One of this year’s selections for the NL Public Libraries’ NL Reads 2019, Jamie Fitzpatrick’s The End of Music weaves back and forth between the 1950s and the present day, producing what The Malahat Review called “a harmony effect in novelistic form.”
Herb Carter is a middle-aged alt-bro. He grew up in Gander, but in the ’90s moved to Toronto, where he played guitar for “legendary indie cult band” Infinite Yes. In the present, he’s returning to school to study archaeology, while indulging fantasies of producing his former band’s never-released second album.
Joyce Carter, Herb’s widowed mother, has dementia and is selling her home to move into a seniors’ complex. Extended flashbacks of her life in post-war Gander, where she worked at the airport while moonlighting as the lead singer in a local dance band, slowly reveal long-forgotten details from her youth.
The braided stories of Herb and Joyce overlap in ways that go beyond their similar backgrounds as performers. Joyce is losing her memory; Herb has developed a wilful amnesia about parts of his early life as an indie rocker. Both mother and son are constantly looking forward – their ambition blinkers perspective and skews priorities. Twin themes emerge around shame and the desire to let the past lie, and the conservative attitudes of rural Newfoundland in the 1950s bleed into those of suburban Toronto in the 2010s.
Despite the parallel structure, the stories of Herb and Joyce hardly connect – neither do mother and son. Herb’s trips home are brief, purpose-driven, and unemotional. At one point, he literally almost digs up something from his mother’s past – his archaeology research has brought him to the site of a 1954 plane crash just outside Gander – but the field is abandoned before anything of substance is discovered.
Such delicate refusal of melodrama gives the novel a nuance sometimes lacking in stories about Newfoundland – this book’s Gander is not the utopic one in Come From Away. In The End of Music, plot, tone, and character are dealt with a touch so subtle that you wonder if you’re second-guessing what you’ve just read. Like all the best fiction, it packs a greater punch the second time around.
The book also keeps an arm’s length from the romance and nostalgia conveyed by its title, though it hints at the difficulty, and danger, of eschewing them altogether. Even though the protagonists are seasoned at sweeping things under the rug – Herb has left Newfoundland behind and thinks it’s “paralyzed by its stories,” while Joyce doesn’t “think it’s right” that Herb’s colleagues dig up “old things” that they “ought to let […] rest” – neither character can let go of the past. Motivated forgetting only works for so long.
For Herb and Joyce, the desire to repress certain parts of a life story is trumped by history’s refusal to stay buried. Interrogating the objectivity of the stories we tell, both to others and to ourselves, The End of Music ultimately suggests that maintaining harmony between past and present requires more than selective memory.