So, Kate Schatz’s fictional narrative inspired by PJ Harvey’s scorched-earth 1993 breakthrough album is my introduction into the 33 1/3 canon. Perhaps not the typical way to become acquainted with the book series, but it seemed appropriate for me and my interests here because: 1) this is an album fraught with interesting, disturbing, and complex gender politics; 2) the artistic force behind it is a female, but is not always singing as one; 3) the scribe penning the volume for this canon is also a woman; and 4) said scribe is taking a different, distinctly feminist approach to arguing for an artistic work to be in the canon by creating a free-standing story inspired by an album for which there is great personal attachment.
Oh, and did I mention that the main characters are two women who find love and comfort with one another in an abandoned cabin where they fuck and spoon and use one another to escape their male-centered tragic home lives? That helps. The first line is “Tie yourself to me,” a line from the album’s title track. Hot. Possibly Jane Campion hot.
You can imagine the “awww, man” that leapt from my lips when I found out that Megan Milks and Dave Heaton already wrote pretty much what I was going to say about this book in this entry. Such is the risk of having a blog and covering a book that came out two years ago. But do click on their names to read their reviews. Their insights are spot-on and will inform the remainder of this post.
As an idea, I’m all on board with Schatz’s novelization of Harvey’s album. I’m really into the idea of an author taking a beloved, influential album and turning the artistic results into something wholly distinct and apart from the source material. While clearly analogous to fanfic, Schatz’s approach is somewhat different. While characters and narrative motivation are informed by Harvey’s songs, they exist outside of them and outside of the singer as well.
Yet in execution, this book left me cold (and a little dry). There is a danger in adapting any pre-existing text into another medium (see a myriad of bad film remakes of old TV shows for further evidence). When reinterpreting an album in this way, one run the risk of defining for others how they will perceive a text for which they once established in their own ways through their imagination. Thus, novelizing albums might be similar to arguments made against music videos and their ability to redefine the songs in ways that are distracting or misguided to an audience.
Schatz’s book suffers a bit from this (though, in fairness, if teenaged me penned a novelization of Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, it probably would’ve taken a cinematic record about big, declarative romantic feelings and turned it into The Red Shoe Diaries Takes Mass Transit). Overall, Schatz gets the stark, aggressively sexual tone and gothic atmosphere down. And like Milks, I think she’s spot-on in her decision to make the relationship at the story’s center sexually complex and explicitly Sapphic. I also like that both women suffer through oppressive relationships with men and lift each other toward liberation. Mary is an older woman, troubled to the point of mental distress by her abusive father and husband. Kathleen is young and curious, led to kill Mary’s father through psychic forces before being “kidnapped” by her.
While the book has a breathless opener that sets up a heart-racing, kinky abduction and does a good job sketching each woman’s home life and need for escape, the book really begins to decline once the ladies take refuge in an abandoned cabin. From here, the once-powerful prose becomes more than a little repetitive. The lyrical references to the album also become increasingly labored, especially on the “Highway 61 Revisited” chapter, which is a helluva cover on record.
Worse, the love story becomes tedious. The two women become almost cosmically attached, an obsession that becomes more than a little problematic if not also empowering to both parties. They also become drawn in almost comically overwrought romantic language. After a while, I got really tired of their writhing bodies, milky eyes, heaving breasts, and parched, opened mouths. While Milks opines that the book could have used more development that a 120-page novella cannot provide, I wondered if the story suffered from having little else go on outside the cabin. Though the book honors the source material by showcasing the claustrophobic dimensions of obsessive love, it left me itchy for Mary and Kathleen to be given more characterization, or at least for them to take their love outside. It also left me wondering briefly if the album was actually as good as I thought it once was.
All this is to say that, despite my criticisms, I value Schatz’s entry, look forward to learning more about her work, and will continue to follow the 33 1/3 series. Schatz’s Rid of Me: A Story is a great formal exercise, and one that I hope 33 1/3 allows room for in other volumes in the series. It allows music writing to expand outside criticism and historiography and into fiction, perhaps capturing something more immediate and personal to music lovers as a result. It also reminds us that even within music culture’s canon formation, there is no such thing as the definitive version.