Caleb Coy. An Authentic Derivative. Chistiansburg VA: Caleb Coy Guard, 2015. E-book.
My copy of An Authentic Derivative tells me this was released in August 2015, so this book is hot off the press. Except that my copy is an e-book, so I guess that makes it hot off the hard drive or something.
Imagine The Great Gatsby told by a young and self-conscious David Foster Wallace who was born after 1980. That in a nutshell describes this story. Instead of using money to impress the girl of his dreams, the Gatsby character here uses his music to do the same.
The narrator, one Neil Oberlin (kneel, over the line?), is very much a questionable character like Nick Carraway (carried away?) who nevertheless sympathizes with the hero. Bob Fey (Fay was Daisy’s maiden name) is the sleazy music promoter—the Meyer Wolfsheim—who claims at the end that he “made” Garrett “Wick” Sedgwick.
Yes, An Authentic Derivative is indeed derivative. But it is derivative the way Macbeth derives from King Saul, and The Mayor of Casterbridge derives from Macbeth, and Things Fall Apart from The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Oh, An Authentic Derivative also mentions the medieval Persian tale of Layla and Majnan. Layla and Majnan were childhood friends, but Majnan (literally “madman”) is not socially acceptable to her father. She marries a nobleman and appears content enough. Majnan attempts unsuccessfully to win her back and goes crazy.
An Authentic Derivative might initially appeal to a narrower audience than Gatsby (though Gatsby was not a terribly big seller in Fitzgerald’s lifetime). Those who would really appreciate it are those who have followed indie rock for the last twenty years or so. When I was a teen, it was called underground music. Somewhere along the line it became alternative music, then alternative rock, then alt rock, and then independent rock or indie. I get it. I was “into” the underground stuff. For example, I like Tim Buckley. An Authentic Derivative refers to Buckley, but the context is about Tim’s son Jeff.
One big difference between Nick Carraway and Neil Oberlin is that Oberlin is much more intrusive. At times it sounds like he is preaching or editorializing or at least lecturing the reader. He is also very self-conscious. He frequently says things like I am being pedantic or I am being ironic. Is he being funny?
Our Daisy character is Oberlin’s cousin Tabitha Redding-Davis. Her husband Virgil is no hulking jock like Tom Buchanan, but he is a kind of snob. His snobbery is intellectual. As Tom Buchanan cites pseudo-scientific works he has read or heard of, so Virgil constantly refers to obscure books or articles in Slate or The Huffington Post. Wick was the only guy Tab liked before Virgil, but she apparently thought he was too much of a hick. Tabitha clearly thinks Virgil is smart.
An Authentic Derivative is very good at picking up details of the current zeitgeist the way that Gatsby did for the twenties. Tabitha and Virgil eloped, and some folks in Oberlin’s family think that Tab may not actually be married. Although Neil does not know anyone who witnessed the nuptials, he reasons that they must be married because, after all, they hyphenated their names together.
A slight echo of Wallace’s Infinite Jest appears in the music of Sedgwick. It is not as hypnotic as the Infinite Jest film is, but his last two albums are critically acclaimed, and he appears on his way up. Even Virgil likes his stuff. Unlike Tom Buchanan, Virgil does not appear aware of Tab’s past relationship with Wick or his intentions towards her.
Like Jay Gatsby, Sedgwick has identity issues. The novel is set in Nashville, Music City USA and Neil’s home town, but Wick settles there from Iowa not because of the music scene but because he has learned that Tabitha lives there. He was a traditional country music fan and has been disgusted that so many country stars have “sold out” for commercial success.
Once he saw a performance by Hoyt Murdock, a country singer then in his seventies whom Wick saw as a genius. But Murdock was not singing the kind of songs that were genuinely his. Sedgwick would recall:
[T]here he was, dead, and reanimated as something else, something hijacked, something phony. The song he played was not his own, the sound was not his own, the spirit was not his own. And worse still, the crowd was swallowing it with enormous glee. (175)
No, Wick was not going to sell out. Without going into detail, Wick confronts Murdock who then becomes the Dan Cody character for Wick.
Tabitha has a friend, Kenna, whom she tries to fix up with Neil. She is the Jordan Baker character. Neil dates her a few times because it is convenient, but he does not really care for her. Indeed, there are a lot of minor characters, more than in Gatsby, and Oberlin does not appear to care for any of them, really. At one point he says, “I am being condescending”—and he is, not just at that moment, but throughout nearly the entire novel.
Neil admires Wick because Wick will not sell out. Nick admits that he has had to. He is an artist. Wick asks him to design his latest album cover—though the real reason is so that Neil can connect him with cousin Tab. Neil has to make a living so he “does work” for pretty much anyone willing to pay. Wick, on the other hand, has stayed true to his vision and perhaps true to Tabitha in his own way.
Although the self-conscious title may suggest otherwise, An Authentic Derivative is its own story just as Macbeth is its own story. Still, there are clever echoes of Gatsby in the story. In The Great Gatsby, Nick spills quite a bit of ink naming some of the tycoons, politicians, and actors and actresses who attend Gatsby’s parties. At one point in An Authentic Derivative, Neil spends three to four pages listing the names of indie bands he has seen. I recognized some of the names, but if would not be surprised if, as in Gatsby, many of them are made up. (123-126)
In Gatsby, Nick mentions a few songs by name, and the songs contribute to the meaning of the story. For example, Daisy and Gatsby sing “Ain’t We Got Fun.” The lines “Not much money/Oh but honey/Ain’t we got fun” certainly suggest that love makes people happy more than money does. Similarly, I am glad I looked up the words to the lyrics of “Rococo” by Arcade Fire when it was first mentioned. Even actually listening to the song would help. Hint, hint.
At one point, perhaps the height of pretension or self-consciousness on Neil or the author’s part, Neil wears a “Te occidere possunt…” T-shirt. That is the Latin motto of the tennis academy in Infinite Jest. Yeah, we get it.
Just as Nick one time shares his true feelings with Gatsby, so one time Neil says something “real to him [Wick] about his music.” (226) It is just about the only time in the whole novel when Neil’s voice changes. It is nearly the only time he is not being pretentious, pedantic, or too clever. Perhaps it is the only time, to use the other meaning of voice changing, that Neil sounds mature.
Still, Neil can see the “real deal” in others occasionally. He notes that as Sedgwick tells the Hoyt Murdock story, Wick loses his affected Nashville accent and takes on his native Midwestern accent. Should I mention that like Jay Gatsby, Garrett Sedgwick is not his real name?
Just as Jordan gets miffed at Nick for “throwing her over” on the telephone, so Neil and Kenna break up while texting. He later would say cynically, perhaps speaking for his generation:
No guy would ever be good enough for her because no guy could treat her as well as her iPhone. (291)
There are a lot of stark observations about the under-35 adults of today. Those perhaps do echo Gatsby, even if most of the characters in An Authentic Derivative are not motivated by wealth.
Neil and his friend Joey, for example, are looking for something to give meaning to their lives. Neil especially is looking to the arts. The only ones who seem to be happy about their choices are the Redding-Davises and Neil’s roommate Greg. Virgil is studying theology in seminary, and Greg is going to be a missionary in Asia.
Oberlin avoids this. He was brought up in church but cannot bring himself to believe in God or Jesus. He confesses to Greg that he is a solipsist. That might be a good description of his generation’s religion—”I don’t believe in God or go to church or anything, but I am spiritual.” It is not the Other, the I-Thou, but the self. The only spirit is my own spirit.
Still, perhaps there is some hope. These are not the anchorless characters in The Art of Fielding who do not even know what the questions are. (I used a line from a Tim Buckley song to describe them—am I pretentious?) People in An Authentic Derivative are still looking. God’s promise is, “If you seek me, you will find me, if you search for me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) It is on His terms, not ours, but keep seeking.
P.S. This is a self-published work, and one that should be picked up by some publisher somewhere. However, the author states in his blog that he wanted an independent release of it so he could maintain artistic control. Like indie rock, I guess. I just posted a rant about self-publishing recently, but it was before I read this book. This appears to be very well edited except for some problems with homophones (aid/aide, chord/cord to name two). Because of the nature of the narrator’s pretensions, it is always possible that these misspellings are deliberate.