Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"All Music is Coded," an Interview with Jean Marc Ah-Sen

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"All Music is Coded," an Interview with Jean Marc Ah-Sen

“Somewhere amid the bladdered haze of sleep, I managed to buff a zigzag pathway across two whole floors, faintly resembling my initials—even with the horrors, my subconscious still being raved for acknowledgment.”

Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s amazing debut novel, Grand Menteur, is as much about the migration of Mauritian street gang The Sous and their inner workings as it is an exploration of language and code. Like A Clockwork Orange’s droogs, the Edinburghian junkies of Trainspotting , or the low-level Kinston street tuffs in A Brief History of Seven Killings, the characters in Grand Menteu poses a dialect that takes some time to make sense of, reminding the reader that they are an outsider in this world looking in. Each sentence contains so much information that it’s tempting to linger, trying to slowly decipher as you read, thinking there might be another narrative buried underneath all the language. It’s a fascinating book that shares a similar kind of complexity and tone with the work of Thomas Pynchon, balancing intellectual wordplay and games with lowbrow humor in a way that is both perplexing and familiar. I had to ask Jean Marc about how he cultivated his unique style and why music is so important in Grand Menteur.

James Lindsay: One of the most impressive things about Grand Menteur is how dense the language is. Almost any sentence in the novel can stand on its own, and then linked together, fashion intricate chains that manage to convey information but are also baffling at the same time. Have you been honing this style for a while now, or was it created specifically for Grand Menteur?

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: Thanks for the kind words. It’s been some time now, but the more time passes, I find myself wanting to self-destruct the prose style I cobbled together, and which found purest expression in Grand Menteur. I want to be elastic with my writing, and come at new projects with different traditions that can support them. That conceit was built into the makeup of Grand Menteur though, inconsistency for consistency's sake, so I also wouldn't rule out slinking back into comfortable habits.

JL: When using this style, does writing come quickly to you, or are you a slower writer? I ask because as a reader I found myself slowing down to appreciate it, word by word sometimes. Reading Grand Menteur didn't feel like a slog, yet is also felt as if time reduced speed.

JMA-S: I'm terribly slow. Composition was fairly quick, but the time spent editing and rewriting the text was maybe four times as long. Part of the reason being I have ridiculous conditions that must be satisfied in order to work, and partially because I felt particularly at pains in governing the relationship it would have with other books: relationships of symmetry and relationships of hostility. I'm glad you had that experience with the book! There were chapters that I wanted to have a propulsive momentum, and others that adopted a meditative, screed-like quality.

JL: At the very end of the book, in the publishing credits, there's a Soundcloud link for readers to listen to "Dire Moi Ene Coup," a song by the Black Derwish, one of the main characters in the novel. I love this jam! It has fun '60s garage-pop feel and really swings. Where did this song come from?

JMA-S: This was a Robbie van Leeuwen-inspired riff I had from a decade ago that never went anywhere. I approached BookThug about releasing a song as a promo for the book and they were extremely supportive, and my band mate Inaam produced it from my dad's basement. The obvious Mauritian musical choice would have been Sega, but I couldn't figure the timing out, so I instead rationalized what imports the gang would buy, and settled on the Smoke, Shocking Blue, and the Equals, so the song is in that spirit. We couldn't quite capture that period-specific warmth, then I remembered Richard Hell "repaired" Destiny Street with Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell a few years ago from only the rhythm masters, so the Black Derwish song exists diegetically speaking as the guitars having been rerecorded in a modern setting.

JL: Grand Menteur was launched at Type Books, where I work. I wasn't able to be there, but the next morning found the amazing mix CD you had made for the party. All this great first wave punk, reggae, and soul—it's still my go to music when I'm at work. Was this the kind of stuff you were listening to while writing the novel?

JMA-S: Yes, I love those tunes. I chose songs that lyrically synced up with the book. The opening lines of Tapper Zukie's "Simpleton Badness" could sum up the Sous outlook, Penetration's "Future Daze" and Subway Sect's "Nobody's Scared" would have been the soundtrack to living on the dole in England, I think. There's a cracking northern soul track on that mix I think by the Vel-Vets called "I'm Gonna Find Me Somebody," which flips the script on the word "find" - jilted woman murdering her lover/getting a worthwhile one. Sure I thought, it could be about a father and daughter, it's vague enough.

JL: In the book music charts are used code for communication between gang members. Codes and signs play an important part in the narrative and add to the books evasiveness, making the reader search along with the characters for meaning. Where did your inspiration for this come from? Is there an overall structure to it?

JMA-S: The Sous hit parade, that was from a double realization, the first being that all music is coded, and that it's just a question of if you're hip to it or not, right? Hip to what "Les Sucettes" or "Reel Around the Fountain" are really about, or what went on between "Cease to Exist" and "Never Learn Not to Love." Nowadays, you can look these things up - "Oh! 'There She Goes Again' is riffing off of Marvin Gaye's 'Hitchhike'" - but that sort of knowledge was a more rarefied field in the sixties and seventies, a kind of journo-speak that the Sous I figured would cotton to. The other realization was I remembered this drug dealer I knew. It was an open secret where he hid his dope (in a park, buried between two fir trees), so I was just thinking about how a gang would circumvent that general awareness and the scene in Gravity's Rainbow where Slothrop recovers the hashish brick from the Potsdam Conference after receiving some code. As for an overall structure, there is a "J'accuse!" kind of pay-off if the book is read in a certain way, namely that the book is the Menteur's codex and that he's trying to finger someone for a crime.

JL: Do you have any new writing planed for the future? Will it be in similar style to Grand Menteur?

JMA-S: I'm about a third way through the next book. I'm trying to find an analogous literary equivalent to the cover song without falling too much into the trappings of fan fiction, so there’s a bit of an impasse there. As far as I'm concerned, this has been done successfully and to remarkable effect in books like Barthelme's The King, Wide Sargasso Sea, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, so maybe I'm not doomed to tilt at windmills for too long if I follow those models. Stylistically, it's less florid than Grand Menteur. I've been reading Gillian Freeman lately and I can't shake her influence.

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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

James Lindsay

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.He is the author of the poetry collection Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn).

You can write to James throughout April at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to James Lindsay’s Author Page