Play On by David Hobbs

Music that never was in Nathaniel Mackey’s Late ArcadeDavid Hobbs

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No, this new thing I’m trying goes back to a story Yusef Lateef tells about the days when he was first in Mingus’s band, a story I was deeply struck by when I first heard it, a story I think about from time to time.

The thing with Nathaniel Mackey’s “new thing” is that it isn’t, and doesn’t, I don’t think, want to be. Late Arcade (New Directions, February 2017) is the fifth volume in an ongoing, open-ended epistolary fiction collectively called From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Like the previous installments, it is a series of letters written by a visionary horn player, N., who lives in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, addressed to an Angel of Dust, who answers N. but whose responses we never see. While Mackey’s fiction has always had an eye on the past, the first installment appeared in 1986, five years after the story it depicts took place. We’re now thirty years on and the story has only progressed by four. As a result, the quotidian elements of N.’s letters have only become more radiant, as if Mackey’s interests in music, mysticism, and the recent past have been distilled to their most potent forms.

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N.’s letters tend to describe his dreams or performances with his jazz sextet, Molimo M’Atet, and they shift between rhapsodic descriptions and theoretical interpretations—the implication, it seems, is that playing music feels like a kind of dreaming, and that dreams adhere to the logic of songs. Sometimes, N.’s letters are preempted by his “cowrie shell attacks,” visionary sequences prompted by shards of glass embedded in N.’s forehead, and sometimes the sextet’s performances are punctuated by the appearance of mysterious “balloons” that reveal the musicians’ subconscious lives and loves. But tonally, these interruptions are more like brushes on the cymbal than sticks. Never jarring, they are only deeper strangenesses in a world already strange.

Okay, but, what happens? Well, not much. More than the previous installments, Late Arcade is ambitiously intimate, the cast of characters is stable and streamlined and its narrative is consistently filled with the familiar invaded by other familiars. N. writes when something is worth puzzling over and stops when there is nothing left to say, instead of with a knock on the door. Mackey could not be less interested in the moral crises and cliffhangers that shaped the first epistolary novels. Instead, he has said he was attracted to the form because of its compulsory repetition of salutation and conclusion, which offered an opportunity to translate some of the features of serial poetry. But it would be a mistake to think that the absence of trauma or the predictable topics of discussion mean that the book lacks emotional heft.

In Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, he writes about how the death of his mother helped him to understand contemporary art: “Struck by the abstract nature of absence; yet it’s so painful, lacerating. Which allows me to understand abstraction somewhat better: it is absence and pain, the pain of absence—perhaps therefore love?” Because Mackey’s fiction mistrusts these moments of succinct clarification, I’m almost embarrassed to put them alongside each other. But Barthes’s words help recast the power of the absence at the center of these books. No matter how precise or sumptuous the prose, Mackey has now written close to one thousand pages of fiction about music that does not exist. This will turn off some readers. What is so revolutionary about it, still, is the way Mackey makes the pain of this absence into the occasion for renewing a love of language, of redirecting our ears toward the page: “I’ve long been intrigued by and attracted to the idea of getting musical information from a picture…”

Mackey’s handling of history is subtle and immaculate. Details are never used as gimmick or commentary but as bass notes in a mood of simultaneous deterioration and recombination. N.’s letters prefer specificity to systemic analysis, avoiding Reagan and rising income inequality but excited about new albums and despairing the increasing frequency of oil spills: “It’s as though it were the dinosaurs and mastodons’ revenge, prehistory’s grudge against what came after… against preservation or containment, fossil solidity, an entropic brief against past and present keeping their places.” These details seem to trust that we have always the bigger historical picture in mind. They also offer opportunities for aesthetic response that were missed at the time, a sort of untimely dissent. N.’s description of the “mastodons’ revenge,” of course, becomes the inspiration for a new piece of music performed by the group, “Fossil Flow.” We can’t help but wish that these responses had happened at the time.

In part, this is because we receive Mackey’s N. as already doubly belated. He is fascinated by the artists who made Los Angeles an avant-garde hotbed in the early ’60s, but he lives a generation later. His is no longer the city of Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and the Ferus Gallery. And this distance is compounded by the restaurants and clubs visited by Molimo M’Atet being both real and deceased—the Comeback Inn, Club Lingerie, and Gorky’s form their own geographic “Fossil Flow” to us today. Although the era of “the first truly autobiographical intelligentsia in Los Angeles history,” as Mike Davis referred to Coleman et al in City of Quartz, has passed, Mackey’s attention to a particular subcultural experience is so thoroughly fused with the markers of its description that we might call N.’s letters symbiographical.

Late Arcade is a work of gradual understanding, one that is interested in how ideas and experiences can continue to work on us even as we revise our understanding of them—a sort of dolly zoom, but for the everyday life of an artist.

David Hobbs is a Canadian writer and academic, completing his PhD in English at NYU. His edited collection, 21 Poems by George Oppen, will be published in August.

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