7 Candidates for the Great American Rock and Roll Novel
Jeff Jackson, author of ‘Destroy All Monsters,’ on fiction that captures the raw power of rock music
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Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?
That’s how literary critic Johnny Rotten signed off his long-running column “The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Novel” every month in The London Review of Books. His fans tended to agree with the famous curmudgeon — there were so many remarkable memoirs, biographies, histories, and essay collections about rock, why so few worthy fictional efforts? It seemed like the perfect subject matter, but maybe like rock itself those familiar three chords were hard to animate into something fresh.
Inspired by Mr. Rotten’s poison pen, Destroy All Monsters is my attempt to write the last rock novel. But as I fantasized about the fiery end of this genre, I knew I owed a serious debt to those novels that managed to capture the immediacy, mystery, identity-shifting allure, and raw power of the best rock. Set among far-flung scenes and subcultures, they share a compulsion to transgress boundaries, embodying the propulsive spirit of the music in their prose even as they unravel the complicated desires that fuel it.
Here are seven books that deserve a shot at the crown of the Great Rock ’n’ Roll Novel.
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
A haunting novel about obsession, self-creation, fandom, and narcissism — in other words, pure rock and roll. It explores the secret world of musician Nik Worth who has recorded countless albums but never released them, documenting an imaginary life where he’s a star, complete with elaborate press releases, reviews, articles, and fan letters. Narrated by Nik’s sister, Stone Arabia plumbs what music means separated from an audience and the contradictory motivations and sources of true artistry.
Master of Reality by John Darnielle
This bracing novella breaks the mold of the non-fiction 33 1/3 series which usually traces the history of a single album. It’s written from the point of view of a teenager locked in a psychiatric ward who’s pleading with his counselor to return his prized cassette of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. It’s a poignant example of how a band can become your life and a searing defense of music’s darkest emotions. John Darnielle has written more accomplished fiction, but this gut-punch of book remains my favorite.
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Morvern Callar isn’t a traditional rock novel, but Morvern isn’t a traditional hero. She narrates a story about theft, identity, and authenticity, which begins with her boyfriend committing suicide and leaving behind his unpublished novel. Her tale is saturated with music — mix tapes, playlists, and the heady abandon of rave culture. It’s about the hedonism of music and allure of losing yourself completely. Director Lynne Ramsay adapted the novel into an equally brilliant film that functions as a sister artwork, telling a different version of Morvern’s story in the same unmistakable off-kilter key.
The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. by Jaime Hernandez
Graphic novels have proven good vehicles for capturing the texture of rock and there are many standouts, such as Anya Davidson’s Band for Life which details the glorious absurdities of musical collaboration. But my pick is this Love and Rockets collection which focuses on young Latinas Maggie and Hopey navigating the California punk scene, joining bands, going on tour, moving between various romances and communities. Storylines like “The Death of Speedy Ortiz” showcase Hernandez’s masterful characterizations and indelible mix of drama and empathy.
Live from Medicine Park by Constance Squires
Set in a small Oklahoma town, this novel revolves around reclusive rock star Lena Wells, who was big in the 1970s, and a documentarian who’s supposed to film her comeback. It deals with fame and memory, shattered families and searching for purpose in the midst of tragedy. With songs and poems embedded in the text, Live from Medicine Park plays like a classic roots rock ballad, full of ragged heart and intensity.
This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan
The subtitle offers the best summary: “An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978–1986.” Keenan is a longtime music writer who knows the potency of local scenes and the legends that spring up around them. The book is an affecting account of fictional band Memorial Device and those in their orbit, revealing the unexpected turns of people’s lives. It’s also an anatomy of Scotland in the 1980s, a shattering collective vision that’s hard to shake.
Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo
This early rock novel remains one of the best. Bucky Wunderlick, an amalgam of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, flees the Big Tour and holes up in a cold water flat in New York City circa 1972. He feels like he’s hit the limits of language, boiling his songs down to lyrics like “Pee Pee Maw Maw.” The book is set in a downtown scene that resembles a medieval fresco, a dangerous zone of counter-cultural hangover, utopian thugs, and sinister politics. It’s a great novel about retreat and stasis. Or as one of DeLillo’s peers put it: Silence, exile, cunning