Bedouin Hornbook, Nathaniel Mackey’s epistolary novel recounting musical ruminations and pursuits of the avant-garde/jazz/world composer and multi-instrumentalist N., as well as the novel’s sequels Djbot Baghostus’s Run and Atet A.D., have already received a considerable amount of critical attention in both academic and mainstream press. However, recent publication of the novel’s three installments, collected in a single volume From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, offers an opportunity for a fresh perspective on the project’s trajectory thus far—an evolution from a prose poetry experiment to a full-fledged novel that seems to continue unfolding.
In a series of letters, addressed to the “Angel of Dust,” horn player N. recounts the life of his band, known at different times as East Bay Dread Ensemble, Mystical Horn Society, and, most recently, Molino d’Atet. Minute details of performances alternate with descriptions of informal gatherings, heated discussions, travelogues, and encounters with other musicians and fans. Librettos and dreams mingle with literary and musical criticism. Minimal engagement with the storyline development both adds momentum to the movement of the narrative and also feeds fresh material to be reconsidered and recast in musical terms.
The movement of the trilogy is largely inward: the two sequels, for the most part, dip into the bag of tricks presented in Bedouin Hornbook, and polish the chops that have come to define N.’s voice. In that way, they also illuminate back at the original work, unpacking its impulses—its freshly established standards—into longer variations. The chief concern running through the trilogy is the attempt to evoke the feeling of music, to create verbally a set of imagistic sensations, reminiscent to those effected through music, the text’s aim being “less to translate than to accent . . . to outmaneuver its lack of a strict musical occasion” (17). Thus, describing concerts and rehearsals, Mackey “decodes” musicians’ solos into verbal content that ranges from high falutin’ ars poetica to “locker-room humor.” This motion brings out verbal messages from behind the music balloons—literally—in the novel’s third installation, Atet A.D., with the appearance of comic-strip like bits of text that emerge out of musicians’ instruments and contain cues along the lines of “A long-toed woman, no respecter of lines . . . obliged me by dreaming” (426).
Relatedly, describing the music and its effects, the author continually experiments with etymologies, stating that “therein lies the root of all coincidence” (72). In their best moments, these evoke the feeling of jazz improvisation, while at times resorting to shameless punning. This impulse climaxes with a particularly memorable scene in which one of N.’s associates falls into a trance and explodes with verbal play reminiscent of Coltranesque sheets of sound: “Furtive heat, fevered hit. Fervid curvature. Flaunted rotundity. Flaunted curve, overt curve, ovarian cave, curvaceous ferment” (271). [End Page 1102]
Throughout the trilogy, the narrator maintains an overly-intellectual, pedantically polite, obsessive and neurotic tone that N.’s voice takes in the novel’s letters, as is evident when he reports to his addressee: “I hardly slept at all last night. I was worried about how you’d react to what I said about ‘imprecision’ in yesterday’s letter” (76). Juxtaposed with its own earnestness, the tone constantly soars towards comedy. Given the number of times N. ends up ill in a psychosomatic aftermath, he seems to recall Woody Allen as much as Thelonious Monk. At one time, N. finds himself in the hospital as the result of a particularly surreal performance; in another he goes into a coma-like depression upon hearing the news of Bob Marley’s death. N.’s bandmates are also prone to similar plights, capriciously lashing out, going into seclusion, and sleep-walking. The over-sensitive artist type is capitalized on with much humor, embodied most poignantly by one of the fellow horn player’s self-labeling as “Twenty-Third Century Man of Feeling” (35).
Although jazz—particularly the experimental kind—constitutes the referential core of the book, the author lavishes...