A new volume of the singular, ongoing, great American jazz novel
Nathaniel Mackey’s Late Arcade opens in Los Angeles. A musician known only as N. writes the first of a series of letters to the enigmatic Angel of Dust. N.’s jazz sextet, Molimo m’Atet, has just rehearsed a new tune: the horn players read from The Egyptian Book of the Dead with lips clothespinned shut, while the rest of the band struts and saunters in a cosmic hymn to the sun god Ra. N. ends this breathless session by sending the Angel of Dust a cassette tape of their rehearsal.
Over the next nine months, N.’s epistolary narration follows the musical goings-on of the ensemble. N. suffers from what he calls “cowrie shell at- tacks”—oil spills, N.’s memory of his mother’s melancholy musical Sundays— which all becomes the source of fresh artistic invention.
Here is the newest installment of the National Book Award-winner Nathaniel Mackey’s From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, the great American jazz novel of “exquisite rhythmic lyricism” (Bookforum).
In the fifth installment of the From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate series, Mackey (Splay Anthem) revisits members of Molimo m'Atet, an invented experimental jazz ensemble based in Los Angeles. The novel expands through a series of letters to an absent figure only referred to as Angel of Dust. In letters written between September 1983 and June 1984, composer and instrumentalist N. details the band's dreams, creative process, live performances, and romantic entanglements. Floating comic strip dialogue balloons begin to follow the group's drummer, Drennette, and soon appear during shows, revealing subconscious thoughts and erotic memories. Having encountered these balloons before, N. and others in the ensemble (Lambert, Djamilaa, and Aunt Nancy) suspect the balloons have originated from Penguin, one of the horn players. Aunt Nancy suggests preempting the conceptual balloons with literal ones. Encouraged by Angel of Dust, the group attempts to incorporate rubber balloons, distributing inflatables during a performance and inviting audience members to contribute to the orchestration. But the word bubbles are even more unpredictable. Mackey's work is digressive and flowing, "a run of pure devotion, a poem, a paean, an oath." Sprinkled with illustrations, a press release, an improvisational prompt, and excerpts from an "antithetical opera," the book eludes easy classification. Mackey imbues the prose with music, and every sentence drives the feverish rhythm. The narrative moves through notes on Bedouin mysticism, environmentalism, African American history, and jazz criticism. Intelligent and widely imaginative, this is a story about embracing the unexpected and the unconventional, and turning peculiar circumstances into art.