Back when Continuum first announced its 33 1/3 series of short books about classic rock albums, I imagined a veritable explosion of styles and critical approaches that might emerge. Well, not exactly: though the series has included some fiction and some formal experiments, many of the books follow the same basic paths of close-reading, autobiography, or an ungainly combination thereof. But 2008′s crop includes what may be the two best titles the series will ever release—one is fiction, while the other combines close reading, autobiography, and a bit of formal experiment.
I should also point out that I am friendly with both John Darnielle, who turned Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality into a novella, and Carl Wilson, who spends his 33 1/3 investigating his and most of his friends’ disregard for Celine Dion through the lens of Let’s Talk About Love, i.e. the one with the Titanic song. But that’s not why I love these books. It’s because both were written keenly and with great generosity by writers who never place themselves above the material—even Wilson, who specifically proposed his topic because he had looked down on it for so long.
Darnielle, of course, is a longstanding metal guy—he’s written the back page of Decibel magazine since its inception—and Master of Reality is a testament to the raw, consuming, identity-statement sort of fandom that isn’t exclusive to metal but flourishes within it. Roger Painter is Darnielle’s narrator-hero; he’s 15 and in a ward receiving treatment following a suicide attempt, attended by people seem to think his music is part of the problem; the first half of the book is Roger’s attempt to persuade them to give him back his Walkman and his favorite Sabbath cassette.
In high school, I had a good friend who spent several weeks in the same kind of adolescent psychiatric center Roger is in; we talked a lot on the phone and I visited him a couple times. Darnielle’s book brought back everything—the feel, the smell, the tenuous sense of order—I had forgotten about the place, so much so I had to put the book down a few times to get my bearings again. Equally fine is the way the second half, narrated by the adult Roger, describes his job in a kitchen; Darnielle glosses over nothing, and he doesn’t treat the everyday as any more magical than it actually is (i.e. not very), but he gets at the sustaining aspects of small satisfactions in ways you don’t expect, that stay with you. Somewhere in heaven, Studs Terkel is smiling.
Wilson ponders other kinds of questions. He doesn’t simply hold Dion up to the light—among many things, he also holds up the mass audience, the idea of schmaltz (that chapter alone ought to be required reading for anyone who purports to write criticism, of pop music or anything else), and the effect of set and setting on an artist’s works. I’m thinking there of the amazing sequence when the author, coming off a bad breakup, is reduced to tears by seeing Dion in Vegas—the last time or place in the world he expects to be so deeply moved—as well as his fascinating explication of Dion’s essential Quebecois-ness.
Besides, how can we possibly argue with anything that gives us the excuse to post this January ’08 masterpiece?