I’ve been thinking about Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, the third novel from my friend and fellow scrogue Jim Booth. I finished reading it a few days ago, but for me it’s been a slightly disjointed experience because I’ve seen most of it in its pieces before: chapters like “Fins” and “The Balcony Scene” have been previously published as standalone short stories and there are sections (the “Rock Star Handbook”) that Jim originally developed as an offering for an SMS entertainment company in which I was a partner. So I’ve been familiar for years with the component elements, but this was my first encounter with the unified book in context.
After several days of reflection, I find myself musing on things that many readers and reviewers might not have twigged on. Before I dive into these observations, though, a couple of caveats. First, this is not a review and I am not a reviewer. I hope you took a few moments to read Otherwise’s outstanding review, which posted when it was released, and if you didn’t, you definitely should. He definitely is a reviewer, and a damned good one. Me, I just don’t think that way, no matter how hard I try. So no, this isn’t a review, it’s just a guy who has known the author for a long time sharing some personal thoughts on a work that is significantly more complex than its briefness and directness of style might suggest.
Second, this is not objective. I have known Jim since 1975 and he is one of my oldest and best friends, one of the two or three most important people in the history of my life. He was my teacher, he was once my boss – we were even roommates for awhile. So I’m a fan and I won’t pretend otherwise. I’m not here today as a marketer, exactly, but I’ll be honest – I’d love it if I can say something here that will lead you to give CotS a read. In any case, hopefully what I lack in objectivity will be compensated for with insight.
So, on with the show.
Observation #1: Completeness of the Soul isn’t a novel at all. Not in a strict sense, anyway. We expect novels to be driven by more or less cohesive narrative arcs, and this is somewhat true even in literary fiction, which is more about character than plot. Now, make no mistake, there is a powerful organizing gravity well at the center of CotS, but structurally it’s less about an organic whole than it is a closely related suite of vignettes. I suppose fans of the postmodern novel will find this barely worth commenting on, and that’s fine, except for the fact that at heart, Jim Booth is an extremely traditional writer.
None of this is bad. In fact, it’s quite compelling. Booth has long thought about how gestalt works in the contemporary world, a society where first television, and now computing and the Net, have dismembered the historic character of linearity in narrative. He points to Chinua Achebe, the Nobel-winning novelist, explaining that he grew up hearing stories, but that he told his children fewer stories and his children in turn told his grandchildren no stories at all. (I wish I could find a source for this quote, but I haven’t so far.) Stories, in the sense that Booth and Achebe are talking about, are linear. They have beginnings, middles and ends, they are self-contained wholes, and they often lead to a lesson, a moral, a defining conclusion of some sort.
Anyone who has had the misfortune to teach writing at any point since the dawn of the ’80s knows, with disturbing certainty, that today’s young people have not been enculturated with any such sense of narrative, holistic continuity. Their world is a series of rapid-fire, disconnected, decontextualized images and when it comes to making sense of it all, they’re on their own.
This is the postmodern condition – minds shaped and wired with no sense of linearity whatsoever. If these young citizens seem scattered at times, incapable of focus, it’s no wonder. They are precisely what they have been programmed to be.
So Jim is fully aware of the fact that his story is less linear and directed than a traditional novel, and in producing a book that structurally reflects a certain dysfunction in the society, he is both critiquing and, to use the corporate term, “leveraging” these dynamics in the production of a novel that leaves a great deal of the gestalting to the reader. In a way, it reminds me of U2’s much-maligned Pop CD, which was unquestionably the least satisfying collection of music they have ever released. As popular music goes, it was at times simply unlistenable. However, as critical comment on the political economy of consumerist culture it has no equal in the history of the popular music genre. How very postmodern.
In the end, I have come to regard Completeness of the Soul less as a true novel and more as a concept album. It isn’t The Sun Also Rises so much as it’s Pet Sounds. It’s less Light in August than it is Sgt. Pepper’s. Think Dark Side of the Moon, not Pride and Prejudice. Misplaced Childhood, not Gatsby. And while it’s certainly more than a little Slaughterhouse 5, it’s even more American Idiot (a contemporary moment that even Jay Breeze, in his orneriest moments, would probably have respected).
Observation #2: Completeness of the Soul is primarily the chronicle of a war for the author’s soul. A good friend (also a musician), upon finishing the book, commented to me that there was some autobiography going on with this Jay Breeze character. Yes, indeed, but that’s half the story at best. See, both Jay and the book’s ostensible editor and MC, Dr. Charlie Beagle, are profoundly autobiographical.
Once upon a time, the young Jim – known to his friends as “Smooth” – was, to pimp the title of a song made famous by Jay Breeze and The Lost Generation, one of those “boys with guitars and dreams.” Turns out “Boys With Guitars and Dreams” is also a very real song, written by Jim for his very real band, Backyard Tea. BT was quite good and they had a following back in the mid-’70s.
But Jim was only half aspiring rock star. His other half wanted to be a serious literary type. As in grad school, novel-writing and English professoring academic serious. I imagine most of us know what a fork in the road looks like, and he faced one. In this case, the decision was perhaps made for him in a flash he couldn’t have anticipated.
True story: There came a moment where the four members of Backyard Tea found themselves in a nice office with a label executive and on the desk before them sat a contract for a three-album deal. Just as they were ready to sign, the least relevant and most readily replaceable member of the band said “wait a second, I’m not sure about this.” The other members said “excuse us a second,” hauled Mr. Cold Feet out into the hallway and quickly reached a compromise that I think went something like “quit fucking around or we’re going to rip off your knees.”
By the time they got back in the office the contract was off the table. Opportunity knocks, but it doesn’t usually stand around very long waiting for you to open the door. And rock star opportunity never knocked again for Jim Booth.
Now, contracts aren’t guarantees of anything. Lots of bands you never heard of signed contracts in the mid-’70s and quickly faded into obscurity. So we’ll never know if Backyard Tea would have hit it big. What we do know is that they were, in fact, very good. I saw later incarnations of the band (playing as Prufrock) twice and they had the chops. They could play, they could sing, and they could write songs. In later years, as a college DJ, I even had the opportunity to play “Salad Days” and, I think, “Boys With Guitars and Dreams” on the radio and they sounded right at home.
So the whole Jay Breeze/rock star arc is significantly more than a writer’s wish-fulfillment/fantasy exercise. The road not taken in his personal life might very plausibly have led Booth down the path that Jay Breeze walked, and certainly Backyard Tea saw enough of the rock life that the stories Breeze tells reek of realism. (Hell, I used to hang out with another buddy’s band and I promise you that some of what happens in the book is tame compared to what can befall even an innocent, non-rock star bystander who gets caught in “the wake. I know, it’s only rock and roll. But I like it.”)
But what if Booth’s life had led him to fame and wealth and unspeakable decadence? The conclusion Booth projects onto his Jay Breeze character is that he’d never have been happy, never have taken his accomplishments seriously. He’d always have wanted to be respected, not worshipped. Aha – I hear the skeptical reader arguing that this is rationalization, an attempt by a guy who missed the boat to dispel the ghosts of cognitive dissonance.
That’s a fair enough challenge, I suppose. Here’s how I see it. On the one hand, the depiction of Jay Breeze, malcontent, is accurate. I have zero doubt in my mind that Breeze/Booth would have been profoundly unfulfilled at an intellectual level by the rock star life. Jim Booth is fundamentally a teacher and a writer soul. He’d have been eternally troubled that he was merely popular instead of literary and he’d have been keenly aware that the very genre of pop/rock songwriting didn’t allow for a fraction of the substantive depth demanded of the serious poet or novelist. In other words, I think Booth is telling us the god’s honest truth about himself.
But there’s a flip side. People are complex, you see, and just as Breeze/Booth would have lamented the road not taken, so also does Beagle/Booth. Jim thinks frequently about what it would have been like to be famous, and perhaps never so wistfully as these days, which find him slugging away trying to market a very good novel in a world where nobody gives a fuck about “mid-list” literary fiction. Who can blame him? Rich and famous people are taken seriously – often far more seriously than their actual ability merits. Meanwhile, our brightest and best scream as loudly as they can, trying to make their voices heard over the deafening white noise of a media-saturated culture of stupid.
In the end, the title of the book – The Completeness of the Soul – is irony run amok. If anything, this novel – this concept album – is about the incompleteness of the soul, and one soul in particular. The writer and the rock star, desperate to be one, desperate for fulfillment and actualization in a world that says “choose: empty fame or obscure substance.” In this book, an exceptionally talented artist struggles with ambivalence – not only the ambivalence of the life lived, but also with the live not lived – in hopes that the two halves of the soul can somehow find unity through art.
Observation #3: About Angel. Yes, I know the story. But no, I won’t be talking about it, any more than Charlie talks about the things he knows. It wouldn’t be rock if there weren’t a woman, and it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if you knew the details.