Some Writers Don’t Conform to the Digital Age
Books used to be these things we tracked down. They sat next to each other on shelves, waiting for you to get tired of all that glitters and come discover their specific magic. In the 21st century, however, with the ascendance of more personal book forms like the memoir and the game-changing marketing tool of the Internet, books are no longer content to wait for you. Their authors come find you via Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram, grab on, and don’t let go. While this more aggressive literary culture has its upside, it also relies on instincts similar to those attackers use to fell prey. British writer Jim Crace‘s latest novel The Melody offers a memory of an era when authors didn’t need reader attention so desperately as to give up everything.
Crace isn’t the first writer who jumps to mind when one thinks of the digital age. His fiction career spans 40 years. He received the National Books Critics Circle Award in 1999 for his novel Being Dead back when Mark Zuckerberg was still messing with an iMac. It’s hard not to think of the author’s work as redolent of different times, yet here’s his latest effort, like countless other books that came out in 2018, politely asking for your attention while many authors in the literary world yell about their titles at the top of their lungs.
Crace’s asks us to imagine Alfred Busi, who starts the novel as a 60-something widower and pianist-singer-songwriter on the back end of a successful career. Busi’s hometown is about to give him a lifetime recognition honor. He still plays the occasional concert of nothing but the hits for well-dressed attendees, but isn’t prone to much else these days but puttering around his villa on the coast of Italy—the same house in which he was born—and thinking of happier times before his wife Alicia died of cancer. “The grand—the grandiose—first-floor window with its curving wrought-iron balcony and flaking paint afforded three contrasting and distinctive outlooks that added value to what had become, in recent years, a run-down property.”
Crace unravels the decaying home and Busi’s ennui with prose that seems immune to the more rushed tenor of his contemporaries. Reading the novel feels like attending a seminar on a subject you thought you’d lost interest in, but nonetheless leave feeling rewarded. You’re glad you showed up.
If a songster’s melancholic slide into old age sounds a bit dull, Crace seems to agree. Busi’s late-midlife reflections are interrupted by an attack on his person in his home: “It seemed to Busi—in retrospect, at least—that he was simply part of something natural, something old and natural and passing. This wasn’t personal. They were not enemies. This wasn’t even human, in a way.” Busi’s passivity doesn’t preclude physical damage from the attack. He suffers a ruptured face and nasty bite marks on his hand. But these are nothing compared to the mystery of what actually did it. The event rouses Busi not just to check under the bed more often, but also to deal with his grief, inaction, and detachment from others.
A second attack—this one more conventionally by hooligans in a park—and a press article created with misleading intention make for the worst kind of week for Busi, who’s left to navigate everything from a concert he’s too physically and emotionally wrung to perform, to his complicated feelings for his wife’s sister Terina. “The trouble with talent—as with beauty, as surely Terina had found out—was that it was paid in one lump sum, up front.” Despite most of his cards having been played, Busi finds that the melodies of life just keep coming, whether he’s capable of singing them or not.
Amongst the more aggressive contemporary plays for your readerly time, it’s doubtful you’ll find a writer who can can carry a tune better than Jim Crace. If only the path to attention were simply creating something worth reading.
(Doubleday, June 19, 2018)