Have you ever approached a task that you were unsure you could complete? Not because of time, but because of tools? When I was presented with Crepuscule w/ Nellie and read the first page, I immediately questioned the undertaking ahead of me. This book is both novel and poetry, and to the latter, I say that without the romantic connotation the phrase has developed in recent times. This book is poetry in the sense that every word has been meticulously chosen and arranged into painstakingly constructed sentences and paragraphs, and, as a result, reading the text is exclusively the province of the bold. You will, if you hope to make sense of what is in front of you, spend as many (if not more) hours unpacking significance and formulating your own interpretations as you did reading.
I point this out not to frighten (it should be noted that, if you are reading this, then unconventional reading probably doesn’t scare you anyway), but to entice. This work is a challenge worthy of any who prides themselves on reading, both demanding and rewarding in its experience. There is no apology for the style, nor toward those who would be intimidated. I can only describe that style in terms that make sense to me, because my cultural history is not yours and this book defies simple confinement – to me, this is Ulysses reborn, mutated by the whims of impressionist and experimental jazz and exposed under the harsh sun of the American south. I bring up Ulysses because the comparison works on levels beyond the most obvious, that of jumping between wildly different literary formats. Like Joyce’s legendary work, this is an epic that deals with gritty details of multiple, difficult lives. And yet, like the Odyssey that inspired Joyce’s tale, it deals with characters who are mythical and mortal.
Milazzo is acutely aware of the misconceptions and half-truths surrounding the life of Thelonious Monk, a man seen as an unappreciated genius savant by his celebrants and a drug-addicted adulterer by his detractors, and yet Milazzo makes no attempt to convey a sense of realism, or even of stable reality. Instead of historical fiction, he attempts to encapsulate the experience that is Monk’s existence, and, as is the case with a piece of music, or indeed any art, the value is deeply dependent on the reader. Much of the “story” is relayed through the imagined perspective of Monk’s wife, Nellie, and this is the closest thing resembling an anchor that the novel presents. Like we the reader, Nellie acts and reacts with the idea of Monk, at times caught up in the idea and at times acutely aware of the man.
At a time when our highest grossing movies are neatly trimmed escapist fantasies involving superhumans and when much of the American populace seeks another celebrity athlete upon which to pin their idolatry, I find this book particularly resonant. It is an examination of brilliance and humanity, an acknowledgement of the coexistence of what we label as flaws and beauty. Odysseus was an adulterer and a killer. Leopold Bloom was a meek cuckold. This rendition of Thelonious Monk is just a man, with all of the greatness that entails.
Crepuscule w/ Nellie is available now from Jaded Ibis Press