Dig, if you will dear reader, this useful false dichotomy:
There are two types of literary fiction books not on the bestseller list.
The first has a traditional plot, recognizable characters and some form of everyday language.
It is, in many ways, just like its best selling brethren–with a slight tilt in the publishing axis,
this book could get picked for Oprah’s Book Club, adapted into a major motion picture, or
eventually showcased on that big list. But this doesn’t happen because the book has its
quirks—an off-kilter narrator, an obscure vocabulary, a plot based on an unread classic, no
distribution, bad cover art, etc.
Let’s call this type of book the Bizzaro Updike Book.
You know this book. You’ve read it on the bus and in fits and starts before drifting off to
sleep. You’ve finished it. You’ve forgotten it.
Then there’s the other type of book. This type of book is weird. Its plot, characters, and
setting are so far from the ken of a bestseller that for it to succeed commercially, the reading
world would have to undergo a revolution of consciousness.
Let’s call this type of book a Nathaniel Mackey Book.
Harry Matthews writes these books, as does Will Alexander, Renee Gladman, Selah
Saterstrom and a bunch of other wonderful writers not on the bestseller list, the college
reading list, or even, really, the shelves at most bookstores. They’re books written with
distinct aesthetic visions so unlike John Updike, Richard Russo, or Jane Smiley that they may
not actually even be novels.
This makes them very exciting to read.
Nathaniel Mackey has written four of these types of books, installments in an ongoing work
of fiction called From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Told through a series of
letters from a man called simply “N.” to a mysterious character named “Angel of Dust,” the
nebulous narrative follows the lives of six early ‘80’s jazz musicians in a fictional band called
The band plays concerts up and down the West Coast, experiments with new instruments,
has mystical synesthetic visions of childhood kisses and apocalyptic angels in flames—you
know, the usual—and N. coolly explains and analyzes all the otherworldly goings-on in his
The latest in this mind-bending cycle is called Bass Cathedral and, like the previous three, it’s
off the grid.
“Dear Angel of Dust,
Thank you for your letter. You raise questions I can’t give the space I wish I could. Why
Aunt Nancy’s guitar spoke to me so I can’t say. Straw had to do with antithetic detour,
resonances coaxed from unprepossessing ‘string.’ Foothills burnt brown in the summer
came to mind, dry grass, dry weed and dry scrub’s inauspicious remit. It seemed I wandered
those hills and heard voices, beset by antithetic audition, endowed with a recondite ear . . .”
This is Nathaniel Mackey’s world. In it, everything from a guitar’s strum to a needle scratch
becomes an open-ended exegesis of musical meaning that is equal parts African-American
history, Bedouin mysticism, and Mackey’s own imagination. Though this world resembles
the everyday world most of us live in, the normal constraints don’t hold Mackey or his
characters down. Which is why Bass Cathedral isn’t likely to become a bestseller, but also why
you aren’t likely to forget it.