Anthony Joseph’s The Frequency of Magic (Peepal Press, 2019) is a sprawling tome to the limits of narrative in writing, at the cusp of formal and informal traditions and distinctions that mark avant-garde and experimental approaches to writing. Highly self-referential, the novel takes place in a temporal plane of simultaneity, where characters are interwoven and plots rhizomatic. The novel is conceived as being written by the butcher Raphael, a character within Joseph’s book, who loses control of the narrative, and so the interests of his character wander through rural Trinidad and beyond. Undergirding much of the text is an attentiveness to the everyday social rhythms of its context. The characters lack conventional narrative arcs or development, so tracking their movements forces the reader, invariably without success, to inhabit the fast-moving pace in an attempt to ground the characters into the novel.
With seven albums and four poetry collections to his name, The Frequency of Magic is Joseph’s third novel, following his 2018 novel Kitch: A Fictional Biography of a Calypso Icon. Joseph’s prolific writing works at the boundaries of form while being deeply informed by a multitude of lineages from diasporic narratives, black modernist canon and French poststructuralism through to jazz, bebop and calypso. Joseph gives expression to the accumulated experience that constitutes culture, or just being in a place, and in doing so invokes a liberatory promise, or hope, where the bounds of forms are blurred inviting critique and reflection.
The Frequency of Magic is set in a temporal place of simultaneity, where multiple strands of narrative sit in a truncated, compressed space-time, whose description is both saturated and fragmented in abundance, where characters act and move in non-linear, circular fashions. Take the character Ella:
‘She is careful not to disturb her past, or to twist her heel. She moves beyond the perimeters of the page on which she is written to a side-street cafe with sandalwood burning, dark wooden plates, red aprons, mussel husks, red wine and kemetic ornaments on the wall. Her memory is a canopy of gospel above marvellous trees. She remembers her beloved father in that house of ploughs in the country; barebacked in the green guava field; in Mt Garnett with a can of kerosene, setting traps of fire; in Enterprise Village, depending on his misfortunes for self-respect; in cold New York building a black Baptist ministry, flinging wood and beast like sorrow self.’ (FM, 11)
This near-constant multi-temporal, multi-spatial form of writing precludes any ability to follow protagonists or any particular narrative. Instead waves of poetic prose render a world awash in tones and moods, festooned with objects, actions and phenomena that accumulate a sensory and cognitive experience.
While deeply resonant with poststructuralist ideas of the moving-subject and nonlinearity of mimetic space-time, Joseph has spoken in a lecture about his narratology being embedded in the Caribbean, to the point where he regards it as a site-specific form. One might go further to think about its phenomenological resonance, the relation between subject and object, and the manner in which a poetic emerges from the very world, seeping into the formality and breaking back out in its undecidability. Or put differently, space and place mediate the narrative through blurs of motion and action not reducible to either character or plot.
Music, too, emanates throughout the work. We find long lists and detailed reference to musicians across a jazz and calypso oeuvre through the character of Raphael. In one passage it is said Raphael has 500,000 albums:
‘all annotated in foolscap folios and collated and separated into genres and protected against the flash of sunlight on shelves: Elvin Jones, Hot Lips Page, John Klemmer, to exhale and blow gage, Roy Brooks and Rahsaan, with arms of Vishnu, on stritch, manzello and nose flute – all the species of sax and reed machines. Hard US card and black inside: Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Sounds of Liberation, Strata East, Monk plays Ayler, the lauded Sabu series, Ellington’s Afro Bossa, Robert Aaron’s Trouble Man, Woody Shaw, Billy Harper’s Priestess, Adam Pieronczyk and Alan Shorter, Amina Claudine Myers and endless calypso.’ (FM, 234)
Musicality rings through the prose, riffing and skipping, becoming almost a frame for writing itself. The music becomes a form of understanding the sociality at play, the manner of movement, texture, timbre, a popular improvisatory form of both writing and reading. A place where informality and formality can meet and expand.
One of the threads running through the book is a chase and rivalry between Luke and the Great Bandit, part adventure, part chess-game. We are taken through a tumultuous, incredible pursuit across different fissures of landscape and setting. Understanding their movement in terms of a musical score, or a chasing duet of brass horns, seems most productive:
‘Luke is leaping, and the Great Bandit knows that wherever he goes, death sharpens his toes…let us play the poems like a piano, like Monk’s shoulder swung into the swing, enjambed at intervals, swift corners and curvatures, into the ringing, singing, sweep of the thing, tap the heel and toe, bop the head back, once more with feeling.’ (FM, 231)
All this, then, can be understood as part of a larger ensemble that constitutes the writing. While in some instances we find musicians described, often the musical element influences the very form of writing itself. In a way, we’re taken to the edge of what fiction could be, or to the very beginning of what fiction should be. A warping of space-time through a deconstructive gamut of cultural forms.
Joseph draws explicitly on literary and theoretical heritage, particularly black modernism and French poststructuralism, including Aime Cesaire, Edouard Glissant, Nathaniel Mackey, Jacques Lacan, Earl Lovelace, Merleau-Ponty and many more. This confluence of writers and thought points to a particular milieu of black critical theory that has been developing over recent years, largely in US Black Studies departments. Drawing on questions of ontology, sociality and cultural form, particularly music and poetics, Joseph’s experimental work seems to draw upon that discourse from his particular vantage as a Trinidadian working through academic and cultural institutions based in the UK. Mackey’s work in particular offers an important point of comparison. In his ongoing prose project From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, Mackey follows a fictional jazz band as they tour and ply their trade. Written in a deeply lyrical form of prose, imbued with mysticism and philosophy, the series of books makes a great claim to the possibilities, and limits, of writing fictionally about music. Or, for Joseph, to write musically through fiction.
Simone White, in her book Dear Angel of Death (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018), makes a trenchant critique of this style of writing. Amongst her various arguments, she is concerned with the valourisation of concepts of the innovative, and the potential of the improvisational to erase lived realities of black people. Particularly through reference to Amiri Baraka, Fred Moten and Mackey, she raises the issue of black music being the site for much of these theoretical readings, often omitting contemporary popular forms such as hip hop and trap. Instead, she argues, the music seems to offer a site for poetic innovation which elides larger social and historical responsibilities. But White does give Mackey credit in that his work ‘enacts a thoroughly gripping examination of possible convergence and divergence between the possibilities proposed for black personhood by way of performing and listening to music (that is, of music-based theories of black personhood) and possibilities proposed by way of writing […] Mackey does the impossible by insisting on the correctness of the music-based theory while accessing a poetics that permanently destabilises its premises.’ (DAD, 111)
Joseph, too, inaugurates a homologous form of writing that utilises simultaneity as constitutive of a destabilised premise.While blackness is implied through literary and musical reference, The Frequency of Magic engages with and partakes in a widening of expression and imagination.
The issue that perhaps still remains is that through the formal innovations and temporal-spatial irruptions, amounting to a radical placelessness, certain conceits still remain. Throughout The Frequency of Magic we encounter masculinist conceits ranging from disparaging descriptions of women (‘breasts like long loaves of bread’ P.26) to banal acts of violence. Similarly, certain exoticist tropes are trooped out for Asian or East Indians, to mark the edge of the text and surrounds (‘baskets of chive and dravidian fetishes’ P. 201). These tropes, often undertaken through irony and jest, point to elements of a masculinism that errs on the side of patriarchal ethnocentrism, or inwardness, in a gesture to regain sovereignty over a shifting terrain that too often constricts intimacy, character and the site of reproduction.
While this tendency may seem at odds with the formal and aesthetic radicalism already outlined, White can help us think through Joseph’s tautology around social life, music, poetics, ontology and gender through the concept of the ‘fold’. Without going into the theoretical depths of her argument too intently, she thinks of it as ‘an aesthetic practice of desires […] specific to the question of how blackness works as a historical relation.’ (DAD, 122) What the ‘fold’ reproduces is an attempt at a ‘philosophy of life’ that would undermine and undercut actual lived social experience, rendering a particular domination that the text rhetorically seeks to pull apart. What’s at stake is the manner in which something which may come under the rubric of innovation, or the avant-garde, often through its formal re-composition of radical alterity, reproducing theatres of violence and exclusion.
Perhaps at the root of the issues that are raised in The Frequency of Magic is a question of fragmented and fractured life; the manner in which Raphael learns, studies and examines cultural expression and social life through the lens of the historical present.
Improvisation, then in Joseph’s work is the way the record collection is assembled, the bookshelf acquired, a flaneur-like attitude to cultural form that amounts to an autodidactism. The unevenness that this practice invariably yields to comes out in Raphael’s failure to control and remain sovereign and dominant over his narrative. While some might claim a colonised masculine lack here in the vein of a Fanonian critique, what’s of more use is perhaps that the cumulative experience of improvisatory, fragmented life is still held up by certain precepts that require examination. Simultaneously though Joseph’s writing invites eddying bursts of reading and breathing that emanate through the reader. Writing as experimentation holds this potential that lies latent in the vitality of placelessness, an inhabitant form of social poetics that seeks a nuanced embrace, in critique and reflection.
Kashif Sharma-Patel is a writer, poet and editor at the87press. They work at the interface of sonic, visual and written cultures with particular reference to queer and racialised experimental work. They have performed and published poetry widely, as well as written music, art and literary criticism.