The front/back-matter says that the novel's inspired by real events. There's a supporting bibliography of books about childhood leukaemia and the neuropsychology of music, both of which I know a little about. And I know what natural logs are! A mix of fact and fiction is promised, which interests me too. I wondered if I might be its Ideal Reader.
Chapter one's a collection of eye-witness accounts of a mass musical hallucination that happens as a 7 year old girl, Melissa Comb, dies. Chapter two has extracts from press cuttings (with predictable swipes at The Sun and The Guardian) and academic papers. It's not the kind of start that will draw all readers in - there are many characters to introduce, and in the cause of realism their observations are duplicated if characters observe the same thing. It's livened up by a schematic map of the neighbourhood and an anonymous narrator who editorialises. The result is a mix of tones - as the back-cover suggests, the genre of the novel is rather hard to pin down.
With "THEME" (chapter 3, but by now we're approaching p.50) we leave the "1st mvt: Musica Mundana" section. The pace accelerates -
|Melissa made up these nonsense songs all the time, often for her pet spiders, whom she kept in her Star Child Home Planetarium™. She's furnished the inside with dolls' house beds, a sofa, TV and a kitchen, all of which were covered with thick spiders' webs. Just as her sister, Serena, played music to her in their living room, so she would sing music to the spiders in their miniature home - in fact, given that the spiders' names were Bartôk, Schubert (which she pronounced 'Sherbert') (p.50)|
This passage could serve as the platform for the symbolic framework of the novel. Escaping spiders, webs, homes, space, and the spell of music all figure later.
Chapters often have music-related titles that apply to the subject matter - "Brahms and Liszt" for example isn't an accidental choice. Music provides structural elements and also content. Harry, the dead girl's father, was a talented piano player until deprived of his piano at 14. After Melissa's death he becomes obsessed with the household piano, not using it or wanting others to use it - "he kept the key in a ceramic pot on top of the piano in full sight" (p.132). Later, someone approaching his house thinks the whole place silent, shut up like a locked piano (p.146). Music continues to be used as analogy -
- What I mean is that you get to the end of music like that, and it really is the end. But in real life, you'd have to have another movement after it. And then another movement after that, and so on (p.99)
- The unspoken subject wove itself in inaudible counterpoint - like an enigma - around every other conversational topic (p.124)
- musical phrases are like miniature versions of entropy ... they reach a sort of climax in the middle, and then the energy dies away (p.187)
- she understands that her father loved and loves both of his daughters, and that this music is more or less the only language he's got left to express that love (p.246)
At the end, after a final duet with Serena, his remaining daughter, Harry Comb vanished into nothingness, silence
Flippancy and seriousness frequently rub shoulders - embedded in contrasting characters, but also as conflicting behaviours by a single character (including the narrator). Who is the narrator? S/he has quite a lot to say. As in some Auberon Waugh novels, the narrator has a pot at all the characters. There are numerous narrator interjections - e.g.
- "It's like the cancer being ejected from the body," said one, somewhat unscientifically (p.62)
- they ever-so-kindly returned the letter a few months later (p.142)
and there are many "tweezer" quotemarks, a trait that the narrator shares with several of the characters -
- might be explained by Ms. Machin's (and I quote) "huge woofers" (p.6)
- The so-called "miserable bitch next door" (p.8)
- minor recurrences of what she called the "nowhere-everywhere music" (p.21)
- cranial irradiation seemed to "do the trick" (p.62)
- They were too taken up with the paraphernalia of death, and what Lizzie busily called "logistics," (p.71)
- when all that stuff, shall we say, 'kicked off' (p.95)
- to 'illustrate the point' as he put it (p.100)
- asked him if he'd like to come into my "humble abode" (p.109)
- She wasn't appreciative of "the old guy" (p.119)
- didn't want to be seen as a "meddling old woman" (p.137)
- "She thinks I am some kind of 'nosy old bat'" (p.201)
The impression given is that little is directly apprehended - media spin and narrator bias interfere. Perhaps only music can communicate directly (that final duet is perhaps the only scene in the book where two people engage). But such purity comes at a cost. The supposed objectivity of science doesn't help. The astronomical imagery - orbiting and black holes - isn't conducive to mutual interaction
- she was a strange vision of a black hole of drugs circling drugs circling drugs (p.60)
- the family ... just orbited her sickness (p.70)
- towards the Comb household; and gradually, as they stepped towards it, as if they were passing over its event horizon, Simon felt all of his energy ... sucked out of him, into its blackness (p.147)
- as though the house radiated all its grief, all its emotions outwards, and inside was merely a black hole (p.160)
- Even black holes, which apparently swallow everything within their event horizon, adhere to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (p.176)
- and let it fall ... into an invisible black hole which seemed to have opened up on the Welcome mat (p.190)
- Trying to see into his feelings is like, well, I don't know how to put it - like staring into one of those black holes you have on the space posters in your bedroom (p.219)
It's thematic in the sense that the remaining sister's taking A-level Physics, but like the quote-usage trait it leaks to other characters. This mysterious influence and lack of compartmentalisation could almost be the book's theme - the mass hallucination, the stylistic osmosis, the [con]fusion of public and private life.
Likes and dislikes
I struggled with the longeurs (up to p.50; p.94- ; p.133- ; p.169-), some of which labour the point beyond the show-not-tell barrier, though the long medical section was effective. The use of the pavement cracks on p.206 is unrealistic - is that artificial device worth the bother? There's more artificiality when a nurse gives a leaflet, leaving Lizzie staring down swimming with acronyms, medical terms, drug names ... which made as much sense to her as the black dots and Italian phrases on her stepdaughter's piano music. Leukaemia music, she thought (p.57). Really? On p.221 and p.241 there are bursts of italics that I don't get. And is "He found it hard to tow the BNP line" (p.254) a deliberate mistake?
I liked the key scenes - the crises and confrontations (e.g. on p.211) - and the plot - the sister donor, etc. The youth dialogue sounded convincing. I liked Harry, especially his extended outbursts as on p.227 etc.
"there are some people who take it too seriously. Their grieving processes are a bit unhealthy. A bit un-English. A bit OTT. There are some people who seem to think that grief more be more, well, more passacaglia than sonata form. Poor fellows: the grief just repeats itself over and over, never getting anywhere.|
"These poor fellows are a bit lacking on the old Serotonin front. They need to pull up their Serotonin socks, as it were (p.229)
We see little explicit mourning. With Harry, that's understandable. For some of the other characters it's more surprising.
I'd have preferred a reshaped novel, blowing away the first section (or presenting the material as unadorned extracts from statements and articles - in an appendix?!) and building the novel around Harry. I'd have preferred the science and psychology speculations to be heavier - perhaps inserted between chapters. The point wouldn't be to avoid diluting a sad story, but to give free rein to more biting satire, pretentious academicism and lunatic fringe escapism.
- Raj K Lal (Melissa is a very beautiful book for many reasons.)
- Research Notes by the author from Necessary Fiction. (the experience of music, as many neurologists have pointed out, is one of the few “universal” or global experiences of the brain, in that it affects almost every single section of it. Music, too, works a bit like a mirror neuron, in that it is both an individualistic and a communitarian experience ... No doubt that communitarian, pseudo-telepathic aspect of music is sometimes overlooked, forgotten or repressed in the modern world. To some extent, what I wanted to do in Melissa was to unveil it again in a modern context ... It is an attempt to explore, in narrative terms, the ways in which a community deals with the hidden, overwhelming power of music, in a culture where music is all too often sidelined, marginalised, commodified, turned into a hobby for the rich. )