Pop Fiction: Stories Inspired by Songs
Edited by Daniel Lewis
Paperback; 302 pages;
ISBN: 978 1 907986 23 9;
According to Goethe, “music begins where words end”. Pop Fiction, however, reverses this principle: nine writers take up the project of continuing with words where music left off. Drawing from a spectrum of genres as disparate as rock and reggae, each writer has worked their own interpretation of a song into short stories that come together in a compilation described by editor Daniel Lewis as ‘the most eclectic mixtape you’ll ever receive’.
‘Eclectic’ is certainly appropriate – not just for the diverse music tastes brought to the table, but also the manifold approaches towards song interpretation; this lends the collection a thematic volatility that can be quite compelling. Some writers have produced pieces echoing no more than the general mood of their chosen song; others, like Tom Singleton, have seized upon a single striking lyric and expanded it into an entire universe. Singleton’s piece ‘Interception’, based on the Clash’s punk-reggae classic ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’, takes the seminal line
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They’d send a limousine anyway
and blows it up into an alternate reality in which Hitler actually gets on a British Airways flight to Heathrow, and an entire nation risks everything to exact Jewish vengeance upon that plane. Lewis’s own story, ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’, is an ingeniously post-Modernist spin on song interpretation itself. Mark E. Smith, frontman of English post-punk band The Fall, wrote the song of the same title after his experience on the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland, where a woman was thrown out of her bobsled and killed. Lewis places his character at the centre of the song’s genesis as the Mickey Mouse actor whose fixed plastic smile unintentionally traumatises Smith’s wife, engineering a clever circularity of inspiration.
Besides expanding on a song of their choice, each writer also performs a cover version of David Bowie’s ‘“Heroes”’. In a motley of interpretations ranging from sci-fi caper to kamikaze tragedy, Pop Fiction’s nine contributors squeeze every shade of meaning out of ‘“Heroes”’, picking the bones of its lyrics for the finest details – right down to the oft-debated quotation marks in the song’s title. While an intriguing challenge, it proves less successful: a number of the stories are caught awkwardly borrowing from the same trope, like two women wearing identical designer dresses to a party. The star-crossed lovers cliché does particularly heavy duty, with angst-ridden teenage couples across numerous tales shooting up heroin or committing suicide while blasting Bowie from their speakers. Occasionally it is explored with success, as in Lewis’s poignant portrait of an apocalyptic Bonnie and Clyde, but more often than not the attempts overshoot stirring tragedy to land in mawkish bathos. Of the few pieces that renounce the trends of love and war, Jacky Cowper’s ‘Simon Sees’ stands out in its eerie rendition of a young boy’s evolution into a homicidal psychopath as he grows increasingly entrenched in his delusions of being a superhero.
As with every mixtape, Pop Fiction has its hits and misses. The double-duty aspect of this writing experiment showcases the versatility of writers like Karen Snape-Williams, who shifts effortlessly from the subdued fatalism of her Bowie-based WWII romance to a convincing Western drawl for the Bob Marley-inspired ‘Cut And Run’ – in which her lone ranger protagonist does indeed shoot the sheriff, but unfortunately fails to do the same to the deputy. Elsewhere in the collection, however, brilliantly-conceived scenarios are often obscured by amateurish writing; the raw, unpolished style of some pieces might be meant to evoke the scratchy charm of an early vinyl EP, but the inexplicable tense shifts and awkward turns of phrase frequently reduce it to the jarring quality of a YouTube audio rip.
Yet through the fluctuating riffs and harmonies of the writing, the bassline of an earnest reverence for its source material is unmistakeable. Readers who know their pop culture will appreciate the shoutouts peppering the stories: Lev Parikian’s sly nod to ‘Lovely Rita’ in his Beatles-inspired ‘Life In A Day’ (“Shagged a traffic warden once,” his protagonist remarks. “Name of Rita. Lovely lass.”), or Aìs’ allusion to the Kinks’ infamous ode to a transvestite when the young tech specialist in ‘Heroes For A Day’ names a piece of defence technology Lola (“ – well, she isn’t really a girl, is she?”) Pop Fiction is above all a love letter to music, a tribute to the tunes that shape lives and sculpt generations; for those who recognise and revere that power, this mixtape is worth a listen.