As comedian Martin Mull once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That is, words often fail when describing music. But there are many stellar music-infused works of fiction that prove this adage wrong, with writing that’s just as artful as the music that inspired it. Here are five books involving music that swing, bop, and sing.
“Sonny’s Blues” (in Going to Meet the Man), by James Baldwin
My favorite story involving a musician—scratch that—my favorite story ever, is James Baldwin’s heartbreaking “Sonny’s Blues.” In this classic tale from Baldwin’s 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man, the narrator returns from serving in the military to learn that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested in a heroin bust. The narrator just doesn’t understand Sonny, who’s always dreamed of being a jazz musician, idolizes Charlie Parker, and gigs in clubs in Greenwich Village. The narrator also doesn’t get in touch with his brother until after his daughter dies of polio—“My trouble made his real,” he explains, and he’s eventually able to understand how Sonny’s music transfigures his suffering into grace.
Music for Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai
Makkai’s brilliant story collection is filled with tales of people for whom music is lifeblood. Sometimes Makkai takes this in a playful direction—in “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background,” a divorced woman who yearns to become a mother discovers that Johann Bach has appeared in her apartment. She sets out to seduce the father of 22, in the hopes of producing a prodigy. In other stories, music is a matter of life and death, as in “The Worst You’ll Ever Feel,” in which the son of a Romanian musician can intuit the story a musician is expressing through his music, and he learns from a Jewish violinist’s song about his suffering in Romania during World War II.
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
Patchett’s riveting 2001 novel involves an opera singer who is taken hostage at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country. In order to entice Katsumi Hosokawa, a Japanese business executive and opera lover, to invest in his country, the Vice President throws him a birthday party featuring the soprano Roxane Cross. When terrorists break in and discover that their target, the President, has not attended the party, they decide to hold everyone hostage. During this crisis, two pairs of characters fall in love. Patchett was inspired by the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis in Lima, Peru in 1996, thinking it sounded operatic, and according to the Chicago Tribune, her working title for the book was “How to Fall in Love with Opera.” An editor talked her out of that one, worried it would be filed in the how-to section. Patchett’s love of opera was requited: last year the Lyric Opera adapted Bel Canto into an opera.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner is a swirl of inter-connected stories cycling around Bennie Salazar, who grew up in San Francisco, where he tried to become a punk music star in the 1970’s before realizing that he had more of a talent for the business side of music. He eventually became a New York-based record producer. Only one chapter is told from Bennie’s perspective, but all the other chapters are connected to him in some way, beginning with friends and family members and stretching out to acquaintances and friends-of-friends. Egan moves back and forth in time and from one character’s head to the next as this story builds into a moving meditation on modern technology and how it affects human relationships.
Nashville Chrome, by Rick Bass
Rick Bass imagines the inner lives of The Browns, a brother-and-two-sisters singing group with roots in rural Arkansas that topped the charts in the 1950’s with its three-part harmonies, a sound that became known as “Nashville Chrome.” The youngest sister, Bonnie Brown, was Elvis Presley’s first love, and Elvis makes a cameo in this novel, but the star is eldest sister Maxine Brown, whom Bass brilliantly characterizes as a complex figure—a gorgeous, confident teenager from the South with a burning ambition for stardom who becomes a lonely woman who never grows comfortable out of the spotlight.