The Joys and Perils of Math Rock: On Rush, Guns N’ Roses, and ‘Speak’

By Adam Boretz


Was Axl going to jump into the crowd and attack a fan while wearing some sort of black feathered vest, white spandex shorts, and a vintage army hat? More likely that not.

Let us begin our discussion of Louisa Hall’s Speak by quoting Ryan Henry Joe:

Here’s my fucking problem though: Individually, each subplot is a drag. The narratives work well only as pieces of a puzzle, and the character arcs really overextend themselves. Yeah, okay, Mary misses her dead, soulless dog and is repulsed by her new husband. After a while, Hall needed to either take those plot points to some more interesting place, or just let them drop. Turing’s section works a little bit better, especially given the imminence of his chemical castration and death by cyanide. And there’s some narrative movement in the Gaby-MARY3 dialog. But even then, I never feel Hall is building toward anything, and I really wanted her to. This is one of those novels that’s meditative to a fault. At the risk of sounding like a philistine, sometimes shit just needs to go down.

coverIn his recent post, Ryan really summed up a lot of the issues I had with Speak — a novel I liked, but really, really wanted to love. And the more I think about it — the fact that I loved the themes Hall was working with; the fact that I loved the structure of the book; the fact that I was disappointed with the story arcs; the fact that I was disappointed with what almost seemed like a paint-by-numbers quality to the book — the more I think my issues with Speak come down to one thing: Math Rock.

For the uninitiated — and I am definitely no expert — here is a very brief definition of math rock. What is important for our purposes is the fact that some people knock math rock for being technically brilliant but kind of soulless when compared to other rock genres. And for me — and many of my friends circa 1992 — this all boils down to the Guns N’ Roses versus Rush Debate.

On the one hand, you have Rush: a vastly skilled power trio comprised of the vastly talented Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, and Alex Lifeson. These guys are all great players — you can’t knock their ability or the quality of their music. But, I have always kind of felt — and don’t get me wrong here, I like Rush — that they are, well, a bit dull…kind of bland…kind of overly precise and staid. In 1992 I may have repeatedly compared Rush to “nude spongecake” — good, but kind of unexciting. Below we have Exhibit A, the video for Rush’s classic “Fly By Night.”

Without question, this is a great song, a song that rocks. However it’s also a song that doesn’t rock all that hard, a song that is pretty safe by a band that is pretty safe albeit super talented.

On the other hand, you have Guns N’ Roses. I think it’s fair to say that most of the members of Rush are probably more talented than most of the members of GN’R. But here’s the thing about Axl, Slash, Duff, Izzy, and Steven Adler: they were never dull. Were they going to show up for the gig? Maybe. Where they going to cause a riot? Possibly. Was Axl going to jump into the crowd and attack a fan while wearing some sort of black feathered vest, white spandex shorts, and a vintage army hat? More likely that not. And for me, that element of danger — that potential to veer off the script in some potentially disastrous or amazing way both musically and personally — made GN’R a way more exciting rock band than Rush. Let’s take a look at Exhibit B, the video for Guns N’ Roses’s “Garden of Eden.”

Sure, this song — one of the band’s deeper cuts — rocks. But it is also super weird and imperfect and funny. What does Duff mumble at 2:26 about apples and ribs? What’s up with the white paper and fisheye lens? What’s up with Axl licking the mic? Why are there two keyboard players dancing (very poorly) in the background?

If you are still reading this — a pretty big if after a Rush video and a Guns N’ Roses video — you may find yourself worrying that I have lost the script. Fear not, gentle reader.

For me, Speak is a lot like Rush. Clearly the novel is the work of an incredibly talented, thoughtful, and intelligent writer. The structure of the book is fantastic. It is carefully plotted. The language is frequently moving and lovely. The characters are skillfully developed. All of the stories fit together perfectly.

But, as I got deeper and deeper into the novel, I found myself wanting the book to do something unexpected. I wanted it to veer off — for better or worse — in some strange, surprising, dangerous, and dramatic direction. I wanted it to affect me viscerally in a way I could never have anticipated. I wanted it to be less Rush and more Guns N’ Roses.

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