Ducks, Drones and Doctor Faustus

(That time I invited Sleep, Thomas Mann, Lucy Ellmann and John Milton to the same blog post and we all hung out. Heaven.)

When starting my current book Salt Lick, the inclusion of a chorus was one of the first decisions I made, though it took a while to learn that it would come from the herd voice of feral cows. I like the idea of an abstract commentary chuntering away, observing all and more than the reader, edging in opinions, overviews, and, in the case of the cows, impatience and ageless wisdom.

This evening (blocked ear after a cold and all) I am going to see legendary doomy sound-smiths, Sleep. Their songs don’t, quite, ever get slow enough to qualify as a simple drone, but they come close. In music, a drone sound is something I love, whether from cello, bagpipes, black metal or sacred music. Music has a three-dimensional quality; I experience sound from much of the music I love as a linear series of shapes that could be compared to an abstract landscape. A drone is like geology, holding it all, unifying and magnifying. 


I was thinking about my third, part-written book, The Model Village: an Opera in Three Acts, which is a version of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. I started it because not only is Mann’s novel depressingly pertinent to these times but because writing about music was so tempting. The main protagonist, unlike Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, is a self-taught musician, because I’m not fond of research and an educated musician would have a language that I don’t know and would need to learn. Part of my job will be to turn her wordless notions about music into text and that is what tempts me. I thought it would be something like trying to create an afterlife, as I had done in my first book Twice the Speed of Dark, in which I wrote about a black, godless cosmos, made of unseeable energetic forms that create roaring arcs of speed, giant valleys and mountains carved out of waveforms and vibrations.

Twice the Speed of Dark, published by Unbound
Paradise Lost by John Milton

That was heavily influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost – the dark thrill of mighty, glittering Satan, the greatest of God’s angels, and the new realm he builds for the rebels in the blackness far from heaven.

I began wondering whether I could invent for The Model Village, or find in another author the literary equivalent of a musical drone. Something like the chorus I am using for Salt Lick, but simultaneously more so and less so. More fundamental, less intrusive. I wondered whether some kind of repeating, subtly shifting, abstract footnote would suffice. But really it should be a solution that pertains to the language rather than the typesetting. 

The only thing I can think of that comes close is the device used by Lucy Ellmann in the magnificent Ducks, Newburyport. Every phrase in the thousand page single sentence begins with the words ‘the fact that’. The initial impact is disconcerting, noticeable, like a tic, but soon it imparts a binding, sinuous quality, so effective that one can almost believe she couldn’t have achieved such heights without that discovery (she probably could though – it’s so damn good.) ‘The fact that’ becomes the bedrock. The book, with its linear passage, its length and listing, lilting structure felt like engaging in a practice. We are given access to another human so generously that a large part of that practice is profound empathy. I miss her and I love that book.  

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, published by Galley Beggar Press

If anyone has any thoughts on this, or examples from other books that relate to what might be considered the literary equivalent of a drone, I would be really grateful to hear from you. I’m not waiting to lift someone else’s ideas, but there’s nothing like the brilliance of other writers to inspire our own solutions and inform our groping ideas – to write, you’ve got to be a reader first.

2 thoughts on “Ducks, Drones and Doctor Faustus

    1. I think you would enjoy it. The Thomas Mann version is about a composer who deliberately contract syphilis because he wants the creative powers of madness that it will bring. V interesting, set in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich.


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