A First Novel Big Bang(s) Theory

Posted on September 4, 2010

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Me on the banks of the Missouri River outside of Bismarck, ND. In other words, a long way from The Westway to the World

My father said it best while I was growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota:”You have a fixation, dear.” His tone was part get a life, part, well, at least you’re not drinking your face off like everyone else in the Asshole of America. I thought it was completely natural to become so infatuated with ideas and symbols in a place that seemed devoid of them and yet so perfectly able to accommodate them (see gigantic open sky over my head, left). I fell in a kind of love with Marilyn Monroe, ages 12-16; U2, 16-19; Blondie, 19-22; and The Clash, 22-present. Every iteration has pushed me closer to the bleeding edge of the person I want to be.

The Clash phase has lasted longer than the rest for reasons I don’t think I will ever be able to articulate in one place. The alternating crudeness and sophistication of their music, the wonder of their solidarity in spite of explosive chemistry, their Stalinist dedication to fan base: all these aspects inspired me to write a first novel called The Nowhere in the Middle about a young North Dakota woman’s exorcism of the heroes she’s turned against herself. Long story short: Jilly Kilroy has spent most of her 23 years on this planet worshipping her charismatic older brother, Niles, and punk rock icon Joe Strummer. When the D.I.Y. scene she and Niles have built goes bust and Strummer dies suddenly of a heart attack in England, Jilly resolves to kill her idols and build an identity of her own.

This eponymous blog is an attempt not just to say the things I didn’t quite manage to spit out in my book but also to reveal a process: the knitting together of disparate influences into a message, that is, a book; in my case, a love letter and a warning to anyone who has ever been a fan.

This exercise is crucial because it’s likely the closest I’ll come to fulfilling my fantasy of being in a band. I won’t be able to carry on blogging for long without reaction and interplay from people who give a damn about stories, melodies, boys, girls, and, of course, libraries. Whatever you have to say, good or bad, will shape how I proceed as a writer in subtle or hammer-over-the-head ways (Twitter has had this effect on me already). I promise not to waste your time if you promise not to waste mine.

Lester Bangs beats Flannery O'Conner every day

To the point, then: If I had to isolate the big-bang moment for my novel, it’d be circa 1996 when a creative writing professor at my Minnesota alma mater tipped me off to the late rock critic Lester Bangs to offset the effects of the Flannery O’Connor we’d been studying (nope, still don’t like her). Fast-forward a couple years, and I’m 22 and pretty much friendless in New York City. Desperate to connect with something, I bought a copy of the seminal Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung anthology edited by Greil Marcus and came across this graph in Bangs’s 1977 Clash tour diaries from New Musical Express:

“The politics of rock ‘n’ roll, in England or America or anywhere else, is that a whole lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives…when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or the dead mattered at all.”

My novel was born in this book, p. 239

Have you ever had the feeling that someone has broken and entered your brain, stolen thoughts you didn’t have sufficient time to express? Bangs did this to me, time and again. That anyone could crystallize messy emotional responses without sounding Freudian or trite made me want to puke from envy and awe. I’d already heard The Clash at this point via the Clash on Broadway boxed set, but I didn’t understand why it slayed me until Bangs explained in his Beat-infused style, like a hard bopper sociologist confined to paper.

To this day when I read Ole Les, I can hear his typewriter clacking like a Tommy gun. A hybrid of New Journalism and memoir before it got bloated, his every review and profile was an opportunity to drill deep into his consciousness and reveal what music and persona meant to him, and by extension, his audience. Without really knowing it, I wanted to do the same, but with fiction since I’d given up on rock journalism (more on that later).

Next post: Girl Meets Joe Strummer; or, Can You Really Love an Icon?

And before I go, today’s blogging soundtrack:

  • “Gimme Some Love” by Graham Coxon
  • “I Can’t Look at Your Skin” by Graham Coxon
  • “Don’t Let Your Man Know” by Graham Coxon
  • “Song 2” by Blur
  • (and to come down) “Strange News from Another Star” by Blur
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