Occasionally, I find myself saying "I like (x) because of what it does to my head." The feeling that a work is wandering around, opening doors and rearranging things as it pleases, realigning pathways for different thinking. And I haven't encountered something that captures the feeling of a created work rearranging mental furniture the way David Rix's A Suite in Four Windows does. In Rix's slim novella, he manages to perfectly nail the sensations of a mental topographical shift, and also captures the sensations of listening to the bizarre composition that forms the center of the novella*.
And sensation is really the name of the game, so to speak, as Suite is less of a narrative and more of a mood and character piece. While the narrative is there, the novella is much more about sensation and idea than character and action.
More, as always, below.
"What the fuck can I say about this thing? I've never heard anything like it in my life."
On the hottest night of the year, four students in a London apartment building (Terry, Mix, Kate, and Carrie) settle down to listen to George Crumb's avant-garde composition Black Angels. As they listen to the piece, it begins to unlock things for them, drawing each other into a shared headspace and amplifying their interpersonal conflicts and relationships. Each reacts to the piece in a different way, but as storm clouds gather over London and each gets drawn deeper into the music, it is clear that something is going on, something far stranger than even the bizarre music (with movements such as "Night of the Electric Insects") would suggest. And before the night is over, and before the piece is finished, all of this will come to a head.
So. Writing about music. Writing about music is fairly difficult to get right in works of fiction. Not impossible, as there are writers who have nailed it, but it requires an understanding of sensation and general feel, and that's incredibly difficult to pin down. Most people just settle for describing the general sounds of the piece, maybe a few lyrics, and leave it at that. Just enough for the reader to fill in their own information as far as the musical piece is concerned, and then move on with the narrative. Maybe post people's reaction to the sensations, and then move on from there. It's a useful bit of shorthand, but doesn't usually come off as intended.
However, that is not at all what David Rix has done here. Rix begins with the sensation and builds on top of it. The moment the first protagonist puts the CD in and hits "play," the sensation hits. The chittering beats of "Night of the Electric Insects" are described as notes that hurt, the visceral punctuation of "God Music" is described not so much in instrumental terms as it is a body phase acting upon the protagonist, and Rix makes sure each section is packed with feeling and sensation above all else. I could feel the music, even if I wasn't ever going to hear it, because Rix made sure it was something concrete. The instruments and time signatures are laid out, but even for a novice, it's easy enough to understand and creates concrete sensation to go with Rix's description of the pieces.
And concrete sensation is the thing Rix nails the hardest in this. A Suite in Four Windows is so concrete that I suddenly realized I was reading it in freezing temperatures and got really angry at its description of a humid, stormy summer night because immediately I felt the stormy, summer night Rix described. And then just as immediately, I remembered that wasn't the case. The ending (which I won't give away-- it's forty pages, just read the damn thing) is an absolute riot of sensory information bordering on the hallucinatory as the characters flood the apartment with George Crumb's Coil-esque symphony.
Which leads into another thing I really like that Rix does. A Suite in Four Windows paces itself really well. As the musical piece builds to its crescendo in "God Music" and heads into the final violent section of "Night of the Electric Insects," the novella builds to its own high, setting the building tension and mounting dread against similar beats in the music. But instead of being simply a precious narrative device, the tension of the music only serves to heighten the sensation and act as an anchor for the work as a whole. The quietest moments in A Suite in Four Windows come at the end, as the symphony fades out and the aftermath of the characters' mass hysteria becomes clear.
Since there isn't really much I dislike about Suite, instead, I'm going to leave a caveat that one shouldn't view Suite as a narrative work. It's much more a poem or an abstract work given prose form. I would even go as far as to state that it's a mood piece, an abstract stream of consciousness meant to evoke sensation and give a better idea of what's going on inside the heads of the characters, and what this particular symphony does to them. This might annoy some. I hope not, since it's also really good at doing everything it sets out to do.
In the end, I suggest tracking this one down, come hell or high water. Find this. Read this. Wait for a warm summer night, put on the right album (the house recommends Horse Rotorvator, Moon's Milk (In Four Phases), or Musick to Play in the Dark vol. 2 in particular, but results may vary and one might find better results with a piece that isn't Coil), and let David Rix take you for a ride. It's a quick read, and a gorgeous, tense one.
Just remember: Any sensations are sensations, reality plays by its own rules outside of that.
Full disclosure: This review is based on an advance review copy sent to the reviewer from Snuggly Books
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*It also captures the sensation of tripping balls while listening to music, but I deign to keep it profesh in the main part of the review.