Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Short-a-Day: Jonathan Lethem's "The Night They First Played Monster Eyes"

Originally published in A Public Space 03, Winter 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 82.

In the same issue that brought us a story hidden in what is essentially the pure description of a (now empty) house, we also get this lovely twist on a fictional narrative: a story hidden within coverage of a live (fictitious) band. That's less new, but Lethem, no stranger to writing fiction about music (or marching to the beat of his own drum), handles it well, moving from a journalist's observations ("It's what makes this band sound alike to any other that makes them intriguing, at this distance: they could be the Beatles, heard from the street")to the inception of an audience to the transcendence of a band ("It's the moment when they realize that rather than being as good as they'd always hoped, or even better than they hoped, they're simply as good as they are, no hope required").

This isn't a story about characters, or plot, it's about the rhythms of life, the moments that either define us or which we choose to use to define us. After all, what are we if not the sum of our memories, right? This is the moment where, with "a blobby series of wide purplish spots from a track of lights mounted behind the band" pique the curiosity of the masses, where the drummer and bassist are suddenly transformed through the opportunity of the performance into "two women [who] look fresh and alive, a thousand percent less ordinary than at the retail outlets or previous social gatherings from which these men are fairly certain they recognize them." Lethem even goes so far as to tackle the question of ultimate authorship: when you're really locked onto a song, when the lyrics seem to describe just you, only "dangerous" you, then isn't the band just a mouthpiece with which to unlock your own feelings? The story's a thoughtful, successful meditation in that regard, and though these ideas might just as easily have been raised in an essay, it feels better tackled as fiction.

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