Let's call it a neo-phenomenological study of American pop culture, this ongoing prose project of Geoffrey O'Brien's. It began with his first book, Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks; continued through Dream Time: Chapters from the Sixties; Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century; The Browser's Ecstasy: A Meditation on Reading; and Castaways of the Image Planet: Movies, Show Business, Public Spectacle; and now finds its most personal formˇthe closest O'Brien will likely come to writing a memoirˇin Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life, a dizzyingly erudite account of the last seventy years of pop music and a family portrait of obsessive listeners.
O'Brien is an accomplished poet, which translates into imagistic, formalist prose that is both lyrical and careful. He is also one of our most astute critics, with a nearly encyclopedic, cross-genre, cross-disciplinary knowledge of both low and high culture (if we're still making such distinctions). And I say "neo-phenomenological"ˇwith the philosophers Husserl and Levinas in mindˇbecause while O'Brien's central topics have ranged from noir novels and B films to the counterculture and pop music, his ongoing subjects are perception and the shaping of contemporary consciousness.
"If we are to live among electronic shadows," he wrote in his introduction to Castaways of the Image Planet, "it helps to keep on talking back to them." That's a fatalistic, even resigned sentence, but it's only the starting point. O'Brien understands that what more dogmatic and alarmist writers might call "cultural static" is simply the now unavoidable state of things. The "real" of our present moment is no more apprehensible than "the past," both of which are forms of elaborate storytelling at best. Should we nevertheless be alarmed? Probably. Will our alarm matter, as we bob along in the tide of late capitalism, which functions best under an oil slick of perceived hedonistic plenty? Don't be ridiculous. We live in a new kind of reality, O'Brien's work suggests, and tuning our ears to hear some melodies within the unavoidable static is our best bet.
O'Brien builds his book around the idea that a part of every contemporary mind and memory is made of entertainment artifacts, that "my ancestors blur with other people's ancestors, with the people in the newspaper photographs and the people who weren't even photographed, with the unreal people in books and movies, and with the people imagined altogether." Music, then, can be used as a tunnel back into the past, or even as a surrogate kind of past: "It's as much of a past as I have," he writes, "except of course that I don't have it. I make it up by imagining connections between fragments. . . . The inhabitants of that world [the past] have become figures in the dream of the past that in weak moments I might mistake for History." And two paragraphs later: "You can . . . lose yourself in sounds captured in 1933, 1934, 1935. Stretch just those three years to a lifetime if you like. You won't find your lost family there but you'll find something connected to it, a space you can share with ghosts."
Since the early '80s O'Brien has been turning over these ideas of perception and subjectivityˇI almost want to say mass-mediated group subjectivity, as if the shorthand of shared culture somehow connects us more than we would like to believeˇand making the gray area between the blatant artifice of culture and our sometimes arbitrary conception of cultural "authenticity" his stomping ground. He asks us, in his oblique and sophisticated way, to think about whether we really believe that the mountain is more "authentic" to our lived experience than the picture of the mountain on the billboard. The way he accomplishes this aestheticallyˇand it is what makes his books such pleasurable readsˇis by anchoring the prose in a deft and idiosyncratic point of view, one that places you in the position of the reader, viewer, or listener, the person bobbing in the above-mentioned tide. In other words, he doesn't comment on these strange workings at arm's length, in dry academic jargon (although we are in cultural-studies-seminar terrain here), but rather he inhabits them in aˇtechnically speakingˇnovelistic way, letting us feel their effect.
Sonata for Jukebox is his finest literary performance, a culmination of both his stylishness as a writer and his original thinking as a critic. It is a wide-ranging assessment of pop music, tradition, and influence from early blues and folk recordings, jazz, and Elvis to the Beatles, disco, and reggae. At the same time it is an elegy of sorts for family members, a deeply personal meditation on how recorded music, like almost nothing else, transcends time and death, is able to exist unchanged in the future. This, ultimately, is the most important motif in the book, and how its two halves, pop music and family, criticism and memoir, unite. On the opening page O'Brien writes that he sees the project as devoted to "describing how one listener (this listener, for convenient example) hears, or imagines he hears, and how he connects that listening to the rest of life." The "rest of life" O'Brien is referring to is his own past, and he shows us portraits of his father, a mid-twentieth-century New York radio personality, his brother, a jazz aficionado and musician, and finally his mother, a lover of big band and classical. We travel into boys' bedrooms, record players spinning; and into decrepit apartments smelling of incense and littered with vinyl and battered cardboard sleeves. We roam through the shifting shadows of New York City set to different sound tracks, different eras, different moods. The book ends, as it seems it must, with a deathˇO'Brien's mother's, movingly rendered. And we are reminded, before the music and memory can be cued again, that the main characteristic of any ending is that awful moment of utter silence.
Greg Bottoms, assistant professor of English at the University of Vermont, is the author of Angelhead (Crown).