Kate Schatz's Rid of Me: A Story is a tricky entry into the 33 1/3 series. Most volumes deal with albums in a fairly straightforward manner providing a direct set of criteria through which to evaluate them. These criteria generally look to a book's insight into the album, its clarity of purpose and vision, the quality of the prose, and the various strategies an author uses to explore said album. Schatz's entry on PJ Harvey's Rid of Me, like the volumes on Meat is Murder and Music from Big Pink before it, is a little trickier in that its fictional. What makes Rid of Me: A Story more complicated, however, is that it never explicitly deals with PJ Harvey or her album. That's okay. I like the boldness of the approach. Whereas Joe Pernice and John Niven ground their fictions in the experience of listening to the album and a fictionalized telling of the creation of the album, respectively, Schatz's volume focuses instead on the themes and mood of Harvey's album as invoked through a dark and, at times, sexy narrative. Because I'm a fan of the idea of a book of fiction being about a rock album, I wanted to love this book and bury it with praise. And, while much of Schatz's volume pays off, I find myself distinguishing between the volume's two aims: its ability to capture the essence of PJ Harvey's album, and its ability to tell an engaging story.
As an exploration of Rid of Me, Schatz's work is a surprising success. The narrative's grim tone and damaged, but strong characters read as if they were ripped right out of Harvey's album. Schatz's desolate nature imagery and her protagonist's desperation, anger, and longing all bristle with the same energy that Harvey brings to her compositions. Through the protagonist's odd romance and flight from those who wronged them, Schatz is able to explore the raw, thrumming pathos that underlies every distorted guitar and pained howl on Rid of Me.
So what is holding the volume back? Well, it doesn't quite work as a story. At least to this reader. I'd like to qualify this, though. The prose in this book is mostly excellent, and the ideas seem pretty compelling, but neither of these are enough to carry the narrative beyond its simple lack of grounding. Ultimately, Rid of Me: A Story aims to be a non-conventional narrative told through points of view that shift between unreliable narrators, and which are so grounded in the sensation of the moment that I had trouble finding stable footing at times. While this ethereal approach to storytelling works wonderfully in capturing the mood of the album, I found myself struggling to stay invested in Mary and Kathleen, the story's protagonists. Even now, as I think back on the story, the details are a bit hazy--I know Kathleen and Mary escape from shitty patriarchal surroundings, find each other, and forge a darkly erotic relationship. Then, while little happens in the story's present, the women are besieged by paranoia, fear, and bad dreams as we learn bits and pieces of their pasts through hazy flashbacks. In the end, my connection to these characters is about as foggy as the ways their backstories unfold. I wonder if the story might have benefited from some stronger grounding in the present, and perhaps a bit more present-tense friction to help drive so much uncertain remembering.
Still, I feel as if my own fiction writing and workshop mentality (which is begrudgingly branded into my brain) is getting in the way of my fully enjoying Schatz's story. I want to love this book--its approach and attitude is everything I look for in fiction, but without enough footing to stand on, I ended up feeling lost and aloof.
Regardless, I'm thrilled that Continuum and Schatz took the risk with this book. Despite my problems with it, the volume is still interesting and worthwhile, I was just hoping for a little more.
Next up, Marvin Lin's book on Kid A