Poverty, Power & Pornography in Ben Arzate's Music is Over!
In a Ben Arzate story, you shouldn't expend energy by comparing it to anything else because it will turn on a dime, heading in a wholly different direction from where it started out.
Ben Arzate is an interesting writer. I don't say that because I know this writer, though I do. Rather, I say it because their stories leave me genuinely baffled. Whenever I think I know what they are trying to do, they throw a curve ball that leaves me utterly bewildered. This was true of their last short novel, Elaine, just as it was true of their debut novel, The Story of Y. And it is especially true of Music is Over!, Arzate's “spiritual follow-up” to the latter.
The real-life disappearance of a notorious noise rock musician (Juntarō Yamanouchi of Tokyo's The Gerogerigegege) served as the inspiration for Music is Over! (I'm going to cease all use of Manga-style exclamation marks from here on out, otherwise I may suffer a panic attack). In spite of its basis in this esoteric bit of underground rock history, Music is Over is not an oral rock biography, nor is it the noise rocker's long-awaited autobiography. The book's jacket might suggest an American bizarro take on Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, but it isn't that, either.
Unlike Céline, Arzate doesn't write about war or medicine or industrialism, though his narrative conveys the ravages of these things quite astutely. Like Céline, Ben is fond of stripped-down language, which affords his short novels a swiftness that could teach the Stephen Kings and Thomas Pynchons of the world a lesson. By employing this welcome if occasionally infuriating simplicity, he is able to make a rather opaque narrative effortlessly palatable to any kind of reader. This may be his greatest trick as an author.
Music is Over is one of those stories that defies categorization; it is one-third wanderlust walkabout, one-third surreal murder mystery, one sixth steampunk time travel fantasy, and one sixth erotic novel. Some of these genre elements gel quite nicely, while others are more jarring. After discussing the story's genesis with its author, I am inclined to believe that this jarring quality was intentional.
The story opens in media res as Juntarō suits up in drag in the bathroom of a dingy love hotel and regards his salaryman date with a measure of regret. We get the impression that the aging noise rocker is growing tired of his transgressive routine and may be yearning for a relationship with more depth. To a certain extent, they find what they are looking for in an unlikely friendship with a scarred young woman from the Metropolitan ward of Edogawa.
This first chapter is one of the novel's strongest and succeeds at giving the uninitiated a sense of who Juntarō the character is, though it would have been nice to spend a bit more time with them before all hell breaks loose. But that isn't Arzate's style, and this isn't Four Nights of a Dreamer, even if that's the vibe we initially get when Juntarō meets Kotono, a girl whose scarred face resembles the malevolent rictus of a Japanese urban legend.
This is Music is Over, a Ben Arzate story. In a Ben Arzate story, you shouldn't expend energy by comparing it to anything else because it will turn on a dime, heading in a wholly different direction from where it started out.
When probed on why they chose to cast a real person as their fictional protagonist, Arzate explained that they were a fan of Yamanouchi's music and, therefore, chose to set their story outside the real world because they wanted a place totally constructed from their experience of Juntarō's music and how they reacted to it in their own mind. This meant basing the bulk of the novel's narrative action in the fictional city of Dokonimo, which literally translates as “Nowhere.”
Nowhere may sound fairly generic and that is likely the point – Dokonimo's infrastructure consists of a dystopian juxtaposition of love hotels and smoke-farting factories, convenience stores beside vacant lots, and enough blackened detritus to fill a waste management facility. In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, “This could be anywhere.”
Music is Over is unique from Arzate's previous novels in that it alludes to subjects as heavy as poverty and power within the context of a bizarro mystery. That Arzate manages to explore these topics in such strange and allegorical terms is emblematic of the best bizarro writing (your Kevin L. Donihe, Mykle Hansen, or Cameron Pierce), but it is also a strong indication of abilities that could carry Arzate through more literary-minded non-genre pursuits in the future.
A sterling example of the author's powers with metaphor and subtext occurs about halfway through this thin volume when a main character uses power dynamics to satisfy their own needs and desires. The scene is the most X-rated passage from this otherwise rather mild entry in genre fiction and it is one of its most effective, playing dexterously with the concept of sexual politics (classic masculine and feminine expectations, Dom versus sub versus Dom, etc.) and the police state power structure.
Ben's writing really buzzes when it's teasing that line that separates politics and pornography. After reading the aforementioned scene, I couldn't help realizing that I wanted to read more. The handling of the subject matter was gripping, and it trilled in a way that seemed especially reminiscent of noise rock at its most unbridled.
After I told Ben that their writing never struck me as particularly political, they surprised me by saying that they felt all of their writing had a political dimension. “I viewed the city as a place that should have more civil unrest due to its institutions falling apart under their own rot but falling mostly into quiet desperation.
“Growing up in a city in Iowa that was heavily hit by deindustrialization – something the Gerogerigegege's music often brings into my mind – was likely the biggest influence in this.”
Much of the story's atmosphere and peculiar locations owe to Ben's upbringing in the Hawkeye State. After I asked if the novel's evasive train station site, Genzo Hotel Plaza, was a reference to Captain Tsubasa, they said, “It was actually loosely based on a hotel in my old hometown that had been a luxury hotel.”
Ben told me the hotel was a largely empty building when they were young and was eventually abandoned entirely. Photographs of the place in its current disrepair coupled with dreamlike memories of its former condition provided the requisite inspiration. Ben describes it as an “unreal place that could be a nexus of all sorts of strange things. The name is made up though.”
In fact, what is most compelling about Music is Over is that the whole thing was made up. The story was written without a road map. “Most of Music is Over! was written without any planning … my goal was to try to put Juntaro's music to prose while telling an interesting story. Being an American who's never been to Japan and doesn't speak Japanese, this is what came through.”
What came through was a short novel with enough archetypes to satisfy or stun into silence all sitting at the Algonquin Round Table. You've got the damsel in distress, the ghost, the androgynous musician, the swarthy American stranger, the mad scientist doctor (and possible alien automaton?), the mystic vagabond, and, of course, the corrupt city. There is also the matter of the dead barkeep, the hand-scrawled clue, the American food wrappers, and the mysterious potion.
Where a lesser writer would give us some tiresome Sin City rip-off with all of these archetypes and enigmas, Arzate delivers something decidedly less concerned with clear action, hackneyed wise cracks, or easy answers. Those looking for a mystery that is going to be wrapped up with a neat little ribbon would do well to stay clear of this cerebral CO2 cartridge. For everyone else, music is over. Story is begin.
Bob Freville is the Godless bestselling author of The Proud and the Dumb, the urban crime novel Battering the Stem and the 2020 political satire Pig Lipstick (free to watch on Vimeo). His new novella, The Filthy Marauders, is available for pre-order from The Evil Cookie. He exists in New York.