Thursday, February 15, 2007

Michael Reads a Book

Love Is A Mix Tape, by Rob Sheffield

Let’s get this out of the way: Comparing a book infused with music, romance, pain and humor to High Fidelity is like comparing a painting about the horrors of war to Guernica. The temptation may be irresistible, but it doesn’t do anyone any favors. And so, despite comparisons from every corner of the web, let’s put to bed the notion that Rob Sheffield’s new memoir recalls Nick Hornby’s masterful first novel in any but the most superficial sense.

Moreover, the comparisons seem to slight the memory of Renee Crist, Sheffield’s first wife. High Fidelity is a piece of fictional comedy that sees the guy get the girl in the end. Love Is A Mix Tape is a real-life tragedy in which the girl dies before the book even begins.

Sheffield, a Rolling Stone writer, chronicles his relationship with – and all-too-brief marriage to – Crist, a fellow rock crit who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism in her early thirties. Emotionally fractured, Sheffield is left to remember Renee and make sense of their brassy-mountain-girl-meets-geeky-northeastern-introvert relationship through the prism of the mix tapes they made for each other.

At least that’s the conceit. And let’s face it, it’s a pretty flimsy and forced conceit at that, designed to graft Sheffield’s intuitive sense (and massive knowledge) of pop culture on to a story about love, loss and healing. What songs did they share? What does it matter? Their mutual love of music was key to their relationship, but the mix tapes themselves do little more than frame a story that’s about something else entirely.

And it’s to Sheffield’s great credit that this doesn’t seem like a problem. To the extent that a book about the death of one’s spouse can be breezy, this one certainly is (a quick aside: on its face, Mix Tape bears little resemblance to Joan Didion’s fabulous, but far more grim, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the aftermath of her husband’s death; still, the authors’ experiences – Sheffield sat by the phone in case Renee called, while Didion kept her husband’s shoes lest he come back and need them – shed light on the disorienting experience of grieving spouses). Inflected with a self-deprecating humor that masks the pain, Mix Tape is a short book that flies by, leaving only a gossamer sense of the people, times and places it describes, putting the reader in a position similar to the author. As he tries to hold on to his past even as specific memories begin to fade, we come to Renee pre-faded. We know what kind of footwear she preferred and the kinds of music she loved because Sheffield kept the shoes and tapes. But like the widowed author looking back across time, we have trouble placing her scent.

Not surprisingly, Sheffield soars highest when writing about music. In some ways, Renee remains a mystery to him, and he can still seem like a love-struck puppy when it comes to her. But he knows his rock and roll cold (he may be the foremost public champion of The Hold Steady, which gives him enduring credibility around here), and he writes up to his audience, not down, trusting his readers’ intelligence and base of knowledge when it comes to obscure lyrical references, out-of-print albums, and the sublime pleasures of the band Pavement (I was going to quote one particularly impressive passage, but now I can’t find it; alas, dear reader, you get what you pay for). He makes compelling cases for top 40 radio, the perfect sexual dynamics of synth-pop bands, and the way certain songs fuse with our memories and take on new meanings.

Sheffield struggles a bit when he tries to cram a story that stands perfectly well on its own into the mix tape framework, especially when he attempts to put a bow on it at the end (he also throws in a gratuitous and peculiar political broadside; there are lots of perfectly legitimate failures to pin on the Bush administration, but “the economy is in the toilet” isn’t one of them). Renee may be gone, but for him the story never really will end even as he embarks on a new marriage, and trying to sum it up rather than allowing it to fade out seems forced.

Still, the book is a pleasure – deeply human, heartbreakingly sad, frequently funny, with a good beat that’s easy to dance to. By being so engaging and likeable, Sheffield evokes an avalanche of empathy in the reader, his pain becoming our bond, and ultimately, that’s the book’s lasting triumph.

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