Writing a novel about music is like making a movie about books. At best, it will be genuine but embarrassingly honest–an attempt to describe to strangers why the memory of a crush from high school can still inspire giddiness or despair when you’re coming up on forty. “Literature,” as William Browning Spencer wrote, “can be cruelly indifferent to heartfelt emotion.”
The challenge of capturing what music can mean to someone is the plot and the problem with The Five. Over the course of 500 pages, Robert McCammon details both the daily grind of life in the titular band of one-trait rock archetypes and their struggle for survival against literal and existential demons. The light supernatural elements are the most intriguing parts of the book, though they will be overly familiar to anyone who’s read Stephen King from Desperation onward. But the bulk of the novel is devoted to the band on tour, and it’s in these sections that the book fails to connect.
McCammon does an admirable job describing The Five’s gigs, but they fall flat by focusing on the supposedly transcendent power of the band’s lyrics. He describes the ethereal vocals, the ferocity with which the drummer plays, and the sweat and strained fingers that go into doubling the speed of a bass line to please a sold out show at the equivalent of a Satanic ICP rally. But without an actual soundtrack, the lyrics are just words that don’t rhyme on a page.
It might be a cop out, but it would be less distracting to read: “And then The Five played a song that changed the world.” With something as intensely personal as music, it’s impossible to translate what the author hears in his head to the reader’s ears, and that’s assuming the audience shares his musical taste. Maybe it’s all the whining they do while on the road, but I doubt I’d enjoy The Five if they were a real band.
McCammon concludes the book with an equally distancing dedication. In case the reader was confused by the constant name dropping of real musicians and the intermingling of fictional interpretations of bands with wholly fabricated ones, the post script lists three pages of actual bands that McCammon drew inspiration from. A lot of authors have playlists in mind when writing their books, and some, like Carrie Vaughn, make a habit of publishing them along with the text. To me, this is as mawkish as scrawling the Metallica logo on your science notebook. It’s a heartfelt sentiment, but one only people who have been touched by a band in the same way can appreciate. And in this case it’s diluted by the sheer diversity of the inspirations involved. (Wang Chung, Evanescence, and The Bloodhound Gang?)
I feel the same way about The Five as I do about a lot of bands. The book didn’t speak to me, but I can see why other people might love it. As the music review cliché goes, fans of books like The Five are sure to enjoy The Five.