This Is Memorial Device is a fictional documentary of a fictional band, Memorial Device, that hailed from Airdrie, a small, predominantly Protestant town in the west of Scotland.
The documentary is compiled by Ross Raymond, a wannabe journalist whose youth was greatly impacted by the local music scene. The four band members of Memorial Device were his heroes. The band was seen as the culmination of various precursor bands, and shone brightly and briefly before the members went off to pursue different directions.
Some chapters are editorial, written by Ross himself. Others are in the form of interviews or reminiscences of those who were close to the band at the time – archivists, lovers, rivals. The introduction of these chapters is not terribly well signposted, and much of the content is rambling which can lead to confusion about the relationships between the dozens of characters – never fear, there is an Appendix listing everyone who is mentioned, however briefly.
The result is a fragmentary story with little plot and absolutely no direction. There’s not even a terribly clear timeline to cling to. Instead, we have microscopic level of detail and analysis, focused on the music scene in Airdrie in the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally there is a hint of aspiration – an interview at a record company in London – but mostly we are talking about people who are absolute legends within a circle of no more than 50 others. Their celebrity status is portrayed without question and without irony; the detail of their lives is picked over in such forensic detail because it really matters to Ross and those who were there at the time.
There are drugs, there is drink; there is deviant sex. This is not a novel for the faint hearted. But what makes it is that it is so recognisable. Those of us fortunate enough to grow up in small towns in the same time period will recognise the importance of pub bands, cafes, the local independent record shop, the local weirdo, the time Steve Sims got a pint of beer poured over him for talking to the wrong girl. The beauty is in the sincerity with which people there at the time believe in the importance of these markers, even though they appear utterly trivial and irrelevant to those who were not in exactly that point of space and time.
Memorial Device is not an easy read. At times, in truth, it is bewildering, repetitive and boring. It is written with a slavish adherence to authenticity, much as Roberto Bolaño achieved with his History of Nazi Literature in the Americas or his meticulous list of murders in 2666. And almost half the length is an index of pretty much everything that is mentioned anywhere. The reader has to marvel at the effort that would have been required to produce this despite the certainty that it would be of no value to anyone. The ultimate effect of this strange text is something that is satisfying to have read, even if the journey makes the reader wonder whether it is worth the effort.
Richard Powers can clearly write. In Orfeo, we find a semi-retired avant garde composer, Peter Els, filling his empty days setting up a home laboratory and cultivating bacteria. He has only his dog, Fidelio, for company. Fidelio dies and Els’s life starts to unravel.
Most specifically, the Federal Government starts to take an interest in the bacteria.
Els doesn’t trust the Government to accept the innocence of his experiments in these days of heightened sensitivity. So Els does what every rational 70 year old would do: he sets off on a literal journey across the country and a metaphorical journey through his past.
And what a dull past it is. Els had a brief romance at university; he had a wife and a daughter; and he had a friend. His friend liked his wife. His wife liked someone else. Els composed music. On his own.
Like I say, Powers can write and for a while, he created quite an intriguing storyline with the bacteria. He seems to have a delicate touch with words, managing to get the tone just right and allowing the reader to fill in a whole picture on the back of one perfect phrase.
But then comes the music. I do not know the music being described and I do not want to know it. I do not need dozens of pages telling me what Shostakovich sounds like, but at least Shostakovich music exists; at least I could get in touch with the real thing if I wanted to. But dozens of pages describing fictional music?
Describing music is a pretty pointless activity anyway. To this reader, it just looked like endless lists of adjectives; endless lists of composers; endless lists of instruments; endless lists of technical jargon. It was clearly supposed to counterpoint or emphasize situations in the here and now. On the rare occasions (towards the end) where the parallel or contrast was there to be observed, it felt obvious, clunky, heavy handed. Whenever the story had managed to recapture the attention, we drifted off into more music. Truly it was soporific.
Buried in the swathes of drivel, there are interesting (though perhaps obvious) points about government surveillance, personal freedom, paranoia, stymied dreams. At the end, though, these feel just like ingredients sprinkled in according to a recipe. The same too with Els, who manages to veer between perspicacity and gaucheness; pragmatism and naivity with abandon. Orfeo lacks humanity; it lacks credibility.
Where some novels try to do something that doesn’t work or doesn’t appeal, it is difficult to see what Richard Powers was actually trying to do here. At my most charitable, I can only imagine it was a self-indulgent exercise in seeing whether he could create music from words. His answer is that he can’t.
I resent pretty much every minute I wasted reading this novel. *0000