Novels by rock stars are usually hopeless – but here's one that's brilliant

The covers of The Ruins by Mat Osman and The Age of Anxiety by Pete Townshend 
Paperback writers: Pete Townshend and Mat Osman have written novels

Neil McCormick reviews The Age of Anxiety by The Who's Pete Townshend and The Ruins by Suede's Mat Osman

In 1966, the Beatles2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围app delivered their punchy anthem Paperback Writer: “Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?/ It took me years to write, will you take a look?” Yet precious few rock stars have risen to that challenge. Over 60 years of rock culture, its luminaries have managed to scribble a lot of memoirs and a number of children’s picture books (Paul McCartney recently fulfilled his authorial ambitions in this field), yet there have been only a handful of attempts at anything that might credibly be described as literature.

Among rock’s lyrical heavyweights, Leonard Cohen wrote a couple of cryptic novels before devoting himself to music, Nick Cave has produced two works of dense, strange fiction, and Morrissey gave us the magic realist List of the Lost, which a one-star Telegraph review described as “terrible and, at only 188 pages, still too long”.

I wonder if length is an issue. Song lyrics are pithy by nature, rarely more than a few sparse, rhyming verses with repeated choruses, relying on music to do much of the emotional work. As a spate of recent publications from Jarvis Cocker, Kate Bush and Van Morrison2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围app attests, the entire output of many celebrated lyricists is barely enough to fill a slim volume of dubious poetry.

Pete Townshend2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围app seems better suited to the novel form than most. He is among rock’s most cerebral and creatively ambitious artists. He pioneered the rock opera with Tommy and Quadrophenia, worked for a while as an editor at Faber and has published short stories. But, at 74, his long-awaited debut novel goes off like a damp squib at the end of a fireworks extravaganza.

Narrated by an outsider art dealer interacting with two visionary rock stars, it is essentially an excuse for Townshend to muse on the relationship between creativity and sanity: a promising theme, poorly executed. There is an abundance of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but it all seems to take place offstage, beyond the author’s descriptive reach.

Pete Townshend performing at Hyde Park Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith

T2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appownshend has been working on this as part of a multimedia project for more than a decade, which might explain why the melodramatic narrative reads more like a treatment than a novel, a sketchy outline weighed down with lengthy exposition, stilted dialogue, flimsy characters, an awful lot of tell and not very much show. The plot is absurd, but then no more so than the plot of Tommy, which took flight thanks to the music. First conceived as a rock opera, The Age of Anxiety cries out for power chords and soaring choruses to bring it to life.

Indeed, Townshend’s novel is packed with so many interesting ideas in search of a story, you wonder if he was simply too grand for an editor to cut down to size. It is instructive to turn to The Ruins by Mat Osman, bassist in trashy Britpop pioneers Suede. Osman doesn’t even write the lyrics in Suede – that’s the job of his Haywards Heath schoolmate Brett Anderson, a poetic soul who has turned out two critically acclaimed memoirs, and . Osman is also the sibling of the quiz show creator and TV personality Richard Osman2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围app. Long the sideman rather than a star in his own right, his debut novel turns the spotlight on an unexpected talent.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appThe Ruins is a dark, dreamy doppelgänger thriller, centred on twin brothers Brandon and Adam Kussgarten. The former is a failed Britpop star, a charismatically self-centred has-been, whose murder by gunmen in Donald Duck masks is caught on CCTV. The latter is a shyly self-absorbed model-maker, quietly ruling over a private kingdom constructed in the nooks and crannies of his London tower-block flat. Mistaken for his deceased twin, Adam is pulled into a seedy but seductive rock’n’roll world, shedding layers of sensitive skin as he unravels the mystery of his brother’s death.

Bassist Mat Osman, author of The Ruins Credit: Theo McInnes

L2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appike The Age of Anxiety, The Ruins deals with madness and creativity, alongside big ideas about art, fame, family, identity and the insidious nature of popular culture in the age of the internet. But Osman weaves these themes through a compelling noir puzzle, packed with eccentric characters, memorable scenes and amusing insights into rock star life that would feel implausible if it weren’t for the credibility of the author.

There are, nevertheless, gaping narrative holes. I’m not sure what happened to the investigation of Brandon’s homicide, and I am not convinced the author is either. But a dreamlike impetus sweeps the reader on, in a way reminiscent of the work of David Mitchell and China Miéville. The trashiness is offset by Osman’s vivid descriptive prose, whether conjuring the faint sounds of winter snowfall or the heat warps of a baking desert, and the result is a pulpy page-turner imbued with a powerful quality of existential awakening as two damaged psyches converge. I am reluctant to proclaim it the greatest novel ever written by a rock star, but (notwithstanding the children’s picture book The Dinosaur that Pooped a Rainbow by Dougie Poynter of McFly) it is surely the finest ever written by a bassist.

The Age of Anxiety by Pete Townshend (Coronet) ★★☆☆☆

The Ruins by Mat Osman (Repeater) ★★★★☆

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