Twice Upon a Time: Hari Kunzru

As Tom LeClair wrote in these pages two years ago, Hari Kunzru might be described as “an anthropological novelist” — a writer who employs “the long and wide lenses of cultural systems” to achieve deep focus on both the inner lives of his characters and the complex, multifaceted societies in which they make their way.  His widely praised fiction — from his picaresque debut, The Impressionist, in which a young man’s ethnic indeterminacy gives him access to multiple slices of Indian and British society in the early twentieth century, to the afterlives of ’60s radicals portrayed in My Revolutions,  to the 2012 novel Gods Without Men, in which a Mojave Desert setting provides a numinous backdrop for a generation-spanning quilt of stories about Americans seeking idiosyncratic paths to the divine — is as keenly attuned to the overtones of place and moment as it is to the hearts of individuals who, in varying degrees, find themselves in or out of step with the music in the air.

That stereophonic attention to interior and exterior melodies has never been more apparent than in a haunting, hard-to-classify new digital work titled Twice upon a Time, in which memoir, image, music, and “found” sound combine in a triple exposure: a city’s life, a writer’s consciousness, and a musician’s aural world. Arriving in Manhattan from the United Kingdom in 2008, the novelist sought a spiritual “guide” through the heady and sometimes overwhelming environment of his new home. The figure Kunzru chose was the legendary avant-garde musician and inventor Moondog (1916–99), whose idiosyncratic “snaketime” compositions brought luminaries like Charlie Parker and Philip Glass into his orbit.

Tracing his immersion into New York past and present, Kunzru draws on the chaotic symphony of voices that make up New York’s “simultaneous cities” of class, taste and ethnicity:  “NPR City, College Radio City…Armenian City, Punjabi City, Ethiopian City, Mandarin City, New Age City…Sports City, Pet City…” While the ebook version renders the resulting  multiplicity in word and image, Atavist Books has also released a multimedia version that incorporates binauaral recordings that take readers on an audio journey through the streets along with early and rare selections of Moondog’s revolutionary recordings.

I spoke a few weeks ago with Hari Kunzru about this unique project, its multiple inspirations, and how Twice upon a Time relates to the questions that animate his fiction.  The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review:  How do you think about Twice upon a Time? Is it a book? Is it an essay? Do you care?

Hari Kunzru:  First, I think it’s an essay of some kind. It started life as a purely textual thing. I wrote a version of it as an essay for a music magazine in the U.K. when I first came to New York in 2008. I’d written it in this very segmented, chopped-up, quite impressionistic way. Then, when the Atavist project became possible.  I realized that was perfect for the delivery on a multi-media device. I don’t know. Do we still use the words “multi-media”? I mean, it seems slightly like the ‘90s…

BNR: That seems awfully Latinate.  I think I would call this an e-book or a digital book.

HK: Yeah — I realized that firstly I wanted to have a proper audio component in it, and I went about making various sorts of field recordings around the city and I had a collection of photographs I’d built up over several years. Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve photographed graffiti and fliers and anything with small messages, like the sort of subconscious of the city bubbling up in whatever form. So those seemed like they were germane to the same project. So I gave all that material to the designers, and the resulting artifact is still a primarily textual thing, but it is properly multi-stranded.

BNR: It has a palimpsestic character —  there’s a layering of images, which encourages one to peer through these different layers, like looking at a building and looking also at the graffiti that someone has put across what might be an interesting wall. So you have to apprehend both at once.

HK: I like the idea that you can kind of put things side-by-side and sort of jumble things up,  fragments of text, and that they can start to speak to each other, and they can give some kind of flavor of the experience of passing through a city space.

None of this is new. You can think of Dos Passos: these are techniques that are at least a century old. But they do give a flavor of what it’s like existing in a city, because you are getting snatches of conversation, you’re getting kind of fleeting impressions as vehicles go past — you experience various kinds of speed and slowness.

BNR:  One of the first things that struck me about this book is your description of a very late night, 1 a.m. in the morning, in the East Village in Manhattan, and it’s hot, and you say, “I have to go out,” and you go out into this nightscape of New York. I was immediately struck with the sense that this is one of the quintessential “new resident” experiences of the city.  Had you only recently arrived in New York at that point?

HK: Very recently.  It was all very new to me then. I had visited the city before, but this is the first couple of months of me actually have a door-key to an apartment. It was more disorientating than I was expecting.  I’m very used to cities. I grew up in London. So all that side of things was not a problem. But there was some weird stuff about New York. I had not understood how humid it is in the summer, and my apartment is a ground floor place with a stoop right next to it. It was the only stoop on the block that was inviting for people to sit down on. So all night people would make calls on this stoop, or sit and have conversations, and they’re right by my head.

I would get these fragments of conversation, and I would occasionally wake up and sit bolt upright, and think someone was trying to get into the apartment.  All of this meant that I was quite jangled and I was quite broken up and fragmented anyway. I was awake at strange times, and I was kind of aware that there was all this buzzing life around me. But I didn’t really know anybody at that point. I had this period of a couple of months, at the height of the sticky weather, where I was experiencing a very strange, often kind of semi-conscious version of the city. I started keeping this diary that turned into that piece at around that time, partly because I wasn’t really quite capable of writing anything more sustained and more flowing. I could get down notes and impressions, and bits and pieces, but just that.

BNR: That sense of fragmentary and overly multiple sound and smell and heat  impressions wind up also coalescing into a sense that this may be everyone’s jumble. You write, “Some Jazz musicians are conducting a discreet free-blowing session, begging the question, can a free blowing session ever really be discreet? This feels that way, despite being basically very loud, feels clandestine.” These open secrets being out all around you is something that haunts this narrative.

HK: All cities are layered in the sense that there are layers of subcultures. I did a stage event with Teju Cole and Katie Kitamura over the weekend for the Downtown Literary Festival, and we were supposed to talk about the city. We all came to this thing that you can’t really write sort of top-down, panoptical version of any city. You can tell your city, and it might be completely different from the city that belongs to the person who is strap-hanging next to you on the subway. You have your geography. You have your markers. You have your sense of place. That’s not necessarily completely shared, even though you are physically occupying the same space. I like that multiplicity about cities. I like the excess of information. I don’t think I’d do very well being a kind of writer who was in a country cottage filled with just silence to deal with.

New York is a walking city. It’s a street city with a proper street life, like London or like Paris or various European cities, and unlike the kind of car-based cities of the Western United States, where that’s how you’re moving through it. That’s what I’m familiar with, and that’s one reason I was drawn to come and live here. But at a walking pace, you can kind of stumble on sort of weird little subcultures, whether that’s a community garden in the site of some burned-down building in the Alphabet City, or, yeah, a bunch of jazz musicians.

BNR: And the walking city is a city that you are constantly hearing.

HK: Yes.

BNR: Whereas, when you’re in your car, you’re in a bubble, cut off. One of the things that really is a theme throughout this whole short book is your engagement with and sometimes your frustration with the sound of New York.

HK: Initially, there are sounds that are cutting through my sleep. The fire engine sirens I think are always an order of magnitude louder than their equivalent in London.

Also, just people talking in the street. I speak about that in the book. The manners of people meeting in the street are subtly different — or maybe not so subtly different — in New York. People are much more willing to open conversations with strangers. Which is something that I initially found disconcerting, and then found was kind of brilliant. You can just fall into a conversation with somebody while you’re both waiting for the light to change. Now, when I go back to London, I’m the slightly strange guy who is talking more than people are coming with in line at the store or whatever. I’ve picked it up from here. It’s what’s natural and polite and friendly to do here, and I enjoy the fact that people would expect to be able to open a conversation, and would be surprised if you didn’t at least respond with a few words.

There’s also the shouting in the street, which is definitely a slightly different thing. Everywhere in the world now has that same thing where you’re not sure whether the person coming towards you is schizophrenic or just speaking into an earpiece. People are kind of talking very loudly to themselves. But there is a sort of species of New York sort of emoting, a kind of a poetic apostrophizing of the heavens that you get quite a lot of people doing here. Maybe it’s slightly going, as it becomes a little bit more sort of buttoned-up, polite place. But the remnants of the old-school East Village when I first came here consisted of a lot of people who quite liked to shout in the cars for one reason or another!

BNR: You’ve had a long fascination with music, and in particular with people who create electronic and experimental music. That’s somewhat in the background here — music, and not just music in the sense of tunes, but music in the sense of any consciously produced sound is on your mind a lot.

HK: Yes. And because of that, I’ve always had this interest in studio music and music where it’s legitimate to layer a lot of quite different kinds of sounds on top of each other. I came up through the sort of rave-techno thing. When I was in my twenties, I spent a lot of time in raves and in clubs and warehouses and what-have-you, which is one reason why I think the top end of my hearing has gone. A decade of having your head stuck in the basement has just destroyed that.

There’s sort of rave joke that you see the guy at seven in the morning who is sort of grooving along to the sound of an air-conditioner or an engine. Just any repetitious industrial sound has that sort of potential to suddenly turn into a beat. But there’s a sort of grain of truth in that. If you do walk around a city, as I have done, wearing microphones, what you’re actually hearing yourself has been fed through the device, and you have a slightly enhanced, hyper-version of the audio of the city, you pick up all sorts of quite musical fragments, things that aren’t necessarily music per se, but that are tonal or rhythmic.

By doing that, you also make your hearing a priority rather than your vision. For obvious reasons, we tend to look where we’re going when we’re negotiating a busy city street, so your eyes are always the dominant sense. But if you’re wearing these microphones in your ears, then suddenly your hearing takes over, and you become incredibly aware of moving from one kind of audio space to another.

BNR: So you were wearing binaural microphones, which means you’ve got literally a microphone clipped to each ear, so you’re recording the sound as a person hears it.

HK: Yes. That means that for the playback, for the person listening to it with their headphones on, you can tell when the person making the recording shifts their head around. It feels like being placed inside somebody else’s head. You’re conscious about their breathing and footsteps… It is quite pleasingly like being in another body, or in your own body when you were making the recording. When I play back these things, I’m aware when I turn around to look at something and where I’m facing with respect to a particular sound source.

Initially I made this piece as a text-only piece. But in order to deepen it, and as a way of kind of going back and finding out what had changed in the city and in myself in the intervening years since I wrote the first version, I decided to make these recordings. I visited all the places that I had been to that I had mentioned in the first draft of it, and recorded sound there. Some of it was just  simple stuff, like getting out at the 2nd Avenue subway, walking through Tompkins Square, getting a coffee and then going home.

But even in something as banal as that, you suddenly become aware of very different things. There is a moment somewhere in that neighborhood where I pass down a street with a tree full of birds, and the birds become incredibly loud in the recording. I mean, it was an enveloping, powerful sort of sound. A remarkable natural sound when you’ve been listening to a lot of car engines and what-have-you before, and things like that…

Sometimes you pick up fragments of conversation that you weren’t aware of while you experienced them. That’s another interesting aspect of this, that there are…on the recording, the mikes have picked up things that you didn’t pick up when you were hearing it. I would annotate these things just so I would what know I was listening back to, by announcing where I was. So at one point, I just say, “Tompkins Square,” and someone walks past me and says, “Huh, dunno where you are!” I hadn’t heard that.


HK: People are very aware of you pointing a camera at them, and will query you and be self-conscious, but if you’re just a guy who is wearing what looks like kind of earbud headphones and you’re facing away from them, people will carry on speaking. You end up with this sort of intimacy of eavesdropping —  there are things I was hearing back on the recordings that I wasn’t aware that I was hearing the first time.

It’s a strange thing, what you’re conscious of and what was actually around you. And I like to hear the sort of auditory territory which I mention in the book. Spaces defined by the limits of hearing are quite interesting. And those territories that we have are quite tiny when we’re people walking through a city. We can restrict them by playing a soundtrack in an iPod, or we can kind of expand them by shouting. There are various ways of defining a space through sound.

BNR: You talk about how we now reflexively, many of us, put that cloud of sound around ourselves as we move through the city. So you can get your own personal soundtrack or your own personal radio station that’s sort of bounding your experience in this different way. Whereas the idea of walking around with the microphones in your ears, and people will make an assumption that you, in fact, could hear less.

HK: Absolutely. They think you’re in your own little world, but you’re actually very outwardly focused. That’s an interesting sort of a reversal. There’s also the thing about leakage of sound out of headphones and leakage of the world into the sort of space that you’re trying to make with your headphones. One weird thing is playing these old Moondog pieces from the 1950s which incorporate sounds of trolley cars and foghorns from tugs on the Hudson and so on, playing those through headphones while I’m walking around downtown somewhere, through headphones that are closed, but aren’t isolating — instead of being perfectly isolated you get a kind of strange layering, where the 1950s city is being superimposed on a present-day city. Sometimes you can’t tell what’s one thing and what’s another.

That’s there in the full audio version of the book, in that my recordings are layered in with the Moondog things. I’ve had the experiencing, kind of playing through it, and not being sure whether what I’m actually hearing is coming from the headphones or from the street outside the room I’m sitting in. I love that disorientation.

BNR: If this story has a central character besides yourself, it’s Moondog, who was an avant-garde composer. Can you talk a little bit about Moondog and how he came to be your “guide” to New York as you describe him?

HK: I was aware of his music in the way that a lot of people found him, through this sort of avant-garde music scene. The major fact of his life is his blindness. He was blinded in an accident when he was 16. That meant that, as somebody who was living in Midtown Manhattan, and his work for many years was to stand on a street corner on 6th Avenue and play music and sell tracts that he’d written about very eccentric subjects—his views on history or the United Nations or the Federal Reserve… It meant that he was navigating the city purely by sound. That is interesting to me, the idea that he doesn’t have the major tool that most people have to navigate the city, so he had attitudes that were purely defined by sound.

Also, as I mention in the book, my younger brother is blind. So being able to see and not being able to see is a strong dynamic in our family, and my ability to see very much defined me maybe in a way that, if everybody is sighted in your family, it doesn’t come up. So blindness has had a personal aspect to me as well.

But Moondog made music from what he heard around him, and especially early he uses a lot of city sound.  But he’s not an improviser — he’s somebody who wrote out his pieces, and he was very interested in canon and fugue and very formal kinds of composition, which are mechanical, in a way. When you listen to a piece of Bach, there’s a sort of vision of a clockwork universe in there. There’s the perfection of how the thing is resolving and kind of flying in…those lines are flying in and out of each other. That’s the kind of basis of Moondog’s music. Later on in life, after he left New York, after he’d sort of had more access to studios and such, he became celebrated by a lot of major musicians. He made things that sound much more like canon and fugue.

BNR: He has this whole identity as a kind of street performer — I don’t know if he would have considered what he did on the street at all performance. He has an identity as an advocate for his views out there on the street. But his body of work is extensive and much of it quite beautiful, even by the standards of more conventional jazz, for example.

HK: Absolutely. He resisted the idea of him as a street musician, because he felt it sort of belittled what he did. But he had the other aspect of his life, with his sort of rejection of consumer society. He made his own clothes and he had this sort of Viking outfit…

BNR: We should pause over that for a moment. When you first see a picture of Moondog…

HK: It’s incredibly startling. I mean, there’s a dude in a horned helmet. He’s a very tall man who is standing around on a street corner looking like something that he’s just had imported in from the ninth century. That’s kind of how he thought of himself. A lot of his writing is to do with the pre-Christian origins of Europe. I think he had probably some slightly unsavory views about race as well. But he was into his roots as a man of Northern European stock.

BNR: Although one of the most plangent things that he ever wrote was “Bird’s Lament.”

HK: Right. And he was hooked up with all these jazz guys. I don’t think he was any sort of very serious racist, but he had, I think, some kind of funny notions about origins and purity maybe. But he is so thoroughly against the grain, so thoroughly himself in the face of the city, that paradoxically, he becomes a particularly New York kind of eccentric of a sort that the city really cherishes, and may be kind of an endangered species right now as gentrification takes hold, and there are fewer footholds for people who aren’t spending all their time working to make rent. He was so floridly himself, standing on his corner with all the kind of hustle and bustle and the passing-by. There’s something heroic about that. There’s something that’s heroic about the whole persona that he created, and I think that deepens your feeling about his music as well.

BNR: I don’t mean to be overly literal about this, because this book is certainly not a polemic in any way. But do you feel that we’re recreating the city as an environment that has less room for these kinds of heroic acts of self-creation, this kind of creativity in its purest form?

HK: I think that’s undoubtedly true. New York kind of cherishes these things and these people after the fact, even if it doesn’t look after them terribly well at the time. The economics of the contemporary city mean that, you know, Downtown is gone. Downtown is now a very controlled and locked-down space, rather than the sort of wild, gap-filled space that it once was. Creativity and bohemianism and whatever are still around in New York, at least for the moment, but I think one probably has to leave Lower Manhattan in order to find it in any serious form.

The question of gentrification is one that we should look at seriously. It’s not just a question of preserving eccentrics or artists or whatever as a kind of exotic fauna, but there is a question about the sort of mix of the city in general, as there are things that make cities healthy that have to do with rich people and poor people and various people of various kinds occupying the same space. I think New York, you have to ask how far it’s going to go away from that without losing its identity.

BNR: One thing I’m struck by from that remark is its relation to your novel Gods Without Men, which was really an exploration, in a sense, of eccentricity at the visionary level as a fundamental aspect of the American character, the seeking of a transcendental, transformational experience. What, in your view, is the connection between the themes that you’re exploring in that novel and the stuff that’s animating your interest in this piece?

HK: I feel there’s various ways. One is, in a way, the Moondog material and the Gods Without Men material were happening for me at exactly the same time. When the city was getting to be too much, I left for the desert, I mean, in a completely straightforward way. Both of those spaces are for me very important in trying to understand where it was I’d  moved to, what I was now joining in with in a country that I had chosen to participate in.

You’re right, in that the stuff in Gods About Men, about the West, and about the idea of the Frontier as maybe a kind of psychic frontier as well as a physical one, as being constantly pushed westwards until it gets to the sea, and a confrontation between the individual and an overwhelming space, so a kind of a space so empty that it becomes metaphysical. These things seem bound up to me in America’s self-conception, and that’s fundamentally different from Europe. You exist in Europe as a space that has been crissed and crossed for thousands of years, and there’s always already something there. Whereas the notion, correct or not… When you get into things about Native people, it becomes a bit problematic. But the notion of empty space or the notion of uncolonized space seemed important.

Then there’s the city as the meeting place, the democratic, Walt Whitman–type meeting place of all the peoples of the world who have decided to cram themselves on a tiny island and try and get along. Another fundamentally mythical Americaness is there.

Both of those ideas excite me, and I have great respect for them, and I always try to understand those by writing about them. But the connection for me really is horizontality and verticality. Manhattan is an experience of vertical. You look up. As everybody knows, you can tell the tourists in Midtown by the fact that they’re cricking their necks up in a way that nobody else… It’s because that’s what’s startling. It’s very startling, as a newcomer to the city, to cross one of the avenues and look uptown, and see that kind of receding into infinity between the towers. Against that, you have the vast horizontal openness of desert spaces — They seem to be two sides of the same coin.

BNR: And they are both environments that sort of seem ripe for transformations for the individual, and there’s both an allure and a threat to that.

HK: Yeah. You can lose yourself in different ways. You can be overwhelmed by the vastness of the desert. It can kind of feel like it’s crushing you completely. And I suppose the city, too. You can feel that your individual life and your various little courtesies are so incidental to everybody around you. The horror of New York is that you can kind of step over the homeless person without thinking twice. People are very willing to block other people out of their lives if they think it’s appropriate. There’s very little self-consciousness about isolating themselves using money to not have to share space when they don’t want to. You want to be in the VIP Room, you know, metaphorically or literally. That’s what you use cash for in New York, is to buy space and to buy exclusivity.

BNR: So you’re kind of rejumbling New York. Everybody is trying to sort themselves out into private spaces, and in a way, this remix of things has the effect of saying, “let’s be back in the streets” in some way.

HK: I think that’s valuable about cities. That’s something that I hope, that this is a way of pointing out — that there is a glory in shared space. Very often, there’s a kind of creeping assumption that private is always better than shared in any aspect of life. Especially here. You’re having to use public transport, or you’re having to be in a public space to take your leisure in a park or on a shared beach or whatever it is. It would be better if you were on your private island. But actually, you miss a great deal of the glory of life by isolating yourself. As I said, this isn’t a polemic piece, really. But I do think there is something noble about sharing the streets with other people.