Research Notes · 09/09/2016

Crepuscule W/ Nellie

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Joe Milazzo writes about Crepuscule W/ Nellie from Jaded Ibis Press.

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The jacket copy for my novel, Crepuscule W/ Nellie, classifies it as belonging to the genre of “speculative historical fiction.” To the best of my knowledge, such a genre does not exist. Or if it does, its existence is almost entirely fictional.

But “speculative historical fiction” is, from my admittedly biased perspective, an entirely accurate description. For Crepuscule W/ Nellie isn’t really about the historical figure of Thelonious Sphere Monk: composer, pianist, innovator, African-American. Crepuscule W/ Nellie is fundamentally concerned with those individuals who are almost always underrepresented in historical narratives: women, particularly women who either exert their influence within and from the domestic sphere, and women who dare to (one might even say heroically) operate outside of that sphere. Yes, Crepuscule W/ Nellie is grounded in historical fact, but it is also an attempt to know what history doesn’t know, and to know it by means of invention. Despite many opportunities and temptations to do so, I ultimately chose not to completely fictionalize these characters or, as John Clellon Holmes did in his brave and still rather brilliant jazz novel The Horn, turn Crepuscule W/ Nellie into a roman à clef. I decided that, for the sake of theme and even plot, my own novel’s complicated historicity could not be as invisible as, say, Nellie Monk was (or even chose to be) in her lifetime. I wanted that historicity, that question of what really happened, to remain a source of trouble and consternation for both the book’s characters and its readers.

Of course, one of the great challenges for me as author of Crepuscule W/ Nellie ended up being something of a problem of history. The novel’s compositional origins stretch back to the early 1990s, but the novel only became a published book in an era defined by the Internet and the near-instant availability of previously unimagined volumes of information. That is, there are countless potential readers of Crepuscule W/ Nellie who, simply via Internet-aided osmosis, know more about the life and career of Thelonious Monk and his familial relationships than I possibly could have when I first had the idea for the novel. What happens to a historical fiction once it can be so easily out-researched by its ostensible audience?

While I’m fascinated by this question, I accept that its consequences utterly exceed my control. What remains within my control, however, is transparency, and perhaps even outright confession. As much as it is historical reconstruction (fed by liner notes to jazz LPs, old New Yorker nightlife listings, the odd Downbeat review or Time magazine profile), and as much as it is fantasy (sustained by listening, training my own punk rock-damaged ears to appreciate jazz), Crepuscule W/ Nellie is also the product of direct observation. In many ways, Monk and Nellie are modeled on my own parents and the stressors — caretaking being primary among them — that tested their marriage. My Aunt Pat, an African-American woman possessed of uncommon grace and resilience, is very much a presence in the book, as is her entire family and the complicated ways in which her family and my own extended into each other. I observe myself in Frank’s resentments, his graphomania, and his infatuation with conspiracy. Accents and idioms I have heard all my life are in the book, and faces, and names, and neighbors and teachers, and the broken concrete and sagging chain-link of the schoolyard where I learned to rebound a basketball. Perhaps one of the greatest freedoms novels permit us is to foreground what is, in daily life, background, and to relate a dream of attentiveness otherwise almost never fulfilled. Maybe I believe too much in Freudian sublimation, but Crepuscule W/ Nellie is my personal history as well, and whatever experience I have living at the intersection of black and white (not to mention Northern and Southern) in this country I tried to put into the book.

This is just another way of saying, however, that at a certain point I stopped researching Crepuscule W/ Nellie in a conventional sense, and, like a jazz improviser, trusted that my imagination, courtesy of dedicated practice, had acquired enough muscle memory to perform under the duress of having to make something new out of something overly familiar. The more I paid attention to the factual in Crepuscule W/ Nellie, the more it wanted to arrange itself around possibilities that history, on its own, had already precluded. What if Charlie Parker had died not in the Baroness’s Fifth Avenue hotel room (The Stanhope) but at her Weehawken, NJ home? And what if that home were an estate? And what if Monk were living, perhaps unbeknownst to him, in Charlie Parker’s old room? What was the nature of Monk’s celebrity during the darkest years of his career? Who might the Monk’s neighbors been, and who might the Monks have been to those neighbors? What had Nellie done, and who had she been, before she met and married Thelonious Monk? What life and what commitments might she have given up in taking his name? To answer these questions (and others not enumerated here), my research had to diverge again, away from the constellation of individuals orbiting Monk and into the history of specific geographies (Harlem; the “chitlin circuit”), movements (pre-Civil Rights-era black activism; Modernism) and discourses (Depression-era vernaculars; the new science elaborated in Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone).

And so I must acknowledge that a good deal of the “personal experience” I’m trying to catalog here comes down to experience that transpired between the covers of a book. Crepuscule W/ Nellie is more novel than history, I hope, and is at least as much informed by the tradition of the novel as it is dependent upon the authentications history promises. The novel as a serial entertainment, or a manipulation of how its audience virtualizes time; the novel as realistic, documentary, a record of present conditions before history narrativizes them, and thus the novel as an essentially social art form; the novel as a corrective to myth; the novel’s amorphousness, its encyclopedic hysteria; the novel, showing consciousnesses to consciousnesses, and constituting consciousness in the process; the novel as commodity: I read novel after novel in an attempt to understand just how the novel became the strange phenomenon that it is, and to puzzle out what kind of novel mine might become. Here, then, in no particular order, is a bibliography of those novels most intimately antecedent to Crepuscule W/ Nellie.

  1. The Recognitions, by William Gaddis
  2. Ingrid Caven, by Jean-Jacques Schuhl
  3. Speculations About Jakob, by Uwe Johnson
  4. Degrees, by Michel Butor
  5. Beetlecreek, by William Demby
  6. The Beetle Leg and Travesty, by John Hawkes
  7. Sick Friends, by Ivan Gold
  8. Go In Beauty, The Bronc People, and Portrait of an Artist with 26 Horses, by William Eastlake
  9. A Smuggler’s Bible, Hind’s Kidnap, and The Letter Left to Me, by Joseph McElroy
  10. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  11. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  12. The Freelance Pallbearers, Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, and Mumbo Jumbo, by Ishmael Reed
  13. Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious
  14. Raintree County, by Ross Lockridge, Jr.
  15. What Maisie Knew and In The Cage, by Henry James
  16. Langrishe, Go Down, by Aidan Higgins
  17. V., by Thomas Pychon
  18. Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
  19. Concrete, by Thomas Bernhard
  20. Grass and Conducting Bodies, by Claude Simon
  21. In a Farther Country and Arcadio, by William Goyen
  22. HERmione, by H.D.
  23. Heroine, by Gail Scott
  24. Miss Lonelyhearts and A Cool Million, by Nathanael West
  25. Jonah’s Gourd Vine, by Zora Neale Hurston
  26. Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, by Robert Montgomery Bird
  27. Ratner’s Star and The Names, by Don DeLillo (no, not Libra)
  28. Going Away, by Clancy Sigal
  29. Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Baghostus’s Run, and Atet A.D., by Nathaniel Mackey
  30. Train Whistle Guitar and The Seven League Boots, by Albert Murray
  31. Blueschild Baby, by George Cain
  32. Martereau and Tropisms, by Nathalie Sarraute
  33. Billiards at Half-Past Nine, by Heinrich Böll
  34. The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams
  35. Music For a Broken Piano, by James Baker Hall
  36. How German Is It and Eclipse Fever, by Walter Abish
  37. Emergency Exit, by Clarence Major
  38. Manual Labor, by Frederick Busch
  39. Aberration of Starlight and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, by Gilbert Sorrentino
  40. Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar
  41. In the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, by Yukio Mishima
  42. The Waves, by Virginia Woolf
  43. Corregidora, by Gayl Jones
  44. Losing Battles, by Eudora Welty

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Joe Milazzo is a writer, editor, educator, and designer. He is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Press) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books), a volume of poetry. His writings have appeared in Black Clock, Black Warrior Review, BOMB, The Collagist, Drunken Boat, Tammy, and elsewhere. He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal _, is a Contributing Editor at _Entropy, and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, where he was born and raised.