Theo, by Ed Taylor - Tom Cox

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Friday, 8 August 2014

Theo, by Ed Taylor

On the whole, rock and roll novels don't work. Admittedly, I say that as someone who doesn't get on with a lot of fiction OR non-fiction music books (including the two I've written myself and summarily tried my best to forget about), but nobody wants to read a great rock and roll novel more than I do. Fiction and rock music are two of my favourite things in the world, so why wouldn't I? But I've found that fictional accounts of the life of rock musicians tend to either get tediously, technically lost attempting the nigh on impossible task of evoking the music of their fictional subject, or cheapen their story with lazy pop culture references or competitive anoraky namedropping. The few very good rock novels I've read (Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street and Zachary Lazar's Sway, for example) tend not to try to be a definitive rock novel at all; instead they creep up on their subject from a surprise angle, like small furry animals of unassuming appearance sneaking under its duvet at night and biting its toes. This is an approach at which Ed Taylor's debut novel Theo also excels.
   Theo is written in the third person but its story is told very much through the eyes of its ten year-old eponymous hero. The son of a rock star, Theo lives in a half-empty mansion in Long Island - rumoured to have inspired the mansion in The Great Gatsby - where he spends far more time in the company of his grandfather, Gus, and the hangers on and minders that accompany his dad's band than he does with his actual parents. Anyone who's more than an armchair fan of the Rolling Stones would have to be half asleep not to recognise the Keith Richardsian qualities of his ex pat dad, Adrian, who is thin, has bad teeth, carries knives around with him, and is often in need of "medicine". Taylor alters the era - we appear to be somewhere around the mid-80s here - but many of the details suggest he probably watched The Stones In Exile, the 2010 documentary about the making of the Stones' 1972 masterpiece 'Exile On Main Street': the mixture of drugs and family life, Adrian's nighttime speedboat rides, the stealing that goes on in the mansion under Adrian's (not particularly fussed) nose, the chaotic nature of the recording sessions, the sense of "the band" as an ever-growing open-ended entourage.
   This is very much a universe of Taylor's creation, though: he's created a believable rock and roll amoeba, with its own unique quirks, and it never feels anything like Stones fan fiction. The prepubescent Theo is the perfect commentator on this universe: he doesn't yet fully understand what drugs and booze do to adults, and he's constantly frustrated that grown-ups won't give him a straight answer to any of his questions, but in a way his position of innocence allows him to see so much more. When Roger, the band's singer - who, in his sometimes somewhat cold and businesslike manner, is more than a little Jaggeresque - arrives, Theo describes his head as "a tower with someone in it who's just watching, always watching." This is a good example of the perfect balanced voice Taylor gives to Theo: his thoughts are perceptive and revealing, but always believably childlike at the same time. Theo's internal monologue is full of questions, none of which Taylor ever adds a question mark too - partly because he's talking to himself but perhaps also because Theo has given up on ever getting an answer from the feckless, baked, sex mad adults surrounding him.
   In the end, Theo is a way for Taylor to show us just what children wealthy rock stars are themselves, or at least were during the era of the book's setting: suspended forever in consequence-free childhood, pretending to have responsibilities but knowing deep down they have none, always with an adult figure on hand (lawyers and bodyguards, in their case, rather than parents) when they mess up. Theo often feels alone running around the big mansion, looking for people to play with or come and look at his butterfly collection, and finding that they are too busy having sex or getting high to do so, but there's something in the low attention span swiftness of his movements that mirrors those of the adults around him. The book only takes place over the course of  a few days, but everyone seems to be constantly forgetting what they were doing and moving to a new position. People are on a couch, then they're in the kitchen, then they're jumping in the sea, then they're back on a balcony, then they're going to eat, then they've forgotten to eat after all, then they're playing volleyball on the beach. There's a blurry propulsion to the narrative that feels like the blurry propulsion of a long drunken night being pieced back together.
   Clearly, in all but a few ways, this is not a healthy environment for Theo. His parents can barely look after themselves, let alone him. His dad's litany of irresponsible parenting is only slightly ameliorated by his self-mocking awareness of it, and his mum comes across at best as an adolescent babysitter who keeps running after ice cream vans and forgetting her charge. It is, however, to the book's credit that it never seems like it's casting judgement on the lifestyle it depicts. The picture that emerges is appalling and attractive in equal measure (the first thing I did when I finished it was put Exile On Main Street on my turntable, loud).
   At the time of writing, Theo, which came out in April, languishes somewhere in the four hundred thousands on the amazon uk chart, without a single customer review to its name. This is a crime that could be roughly equated to The Stones releasing, say, 'Aftermath', and the world resoundingly failing to give a fuck (I won't say 'Exile' because Theo is a greener, less sprawling and textured work than 'Exile'). Except it's a worse crime than that because, let's face it, in most instances books take more effort to write than albums take to make. I don't use this blog for book reviews as a rule, but Theo has been on the shelves too long for a newspaper's Literary Editor to commission me to write a paid review of it, and the thought of it drifting into obscurity makes me want to break into WH Smiths and tip custard all over the 3 for 2 section. Admittedly, it has its flaws (the copy editor on my first edition needed to be a bit more thorough when checking for typos), but anybody who is interested in rock music, great writing or remembering what it felt like to be ten needs to read it. If we were together in person, I'd be grabbing your shoulder, ordering you to stop whatever you were doing, and thrusting it into your hand. So try to see this - me writing this, for no money, when I've got lots of other stuff I should be doing - as a virtual way of me doing the same. Are you imagining me getting hold of you by the lapels (even if you don't have lapels)? Ok. Are you holding the book? Good. Now go and find a quiet place and read this rare thing: a properly excellent novel about rock and roll.

Theo, by Ed Taylor Reviewed by Tom Cox on 15:04:00 Rating: 5 On the whole, rock and roll novels don't work. Admittedly, I say that as someone who doesn't get on with a lot of fiction OR non-fic...

2 comments:

Dot said...

I've just bought this from Kobo on your recommendation. After that Kobo decided I might like to buy lots of books with pictures of muscly men embracing each other on the covers. You didn't mention this aspect in your review...

I'm looking forward to reading and may or may not report back.

Dot said...

OK, I got round to reading it in a headlong feverish rush this weekend and now I feel harrowed and woozy. Also, as a mum, horribly affected by how appallingly badly this kid is being cared for (I worried a lot about his concussion, though no harm seems to be done). Fabulous read. Any more recommendations?