There are dozens of analogies one could draw between music and literature. Here's just one of them—their fandoms are, when reduced to simple behaviours rather than specifics, almost identical in character. Fans, whatever they may be fans of, are obsessives.
Here's another—fiction anthologies are like mixtapes (or playlists, for those too young to remember the glorious days of the C90 cassette). So, the editor of an anthology can take one of a number of possible approaches to putting a short-story collection together: he can select from pure personal taste, he could stick with one style or subgenre and try to present a wide range of interpretations thereof, or he can play potluck with a simple one-word theme and see what happens.
Gary Couzens seems to have opted for the latter choice with Extended Play. As the back-cover blurb would have it, in this anthology "writers use music as a springboard for their fiction," and indeed they do. But your mileage may vary, as the saying goes—because music, like all art, is a very personal and subjective experience. If you don't believe me, sit down with three heavy metal fans and try to get them to agree on a definition of what "heavy metal" is—Damon Knight's adage can be applied there just as well as it can to science fiction.
It's an obsession thing, you see. Obsession is one of the oldest literary themes there is, and so it's no real surprise to see it emerging as an underlying theme in any collection of fiction, genre or otherwise. The problem is that it's hard work to engender sympathy with a character whose obsessions are alien to the reader. It's not impossible, of course—and one could argue that it is the entire mission of literature, genre or otherwise, to do so—but it's one of the things that takes great skill as a writer to pull off, as well as careful choice of subject matter.
When you throw music into the picture, you're inviting the drawing of parochial battle lines; if the music in question rubs the reader up in the wrong way, they're going to bring their real-life prejudices into their reading of the story. For example, you'd have a hard time getting me interested in a character who considered the band Take That to be the apogee of excellence in modern music. The obsession itself would be familiar, but the subject of the obsession would set up a repulsive force between the character and myself as the reader. This wouldn't be a problem for a reader who wasn't a music obsessive, of course, but that reader might find the obsession itself to be alien. Catch-22; suffice to say that using music as a dominant theme or character trait is eminently possible, but it's no easy shortcut to reader engagement.
Some of the stories in Extended Play take the musical remit at face value, and are tales of people who are intimately involved with music itself, as musicians or fans of one stripe or another; it's probably no coincidence that they are the more "straight" pieces of writing.
Becky Done's "Tremolando" stars a classical quartet, four disparate characters bound together by their passion for performing the works of the great composers. Their mutual obsession with music is just a way of bringing the characters together into a situation where more workaday obsessions—lust, unrequited love, dysfunctional family relationships, death—can play out with nasty consequences for all concerned. Despite being completely clueless about classical music, and a die-hard genre fiction fan reading what is arguably the straightest story in the book, I was very interested in Done's characters, enough to accept the unfamiliar scenery (and the musically inspired structure of the piece) and watch what was happening beneath the surface. The dramatic peak is a bit of a conjurer's rabbit that could have done with just a hint more foreshadowing, but it squeezes a lot of mileage out of a four character short story.
In contrast, the never-named music hack protagonist of Nels Stanley's "Some Obscure Lesion of the Heart," felt like he was written especially for me—a feeling that I imagine would be duplicated in anyone who force-fed themselves music journalism from their early teens onward. He's obsessed with music, of course; but also consumed with the self-loathing of having become part of the machine that repackages the rock and roll legend year after year to sell it on as something new to the next wave of starry-eyed dreamers:
And if rock and roll is the world's biggest Death Cult, the ultimate narcissistic shrine to beautiful loserdom ever dreamt up by a marketing machine powered by broken dreams and steered by idiots, then rock criticism is only the pale shadow, the queered reflection of same. It's a pointless endeavour. It's not dancing about architecture, it's mime in a pitch-black room. (p. 121)
As is fitting following an epigraph from Hunter S. Thompson, the whole story seethes with that gonzo writing style, the bitter edge of the narrative mercifully blunted by the same knowing overstatement and cruel irony that was born with Lester Bangs. If writing is about capturing the voice of a character, "Some Obscure Lesion . . ." is a success. Whether that voice will carry to anyone outside the metaphorical concert hall is a different question.
Less successful is "First and Last and Always" by Emma Lee, the tale of a record collector and Sisters of Mercy fan whose love of music is an emotional anchor and safe harbour as she moves through two dysfunctional relationships, the first of which ends in her partner's suicide, the second of which involves her leaving her partner asleep with all the gas rings turned on and unlit.
The tone is that of a lengthy MySpace confessional, albeit one of massively higher literacy standards than is usually found there. The stoic self-pity of the lead character left me cold—her passivity in the face of a declining and exploitative relationship seemed implausible. But the real flaw lies in the story's continual explicit references to specific songs. You can perhaps get away with this if you're writing about well-known, canonical material like Dylan or the Beatles, but name-checking four Evanescence album tracks within the space of a page as a means of describing a train of emotional thought runs the risk of losing the reader's engagement—unless they're equally as obsessed with that band as the character is, of course. It's contextual shorthand, and it weakens an already limp story.
"The Barrowlands' Last Night" by Philip Raines and Harvey Welles moves into more familiar territory for the genre reader, though maintaining cognitive estrangement for anyone who has never been to a great many live music shows. Our hero Cam is chasing after the same urban myth that obsessed his brother before he disappeared off the map of a changing Glasgow. That myth is the Mosh Demon—a being that only comes to life in the crush of the crowd at the more violent shows in the city's biggest venue, provoking and antagonising people into starting a dance-floor riot.
The narrative chops back and forth in time, MTV jump-cut style. At one point, for example, we leap from Cam in the crowd at the eponymous last show, back to Cam carrying his brother's record box to an illegal party three years earlier, seeing the conflicting urges of a young man growing up in a city being divided ever further by redevelopment and change. Despite having a conceit that sounds laughable when summarised, ". . . Last Night" does an excellent job of looking at obsession both in and out of the context of music, as well as confronting the dangers of being unwilling to let go of the past. The Mosh Demon is the spirit of Glasgow's violent history, while Cam's lost brother Paul stands in for the urge to change and move on.
"Who is [the Demon] then?" Cam asks.
"He's angry, but he doesn't know what at," Paul tells him. "He drinks inside all day and all night screams in the streets. And he refuses to let go."
"You won't let go either. You can't keep holding it together, Paul."
Paul pushes himself away from the barrier. A boy nearly slips to the ground just in front of them, but Paul holds him up. "Get out of here, Cam."
"But where to?"
"Glasgow, I don't know. Just go."
But Glasgow is gone. (p. 287)
Cam himself represents a generation turned inward on itself, mired in indecision and mixed messages; the self-obsession of a demographic made flesh. It's a strong story that works on two levels, and its descriptions of the complex behavioural politics of the mosh pit reek of firsthand knowledge.
The remaining stories in Extended Play move further away from musical culture as their core concern, extending their reach while retaining the flavour of the anthology's theme, and edging further across the borders of genre. In Andrew Humphry's "Last Song," the narrator's obsession with his ex-musician brother is the real focal point—a fact that only becomes clear as the story progresses, a gradual revealing that makes the implication of the ending all the more chilling. Josh's feelings of inferiority to his brother Cal, the good-looking natural success and parental favourite, turn out to have roots in events that Josh has quite successfully managed to block from his own mind. The appearance of Lucy, another musician who becomes the deranged and manipulative third corner of a love triangle, is the catalyst that prompts Cal, unwillingly, to unearth the truth at the same pace as the reader. The music is never dealt with in specific terms, leaving the story relatively free of cultural baggage and hence accessible to a wider audience.
Rosanne Rabinowitz's "In The Pines" uses the song with which it shares a name as a thread that thematically binds the three discrete sections of the story together. It has an interesting genre conceit, but fails as science fiction due to only introducing the trope in the third section—which, ironically, will probably make it far more appealing to readers who don't like SF. The flow would be improved if the three time periods were interwoven rather than presented as chunks. "A Night in Tunisia" by Tony Richards is a sentimental piece about the narrator's friendship with a jazz legend, and its seemingly random jumps back and forth in chronology echo the improvisation that is the lingua franca of that musical genre. The supernatural ending evokes something of the assumed spirituality of musical talent by portraying the musician as a soul unwilling to give up the music it loves—but it manages to avoid being too cloying by remaining, at its core, a story about deep friendship rather than about music. And Marion Arnott's "Little Drummer Boy" is a very dark but compassionately written story, and makes for a brave opening piece. An abused and dysfunctional young boy, the narrator discovers a way to escape the cruelties of his life through playing a drum, and eventually learns to "jump sideways" into something like astral travel, his consciousness free to roam the world around him without the baggage of his physical existence. The discovery that he can possess and control the bodies of others offers him the opportunity for a revenge that, while morally repulsive, feels completely justified from the reader's perspective. This is a great skill at work—I'd imagine the vast majority of readers will not have experienced anything like the life of the narrator, but I'd defy anyone not to empathise with him.
"fight Music" [sic] by Tim Nichols is simply an exceptional story. As part of this collection, it stands out by being the most science fictional piece by a country mile. It's also an astonishing piece of SF in its own right, and the only complaint I can make about it is that it could perhaps have been a little shorter. Granted, the all-out world war setting is nothing new, and nor are many of the tropes and ideas brought to bear. But what makes it stand out for me is the subtlety with which Nichols foreshadows the ending—by the halfway point, the experienced SF reader will know exactly what is coming, but the remorseless and horrible inevitability of the revealing is incredibly compelling, and the close is a compressed blaze of stylistic overload and pathos. The world can never have too many stories that deal intelligently with the theme of children literally born and bred to fight for their country, and in some ways I'm sorry to see this story languishing here like a monster at the wedding reception, rather than standing proud in a more obviously SF-orientated venue. Given the tone of the rest of the book, I feel "fight Music" will be undervalued, if not simply left unread by a great many readers—it needs to be in front of the noses of the hard-SF community to receive the attention it deserves.
As a collection of good fiction, Extended Play hits the target more often than it misses; but there's a problem, which is knowing who it's going to sell to. It is the privilege of the small press to make its own agenda—to return to my analogy, they can trust that the people who want one of their mixtapes are the sort of listeners who are willing to give new material a chance. But equally, a small press has to sell books—the bottom line is the bottom line for everyone—and it's hard to tell who Extended Play is aimed at.
Considered simply as a book of fiction about music, its remit is vague enough to allow a strong diversity of styles within a small space, and the interspersion of brief essays from an assortment of musicians will add value for the type of avid music fan who doesn't buy much fiction. For the reader who comes for the stories foremost, on the other hand, they seem self-indulgent and superfluous—musicians tend to communicate best in their first-choice medium.
Coming from another angle, Extended Play can be viewed as a brave attempt to do something different with the anthology format—and the faith it places in the reader is an admirable end in itself. In the same way that a mixtape from an avid record collector ends up as attempt to spread the word about a variety of different undiscovered treasures, the book acts as an evangelism for story itself rather than any one style or genre. If the late (and dearly missed) John Peel had been in the business of recommending books, this is the sort of thing he would have enthused about.
Paul Raven is a dishevelled library assistant from the south coast of the UK. He likes poetry, science fiction stories, music with guitars, and girls with tattoos. His friends play a game that involves them buying him drinks and then steering the conversation round to space colonisation and neural prosthetics.