canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

A Love Supreme
by Kent Nussey
Mansfield Press, 2003

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

Kent Nussey's novel A Love Supreme, named after one of John Coltrane's most popular albums, tells the story of musicologist Omar Snow attempting to write a book of jazz biographies covering Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane. The novel begins as Omar, having given up his newspaper job, sold his computer, and moved into a small apartment near Little Italy in order to focus exclusively on his book, nears the completion of the Mingus section and starts thinking about the Coltrane section. Omar's progress troubles him, largely because what he pitched to his editor as "a straight-ahead biography of three seminal jazz figures" (p13) has become a highly personal response to what he termed "the extra-musical genius" of these legendary increasingly metaphysical treatment of their quest into the realms of mystery and wonder, realms that were hard to enter by way of mere logic and critical prose (p13). 

Sounds like Omar's book might be interesting. Unfortunately we aren't given much of it to read. Instead, Nussey gives us a lot of description of Omar trying to write with the odd bit of musical introspection thrown in, cut with a vague romantic sub-plot. There are moments wherein Omar does talk about music and what he writes about, making various claims about Coltrane's career and music, but seldom does he support any of these claims. For example, Omar reads the liner notes for Coltrane's album A Love Supreme and says to himself:

This text, he'd written in his new book, constituted a raw, genuine document in American cultural and religious history. As priceless and pivotal as, say, Leaves of Grass or Walden. A kind of American psalm that might, with the music, form the basis of a new faith in the new century (pp84-5). 

A rather grand statement to make. Presumably in his book Omar would make an actual reference to those liner notes which would in some way back up his claim. But Nussey, in his book, does not. This suggests to me that this book is not really about music, despite all its musical references. (One might also note, in this regard, that the cover of the book is adorned with an alto sax and Coltrane was best known as a tenor player.)

As for the romantic sub-plot: Omar and Carrie, a beautiful actress who lives on the same street, go out on a few fairly unpleasant and/or uncomfortable dates. Omar becomes obsessed with her, or perhaps the idea of her, or perhaps with the idea of becoming part of her family. There is the implication that this obsession will threaten his work on his book. But, considering the time frame of the book spans a fairly lengthy period and Omar only goes out with Carrie three or four times- and sometimes Omar doesn't even think of her for months at a time- it is perhaps erroneous of me to refer to Omar as obsessed. Perhaps it is erroneous of me to refer to is as a romantic sub-plot.

Nussey's prose does possess a fluidity and a certain poetic quality - stylistically reminiscent of Coltrane's 'sheets of sound' - but unfortunately A Love Supreme lacks a definite plot. With both the musical sections and the romantic sections of A Love Supreme I am left wanting more; more insight, more action, more definition.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto writer and musician.







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