Rock novels are a blast to read for any serious music lover. Just like you, rock novelists are tremendous music fans, and the novel form allows them to approach their passion from as many different angles as the imagination allows.
Here is a list (of course, by no means comprehensive) of 11 of the best recent rock-related reads…
1. Salman Rushdie – The Ground Beneath Her Feet – 1999
Salman Rushdie is one of the world’s greatest writers. He’s also one of its funniest. When you bring these two traits to rock music literature, a kind of magic happens.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet takes place in a fictional world parallel to ours, in which the Indian group VTO (or Venus to Ormus) is the world’s most famous band. The fun of reading Ground comes from discerning how Rushdie uses the mythic Ormus to fictionalize and celebrate pretty much the entire history of rock music. Ormus combines the best of traits of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Brian Wilson, Jim Morrison, and Freddie Mercury – which makes him the ultimate rock genius.
Did you know that Ormus is the true author of Blowin’ in the Wind? And that VTO’s other leader and Ormus’ on-again-off-again lover, Vina, is the best singer you’ve never heard of, unless you’ve read the novel?
U2 liked Ground so much that they set the lyrics for Ormus’ song The Ground Beneath Her Feet to music and released a recording of the song.
2. Dana Spiotta – Stone Arabia – 2011
What do a rock novel and a box set have in common? Dana Spiotta knows the answer.
Stone Arabia is a novel that reminds us of the importance of documentation in our experience of the music we love. The novel’s middle-aged main character, Nik, is a rock musician betrayed by a record executive who drops his band – the Fakes – when they’re on the verge of being signed. Nik’s response to the betrayal? He becomes a rock star in his own mind.
His self-penned Chronicles project documents his bands – the Demonics and the Fakes, his solo albums, which include his 20-volume incomplete masterpiece, The Ontology of Worth, as well as fictional reviews, interviews, and histories. Stone Arabia features the Chronicles along with Nik’s sister Denise’s musings on him and her own life, and his niece Ada’s documentary on him, which form another part of the archive of his life.
Stone Arabia is a must-read for rock fans who once dreamed of becoming rock stars – and maybe are ones in their own heads. It’s also for fans who love poring over liner notes, biographies, and record reviews as they spin their favorite albums.
[Read our Rock Cellar Magazine interview with author Dana Spiotta HERE. (Opens in new window.]
3. Eleanor Henderson – Ten Thousand Saints – 2011
Ten Thousand Saints brings together many worlds that, on the surface, may seem discordant: drug abuse, accidental death, homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, abortion, AIDS, and the DIY straight-edge punk scene of New York in the late 1980s.
But discord is what Henderson is after. Ten Thousand Saints is simultaneously an elegiac homage to a particular scene – she makes New York in the late 1980s come alive – and a hard-core exploration of the reality that nostalgia for that scene covers up. Henderson shows us that the real people who make up the scenes that we idealize – whether it was the Haight in 1967 or CBGB in 1975 -face the same heart-rending decisions that we all face. And the music just might have come from these decisions.
[Read our Rock Cellar Magazine interview with author Eleanor Henderson HERE. (Opens in new window.]
4. Haruki Murakami – Norwegian Wood – 1987
Japanese author and perennial Nobel-Prize contender Haruki Murakami’s rock novel begins with Toru Watanabe – the male protagonist – hearing an orchestral version of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood in an airport in Hamburg, Germany.
The song, to which Murakami repeatedly refers throughout the novel, leads Toru to recall his student days in Tokyo in the 1960s – days filled with civil unrest among the student body. Toru also remembers his sexual relationship with the emotionally fragile Naoko, a woman whose best friend has recently committed suicide. The novel’s autumnal tone and bittersweet meditation on the loss of youth and love perfectly mirror the hauntingly lilting melody of John Lennon’s song, as well as the melancholic themes of the entire Rubber Soul album.
5. Nick Hornby – High Fidelity – 1995
Nick Hornby knows what it’s like to be a music geek – hence, his hilarious High Fidelity.
The novel, unlike Stephen Frears’ film starring John Cusack, takes place in London. As we all know, music geeks like to make and read lists (you’re reading one right now!), and no one makes more lists than main character Rob Fleming – the owner of a used record store. Rob’s lists include his “Top Five Films,” “Top Five Episodes of Cheers,” and “Top Five Bands or Musicians Who Will Have to Be Shot Come the Musical Revolution.” All these lists are truly excellent and funny, and you won’t find them in Frears’ film.
Rob’s most important lists are his top five “Most Memorable Split-Ups” and “Elvis Costello Songs” (High Fidelity is named after a song on Costello’s Get Happy!! album). Alison – the song that tops Rob’s list of Costello songs – is key. Its famous line – “Alison, my aim is true” – gets at what Rob thinks about himself and how we all want to be perceived in romantic relationships.
6. Roddy Doyle – The Commitments – 1987
The Dublin-Soul Revolution is at hand in Roddy Doyle’s funny, foul-mouthed novel.
Manager Jimmy Rabbite gets together a band of unemployed Irish kids and forms them into a 13-member conglomerate of soul power. From lead singer “Deco” Cuffe, to guitarist “Outspan” Foster, to trumpeter “The Lips” Fagan, the Commitments rock hard, get big, and then break up when “The Lips” kisses backup vocalist Imelda after a gig. The band never gets the record contract that they want so badly, but they provide endless entertainment in Doyle’s novel, which you can read again and again.
Alan Parker’s 1991 film is also terrific, especially because it features Glen Hansard of Once as “Outspan” Foster and some of the best and most realistic footage ever shot for a music film.
7. Jennifer Egan – A Visit From the Goon Squad – 2010
Goon Squad is getting the attention it deserves. It won Egan a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010, a Pulitzer in 2011, and it’s currently being made into a TV series for HBO.
It’s no wonder that Goon Squad has been so successful – it’s awesome and original. This rock novel consists of 13 chapters – or, stand-alone stories, if you prefer – which you can read any way and in any order you want. Lou, a music mogul and one of the many rock-related characters that populate the book, appears in many of the chapters and allows you to join Egan on her exploration of the shady side of the music business.
Egan, a huge fan of The Sopranos, has created what’s perhaps the world’s first mafia-music novel. The characters play in bands, work for record labels, and seemingly do everything connected with the music business. And they’re all shady.
8. Don DeLillo – Great Jones Street – 1973
Don DeLillo’s dark comedic rock novel could be about Bob Dylan. No, it is about Bob Dylan.
DeLillo’s Dylan stand-in, counterculture icon Bucky Wunderlick (he of the comically perfect last name), tries to simplify his life by moving to an apartment on Great Jones St. in New York. But, no matter how hard Bucky tries, he can’t escape the fans, who in DeLillo’s hyper-realistic hands take the form of drug suppliers, terrorists, skinheads, and the “straights” who also occupy his building. So how do we know that Bucky is Dylan? Well, the fact that much of Great Jones Street centers on the theft of Bucky’s Mountain Tapes (read: Basement Tapes).
All Bob Dylan fans should read Great Jones Street, especially if they want to discover what might have happened to The Basement Tapes had Dylan not decided to release them in 1975. Hint: terrorist involvement.
9. Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 – 1966
According to Brian Wilson biographer Peter Ames Carlin, Thomas Pynchon and Brian Wilson smoked pot together in Wilson’s living room tent.
Pynchon visited the head Beach Boy while he was working on the psychedelic masterpiece SMiLE and right after he himself had completed the equally psychedelic The Crying of Lot 49. Indeed, Lot 49 is the most psychedelic rock novel ever written, and it’s sure to give you the hash giggles. It features what’s probably the funniest fictional band in the history of literature: the Paranoids. Invented by Pynchon at the height of Beatlemania, the Paranoids are a marijuana-smoking, American band that speaks with English accents.
Pynchon was probably aware that one of the Beatles’ nicknames for themselves was “Los Paria Noias.” In addition to the Paranoids, Pynchon creates the fictional band Sick Dick and the Volkswagens (a parody of Long John and the Silver Beetles, one of the Beatles’ early names?), who sing a brilliantly funny song called I Want to Kiss Your Feet, which pokes fun at the Beatles’ first American hit, I Want to Hold Your Hand. Pynchon’s novel perfectly captures the trippy tones of California in the 1960s, with all the great music, paranoia, and drug use of the times included.
10. Steve Erickson – These Dreams of You – 2012
Steve Erickson likes to imagine alternative histories. In These Dreams of You (which takes its name from a song on Van Morrison’s album, Moondance), Erickson time travels.
He imagines a young African-American woman named Jasmine who works for and may be the lover of Senator Robert Kennedy during his presidential election campaign of 1968. She later works for David Bowie and Jim (read: Iggy Pop) during their stay in Berlin in the 1970s, when they collaborate on Pop’s albums The Idiot and Lust for Life and work with Brian Eno (Erickson christens him “The Professor” in the novel) on Bowie’s albums Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger.
Jasmine eventually engages in four-way sex with the three musicians and bears a child, who may be the daughter of any one of the three musicians. Erickson points out that a similar sexual ethics underpins both Kennedy’s idealism and Bowie’s decadence: powerful men use and objectify African-American women in both. And with the contemporary sections of These Dreams of You taking place around the time of President Obama’s election, Erickson’s main character, the novelist Zan, wonders whether anything has changed and whether liberalism has devolved into a state-of-mind and not a foundation for social activism.
And does a white writer have the right to write about race? Does Erickson? Does Dylan?
11. Bret Easton Ellis – American Psycho – 1991
Patrick Bateman, the antihero of Ellis’ still infamous and controversial novel, is a Wall Street tycoon, serial killer, and rapist. We already know this.
But Bateman is also a rock critic – and a terrible one at that. He writes three hilariously horrendous record reviews, which appear in the novel. It turns out that Bateman’s favorite artists are post-Peter Gabriel Genesis (but, really, he adores Phil Collins: Bateman finds Gabriel to be too complex), Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News. Bateman’s addiction to some of the worst music of the 1980s (he loves its synthetic sounds and predictability) allows the reader to read American Psycho for what it is: a social satire of white male corporate oppression and the materialism of the Reagan era, and not a misogynistic novel about a serial killer.
Mary Harron’s film, which stars Christian Bale as Bateman, is an excellent adaptation of the novel. But you need to read the book to laugh at the record reviews and Ellis’ amazing satire.
RELATED: Read our nice interviews with 2 of the above writers…
Author Interview: Eleanor Henderson
Author Interview: Dana Spiotta