20 September 2010
A catchy song only matters the second time you hear it. Is that true? The first listening lays the groundwork, but the power of a catchy song is in its after-effects, the extent to which it lodges in your brain, consciously or not, so that in the second, and subsequent, listenings, the primary pleasure is in the flush of recognition. It’s in the itch you did or didn’t know needed scratching. Certainly, catchy songs are also often something other than catchy, and there are plenty of immediate pleasures to be found in hearing many songs for the first time. But last night I went to see Superchunk, and they are a band whose primary asset is catchiness. It’s their hooks and, yes, choruses. I don’t know a single song past 1994’s Foolish, and the vast majority of the set came from their last couple records (which, to be honest, I didn’t even know they’d released). Though it was great to see Mac hopping and flailing around the stage, and a despite-herself pogo or two from Laura, I was pretty bored. It was thwarted nostalgia, too, of course—I wanted the songs that reminded me of something, that reminded me of myself a decade-and-a-half ago. I wanted the songs that would let me dip into my 17-year-old self, then immediately transcend it, with the viscerality and difference of the current moment. I know it’s not Superchunk’s job to do that. Was I talking about catchiness?
Anyway, I’m trying to start writing a new novel. I don’t know what it’s about. Actually, the problem is that, variously, I’ve thought it might be about any of the following: teenagers, New Jersey, Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead, queerness, Israel/Palestine—but I don’t know what it’s about in a more adverbial sense, as in, I don’t know what it’s up to, I don’t know how to make it up to something. I don’t have a character, voice, style, or structure. In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” I’ve got statements out the arsehole, but no story. I know that the best stories find their statements, not the other way around (which is, in part, why Ayn Rand was not very good at writing stories). Over the last couple months, I’ve generated pages of attempts. One piece uses a Superchunk show as the setting for a transformative teenage moment. At times the piece feels about to veer into story, but what’s driving it is statement. An idea of what this show did or could mean, to me, to the character who is much closer to me than I would prefer.
I’m not sure, right now, if catchiness is statement or story. I’m leaning toward the former. Statements are important, we need statements, and we need statements to arise from art, and with artfulness. It’s possible that the best statements are stories in their own right. They imply dimension and action, though their outward manifestation may be simple and concise. Statements gain depth not through expansion, but through repetition. How many of us have cut off a catchy song before it’s finished, because we just can’t wait to start it over and hear it again? When reading a novel I love, on the other hand, I try to slow down the reading process as long as possible, in order to let the story creep and linger. Whether it’s a page or 1000 pages long, I think a story should feel infinite when you’re writing it. To find infinity requires patience. And oh, how hard it can be, to hold on to that patience through the lure of statements, to wait out that unscratchable itch.