Cover songs are, of course, more than familiar—usually
it’s the first step to becoming a musician at all. Chloe Jarren’s La
Cucaracha (Publication Studio, 296 pages, $20), by Matthew Stadler, is a much
more esoteric thing, however: it is a cover version of a book, in this
case John Le Carré’s classic potboiler A Murder of Quality. It is not
the first time this has happened; On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, is
arguably a self-conscious cover of Forster’s Howard’s End—but Stadler
has been singularly meticulous in his process. He writes, in his
“My method of composition was to re-read the Le Carré
book (which I have loved since I first read it on a beach, 15
years ago) line-by-line and to sketch its architecture. Each scene—the
movements of its principal and marginal characters, the exact sequence
by which they enter and leave, what they exchange or do, and the
interactions they have—was plotted on an enormous piece of paper, the
result looking much like an orchestral score for a symphony. I then
substituted my setting and characters (Guanajuato, Mexico, where I was
living at the time) and “played” the score note-by-note, line-by-line,
by writing this book.”
Stadler is perhaps being a bit hyperbolic, here, as
regards his fealty to the text; the Le Carré is a breezy 146-page
murder mystery in the traditional sense, wherein the spy-protagonist
catches out the culprit, who is then cast somewhat damaged into the
waiting maw of a police van. Stadler’s La Cucaracha (Chloe Jarren’s an
anagram for John Le Carré) is perhaps a bit like a jazz cover of a
propulsive rock standard, with eddies and languors, subtle changes,
minor keys. While the touchstones and motions are much the same on the
surface, the chapters blocked out in the same form, in La Cucaracha the
event’s meanings and characters’ intents are subverted and diffused,
the heroes unheroic, the villain finally a cipher, the scapegoat
sympathetic only in his misery.
The book has also swollen by more than double, to accord with a different type of ambition: Stadler is much more interested than Le Carré in history and motivation and place, rather than motion and intrigue and analytic detail, and the novel offers no easy resolutions. While in Le Carré it is the future that is always at stake—a thumping next and next and next—in Stadler’s book it is the past, always, that overwhelms the listless present, so when he lifts, verbatim, the haunting final lines of A Murder of Quality, the effect is altogether different: it is as if we have ended, not quite a murder mystery, but The Great Gatsby, with green light receding into the distance and an ever-narrowing present being funneled back ceaselessly into the past.
There is of course nothing easier in the rock ’n’ roll playbook than dredging up an old song to cover, hashing out the notes and singing someone else’s words to a half-drunken crowd; it is a much different, and much more difficult thing to actually make the song one’s own. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
GO: Matthew Stadler’s Portland launch party for Chloe Jarren’s La Cucaracha will be held this coming Sunday, Feb. 27, at Publication Studio, 717 SW Ankeny St, 6 pm. Featured: a puppet show based on the book, "Jac LaHue presents El Narco Car Crash," by Gregory MacNaughton's Dim Sum Puppet Opera; live music by Ian Luxton (recently of STARF*CKER); and $1 tacos from Santeria.