From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Volumes 1 to 3
Paperback; 560 pages
Nathaniel Mackey's magnum opus From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Volumes 1 to 3 is a literary adventure of the highest order, a feat of prose and imagination that takes the fiction genre into new territory. It's also a classic jazz novel, due to the narrative, which concerns the changing fortunes of an avant-garde jazz ensemble, and also the language, which is infused with the energy and sensibility of jazz.
The book consists of three novels, separately published in 1986, 1993 and 2001, now packaged together (the fourth in the series, Bass Cathedral, was published in 2008). The entire work is comprised of letters written by a musician who signs his name "N." Each letter is addressed to someone called "Angel of Dust," a person of indeterminate gender who is never clearly identified, except that he or she writes about music and is N's stalwart friend and correspondent. N is a member of an avant-garde jazz group based in California, and the book traces its members' lives from 1979 to 1982. The band goes through a multitude of experiences as the novels unfold, including a gig in a New York City music festival, the search for the right drummer, romantic complications between band members, and its first recording session.
That's the basic framework of the book, and out of this emerges an explosion of ideas and language. What makes this work unique is that the characters live in a world where waking reality, dreams, myths, music, writing and art freely intersect, and each is given equal importance in the narrative. One letter might concern a dinner party at a band member's house, and the next might be a 15-page description of one of the group's songs; some letters describe dreams, some contain N's highly entertaining lecture/librettos, others are meditations ranging from billboards to Egyptian mythology to the history of the drum.
Then there are moments in the book when reality simply slips awaybrooms dance, soap bubbles emerge from instruments, the band comes out of a club and finds that the club has moved an entire block. But these unusual happenings just blend in with everything else, and the narrative is a dance and a song that includes it all: saxophonist Sonny Simmons shows up at a local club, the characters dream the same dream, the band gigs at a memorial for pianist Thelonious Monk, N gets broken cowrie shells embedded in his forehead that later turn into bottle caps, the band writes a press release, clothing changes from white to black, then back to whiteyou never know what might happen next.
There's a definite gap between what the reader expects from a novel and what Mackey delivers. But one of the most intriguing aspects of this work is that it's full of gaps. There are literal gaps in the books: we never see the letters that Angel of Dust writes to N, and there are often long stretches of time between N's letters. There are gaps of information, such as N's real name, Angel of Dust's identity, and the early history of the characters and their ensemble. There are emotional gaps between the characters, including Penguin's inability to express his feelings to Drennette. There are also gaps between words and meaning, music and words, art and life, history and truth. The human brain wants to create solidity and certainty, and Mackey shows the impossibility of this quest; he delights in exploring the liminal, the places where rationality can't reach. And in this sense From a Broken Bottle is perhaps more true to life than conventional fiction: words do their best, but ultimately they can only point to something that is always changing and can never be pinned down.
And still this pointing can be so enriching. Mackey's prose is a revelation, one of the great strengths and joys of his work. The architecture of his sentences is a wonder; he creates flowing constructions that hold themselves aloft and create musical waves of language. For instance: "I've done little more than a lot of sleeping, feeling brought down if not exactly done in by the contradictions (to loosely paraphrase Lambert) between the world one carries around in one's head and the world one carries one's head around in." The book is also full of puns and wordplay, displaying Mackey's delight in language and the slippery nature of communication. In fact this elusiveness is just what Mackey revels in: he enjoys showing the black holes that lurk behind everyday speech, and the heartbreaking humor of relying on something so ephemeral.
It's important to point out that along with Mackey's impressive erudition and linguistic facility, he creates characters who are very real and loveable. N, Penguin, Lambert, Aunt Nancy, Djamilaa, Drennette and the mysterious Angel of Dust are at the heart of what makes this novel so compelling. These are artists with rich inner worlds, people for whom art and music and love are matters of upmost importance. They live with urgency and passion, and they are also endearingly fallible. Mackey does a wonderful job showing the ongoing affection between the characters, and how their patience and love holds the band together and keeps their friendships strong.
Best of all, jazz and the love of jazz infuse the entire work. The characters make frequent references to jazz musicians and albums, and the book even contains a seven-page discography. It's a pleasure to get an inside look of how a jazz ensemble lives and breathes, to feel its struggles and triumphs as it tries to make its music come to life, not to mention earn a living. Mackey's most amazing feat is his descriptions of the band's music, particularly its improvised songs, which sometimes continue for over a dozen pages. He plunges right into the musicians' bodies and imaginations, showing what actually happens during the high-wire act of group improvisation. It's sheer brilliance, certainly one of the most memorable meetings of prose and jazz in English literature.
Mackey has gained considerable praise for his magnum opus, including the New York Times choosing Bass Cathedral as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2008. All the accolades are well-deserved: this is an absolutely original work of art, one that entertains, educates and expands consciousness. It's also one of the most important works of jazz fiction in the previous century, and this one as well. The good news is that Mackey is only 63 years old, so there's every reason to hope that the adventures of N and his band will continue unfolding in the upcoming decades.