Ransom Center Post-Mortem

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My time in Texas is coming to an end. After three weeks at the Ransom Center, I’m returning to the Bay Area to start processing all my research. I found more than I expected, not only in the center’s V.-related materials but also in the Don DeLillo collection; the reverent letters that DeLillo received from authors like Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Safran Foer are amazing to read.

The Robert Park Mills collection had tons of stuff related to Pynchon’s friend and fellow novelist Richard Fariña, who died in a motorcycle accident two days after the publication of his first book; after perusing his unpublished writing, I find his death that much more tragic. Whatever flaws are evident in Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me–and there are many–Fariña was an undeniably talented writer and I strongly suspect that his voice would only have grown only more powerful and distinctive with time.

Finally, during this last week, I’ve been reviewing the tortured publication history of Ross Russell’s 1961 novel The Sound (previously called The Hipsters and The Music Goes Round). A vaguely roman-à-clefish reflection on his experience promoting Charlie Parker at Dial Records and on his vast experience with the early bebop scene of Horse-addicted musical geniuses, wannabe Birds, and hipster hangers-on, this novel will probably end up being pretty important to the dissertation chapter I’m working on now. Russell’s novel is interesting to me not only because it paints a portrait of the bebop scene–and its often hilariously strange hip slang–in the decade before this bebop and hip slang spread epidemic-like into the wider population of Disaffected American Youth but also because it seems to me to be a fascinatingly failed specimen of the American Jazz Novel, a literary subgenre that consists primarily–perhaps exclusively–of failed specimens.

Why, I wonder, are jazz artists and hipsters so hard to write about? Given the apparently immense difficulty in rendering this scene credible, why do so many novelists try? It seems to me that the reason has to go beyond some vague desire to report on the social character of one’s age. I’m beginning to think that these novels are themselves akin to a literary version of hipster-hanging-on; in other words, because these novels attempt to reproduce through literary form, but from a critical and aesthetic remove, the energy and vibe of geniuses like Bird, they’re basically doomed to fail as art.

Or maybe not. I’d love to be wrong about this. There are quite a lot of “jazz novels” I still have to read, so I may have to eat my words before the end, which would be terrific, just wonderful.