Surface Tension

Earlier By Sasha Frere-Jones. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). 200 pages. $17.

The cover of Earlier

A FRIEND OF MINE—the Canadian scholar of Buddhism David Drewes—once observed that we exist at different levels of magnification. Every moment of existence is susceptible to practically infinite expansion—or to shrinking almost to nothingness. We mostly speak and think at a conventional degree of magnification where experience appears to fit into conveniently labeled boxes—“tired,” “successful,” “female,” etc. But around the time that science was discovering the mysteries of cosmic scale—the fact that surfaces, for example, exist at some levels of magnification, but not at others—writers began to explore different scales of experience. Two basic methods emerged, which are still with us, and which we might associate with the great French pioneers of first-person prose of the early twentieth century.

The vertical method, exemplified by Proust, raises the magnification until a single experience—of falling asleep, of listening to a musical phrase—becomes a vortex. The horizontal method, practiced by Céline, skates across the oceanic depths of experience so rapidly as to produce the illusion of a continuous surface. Yet the speed itself is a constant reminder that the ground is not solid, that to slow is to drop into vortex or rise into vaporous generality. Both methods seek to uncover dimensions of existence invisible at the conventional level of magnification. 

The musician and writer Sasha Frere-Jones, in his mesmerizing new memoir Earlier, adopts the horizontal method. Moving swiftly through an apparently random succession of experiences, the book attains a perspective from which a life becomes a moving field of resonances, appearing less like a narrative than a stretch of music without beginning, center, or end. Earlier is arranged in brief sections, labeled with titles and dates, and sequenced paratactically, without indication of connection. 

Here is the section “Block Drugs (2017)”:

We are a sprawl of infirmity here at Block Drugs. A woman at the counter is not buying anything. She is dropping jam jars and picking them up and looking for cracks. A man is leaning across the pharmacy counter and pushing the Chiclets so deep into the display that they spill out over the sides and hit the floor like rain. A man is sitting down and trying to arrange three packs of underwear that he can’t hold.

This moment is suspended between two others of roughly identical length—one from 1985, during Frere-Jones’s move to Florida—and another from 1979, in which he watches monster movies with his father. The scene at “Block Drugs” is sharply observed, and intensely, almost desperately, superficial. There is no reference to the nature of the author’s infirmity—no indication of how or why he arrived at the drugstore. His participation in the scene is limited to the single word “we,” a word that indicates his experience is inside, rather than outside, this surface. Or rather, that this surface is his experience. 

Unlike the Proustian dive, the meaning of this moment cannot be found within it, but in the horizontal connection between this moment and the others in the book. The absence of the obvious kinds of connections—grammatical, linear, chronological, thematic—frees the scene to find relations with every other moment. If a narrative at conventional magnification might contain “Block Drugs” in a particular health crisis, and if the vertical method would descend into the experience of debility until it became its own world, Frere-Jones presents it as a dark tone, quickly played, making a chord with the light tones of the moments that proceed and follow.

He plays another such tone in this wonderful description of anxiety. “I am trying to understand my anxiety, which is not a water-cooler topic in 1985. My term for anxiety is the Golf Ball, because it seems like a thing that could only be hidden with difficulty. It is going to be either visible or felt, never eliminated. Wherever you stash it, you will sense it.” Visible for this moment—felt throughout the rest of the book—the passage shows the subtlety and richness of effects possible for the horizontal writer who eschews the temptation to get to the bottom of things. And who ever gets to the bottom of anxiety, anyway?

Series of photographs showing increased magnification of a butterfly wing. SecretDisc/Shaddack/Michael Apel/Wikicommons
Series of photographs showing increased magnification of a butterfly wing. SecretDisc/Shaddack/Michael Apel/Wikicommons

Sasha Frere-Jones is an influential music critic, and the book, in answering the question what kind of life is his? is also answering the question what kind of taste does he have? The question of the relation between one’s life and one’s taste has become a fraught one, and is still more troubled when the taste in question has a kind of public authority—as Frere-Jones came to have for readers of the New Yorker, the LA Times, and the Village Voice. The commercial egalitarianism of the internet age presents criticism with a challenge. Why should anyone think their taste is any better or more interesting than anyone else’s? How can features of a critic’s identity—in this case white, straight, male—not form and deform their judgments? Who, in short, does this guy think he is to tell me what I should listen to?

Earlier is as much a record of aesthetic judgments—mostly musical—as a memoir of New York, of love, of addiction, of loss. The horizontal method it employs in representing Frere-Jones’s experiences also shapes its expressions of taste. Judgment here is a matter of surfaces, not of depths—and Frere-Jones’s many descriptions of music aim for speed and compression. Out of the emotional and temporal complex of the experience of listening, he fashions compelling shapes, 2D shapes shorn of the idiosyncratic and deeply personal, and over which, he suggests, any mind can momentarily fit. 

Consider, for example, this description of the Gap Band’s 1982 single “Outstanding.” “If you listen to the piano do a little kick step, and then ooch up the patio steps, you’ll hear the exact moment when it’s time to spin on your heel.” In “Block Drugs” the word “we” cast Frere-Jones’s otherwise invisible experience in the shape of the coiled forms of other people’s suffering. Here, the word “you” throws his experience of a piece of music out as an opportunity to any other listener. The sentence says: there is nothing about Sasha Frere-Jones the person, nothing deep, nothing below the surface, that determines this judgment. It could be yours.

Furthermore, the grounds of Frere-Jones’s judgment of “Outstanding” is, to use the egalitarian jargon, fully transparent. The conventional implication of critical judgment is always, “Trust me, this is good, I will try to explain how and why it is good, but my sense of its goodness issues from the deep background of my long experience, talent, and attunement to music, and you may have to learn how to hear this song as I hear it.” Frere-Jones implies, by contrast, “This is just what this song does; when you listen to it, the same thing will happen to you.” The depths that enabled his perception of “Outstanding”—a perception I would never have had on my own, but having heard him say it, I can now verify—are concealed. This is horizontal criticism.

I must now dissent from the observation with which I began, and say that the analogy of experience to magnification is, in the end, false. Because magnification, in a scientific sense, is symmetrical. There is no “right” magnification; the lesson is one of relativity. A magnification of 10 to the 10th power is just as real and valid as a magnification of 10 to the negative 10th power. 

But in experience, the depths feel more real. Every horizontal book, every work that wishes to compress experience and skate across the smooth surface is always aware of the depths, of their danger and attraction. And so it is possible to see in every horizontal book the signs of a repressed vertical book. The avoided depth is visible in figures the skater leaves, in his obsessive return to a point, which he circles, before working up enough velocity to, for the moment, escape.

In Earlier, this depth is resentment. The book is littered with micro-portraits of pop musicians, and pop critics, who become bitter, “misanthropic.” The reason for such bitterness isn’t hard to see. Pop music, as a commercial form, has a single scale of value—commercial success. What is good is what is popular, the music most people “vote” for with their streams or purchases. As Justin E. H. Smith has pointed out in a recent Harper’s essay on Generation X—to which Frere-Jones also belongs—the very idea of “selling out” no longer makes sense in the popular-music universe. Yet the seriousness of Frere-Jones as a musician and critic—his ambition to do more than merely imitate or ratify reigning popular taste—depends on a scale of value potentially (and often actually) at odds with best-sellerdom.

In a reflection on the once-ubiquitous, now vanishing breed of record store clerks, Frere-Jones offers a deep defense of the horizontal. What made the record store clerks bitter—and he believes most of them were bitter—was that they believed in music like Can (or perhaps, Frere-Jones’s even more uncommercial band, Ui) while all the people who came into the store seemed to want were “top ten records.” The clerks have a vague sense that their customers should have better taste, but they lack the authority and time to even try to be “Spirit Guides.” So they become bitter. “Weak idealists make strong cynics.” 

“You’re selling widgets when you’re selling records,” Frere-Jones writes, “but that doesn’t mean that records don’t matter at a spiritual level. . . . You could change a stranger’s life by introducing them to Can.” And here lies a key to Frere-Jones’s masterful book about the life of a musician and critic. One keeps the deep “spiritual level” open by skating over it. Through quick, take-it-or-leave-it offerings of a song, of an experience, you keep open the possibility that separates you from the misanthropes, that keeps you from bitterness. You might share your life. 

Michael W. Clune is the author of White Out, available in a new tenth-anniversary edition from McNally Editions.