By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 29, 2015
In 1993, a science fiction writer from Texas named Lewis Shiner published his fourth novel, Glimpses. I read part of it but never finished, for reasons that remain unclear. Perhaps I lost interest; perhaps I never got my hands on the novel itself but instead had an excerpt published in a science fiction magazine.
At any rate, this summer, I saw Love and Mercy, the biopic about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and it reminded me of Glimpses, or of whatever part of it that I’d read. I’d seen a copy of the book in a Raleigh second-hand store, so on my next visit there, I picked it up. (I also grabbed a copy of Frontera, Shiner’s first book, from 1984, which I will write about sometime in the next few months.)
Glimpses is a heavily autobiographical novel, according to the autobiographical essay on Shiner’s website. The story opens in late 1989, shortly after the narrator’s father has died in a diving accident off the Mexican island of Cozumel. Ray Shackleford is a 37-year-old stereo repairman trapped in a loveless marriage to a teacher; he is semi-functional despite having a major alcohol dependency. A college dropout and an only child, Shackleford has always loved music and never got along with his father.
But this otherwise ordinary man discovers an extraordinary talent. He’s at work, trying to finish mourning his dad, an anthropology professor who had only recently retired from a globe-hopping career, and trying to stop mooning over Alex, his high-school girlfriend, when something strange happens as Let It Be plays in the background of his workshop:
There’s magic, see, and there’s science. Science is what I learned at DeVry and it bought me this nice two story house off 290 in East Austin. Magic says if maybe the Beatles could have hacked it then maybe Alex and me could have hacked it.
If the Beatles had hacked it, “The Long and Winding Road” would have sounded a lot different. Paul always hated what [producer Phil] Spector did to it, wanted it to be a simple piano ballad. John might have written a new middle eight for it, something with an edge to cut the syrupy romanticism. George could have played some of the string parts on the guitar, and Ringo could have punched the thing up, given it more of a push.
It could have happened. Say Paul had realized the movie was a stupid idea. Say they’d given up on recording at Apple and gone back to Abbey Road where they belonged, let George Martin actually produce instead of sitting around listening to them bicker. I’d seen enough pictures of the studio. I could see it in my head.…
Here’s John, his beard just starting to come in, hair down to here, Yoko growing out of his armpit. Paul’s beard is already there, George Harrison and Ringo have mustaches. Paul is in a long-sleeved shirt and sleeveless sweater, John and Yoko are in matching black turtlenecks, George has a bandanna tied cowboy style around his neck. The tape is on a quarter-inch reel, not the inch wide-stuff they use now. It’s been less than twenty years, after all, since the studio stopped recording directly onto wax discs. Everything about the mixers and faders is oversized, big ceramic handles, big needles on the VU meters, everything painted battleship gray. The air smells of hair oil and cigarette smoke. Everyone bums Everest cigarettes off of Geoff Emerick, who is wearing a white lab coat like all the other EMI engineers.
They’re listening to the playback. Here’s Ringo’s deadened toms, five quick chords on George’s Rosewood Telecaster…
And there it was. Coming out of the speakers in my workshop. For half a minute it didn’t even seem weird. I put down my soldering gun and listened, feeling all the emotion that had been buried under the strings rise to the surface.
Then it hit me, really hit me, what I was listening to. As soon as it did the music slowed and went back to the way it always has been.
Shackleford discovers that he’s not only capable of conjuring music that never existed, he’s able to record the resulting songs. He arranges to visit a Los Angeles record executive named Graham Hudson, who encourages him to recover other famous rock albums that were either never made or never fully realized.
After Shackleford salvages the Doors’ Celebration of the Lizard, he seeks to recreate Smile, the legendary record that stalled when the some of the Beach Boys wanted to stick with their tried-and-true formula of upbeat songs about cars, girls and surfing. This time, Shackleford’s magic immerses him even deeper than before: He spends a few days in Brian Wilson’s house at a critical juncture in the album’s production. Later in the book, something similar happens as Shackleford attempts to spare Hendrix’s life from a deadly but preventable series of snafus in London.
The book also follows Shackleford in his quotidian doings. He spends holidays with his mother and his wife’s family; he develops a friendship with Hudson; he travels to Cozumel and tries to learn more about the diving accident that claimed his father’s life.
It’s the latter section, which bridges the Wilson and Hendrix excursions, that is Glimpses’ biggest weakness. Shackleford lands on the island and almost immediately draws both the disdain and interest of the divemaster’s girlfriend. Despite the exotic setting, the narrator and the story seem disappointingly ordinary. This chapter of the book verges, in fact, on becoming an altogether generic romance novel, even though Shackleford spends time at a hippie commune chatting with a shaman about his father and spiritualism. (The chapter also includes a near-death experience and a psychiatrist cavorting with a much-younger woman whose relationship to him — daughter? lover? — is somewhat murky, but this does little to enliven the proceedings.)
Shiner’s passion for music is evident throughout the book, and he beautifully captures how hearing a specific song can stir up amazingly vivid decades-old memories from an earlier era in a person’s life. Shiner also manages to frame the music and the societal upheaval of the 1960s in a way that sounds fresh without seeming overly idealistic or naïve. As one Londoner tells Shackleford, “The late sixties were about the notion of an infinite expansion of possibilities. By the end of the sixties it was a sense of the contracting of possibilities again.”
Another thing I found interesting about Glimpses is that the details it relates about the Wilson family and the Beach Boys all jibe with — and are in many ways more clearly and poignantly presented than — what Love and Mercy showed viewers. Both Brians are obsessed with finding some elusive level of perfection that always seems to be just out of reach; the Mike Love of the novel is as skeptical about Brian’s quixotic musical pursuits as the Mike Love of the movie; in the book, Brian’s father is as disdainful and hurtful as the movie’s paterfamilias.
Ultimately, Glimpses is a fascinating excursion into a decade of lost music, social and personal turmoil, and unfulfilled promise. Yes, some parts are hokey — but when Shiner’s novel flies, it truly soars.