Sunday, 28 February 2016
I Know You and You Cannot Sing That's Nothing: The List of the Lost by Morrissey
The recent death of Bowie illustrated how he in common with many iconic stars on the avant garde side of popular culture make a concious choice on their artistic direction. Bowie trained as a mime and idolised Warhol but although he dabbled throughout his career with acting with widely variable results music was his thing. Though his last testament - the film to Lazarus demonstrated his lasting mime performing abilities. Patti Smith (along with her early life companion Mapplethrope) experimented with almost every form of artistic expression before settling on performance poetry which sort of transmuted into alternative rock star with the energy of New York Punk.
I would put Morrissey in that category, though he sent slight pamphlets out into the world in the 70s on James Dean and the New York Dolls, he emerged almost from a cocoon in the early 80s aided by Marr with a fully formed and completely thought out pop music model with him at the complete centre. That was his world and his weapons were his lyrics. There was no foray into acting (a cameo in Brookside off-shoot doesn't count) and no bloody awful display of paintings (Bowie, Lou Reed and Dylan have all fallen victim to that). So why a novel? And why now? Why, why, why? A question you will ask yourself a lot if you ever immerse yourself in the 118 pages of the List of the Lost.
The spark I suppose must have been the publication of his autobiography in 2013 (Interestingly something Bowie never did). A great piece of work all round but of particular weight was the first two hundred pages or so outlining his youth in the grim decay of 1960s/70s inner Manchester amongst the Irish community. Powerful - it was almost a stream of consciousness output. Perhaps this gave Moz the taste for the pen and the printed (rather than sung) word. Perhaps a hiatus from music - although in 2014 he released an incredibly strong album followed by an almost inevitable struggle with the record company- gave him more time on his hands. Perhaps he was asked to do it. Whatever the reason though this is a misstep from Moz. The novel is not his form and one of the worst things for me as a fan is that Morrissey himself didn't see it.
My own theory is that it is an amalgam of all three reasons and Morrissey dusted off something that had been on his shelf for a while - maybe decades - and reworked elements of it on the basis that no-one was allowed near it and it was published as seen.
The setting of 1970s middle America and the personnel of four body beautiful athletes (two Hispanic) suggest that Moz is attempting to run as far away as he can from what the expectation of broader society would be for his literary outpourings. No gritty Northern re-work of Sillitoe or Shelagh Delaney. No expose of the 80s music industry. Although anyone that pays attention to Morrissey's lyrics know he spreads his net widely for subject matter - Mexican Gangs, the Kerouac/Ginsberg entourage, World Politics er Bull fighting.
The foursome are a Champion relay team in an American Uni with the world at their feet. Ezra is their leader and in love with Eliza - tenuous aliteration ahoy. They can do what they want without consequence or so they think. Their encounter an almost feral hobo then and kill him (!) accidentally and all of their lives and ambitions fall apart and end - literally. So far so sub- sub Dostoevesky but then throw in some zombie like horror scenes - a sub-plot (fairly gratuitous) about child abuse and murder and that is it.
As a sign of how poor this book is that I can summarise it in this way because that is what Moz gets Ezra to do on page 109 - to an incredulous Eliza and helpfully the reader who if they have made it that far will be wondering what the hell just happened. A summary of the plot by one of the characters is more akin to a bad pot boiler or terrible movie script. However it shows how tentative Morrissey is with the form of the novel.
That more than anything shocked me about the book was how unsure Morrissey is. One thing I thought Moz knows is his voice - he has spent his life cultivating and controlling it. But in his autobiography or in his best songs or even in a curt witty comment thrown away in an interview he has shown that less is more. Call it cryptic or enigmatic but Moz seemed to understand the power of suggestion or symbol rather than the sledgehammer. Not here it doesn't. In fact at 118 pages I would say this is overwritten and no point is left unmade. Of particular annoyance is his use of compound words to elaborate on pretty obvious ideas "their actual blood-and-guts experience" "blue-pencilled out of history and her-story" (!) the "mega-gnarly cave dweller" and so on. No internal edit - this is so frustrating given how well and precisely Moz uses words in other contexts
I wondered if the book was an attempt at one of those well thumbed horror paperbacks that were passed around classrooms 30 or 40 years ago - the Rats by James Herbert, Flowers in the Attic or something by Stephen King. If it was the question Why ? would emerge again.
The "voice" of Moz is a problem also in a way that it wasn't in his autobiography. You could take Becket's point that all fiction is based on the author's reality but Moz's obsessions and valid political points emerge from the mouth of all the characters - in a contradictory and quite confusing way.
Eliza for example as a Young American in post -Watergate America seems to know an inordinate amount of an obscure British politician Margaret Thatcher that has just been elected to the position of leader of Conservative party! This however is one of the only references to any form of hinterland from the characters - they are either two (or one ) dimensional or sound like Moz.
Fictional writers do crowbar their voices and views into their work but this is uncrafted and just reads like a refusal to let the work have its own momentum or direction. The dialogue runs aground because of this and in some parts is just unreadable : "Your emotional permanence is all that keeps me level"...
There is a fair amount of reference to sex along with the ghosts, zombies and violence which may have been shocking if you can translate the prose at these parts. For although Moz overwrites everything these parts are pretty impenetrable (pardon the pun).
There is no momentum in this book it shudders to a halt every couple of pages. I ended up dragging it to the finishing line solely because it was Moz and it (despite itself) had the odd glimpse of wit and righteous anger. But this is not Morrissey and I hope part of him realises that. Novels are hard and many people have crashed on the rocks of writing bad ones.I would guarantee that if Moz had submitted this under a pseudonym it would not have passed Go. At least Moz has all the other things he has done but not novels, never novels.
No more Morrissey you have so much more to give in other forms.