The unbearable burden of superior taste in music

Washington Post
Friday, August 11, 2017

British novelist Magnus Mills has a knack for coming up with stories that cast a comically revealing light on human struggle and perversity. In his debut novel, The Restraint of Beasts, which was a finalist for the 1998 Man Booker Prize, the subject was fence-building. In The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), it was truck-parts distribution with some illicit cake delivery on the side.

In his new novel, The Forensic Records Society, the “action” – if you can call it that – is obsessive record-listening. The characters talk about 45 rpm discs (LPs are frowned upon), with firm rules on what order they’re played and strict limitations on how one can react to them.

The nameless narrator and his fellow obsessive, James, pride themselves on their reverent appreciation of vintage pop tunes. “Nobody else is interested,” the narrator laments after they’ve taken three spins through the Who’s Happy Jack. “Nobody listens. Not properly anyway. Not like we do.”

James, disagreeing, feels they must have kindred spirits somewhere. To find them, he suggests, they need to do some community outreach. “We could form a society for the express purpose of listening to records closely and in detail, forensically if you like, without any interruption or distraction.”

Hence the Forensic Records Society, which starts meeting in the backroom of the Half Moon pub on Monday nights. A few like-minded souls turn up, agreeing at first to James’s “puritanical” approach to music appreciation: “Comments and judgements aren’t allowed.”

But James doesn’t prevail for long. In short order, a rival Confessional Records Society takes over the Half Moon’s backroom on Tuesday nights and, after a few months, a couple of regulars break off to form their own Perceptive Records Society.

The schisms don’t stop there. And when women invade this aging boys’ world, things get increasingly out of hand.

“Was it really beyond human capacity,” the narrator wonders, “to create a society which didn’t ultimately disintegrate through internal strife? Or collapse under the weight of its own laws? Or suffer damaging rivalries with other societies?”

This is a little book, but Mills has big fun as he parlays the trivial into the profound. The starting point for The Forensic Records Society may be an old 7-inch plastic disc, but it isn’t long before the stakes feel huge. Mills, clearly, has much to say on cult mentality and the confines of conformity.

It probably helps to be Mills’s age – he was born in 1954 – to appreciate some of his jokes. (“Why would somebody bake a cake and then leave it out in the rain?” asks a bewildered younger character who doesn’t know MacArthur Park.) A narrative thread about the way time seems to pass differently in the Half Moon’s backroom than it does in the bar up front doesn’t entirely pan out. And the novel’s closing is baffling.

But if memories of Top of the Pops or American Bandstand are ingrained in your soul, you should give The Forensic Records Society a spin.