Jacqueline Crooks, Nicole Flattery, Lorenza Mazzetti

Snaps, crackles and Pop Art

Things you didn’t know you were interested in — until someone wrote a good book about them

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Fire Rush, Jacqueline Crooks (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

Writing about music, as the comedian Martin Mull put it, is like dancing about architecture. Novelists who try their hand at the story-about-a-band genre rarely produce their best goods, even when the results are interesting (see Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Iain Banks’s Espedair Street, David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue. What is it about street name titles anyway?).

With her debut novel, the Jamaican-born British writer Jacqueline Crooks has taken a different and more assured angle, by writing not about the music itself but the effect it has on the listener —in this case, the dancer and raver. Fire Rush (the very title invoking the “arrhythmic electricity” summoned to the body by the music) is set from 1978 to 1982, a world of cassettes, cheques and answering machine messages, mostly in the suburb of Norwood in south London, amongst Jamaican dub music club-goers.

Our young narrator, Yamaye, does a bit of mic work herself at the local club The Crypt, along with her friends Asase and Rumer: “together we are a three-pin plug, charging ourselves to dub riddim”. The narrative voice, lightly sprinkled with patois, delivers the goods with a thud. A one-legged raver is described as “skanking hard-hard, using his walking stick like a spear, firing it inna the air, shouting, ‘Mash down, Babylon’”. 

“Babylon” is the state as represented by the police, forever troubling the community (though not always without reason, as force of nature Asase — “all muscle and outta-da-way breasts” — finds out when a knife and her curdled love for a man lead to tragedy). The riots and police chases act as a sort of adrenalised counterpoint to the release and passion that the music brings — passion, of course, representing pain as well as pleasure. Yamaye observes the lessons “our people had been passing on to their children for hundreds of years. First, teach them to shut dem mouth. Second, teach them how to run”.

Running can’t take you away from yourself (“Babylon always wins. You know that”). Yamaye feels stuck in her life, her mother dead 20 years and her father Irving (a terrific character I’d like to have seen more of) a man alternately cruel and caring. He is, too, of a generation which has given up on resistance — “Ah so life go” — which Yamaye and her friends cannot do. Then she meets Moose, a man who seems like the dream ticket, as long as he doesn’t end up doing what Irving did to Yamaye’s mother: “gave her the world and then, once he had her, turned her world upside down”.

Moose’s story, as it turns out, is one of many in Fire Rush where Crooks makes a bold narrative decision: this is literary fiction with more hairpin bends than a Formula 1 track, with disappearance, death and even resurrection on the cards, via a safe house that turns out to be far from safe, and a journey into Yamaye’s past, halfway around the world. In fact, there’s enough danger and pace that the book feels like half a thriller — and occasionally Crooks over-eggs it in her enthusiasm, as when one character makes a sudden reappearance 50 pages from the end.

Still, in a world of literary fiction that is — to adopt Andrew Motion’s formulation on the life of Philip Larkin — not “much diversified by event”, this feels like a fresh breeze, or, in Yamaye’s words, like “sonic matter and blood in the mix. All whoosh and hiss.” 

The final twist, though, is when this eye-opening, jaw-dropping story is described in the acknowledgements as “a fictionalised account of my life”. File Fire Rush and the London dub reggae scene of the late 70s and 80s under the category of things you didn’t know you were interested in until someone wrote a good book about them.

Nothing Special, Nicole Flattery (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

If there’s one 20th century figure who is crying out to be the subject of a novel, it’s Andy Warhol, the man who made originality out of copying, the bard of the banal profundity (“A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking”). He was even shot, for heaven’s sake! 

Nicole Flattery’s novel Nothing Special both is and isn’t about Warhol. The concept is delicious, but needs some explaining. At the height of his fame in the 1960s, Warhol conceived the Factory, a space in New York where his artworks were made by his assistants and his hangers-on (in the Warholian term “superstars”) hung on. Having broken movies — in all senses — with his five-hour film Sleep (1963) and his eight-hour film Empire (1964), Warhol turned his attention to writing a “bad” novel, “because doing something the wrong way always opens doors”.

The novel was created by recording one of his superstars, known as Ondine, over a period of months and then transcribing the recordings. The resulting novel, a, was as unreadable as it sounds (accordingly, it has recently been elevated to Penguin Modern Classic status). Flattery’s novel is the story of one of the women who typed up the transcripts.

This idea has inbuilt teeth: should the women (Flattery’s fictional typist is called Mae, and is 17 when she starts working for Warhol) be considered the authors of the novel? After all, they put it on paper. Their interpretations of what they heard on the tapes, as well as their typos, are all part of the published work. Or are they just automatons, as secretaries were often considered, a sort of extension of the machinery connecting the typewriter with the tapes? (Warhol: “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”)

Like Crooks, Flattery comes to the novel after writing short stories, but she is a generation younger and her book fits with the current trends in literary fiction. It is substantially internal, focused on Mae’s experience and thoughts more than on the external activities in the Factory. (Warhol himself appears just a couple of times.) 

Her tone borders on affectlessness: “I could be something if I just tried. It’s the trying I have a problem with really. I don’t like trying.” It also straddles a line between hyper-specificity — that eye-catching setting in both time and place — and generality, where the whole story has an otherworldly air, a little like a Kafka fable.

These aspects can be frustrating, but the subtlety and controlled tone won me over. The book suddenly seems very timely — in an age when our lives are digitised, sliced and processed for public consumption — when Mae begins considering the voyeuristic aspect of what she is doing. “Towards the end the voices … I didn’t recognise them as human. I kept thinking if something bad happened, they wouldn’t stop, they wouldn’t even try and stop, they’d just keep talking.”

The Sky is Falling, Lorenza Mazzetti, translated by Livia Franchini (Another Gaze Editions, £12)

I am nothing if not a sucker for a beautiful edition, and the pocket-sized first publication from Another Gaze Editions softened me up before I’d even turned the first page. The contents are as good as the container: this is a new English translation of Italian filmmaker, writer and puppeteer Lorenza Mazzetti’s first novel, The Sky is Falling (1961).

This is a story of childhood in wartime, of knowledge found and innocence lost. The combination of Italian setting, family comedy and clarity of style reminded me of Natalia Ginzburg (though it predates Ginzburg’s best-known work Family Lexicon by two years). The narrator, Penny, has been sent with her siblings to spend the war with her aunt and uncle, in a political environment where “Viva Il Duce!” is the minimum devotion accepted. 

After all, as the party officer tells Penny and her friends at school, “the Duce had liberated Italy from the Bolsheviks who wore red shirts, took God’s name in vain, and always spat on the ground”. 

I said “comedy” advisedly: there is dark stuff in here, as we might expect from a culture where children are punished for dreaming “that the Madonna had no hair”, where their uncle (“the General asked Uncle if he was a Jew. Uncle said yes”) is threatened with being “toss[ed] into the fire [of Hell] with all the other damned, and where Penny stages an abortive suicide attempt. Yet there is a lightness, even brightness, to the voice and vision that is life-giving.

This is an episodic narrative — childhood proceeds in fits and starts — where the usual developments are delivered with panache, including playing doctors and patients (“Take all your clothes off”); but the whole story builds to a remarkable climax, where the war ends to the cries of “It’s the English!”, the line delivered with an enthusiasm rarely seen in European literature.

The bright energy of the tone is all the more remarkable when you consider the life that inspired it. Mazzetti was brought up by her aunt and uncle (Robert Einstein, cousin of Albert) on a farm which during the war was requisitioned by the Nazis, who subsequently murdered her aunt and cousins. Mazzetti, who along with her sister only survived because her name was not Einstein, moved to London after the war. She won a place at the Slade School of Fine Art after declaring herself to the director to be a genius. That’s the way to do it. 

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