I recently finished the fantastic novel King Rat by China Mieville. In case you’re unfamiliar with Mieville’s work: he writes amazing stories which mix science fiction, cyberpunk and horror into an electric universe where anything could happen. King Rat, his first novel, tells the story of Saul, who is accused of the brutal murder of his father. Helped by the mysterious King Rat, Saul hides below the streets of London, determined to find his father’s killer.
A great story, and I highly recommend it, but the reason I’m writing about this novel and not one of the many others I’ve read this month is its use of music. Drum ‘n bass plays an important role in the story (and that’s all I can tell you, for saying more would be giving away crucial plot details) and this is not a coincidence. In the acknowledgements Mieville thanks the acquaintance who introduced him to this musical genre and goes on to recommend one of his favourite tracks: The Glok Track by A Guy Called Gerald. Modern technology being what it is, I was quick to satisfy my curiosity and listened to the song on Youtube. The effect was unexpected. The song became more than just a song. It became a soundtrack to the novel which intensified its atmosphere and amplified the reading experience. Drum ‘n bass is not just a part of the novel’s plot, it is part of its very DNA.
This experience made me think about the connection between literary fiction and music. Of course, music and film have long had a happy relationship. But what about written fiction? I always listen to music when I write fiction myself, if only to shut out the real world and get in the right mood. But wouldn’t it be interesting to do the opposite, and create a soundtrack for a novel, a poem, or a short story? Would that intensify the reading experience, just like drum ‘n bass did for this particular story? It does not seem too far a leap from the phenomenon of the concept album, where music is used to tell a story, or where individual songs are connected to an overarching narrative. So what form could a marriage between fiction and music take?
Of course there’s the obvious novel-plus-cd format. Easy to do, and easy to use. But modern technology – again – being what it is, wouldn’t it be great to develop a more integrated music-fiction connection? Ebooks have been on the market for years, virtually everyone I know owns a smartphone or an Ipad, so how come no one has thought of connecting a story with a song and offering this experience as one handy package?
Perhaps someone has, and I’m just stating the obvious. But if these things already exist, how come a reading-obsessed person like me doesn’t know about them yet? Over the past few years people have often told me that traditional literature is dead. I personally see little evidence of this, with people still clutching books on the train. But how great would it be to reach out to those people who currently don’t see themselves as readers, and use a medium that many people find much more accessible than books, to make literature less intimidating and more enjoyable?