Novels which put music at the centre of the plot are rare. Many writers make references to the importance of music in a character’s life; I’m thinking of sections of Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Iain Banks, Alan Bissett and books like Doug Johnstone’s The Ossians and Nina Del la Mer’s recent novel 4am, (which is set in the rave clubs and British barracks of Germany in the mid-90s), both of which use music as part of their protagonist’s destructive lifestyles.
However, I can think of only two Scottish novels where the music itself becomes a character, making a direct difference in people’s lives. The first is Gordon Legge’s overlooked The Shoe and the other is John Niven’s visceral Kill Your Friends, almost the yin and yang of novels where music changes lives. Where The Shoe is about musical inspiration, offering the opportunity of escape, Niven’s novel is how that love can take a dark turn when profit becomes the bottom line, or music becomes a job.
Now there is a third ‘musical’ novel, one which could be said to sit in the middle of those two extremes. Catriona Child’s Trackman is about the ability music has to soothe, and even save, us but also how it can accentuate feelings, good and bad. Anyone who has ever put together a mix of music to accompany a broken heart is likely to have picked tunes which heighten the heartache, help to turn it up to 11. If you want a suggestion for the ultimate such song, try Randy Newman’s Every Time it Rains.
Just like browsing an album that you like the cover of, or leafing through a stranger’s record collection, I picked up my copy of Trackman without knowing anything about it. After a quick peruse I noticed that the chapter titles were the names of some of my favourite songs. If nothing else this was a book written by someone whose musical taste matched at least some of my own, and that was enough to sway me to buy. If you’re interested, they include ‘Mad About the Boy’, ‘Song 2’, ‘Three is a Magic Number’, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, and from Eels, this is ‘Susan’s House’:
The ‘Trackman’ of the title is David Watts (Oi!). Child integrates musical references into the novel with ease, so much so that I’m sure I missed many of them. Names used have musical meaning, from charismatic and philandering Alfie, to Davie’s love interests Martha and Astrid. (Although I’m not sure if the misspelling of Alan Hansen’s name to match the band Hanson is deliberate or not). There are also lots of spot on cultural references, from the well used and universal (Star Wars and Superman), to the more obscure and specific Ice Cold in Alex and My So Called Life), but Child manages to avoid this referencing being overbearing or a distraction from what is unfolding. In this it is comparable to Alan Bissett’s Boyracers.
What is clear from the offset is that something terrible has happened to Davie’s younger brother Lewis, and Davie is struggling to cope. That’s when a MP3 player with a mind of its own comes into his possession and it becomes clear to him that he has been given a mission from pod. That may sound a bit fantastical, but when you take into consideration Davie’s state of mind, this fantasy becomes as realistic to the reader as it does to him. His friends and family see it as an indicator of his disturbed and fragile mental state, but the reader is left to make up their own mind. You could look upon the MP3 as an electronic Gil Martin.
While struggling to come to terms with his own tragedy, David is pulled here and there to take the gift of music to those who need it most. He names the MP3 Jamesy, and Jamesy knows exactly the song that the sad and distressed need to hear. As things unravel for David he increasingly sees them as a dynamic duo, fixing broken hearts and minds as they move through Edinburgh. He loses his job, loses his friends, flat and family, becoming more reliant on Jamesy and reveling in the comfort and sense of purpose that working with his portable partner brings him.
You may realise from early on where Davie and Jamsey’s odyssey is going to end, but that doesn’t matter as along the way they meet many interesting and diverse characters who are well portrayed in often only a few pages. The back story of the Watts’ family tragedy is sensitively handled, and is quite believable. This is a tale of personal redemption, but one which never falls into melodrama or cliche which it could so easily have done. The final scenes are mysterious, and often surreal, as Child takes Davie and Jamesy to a real place, but one which she clouds in danger (another Justified Sinner reference, or am I over Hogging matters?). Even though the book has been leading here, it is still a toss of a coin as to how things will be resolved.
You can hear the soundtrack to Trackman over at Luath Press. I do wonder if you shared none of the musical references in the book how you would feel about it. I hope it would still appeal as the idea that music has a therapeutic nature is one which is universal. There is a common beleif that at the best and worst of times music can help. Songs that we previously never noticed can get straight to the point, or can unexpectedly creep up on you to offer comfort. (I am a man who once found himself bawling his eyes out to a Gloria Estefan song, so I know that of which I speak). Trackman is a book which understands the power of music, but is one which has an ability to bring comfort to those who need it that is all its own.
Finally, any novel which sends me back to Ben Kweller has done a good job. This is that man with Wantin Her Again: