Bruce Bauman’s Broken Sleep is a titanic, post-punk mosaic of history, art, philosophy, myth, family, politics, war, peace, illness, sports and, of course, rock and roll.
Oh, and the Nazis.
Let’s not forget the Nazis.
Aside from that, it’s also the only book in the history of literature to open with an assisted suicide presented as a public art installation with the Fugs as the house band.
I dare you to find another.
Falling somewhere between The Savage Detectives and The Fall’s This Nation’s Saving Grace, Broken Sleep is the kind of novel that begs to be reread multiple times. It’s teeming with cultural references, loaded with layers of history and covered in coats of staggeringly beautiful poeticism that will, quite simply, knock you out. It’s a dazzling masterwork—a commanding epic about memory, desire and all the music in between.
The book centers around the terminally ill Moses Teumer–afflicted with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia, he must find a bone donor or face certain death. The quickest medical solution for issues like these can be found in one’s own bloodline, but when Moses finds out that the family who he thinks is his family isn’t his family at all, he sets out to find out who just who exactly is.
The answer to that is unexpected and spectacular and it centers around an avant-garde artist and a famous rock band called The Insatiables.
And The Insatiables, it should be pointed out, are well named, because they’re very hard to resist.
Their tie to Moses is quickly revealed—the singer Alchemy is Moses’ half brother—and while Moses untangles the crossed cables of his filial life, the other cables of his existence that he thought were untangled, get very tangled indeed.
While Moses comes to terms with his ancestral past, other narratives–from Moses’ birth mother Salome Savant to Alchemy himself–weave in and out of the text with seamless grace. And as all the perspectives begin to fill in the empty, jagged slots of the whole puzzle, Bauman effectively uses these personages to traverse time and space, leaping from the ‘60s to World War II to political America in 2020, with painterly ease. As Moses searches and tries to part the seas of his past, Bauman walks up and down the streets of modern and forgotten America and as he does, he brings its history back to life.
As for The Insatiables, they’re something else. Aside from their own compelling and wildly entertaining narrative, their band dynamic is a reminder that once you’re in a band you’re always in a band even when the band is no longer a band. It’s a lifelong confederacy that makes the world possible in ways that civilians like us can never understand. But Bauman’s portrait of the musicians—which comes replete with a winning discography (who doesn’t wish the Noncommittal Nihilists For Nothing was an album you could buy right now?) is one of the most compelling, hilarious and altogether real depictions of a band that I’ve ever read.
Bauman has all the streetwise fluidity of a beat poet (“The bicentennial sissy boom-bah God Bless America blitzkrieg and the anti-rah-rah blather of the downtown scene made me almost want to be…French”), the comedic timing of George Carlin and the all-inclusive sensitivity of Walt Whitman. There’s no better guide in and out of the heavenly highs, hellish backwaters and purgatorial hangovers of modern America than Bauman—not only is he a writer of tremendous humanity and feeling, he reminds us that the fault line of a broken heart will always yield a series of aftershocks and without those shakes, we’re no longer alive.
Broken Sleep is a cultural stew, peppered with references to and appearances by: Springsteen, Rilke, Garbo, Sam Cooke, Van Morrison, Courtney Love, Dylan, Andy Warhol, Shakespeare, Mad Magazine, Yeats, Hendrix, Freud and James Baldwin. And somehow, Bauman brings them all together to show that together they’ve formed our modern consciousness, our national identity and our tethered and connected souls.
A colossal, unreasonably marvelous book, this novel is about life and how to live it as much as it is about how not to. Bauman is a modern master and his control, his pace and his compassion are things to marvel at. Broken Sleepis rich, hilarious and shot through with the kind of winning velocity whose aural equivalent is a pop song that comes with the kind of massive chorus that will bring you to your knees and make you feel like the world will never end.
Alex Green: Can you talk a bit about the decision to include a rock band in your novel?
Bruce Bauman: It wasn’t a decision, it just had to be. From the beginning, the Insatiables were going to be a part of this novel. For years I couldn’t get how I could make the story I wanted to tell unique and also tell a funny and serious story. The Salome and Alchemy relationship was always central. I had this other idea to tell a story turning the traditional Moses myth — born a Jew and raised by an Egyptian — upside down. When I decided to combine the two I knew I had the entry into the wider story. After that, it took years to develop into something coherent. The 20th Century gave us two new art forms. It’s hard for us – at least for me- to imagine, but movies are only 100 years old and talkies are not even 100. Before that there was only theater. I read somewhere that more people saw Shakespeare on TV in one night in the sixties than had all the people who had seen Shakespeare in the theater in theater in the past 500 years. The same goes for the way people heard music– always live. What rock n’roll stars, the real greats, not the mediocrities who need autotune in the studio or pyrotechnics on stage – have the ability to make great records using technology and mesmerize a live audience of two hundred people or 50,000. I am in awe of that kind of talent and power. I had to write about it. And — I just love rock ‘n roll.
Alex Green: Where did the name for the band come from?
Bruce Bauman: In my early 20s I had number of dreams and in those dreams came the name the Insatiables- a band where I actually heard music. Though I never could recapture that sound. Also the he characters of Ambitious Mindswallow, Silky Trespass were in those dreams and made it into the book. There was a character Twilight Fingertips who evolved into Alchemy. I was reading a lot of Pynchon at the time as well as Gargantua and Pantagruel and Aristotle’s ideas of appetite. I’d say those were were the sparks.
AG: The book’s chapters are rich with punful meaning–and, I should add, they’re very, very clever. Many of them reference famous songs by everyone from Sam Cooke to Bob Dylan. What made you choose the songs that you did?
BB: In this case the answer to which came first is easy – the contents of the chapter determined the heading. The heading had to have some relation to the contents of the chapter albeit sometimes it may be a stretch, without giving too much away of what is coming. Sometimes it came to me very fast. The Cooke title you refer to, that came fast. The moment I finished reading that chapter over I heard ‘Don’t know much about history…’ Other times I left a ? until I got one. Sometimes I played with different songs, books, Biblical phrases, whatever until it had the right sound and meaning. It was really, really fun. I have to credit the writer/critic Anthony Miller with the idea to do that. I have called sorta jokingly the book a postmodern picaresque novel. (Moses’ doctor is named Hank Fielding and he sends him on this quest to find his family.) Anthony pointed out that so many picaresque novels have chapter headings so… off I went.
AG: The Insatiables go a bit sideways when the singer decides to embark on a non-musical pursuit. Not taking anything away from Alchemy, but was this a commentary on celebrity and how it’s given permissions that “regular” folks would never be afforded? In other words, a guy who does mortgages at the bank could never embark on a non-banking pursuit that would be as high profile…
BB: Celebrity does afford special privileges but nothing like the privileges of being born rich like the Bushes — all of whom, including Poppy are not among the brightest people in the world and are really experts at getting other peoples’ kids killed. I don’t know the exact percentages but the vast majority of the one per cent were born into the top ten percent, if not the top one percent. And almost none of them comes from the bottom ten or even bottom 50%. The Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world did not exactly come from welfare families. Trump’s father, Fred, was one of the wealthiest builders in the New York boroughs. Trump parlayed that fortune into celebrity and now into a political- celebutante.
Look, our culture is all fucked up. It’s always been skewed – any country founded on slavery and then fought a civil war based on maintaining the white male privilege of slave owners is well, fucked up. It’s actually better now is some ways but still kind of upside down.
I love sports as much as the next guy who as a kid dreamed of being a pro baseball player — but the fact the in LA we put up statues of basketball and hockey players in front of Staples is all wrong. They are great athletes. Magic Johnson is more admirable to me for what he’s done after he quit than while he played for the Lakers. My idea is to put up statues of great LA writers in front of the downtown library like Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley Joan Didion and Steve Erickson.
That was long way of getting to the short answer– Yes, celebrity affords great privilege and mostly it’s abused. Alchemy, for all his grandiosity was trying to do something good for the entire society at great emotional and financial cost to himself.
AG: Rock and roll and history are in many ways the combination of desire and myth–what we want and what we think will happen. Can you talk a bit about how both rock and roll and history are intertwined in Broken Sleep?
BB: Yikes. That is a good, complex question.
I’d start by putting the question in the past tense when it comes to history. As in “lets make a myth of what may have happened.” I pretty much think that hasn’t changed from the time of Herodotus and Thucydides. The Holocaust, which, along with the Soviet Revolution and its fall, are the two central events of the 20th Century. Taking two extremes, there are those, and it is a minority though enough of one to matter, that believe the Holocaust is truly a myth – it never happened. Then you have very right wing Israeli minority who have mythologized the enormous atrocities of the Nazis and their allies to say no non-Jew can ever be trusted to save ‘the Jews,” and they have justified abhorrent behavior. And you have many variations in between.
Anyway, if you study history it’s hard to be a cockeyed optimist. Progress does come but at a very, very high price.
When I started listening to rock ‘n roll, it had about a ten year history, which is almost no history. (Yes, I know its roots go back generations.) The beauty of rock n’ roll was the invention the electric guitar allowed for a new art form to evolve from one that is thousands of years of old. That and the rise of the “teenager,” another 20th Century creation. That lack of history and general youthful energy gave the music a sense of optimism and power that no generation ever possessed and used. I mean the 60s “radicals” said — We are going to end a war, integrate the country, promote women’s rights — and millions of people marched with them. The leaders of the first rock ‘n roll generation did that. MLK was born in 1929, Chuck Berry in 1926, Abbie Hoffman 1936, John Lennon 1940. Elvis in 1935, RFK in 1935, Gloria Steinem 1934, Joan Baez 1941 and on and on. The key thing here is that almost all these people began to make their mark on history when they were in 20s. Have their dreams come true? More quickly than any historian could’ve imagined. In the long and wide arc of history, amazingly great things have happened rapidly. I mean, I doubt anyone in 1965 believed the U.S. would have a black president in 2008. Or that Oprah Winfrey, who really did come from geeze, less than nothing, would make a billion dollars and be one of the mot powerful people — man or woman, black or white — in the world. But the cost has been tremendous. Bush Jr. and his cronies pretty much destroying the world made Obama possible. Still, for many of us the changes have not come, as the Insatiables might sing, “Fast Enough.”
Now, in the novel, Moses the historian represents one who studies the past and has a cautious approach to life. Alchemy is all energy and optimism and knows rock history and selective parts of world and American History. He is the “I can do anything” that was that Beatles at their fearless genius best. And Louise Urban Vulter, whose name is derived from Pope Urban II and who launched the Crusades in 1095 with the words “Deus Vult” represents the co-opting of 60s culture by regressive forces. Nathaniel Brockton represents the 60s old guard, who by the end of the book, don’t realize how much they accomplished and are not yet recognized by the mainstream for the true American heroes they are.
AG: I remember reading a piece in the Guardian years ago about the best rock and roll novels. Would you consider Broken Sleep a rock and roll novel?
BB: Yes, I guess. I mean there is a band and discography at the end, but there’s also so much about art and politics and even academia that I’m not sure how I qualify it. If anything, it’s a book about a family.
AG: And now I have to ask, what is a rock and roll novel? A book with music in it? Surely it must mean something greater than that….
BB: I think rock n’ roll novels have to have an attitude and a style. I’d say Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the greatest of all rock ‘n roll novels—and I call it a novel. The prose of that book is more akin to the sound and rhythm of rock ‘n roll than many rock books. Just the way Fitzgerald’s best work sounds like twenties jazz and Kerouac’s sound like fifties jazz. I’d say much of Mailer’s work in the 60s qualifies, even if he considered himself more of a jazz guy, An American Dream and much of what’s in Advertisements for Myself is rock writing. And Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 with the Paranoids. Nik Cohn’s early rock writing has it, but his novel King Death—not so much. And Delillo’s Great Jones Street has it. Even though there’s no music in it, Donald Antrim’s first novel Elect Mr. Robinson to Save the World and Steve Erickson’s The Sea Came in at Midnight have the sound of rock novels to me. Because they came out while I was writing Broken Sleep I haven’t read Spiotta or Egan’s books yet. I intend to read both.
AG: Can you talk a bit about the relationship Broken Sleep has to the past? In other words, the past feels as much of a main character here as Moses or Alchemy….
BB: Yes, time and specifically the past are main characters in the book. Moses is a history professor for a reason. He is always trying to excavate his past and redo it. And in some way he does redo it, but he cannot escape it. Salome continually says she denies time but then collects clocks and she too is a prisoner of her past. Her DNA travels are, as much as anything, an attempt to reconnect to the past. Personally, I don’t understand closure.