If the phenomenon of rock-star fiction can be said to have had a golden age, it was a short-lived one. In 1964, John Lennon published In His Own Write, a salad of poems, puns, and short stories. One edition identified Lennon as “The Writing Beatle!” That assertion was debatable. “I was bored on the 9th of Octover 1940 when, I believe, the Nasties were still booming us led by Madalf Heatlump (Who had only one)” is how “About the Awful,” the author-bio Lennon helpfully penned for Scribner, begins.
Bob Dylan wrote a novel in those heady days, too. Tarantula, written between 1965 and 1966—the year of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Judas!” and the motorcycle crash—wasn’t officially published until 1971, possibly because Dylan forgot about it for a while, and possibly because the book doesn’t have a single period in it: “aretha/ crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him diffused in drunk transfusion wound would heed sweet soundwave crippled . . .” and so on.
These men were both major artists and major commercial properties at the time, and their books ended up being the place where these two facts met most uncertainly. (“We weren’t quite sure what to make of the book,” went the publisher’s preface to the original edition of Tarantula, “except money.”) Though the fiction wasn’t groundbreaking, or even necessarily good, it was authentically, fascinatingly bizarre. But the end of the ’60s also pretty much ended the strange and compelling spectacle of fictioneering pop stars, give or take a Pete Seeger children’s book. Biography and autobiography have ruled ever since. (Think the myth-forging Led Zep bio Hammer of the Gods, say, or John Fahey’s inspired, lightly fictionalized How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.) Even Dylan, when he finally went back to the page, wrote a memoir: 2004’s wry, dazzling Chronicles.
But the musician-penned novel has made a comeback lately. Fiction has snuck into Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, in the space usually reserved for deep critical thought about, well, people like Bob Dylan. Both the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and Joe Pernice, of the Pernice Brothers, used their contributions to the series (based around Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder, respectively) to attempt novellas. Pernice’s follow-up and proper debut novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop, is out this month from Riverhead. Nick Cave, who published his first novel in 1989, has written another one: The Death of Bunny Munro, due in September from Faber & Faber. And Momus—the Scottish songwriter and artist whose 1988 Tender Pervert LP paid explicit homage to Mishima, Gide, and Bataille—has his fiction debut, The Book of Jokes, on the way from Dalkey Archive, also in September.
None of them are much like Tarantula. “I think it took me a while to realize that novels could be low and disreputable,” said Momus when I e-mailed him last week, explaining why he’d finally sat down and written a book. As is fitting for a 49-year-old man whose nom de guerre is taken from that of the Greek god of mockery, The Book of Jokes is more or less what it promises to be. The title and some of the gags are lifted from a book of the same name by the 15th-century Italian humorist Poggio Bracciolini. The plot, a complicated allegory of incest, bestiality, and an improbably large penis, mostly takes place in the “intellectual Sodom” of a Scottish farmhouse. The Salzkammergut municipality of the Austrian Alps, Bell’s Hinge-Backed Tortoise, and a book of poetry titled Copulating Gorillas at Longinch feature heavily. Some characters disintegrate mid-narrative; others address us directly.
Momus—whose work as a Genet-checking, electro-pop cabaret songwriter was the logical preamble to the book he ended up writing—is, in a way, fulfilling a certain kind of art-rock destiny. Highly literate pop, from the Decemberists to Mission of Burma to Talking Heads, has been something like its own genre for approaching five decades now. The only real surprise is that more musicians from this scene haven’t written fiction. “I was always basically a cantautore, a singing author,” Momus says. The Book of Jokes just makes it official.
Joe Pernice is more of what might be considered a writing singer. It Feels So Good When I Stop transplants the dazed, aimlessly earnest slacker quality of Pernice acts like Scud Mountain Boys and Chappaquiddick Skyline directly to print. At the book’s outset, Pernice’s narrator is on the run from a marriage in which he has lasted all of three days. Hiding out in Cape Cod, he confronts the twentysomething void while crashing on his sister’s soon-to-be-ex-husband’s couch and looking after his similarly befuddled baby nephew, Roy. The novel is riddled with references to music, even within Pernice’s figurative language. When Roy gets tired, he looks “like a roadie for Soundgarden.”
Pernice, who has an MFA in poetry from UMass, writes ably enough, and over the phone, he told me that he stopped playing music for the entirety of the nine months it took him to write It Feels So Good. “When I write lyrics for songs, I am kind of cryptic,” he said, “and when I started writing a book, I had to make sure I wasn’t doing the same thing.” He isn’t, but in a way, he could stand to be. It Feels So Good, with its Elvis Costello epigraph, Lou Barlow cameo, and not so subtly embedded playlist, is a musician’s musician’s novel, duplicating a familiar indie-rock milieu in service of a lightly dramatized coming-of-age story.
Alas, one doesn’t imagine the publishers of either Momus or Pernice reacting with the same uncertain avalanche of befuddlement, fear, and avarice that Dylan and Lennon solicited so effortlessly in their baffled editors. It is, predictably, Nick Cave—the former Bad Seed and all-around savage soul—who ended up writing the novel most in the spirit of the bonkers musician-auteurs of the ’60s. The hero of Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro—with his “hymen-popping dimples” and sexual obsession with Kylie Minogue, Avril Lavigne, and “labia from Arabia”—is at once a completely outlandish monster and a sly send-up of Cave’s own outsized persona. Though Bunny’s wife kills herself early in the novel, and his young son is unspeakably sad about the whole thing, the real central drama is mostly about whether deranged Bunny is washed up as a “world-class cocksman.” Wrong as it is, Cave’s novel is unsettling, sad, gorgeous in spots, and more than a bit unhinged—about the awful, indeed.