Rock and read! The 10 funkiest novels for music lovers

Songs about books, books about music: who says worlds don’t collide? For all you ravers and disco-queens, grungers and jazz fans, we reckon there’s a book there that’ll yoke all your passions together. Here’s ten, we think, give you the best of both worlds.

1. A Visit From The Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, 2010

Less a novel than a short-story cycle (interlinked stories, doncha know), but an absolutely rocking read for all that: spanning several decades, from the sixties to the near future, and leaping from Africa to Europe and back to the States, it loosely follows the adventures of a group of folk involved with the San Francisco music scene. It’s got one section that’s told as a PowerPoint presentation and riffs on the mysteries of great rock’n’roll pauses, and another that’s about a music producer who sprinkles gold flakes into his coffee in an attempt to get his mojo going. A classic in the making!

2. An Equal Music, Vikram Seth, 1999

A violinist and a pianist embark on an affair after having been separated since their student days. An affecting love story, gorgeously written, and worth every one of its five hundred pages, it’s also a really moving account of the characters’ passion for chamber music and the tragedy of impending deafness.

3. The Commitments, Roddy Doyle, 1987

A group of unemployed kids in north Dublin in the eighties form a soul band; near fame, ill-judged affairs and implosive rows mean it’s not so likely to come good… Doyle’s first book really is laugh-out-loud funny; his dialogue in the Dublin demotic is spot-on, and characters like Jimmy Rabbitte, Outspan Foster and Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan aren’t ones you’ll ever forget. Plus, the music! You’ll be rocking out to Wilson Pickett before you reach page two.

4. Scott Pilgrim (series), Bryan Lee O’Malley (2004-2010)

We can’t recommend just one story in this graphic series by O’Malley; the whole lot are worth reading. Slacker Scott lives in Toronto, plays bass for Sex Bob-Omb, and is in love with the kick-ass Ramona Flowers. If you’ve seen the film version, you’ll know how funny it is, and we love the way that gigs and alternative musicians are central to a manga-style text like this: rock on, Scott!

5. Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta, 2012

A talented, but failed, rock musician retreats into a fantasy world, where he fills up his home with accounts of his imaginary successes. This one’s all about loss and yearning and memory, personal mythology and sibling relationships, and, of course, music and the perils of the music scene.

6. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby, 1995

A London record-store owner (Chicago in the film adaptation) has jus been dumped by his girlfriend. Seeking understanding and redemption, and being a massive music trivia fiend who loves compiling Top Ten lists, he makes a list of his five worst break-ups and hunts down the women to quiz them on why it all went wrong. Full of music references, this’ll be a trip down memory lane for any heartbroken wanna-be DJ.

7. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett, 2001

One for the opera fans! A bunch of terrorists hold a bunch of business folk hostage in Argentina, including American soprano Roxane Coss. It’s romantic and tense and utterly compelling, plus it uses opera as a device to bring everyone together: the title, Bel Cano, even means ‘beautiful singing’. Patchett’s a stunning writer: even if you’ve never been interested in opera, you’ll want to listen to an aria or ten after reading this one.

8. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem, 2003

Music and graffiti are the two main topics here: Dylan Ebdus grows up in Brooklyn, hanging out with best mate, Mingus Rude and Mingus’s dad, Barret Rude Jr, a soul singer who introduces Dylan to jazz, soul, R& B, funk and hip-hop. While the book has all kinds of weird and wonderful reference points – the Superman nod in the title, the magic ring the kids find, numerous riffs on graffiti culture ¬– music is at the heart of it, and it’ll have particular resonance for anyone who grew up in or near Brooklyn, as it traces the gentrification of Gowanus from the seventies through to the nineties.

9. The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, 1983

Well, this isn’t quite so much about the music itself, but it is set in and around the Vienna Conservatory and features a piano teacher, Erika, who has an affair with one of her students. It’s brilliant on twisted mother-daughter relationships as well as on the power dynamics between lovers. It’s a very intense read, and is still probably Jelinek’s best known title in English translation even since her Nobel win in 2004. Not for the faint of heart!

10. Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx, 1996

From the writer that brought you ‘Brokeback Mountain’, as well as Postcards and The Shipping News (which is much better than the film adaptation, believe us), Accordion Crimes follows a single musical instrument through a century of owners, from Sicily to Iowa to Mississippi and onwards (no spoilers here). It’s a really interesting survey of US history as well as a lovely account of how music can unite disparate situations and people – but like all Proulx’s work, it doesn’t shy away from brute violence, so don’t mistake it for a sentimental jaunt….

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13 replies

  1. I wrote a novel about music, too! Humorous rock fiction. Check it out: The Road to Fluffer –


    Darrell Steiner is a middle-aged music journalist caught between his magazine’s corporate takeover and a disintegrating marriage. Forced to prove his relevance in an ever-changing music industry, he is assigned to cover a small-time heavy metal band, Numb Skull, for an ill-fated tour through the Midwest. Numb Skull’s music is loud, their lyrics pedestrian, and their dreams of the wild rock and roll life drive every decision. Darrell, however, begins to see the assignment as the death knell of his career, helpless on the road while his wife shacks up with his brother.

    The makers of Fluffer, the adult energy drink, have gotten into the music business, culminating in the annual Fluffer Music Festival in Chicago. Numb Skull has earned a slot to play at the festival but the band struggles to keep the tour from derailing after a series of mishaps, while Darrell wrestles with his personal and professional lives, finding himself both burdened and sheltered by the road.

  2. I just finished the new book Orfeo by Richard Powers. It involves a history of difficult classical and modern music, and there are long stretches which discuss particular composers. Other themes include biotech, America’s over response to terrorism, and the way artist’s work intersects with his social and family life. All of these themes overlap and combine in various ways producing harmonies as intricate and surprising as the music so beautifully discussed here.

    Great list, by the way. All of the books here I’ve read I’ve enjoyed.

  3. How on earth did you miss The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers? Brilliant, heartbreaking, and yes, funky. It belongs at the head of your list.

  4. Accordion Crimes is unbearable and the narration is so unsympathetic that as a working class person with immigrant ancestors I found it disturbing and bordering on sociopathic. Not sure what Proulx was trying to accomplish with this book but I don’t think she succeeded.

  5. You should check out Kamikaze L’Amour: A Novel of the Future, by Richard Kadrey, Author of the Sandman Slim Series. The main Character in it has isa rock star whos synesthesia, shows him which songs will be hits… cool near future semi post enviro-apocalypse sci-fi novel. A very good read.

  6. I really enjoyed Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Not exclusively a music novel but it plays a central role, great read.

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