5 Novels in Which Music Is a Character

Music—varied and endless—is such a part of our lives, most of us barely notice its presence on a conscious level. In our earbuds, in our cars, at home, and at work, music is the common thread that ties all of us together. We’re all constantly curating a soundtracks of our lives. The writers of these five books get that—they understand music isn’t just background noise, it’s part of us, and even sometimes takes on a life of its own, becoming a character in our dramas, our comedies, and our tragedies.

The Vinyl Detective: The Run-Out Groove, by Andrew Cartmel
Cartmel’s genius lies in noticing the similarities between the strange, brilliant detectives of traditional mysteries and the men and women who obsessively search out musical rarities. The Vinyl Detective makes a living finding rare recordings for collectors, and in this second outing, he’s hired to find a legendary single cut by a ’60s icon who recently committed suicide—and to locate her kidnapped son, by the way. The song supposedly contains a satanic backward masking, and her estate wants to disprove the rumor. The real fun is the exploration of a subculture that tours us through the tiny record shops and incredible sound systems of people who make the term “music fan” seem a bit quaint.

High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
It seems like the old-school record shop culture has been on the cusp of complete destruction for decades now. Rob Fleming is the ideal example of it: a thirtyish man with an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and a fetish for reducing everything down to Top Five lists. When he applies his list-making to his personal life, he begins an introspective journey that’s scored to his favorite music. Ironically (brilliantly), Rob rediscovers his love for music as a passion instead of a collection of knowledge as he moves through his past love affairs and figures himself out.

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
Detailing the lives of the people who own, work at, and try to save struggling record store Brokeland Records in California, Chabon effortlessly ties basically the entire scope of modern American life to the music that we all listen to. The story is big, with plenty of characters, side-plots, pop culture references, and political asides—yet it’s all tied together by music. Chabon doesn’t get into music theory or arguments over genres; instead, he writes a story where music is the silent partner in every scene, commenting on and augmenting every line and description. Put on your favorite playlist and hunker down with this one.

An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth
Chamber music isn’t on the charts much, but for those who love it, it can be a powerful experience. Michael Holme is a talented if unexceptional violinist, teaching lackluster students and playing with a successful quartet. One day, he spies an old lover on the bus, a pianist named Julia he abandoned years ago. He pursues her, and the two rekindle their love affair, despite her marriage and encroaching deafness—an affliction that will end her musical career. Seth explores the linked tragedy of a love that exists with an expiration date and the loss of artistic expression, conveying the horror of losing something intrinsic to your very sense of self. Music soaks into every page of the book, forming the connective tissue between characters and events, commenting on every moment, and enriching the reader’s appreciation of the gifts we all get to enjoy, but never truly own.

Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
Using an orchestral version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” in much the same way Proust used his madeleine, Murakami’s protagonist Toru Watanabe is moved to sink into a reverie about his past. The song is repeatedly referenced throughout the text, as Toru remembers his love affair with beautiful, delicate Naoko. The song becomes a Greek chorus of regret and loss, rising up like a ghost at key moments, altering the tone of the story in unexpectedly powerful ways. You can easily imagine Murakami listening to Rubber Soul on repeat as he wrote; listening to it yourself while reading it creates an incredible sense of looping time and interconnectedness.

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