

October 20, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. It is a fascinating novel for reasons other than those I mentioned, as well -- its take on racism in France, for example, which is almost always sobering and almost never sentimental.

Re the author/character comment, the issue arises only when the author's presence becomes intrusive. I know little about Jean-Claude Izzo, so I have no idea if he's really using Fabio Montale as a stand-in for himself. Of course, authors do this all the time. I sometimes wish they'd make it less obvious, though.

October 21, 2006  

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