Rock 'n' roll dreams

<strong>I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay</strong>

Toby Litt <em>Hamish Hamilton, 288 pp, £1

"It sounded like an operatic cow yodelling in a mineshaft, after falling down the mineshaft." A studio engineer turns up the reverb, but to no avail: the lead singer's girlfriend is killing the best song. "Just because someone can hold a tambourine doesn't mean they can play it. Just because you're fucking someone doesn't mean you should give them a tambourine to hold." And certainly not a microphone. Toby Litt's ninth novel is about every band you've ever seen, listened to or been in yourself. Only they're inexplicably, enormously popular. In this story narrated by Clap, the drummer of the title, we follow Canada's answer to the Velvet Underground (. . . really) as they ride the white tiger of success and excess.

The introductions are brief but revealing. "We are in a band called okay, lower case, italics." From here, it's a slippery slope to extravagant light shows, concept albums and lyrics about intergalactic warfare ("Message from the cosmos/Knowledge from the gods/Can we survive?"). Litt's writing comes to life when it cranks every rock'n'roll cliché all the way up to the proverbial 11. Hearing a "whining sound" in his periphery, Clap asks his lead singer, Syph, if he farted. Syph replies: "I don't think so . . . Was it in tune?"

Predictably, okay is at its best when in full-on Spinal Tap mode. Coked-up label execs, divisive hippie girlfriends and bead-bearing Buddhist monks bustle in and out of view, while the band itself inches its way towards the next big hit (in all senses of the word). It's a messy ride. Dogs are vomited on, hotel lobbies are trashed, and women are remorselessly used and abused: "If you freak out some girl and she has hysterics at you, she's two towns behind before her slap even hits your face."

While the band tours central Europe, a teenage fan insinuates herself into Syph's London hotel room and refuses to leave until they return. Clap improvises a ditty in her honour: "The girl in room 333 - She's waiting for me - Patiently - Eternally." Litt's trump card is his ability to play these moments seamlessly for laughs and pathos alike. After days on the road, they return to find her emaciated, "looking beyond-ghost: inch-thin arms and panda eyes".

So, it's a shame that so much of the book's second half is devoted to the mundane neuroses of a middle-of-the-road drummer. When a fanzine asks him what he likes to read, Clap answers "e e cummings". Crab, the lead guitarist, opts for "the wine list" and Syph for "Hitler: a Study in Tyranny". Juvenile as these answers are, it's hard not to wish that Litt had chosen somebody else - someone more charismatic, or at least more charming - to be our guide. Clap complains about "the general sense of bewilderment and disorientation" that comes with band life, which for him is marked by "hours of boredom". It is a profoundly depressing and off-putting sentiment, coming from the narrator of a 280-page novel.

In a chapter ominously entitled "Myself", an older Clap defines himself as "husband of one, father of two". He daydreams about haunting his wife from beyond the grave by dropping "odour of lavender" in the "passageways of our house". It's rude, but I have to ask: Who really cares? Such mawkish details jar with the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll that precede them and, frankly, they are tiresome. Late in the narrative, a heavy-handed hallucination scene brings the Clap of his early twenties together with his middle-aged self; the younger accuses the older of having nothing important to impart. "You just have anecdotes of weakness indulged and privilege taken for granted," he rails. By this point, many readers will probably agree.

The overriding impression is of two separate stories unnecessarily soldered together, with neither helping to deepen or to add credibility to the other. Where Litt's subtle subversions of rock-star mythologies seem to mine an endlessly rich seam, his fortysomething everyman routine is, in a word, leaden. "Becoming middle-aged," Clap explains, "is like waking up, I mean regaining consciousness." It is telling that the novel seems so much more immediate, so much more believable, when he is living the dream.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis