Twice Upon a Time: Listening to New York

kunzru atavistThe Short Version: Hari Kunzru, after he’d just moved to New York, found himself lost and adrift when it came to the map of this city.  As he sought a guide or anchor, he caught on Moondog – the blind composer and creator who was known as the “Viking of 6th Avenue”.  This is a sonic examination of the city – both Kunzru’s current city and the city that was Moondog’s.

The Review: Okay, so this is what Atavist Books was really made for.  The debut release from the new publisher/imprint was Karen Russell’s hypnotic novella Sleep Donation and it gave them some immediate cred: it was, if I’m not mistaken, the first e-only release to get a review in the NYTimes.  A Kakutani review, no less.  But at the end of the day, it was pretty much just an ordinary novella.  It was text, you swiped down or to the left and that was about it, as far as the reading experience went.

Whereas Twice Upon a Time is actually perhaps the first e-book I can think of that is meant for the iPhone.  Or Android.  It’s meant for your phone.  It is meant to be listened to through little earbuds, with the noise of the city around you – it is not meant to be enjoyed on your couch or in bed or anything like that.  Granted, it’s perhaps best digested in a single go (the interruptions of a commute, be it changing trains or arriving at your destination and pausing on the read for several hours, caused some tech issues that I’ll mention later) and I know that that sometimes doesn’t happen on one’s commute.  Heck, most of the people in the world don’t live in New York City – so why are you even reading this?

Of course, it’s terribly well written – Kunzru, a writer who I’m only familiar with because of his shorter work (although Gods Among Men and his earlier work are on my radar), is warm and funny and he pulls off the trick of writing a ‘quest’ story without much in the way of a tangible goal.  The large majority of the book is actually a distillation of his journals from six months in 2008, shortly after he’d moved to the city.  But it seems to jump around conceptually – he writes, at times, as a much more competent adventurer in these particular streams than a newb might otherwise be.  Of course, he was also writing at a different time – a time when the city as it is “known” was on its last legs.  CBGBs is now a Patagonia store.  Alphabet City is where the rich young things go to feel ‘edgy’ – but the edge hasn’t been there for a while.  Punk is dead, hipsterdom has become the bane of all honest artistic expression… and Kunzru fixes on Moondog as this figure who just doesn’t exist anymore.
I mean, for one thing, Moondog died in 1999 in Germany, a celebrated cultural figure.  And there’s something to be said for the fact that in America, there was an attempt to co-opt his identity by a radio host.  There’s a thought here, on the periphery of the story, that even New York – even this city – cannot truly embrace the sort of weird radical mind of somebody like Moondog.  Not because it can’t handle it but because there are too many damn people here and so many of them have their own version of radical thoughts.  There’s no room to recognize other radical thoughts, especially today.  A guy dressed up like a Viking, creating weird street music?  Yeah, there are plenty of street musicians today (in one of those “only in New York” happenstances, I was reading the mariachi band riff in this book and the sound of the mariachi band started coming through my headphones… only to find a real mariachi band walking onto my train.  You can’t make this shit up.) but none of them do quite what he did. And Kunzru finds that, as he ambles around the city.  There’s no new Moondog.

But you know what he does find?  He finds a certain music in the city anyway.  A symphony that each of us make individually – the coda of sorts, where he returns several years later (with a new baby and a wife and a nice place in Brooklyn), finds him trying to capture those sounds and some of those sounds end up in this piece.  And that’s the most amazing thing about this story.  As a story itself, it is deeply enjoyable but it is ultimately one of those affecting-but-forgettable pieces that we read and say “ooh, wow, you should read this” and maybe we blog it or link to it on our Facebooks and then forget.  But the introduction of the musical soundscape behind the words does something radical.  It explodes the notion of the city, of the private and public experience.  I was laughing at the mariachi band on the subway today because of this private confluence of events… but it was a very public setting.  Later, as I walked down 6th Ave past where Moondog used to set up shop, I stopped to read a small piece of the story and felt like I was tapping into a sort of invisible ley line of history in the city.

I write this now from my apartment, where it is not silent.  I have music on (what up, Gabe Kahane – speaking of writing about cities and mapping music to them, The Ambassador does that in a different and very interesting way) and the building is making noises and there’s a faint siren dopplering down the street and my asshole neighbors are making a huge ruckus as though it’s late Saturday night in a Miami club.  And I wish for silence, too – like Kunzru mentions.  But that’s not what we come to New York for.  We come here for the noise, for the pulse, for the experience of adding our own line to the symphony.  And Kunzru has captured that in writing in a way I never thought possible.

Rating: 5 out of 5.  A perfect confluence of form and content.  A radical explosion of the public/private dichotomy in writing.  It’s a story meant to be read on the subway or on a streetcorner in New York City with your headphones in and your mind engaged and life going on around you.  But make sure the headphones aren’t too loud.  You want to be able to hear the city around you, too.  Because that’s a layer of the story.  Unpredictable and chaotic and yet beautifully musical.  You’ll find your anchor here too.  Moondog will make sure of it.


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