Saturday, 21 January 2017

Interim reading log

The most recent London Review of Books (39.1) contains a really great essay on David Bowie's legacy, by Ian Penman (or rather it is on, as Penman says, "the alleged Bowie 'legacy'"). This is easily the most worthwhile thing I've read on the subject, which, without getting mawkish, is one that matters a lot to me. 

It's also a superb piece of critical work by any measure. A little taste:

People still get into knots about the ‘mystery’ of Bowie’s serial life-swapping in the 1970s, but he’d been pulling the same trick for years on the perimeter of Tin Pan Alley before he applied it to rock. A bit of sci-fi, a bit of up-in-the-air sexuality, a bit of scarves-in-the-air sing-along, a bit of an ‘Oh no he isn’t!’ panto vibe, and a lot of power chords. Surely one of the main reasons we project other, more fancy motivations onto the blank screen of Bowie’s waiting face is precisely because of its breathtaking and deeply odd beauty. If he’d looked more like John Bonham we might not be having this conversation.
I could quote a dozen similarly sparkling readings - of music and performance, but also reception, fandom, the phases of the career, and the aftermath - but they'd lose a lot by being removed from the context of the bigger argument Penman is advancing. This is that the key quality of David Bowie's gorgeous, suggestive, unhinged work is the particular way in which it authorises freedom, experiment and imagination. He "left spaces for his followers: not just the hierarchy of stardom and fandom but a strange, astute, uncanny folding of one into the other." 

One of the many good things about what Penman does is the way he uses the familiar trope of the review-essay - a conversation about, and also with, books, an enactment of the way a book opens a dialogue with you - to mirror and develop this argument, and where appropriate, to point out that several of the books he is reviewing fail to live up to or capture the astral and explorative spirit of their subject. And in the risks he takes with his own writing Penman honours that critical insight. He shifts genre and tone, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the gear changes and layerings are hilarious and revealing and sometimes they are just embarrassing. The result of this is an overall richness of effect which probably can't be obtained in any other way, and as I have been trying to indicate, is itself a kind of depiction of the great strength of Bowie's method: selves, voices, attitudes as "mere categories, useful dance steps, not unbreakable truths." And I really liked that Penman doesn't try to act cool, like he's just dashed this thing off - it's very apparent that getting this piece right, striving to find exactly the words, mattered very much indeed and required a lot of careful labour. 

The essay is currently open access but unlikely to stay that way for very long, so I've also downloaded the essay in PDF form and I'll link to it too when I can organise somewhere to put the file. 

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