Life under COVID-lockdown here in the UK feels, at times, to consist of a kaleidoscopic collection of failed interests and hobbies. The weekend spent delving into the biographies of impressionist painters; which gives way to the evening watching The Sopranos back to front; which is in turn replaced by the fortnight trying to learn the piano; the Wednesday where you try to “get into” existentialism. Life feels unsettled, we are wayward wandering, captivated by sudden interest and distracted by glimmering new lights and ideas. There is so much to explore, so much to think about and understand, that it is difficult to know where to begin – or how.
This is where Will Eaves’ Broken Consort steps in. A genuine high point of 2020 was receiving this book here at Nothing in the Rulebook towers; for it is a book that captures so brilliantly the shifting, unstable, multiform, effervescent experience in and of the world.
An ensemble piece of writing (just as a ‘broken consort’, in musical terms, is an ensemble featuring instruments from different families), Broken Consort brings us in-depth analysis of The Odyssey;but also of James Bond and Titanic. It gives us the author’s own observations on and experiences of the art of writing, but also personal reflections on familial relationships. We explore philosophical problems buried deep within literary criticism and analysis (“how do I know what the picture means?”), and these frequently lead us into new worlds that explore other aspects of art and culture – gay photography; how we construct – and even visualise – music; art and impressionism.
It is, in short, the sort of book that is perfect for a world under lockdown. Not just because it lets our minds wander from one subject to another, dancing around ideas without settling on any specific thing for too long. But also because it gives you an entire armoury of witty and astute observations that you can then use to impress your friends and colleagues over the seemingly endless series of zoom calls: “It is the spaces between settlements and acts that give them a dramatic foundation” (is this what our lockdown gives us?); “Memorability is not a magical essence, aptness can only be achieved with hindsight”; by letting go of preconceptions, we’re freed to discover something else”.
Formally, this book seems more structured than some of Eaves’ previous (and also very good) books – most notably The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet it retains a core essence of collage – of fractured ideas brought together. In some of Broken Consort’s personal essays, Eaves touches upon the amount of physical pain he has been in while putting these books together, which might have something to do with this fractured structure. Indeed, in our ‘Creatives in profile’ interview (also featured in this book), Eaves notes that “pain has a way of completely fracturing the mind”.
Again, this is perhaps why this book seems so suited to our current pandemic predicament. 2020 has, after all, been full of pain, experienced by so many people across the globe (one need only glance at your data-harvesting-social-media-corporate-behemoth-of-choice for evidence of this). So it is perhaps little wonder we are drawn to pieces of art and creative expression that are in themselves fractured.
Yet within the kaleidoscope, there are connections. What Eaves does so expertly well in this book is find them. Reliably inquisitive, analytical and contemplative, as we read and re-read these essays, we begin to hear the broken harmonies between the different instruments playing – the echo of Odysseus’s journey across the Aegean in James’s own odyssey in James and the Giant Peach (and indeed in the author’s own travels across the world); the similarities between James Bond and Macbeth, both tragic heroes who fight hard to avoid thinking too much about anything.
“Who do I think I am, wandering about looking for the links between things?” the author asks. But in the asking of it, we find it mirrors our own thoughts. After all, as readers, what are we doing if not searching for the hidden links and meanings in a piece of text? Perhaps this is the connection that runs through the entire the book; not knowing why the world around us is presented to us in the way that it is; not understanding how it all works; but still, this unceasing desire to keep looking, to try and understand why.
This is, in nuce, another book to add to your undoubtedly growing lockdown collections; and another success for both Eaves and his publishers, CB Editions. It is beyond fitting that the penultimate entry of Broken Consort reviews Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, finishing with a final thought: “Terrible things come to pass, and then pass away. This is a fact. Now: what are we to make of it?”