The wildly inventive Nicholson (Bleeding London, 1997, etc.) exuberantly lives up to his reputation with this witty, ingenious fable about a rock-and-roll guitarist. Many writers have come to grief trying to create with words an approximation of music's content and texture. Nicholson wisely sidesteps the issue by concentrating instead on the impact of the young and mysterious Jenny Slade's music on her audiences. Jenny, bright (it's rumored she studied at the Sorbonne, or Oxford), a loner, either bored or uninterested by most things not having to do with music, wants to be something other than a mere virtuoso. While she is, by all accounts, a phenomenally gifted guitarist, she's constantly driven to push the boundaries: much of what she creates (performed solo on guitar) sounds more like noise than melody. Yet it has a deep, unsettling, almost addictive effect on her audiences. Part of her ability to mesmerize may come from the peculiar guitar she travels with: it's shaped vaguely like a human torso and seems, at the climax of her concerts, to bleed. While the story follows, ironically, the outlines of a quest narrative (with Jenny as a dedicated seeker, searching to unlock the riddles at "the heart of the universe" with her music), Nicholson can't resist embroidering the tale with some typically witty and idiosyncratic touches. There is, for instance, Jenny's near-lethal encounter with Freddie Terrano, the legendary one-armed guitarist. And sprinkled throughout are excerpts from articles in the Journal of Sladean Studies, devoted to explicating her life and art, and forming a wonderful parody of academic dissections of pop culture. Then there's the language: Nicholson's characters are invariably gifted with a line of bright, sardonic chat. Jenny's quest leads her eventually to a kind of revelation, and, in an end both droll and moving, to silence. A deft entertainment, bright, surprising, and, in its consideration of the impact of popular music on our imaginations, quite penetrating.
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