Welcome to my micro-interview series, which focuses on recent releases I’ve found noteworthy. Past entries are archived here.
In this series I’m asking writers to respond to the two questions I most frequently ask when I’m teaching a book in the classroom: (1) what is the text doing / how is the text doing it, and (2) with what does the text connect?
These questions arise from my particular approach to reading and critical analysis, which is deeply indebted to Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. As they put it, “Literature is an assemblage…a book itself is a little machine…writing has nothing to do with signifying…it has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come.”
So, without further delay…
I present Joe Milazzo, whose recent book Crepuscule W/ Nellie has been described thusly:
“A polyvocal narrative that’s part Faulkner à la midcentury Manhattan’s jazz epicenters, part early 90’s avant-pop crossed with Black Mountain poetics, and part ghost, Joe Milazzo’s genrebending Crepuscule W/ Nellie boldly re-imagines the relationship between fact and fiction.” —Claire Donato, author of Burial
“Milazzo dug this lost recording of the Monk/Monk/Pannonica trio—dug as in figured, as in got into, as in exhumed—out that ‘dustbin’ folks talk about. And since the composition called Crepuscule W/ Nellie is this time a story storying history, the good mess Milazzo so expertly messes with alchemizes the linguistic odds-and-ends that make a vernacular both high-falluting and low-down; the factual scraps that member a fiction into a rich speculation; and the individuals ignored so long they must come back to us in books. Our author has given us a fascinating one. Dig it, dig it, dig it.” —Douglas Kearney, author of The Black Automaton and PATTER
“Joe Milazzo’s Crepuscule W/ Nellie is a blast. So rarely do we get a novel this momentous, challenging, ambitious—Crepuscule W/ Nellie transcends expectation. I’m moved by the fierce acuity of the maximalist prose, never less than adroit and vital as it parses a famous triangle between the maestro, Thelonious Monk, his wife Nellie, and the Bebop Baroness, Panonica de Koenigswarter, the most storied music patron of the 20th century. Triangulating the infinite personal declensions between struggling black musicians and the white patrons, between the women and their men, Joe Milazzo’s language brilliantly echolocates that essentially American distance, sounding out an American loneliness that is with us still.” —Sesshu Foster, author of World Ball Notebook and Atomik Aztex
What does your book do and how does your book do it?
I would describe Crepuscule W/ Nellie as a work of speculative historical fiction that also happens to be a meta-narrative.
Although some, though not all, of the characters in the novel are based on and named after actual historical personages—Thelonious Monk, the African-American jazz-pianist and composer; Nellie Monk, Thelonious’ wife and also African-American; the Baroness Pannonica De Koenigswarter, a member of the wealthy and powerful Rothschild family and a jazz “patron” of some note—the events reported and the relationships explored here are either invented, radically reimagined, or intentionally skewed away from the reassuring factuality of history and towards the troubled verisimilitude of fiction.
As the novel’s title suggests, the narrative here is much more Nellie’s than it is Thelonious Monk’s. Viewed from one perspective, Crepuscule W/ Nellie begins with the sympathetic imagination—Nellie’s—in a state of emergency and spirals outward from that imagination’s initializing failures; failures, it should be emphasized, for which Nellie’s imagination cannot be held fully culpable. Much of the novel is told from Nellie’s point-of-view, either in first person or in a telescoping third-person. Never in the novel will the reader encounter Monk “directly”; never does the narrative enter his mind or portray, without interference, his point-of-view—unless one conflates speech with unfiltered consciousness. Within the limits of the Monk-Nellie-Nica triad, the novel works to reverse the directional impetus of the classic “love triangle,” this particular geometry possessing neither static contours nor an easily calculable area. Here, the man is the mysterious and perpetually receding object of desire, the masculine that which arouses the feminine with his seeming impenetrability and indifference.
In addition to passion and desire as they are most often portrayed and defined in the novel, Crepuscule W/ Nellie also cannot help but be concerned with the politics of identity, self-representation and authenticity, especially as jazz is often cast as an exemplar of the last. “Passing” (denying or hiding one’s “blackness” in order to win acceptance and gain social mobility in a predominantly white social order) is a classic theme within African-American literature. My hope is that readers will also understand Crepuscule W/ Nellie as a necessarily doomed effort to disassemble the ideology of authenticity and rebuild it as a psychology that transcends categories of ethnicity and socio-cultural status. If Nellie has many voices, does she have agency? Or is hers a desperate searching out of a single, unified, authoritative voice? Is one of these voices more autonomous, more purely the self, than the others? Or are all equally counterfeit, each to be placed into circulation as required by the terms and conditions of a specific transaction, all because the “true voice” is too valuable to be revealed, to be “spent?” What, especially for the multiply disenfranchised, is the relationship between power and Bakhtinian heteroglossia? As much as I always wanted Crepuscule W/ Nellie to make audible a heretofore silent figure, I also strove to ensure that I simultaneously worked against the grain of that impulse, that I did not valorize it by granting it complete freedom. That this impulse remains visible if not entirely naked within in the text, framed consistently by the obstacles to its fulfilling its own pretensions.
At the level of the meta-, Crepuscule W/ Nellie is something of an interrogation of the techniques and tropes of literary Modernism. I am interested particularly in how this style, or set of related textual strategies, though constituting the hegemonic literary approach of the time—by the 1950s, Crepuscule W/ Nellie‘s narrative present, it could be argued that every item below above had seeped into pop culture and had begun to harden into the cliché of a new melodrama—required for its subjects those culturally and socially marginalized. Crepuscule W/ Nellie is populated with characters who are many of these subjects simultaneously: the starving artist; the dissolute / degenerate aristocrat; the “mad”; the obsessive (of which the addict is a variation); the idiot(-savant); the yokel; the racial “other”; the individual tragically “tainted” by some form of miscegenation; and the woman whose intellect and / or ambition is thwarted by her family circumstances. Granted, I do desire for Crepuscule W/ Nellie to be a novel that can be appreciated in terms of the relationships binding its characters as well as the advancing revelations of the story itself. Still, I have always wondered if, by overloading the circuits of literary Modernism, a novel might make it yield some answers about its role not just in creating but in reproducing subjects. How much is Modernism implicated in a re-staging of the very individual and collective traumas it attempted to exorcise via innovative—yet more “realistic” or true—tellings? What does Modernism permit, and what does it preclude? Does Modernism, as claimed, really grant the writer privileged access to other consciousnesses, or is it really just a violation, even a colonization, of other consciousnesses? Can the repercussions of Modernism be contained (or muted) by its being (re-)historicized? These questions were ones that, in the years that I labored over the manuscript, moved from the periphery to the center, or from the background to the foreground of the novel. Of course, at a purely self-serving level, Crepuscule W/ Nellie became my way of trying to break my allegiance to these techniques and to this style. Ultimately, however, my ambition is to have the “modern” hang over Crepuscule W/ Nellie‘s proceedings like a veil whose position with respect to the scene and whose distance from the audience (including myself as author) is difficult if not impossible to discern.
Behind that same curtain, in my opinion, another question lurks. Is this an ekphrastic novel? Yes and no. Crepuscule W/ Nellie did begin as a speculative extemporization based upon the content of Monk’s music. When I first conceived of the novel, I was preoccupied with the question of how the dramatic human compulsion to create operates on and within the social tissues in which the artist (and by extension, all of us willing to notice) is bound up. I wanted, with narrative, to track the unforeseen ways in which even the most private products of our imaginations (in this case, deeply coded, both technically and culturally, improvised music) manage to transcend themselves and their ostensibly lonely function, whether that be to soothe, please, divert and/or otherwise engage only the imaginer’s attention. However, with each draft, Crepuscule W/ Nellie increasingly vacated aesthetics for ethics. In other words, there is little language in the novel that makes an effort to capture or “translate” jazz into a narrative poetics. That said, in being about a musician, the novel has necessarily been informed by musical organizational schemes. The dialogic component of Crepuscule W/ Nellie could be read as a fictive performance of jazz’s antiphonal “string of soloists” developmental tactics. The novel’s prose itself might conceivably be parsed so as to reveal syncopated rhythms, dissonance, chromaticism, wild intervallic leaps, the orchestral deployment of timbres, etc. If I have been successful, Crepuscule W/ Nellie will accommodate such a reading, and not because its individual sentences, paragraphs, passages, etc. are appropriately adorned, but rather because the language itself demonstrates a unique formal efficacy. That is, I decided very early on in my composing that, in Crepuscule W/ Nellie, the “musical” content must have a definite function; it must achieve a narrative significance not available to other modes of telling. For me, as someone who has written both analytically and “creatively” about music, this has been distinct challenge, and one I would like to believe—through the character of Nellie herself, a weary but “devoted” caregiver straining to make sense of what her husband’s expressions, his “songs without words,” mean—I have met at least halfway.
Having identified your book’s comportment, could you bring it into focus by describing its relationship to other texts? (By “texts” I mean any relatable objects.) Put another way: if we think about a book as a star in a constellation, or a node in a circuit, I’m interested in hearing about the constellation or circuit in which readers might find your book. Put yet another way: if we think about your book as contributing to particular conversations, could you describe those conversations and their other participants?
First and foremost, Crepuscule W/ Nellie‘s debt to African-American intellectual traditions cannot be overstated. The book simply wouldn’t exist without the trail-blazing work of Thelonious Monk himself, not to mention countless other jazz musicians (living as well as departed), W. E. B. DuBois, Ishmael Reed, Gayl Jones, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin (especially his magnificent short story “Sonny’s Blues”), William Demby (Beetlecreek is a novel that should be more widely read), Fred Moten, Cedric J. Robinson, Albert Murray, Nathaniel Mackey, Bob Kaufman, Charles Burnett, Wanda Coleman, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin and Pierre Marcelin, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, and many, many others. These writers and artists constitute a galaxy that dwarfs in illuminative power whatever shines forth from my pinprick of a book.
I would like to believe that Crepuscule W/ Nellie carries on novelistic traditions that go back to Flaubert at least (the novel that is itself concerned with what novel-reading does to the novel-reader), and perhaps even Laurence Sterne (the novel conscious of its own construction) and continues through the nouveau roman—specifically, Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, Martereau and Do You Hear Them? and the sensory realms those novels occupy. But, as noted above, the novels that are most closest to Crepuscule W/ Nellie‘s in orbit are younger bodies. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, and Thomas Pychon’s V. are the “novels of the 50s” that still exert the most gravitational pull upon my imagination. Crepuscule W/ Nellie is beholden to all three books in ways that are, at least to this reader, painfully apparent. I would also say that my novel also owes something to more quintessentially pop 50’s cultural phenomena such as Peyton Place (the novel as well as the film adaptation); Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life; Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato; Whyte’s The Organization Man; Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders; the Bridey Murphy / Virginia Tighe case; the Alger Hiss and Rosenberg trials; the decade’s various “juvenile delinquency” scares; Jack Gelber’s play The Connection (later filmed by Shirley Clarke); “Beatniks,” if not the Beats, exactly.
John Clellon Holmes’ The Horn is the one “jazz novel” that I felt compelled to honor as well as I could; it is not book without problematic elements, but it is both serious and quite beautiful in its treatment of “the jazz life,” a treatment as admirable as it was uncommon in its time.
Nathaneal West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, though a novel of the 30’s, provided a kind of model as well—any remotely poetic-cum-purple “hard-boiled” language in Crepuscule W/ Nellie is probably a result of my attempting to imitate West, who was, after all, rediscovered in the 50’s.
John Hawkes’ The Beetle Leg influenced some of the structural decisions I made. I also have great admiration for the phantasmagorical omniscience of Hawkes’ early fiction. Of all writers, that Hawkes reminds me of my “local hero” William Goyen, a fellow East Texan whose empathetic fictions are both deeply of and yet utterly beyond his place and person.
As to what conversation I hear thrumming in all these forebears and artifacts, I think the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins put it best in his liner notes to his album Freedom Suite in 1958: “America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humor, its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.” Rollins’ vocabulary here is the vocabulary of his time, and we would like to believe that the persecutions and repressions he alludes to are equally of the past. But we all know they are not, that this irony persists, and that it isn’t that kind of irony—”funny”—even if its our laughter that’s keeping us from crying.
Joe Milazzo is a writer, editor, educator, and designer. He is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Press) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books), a volume of poetry. He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy, and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo/.
 As I began to do the research required to achieve a new perspective on these three individuals, an “official narrative” of the Nellie-Monk-Baroness triangle soon emerged. A beautiful narrative, it is to be admitted, or romantic devotion, self-sacrifice, and the wages of keeping faith with one’s self. I was unable to uncover any evidence to suggest that the Baroness’ intimacy with Monk was anything more than Platonic. Nor was I able to find any information to support a vague conviction I felt that the Baroness’ presence in Monk’s life was disruptive, destructive, or a source of conflict. In fact, in the literature I reviewed during this research phase (which does not include Robin D. G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original or Hannah Rothschild’s The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, neither of which were published until this novel was in its final revisions) both women appeared to be essentially silent figures, significant most in that they were an aid to Monk and made his art possible. “And yet,” I asked myself, “what of the possibilities of their own lives, and their own stories?”
 A list of these techniques and tropes includes (but is not necessarily limited to): multi-vocality, with alternative points-of-view; internal monologue / stream-of consciousness narration;”documentary evidence” (The Baroness’ diary entries; letters from Nellie to her family in Crowder’s Slab, etc.); unadorned dialogue, set off using leading “—”; an emphasis on spatial or thematic narrative arrangements as opposed to strict chronological narrative sequence. I also acknowledge that these techniques and tropes are both temporally and topographically congruent with the novel’s setting: Manhattan in the mid-20th Century. Thus, their appearance lends the novel additional “period detail.”
 Although the connotations are a bit different and require more attention than an annotation such as this will allow, recall that Thelonious Monk is considered to be one of the primary architects of “modern jazz.”
 This is not a claim that aesthetic concerns have made an exit from the text, or from my practice. But, if they have not receded, they have become lesser-trafficked angles of approach or passages to a more pressing concern I have with language-as-consciousness.