Details: (c) 1983 George RR Martin; Pub New English Library 1984; ISBN 0-450-05766-6
Verdict: The Armageddon Rag is transcendentally wonderful.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: rysmiel gave it to me for my birthday, and rysmiel is very good at picking out books that I really get on with.
I'm finding it hard to express how wonderful The Armageddon Rag is. Firstly because a description of it wouldn't really do it justice, or explain why I like it. It's sort of a fairly noir detective story, and sort of a road trip story, and there's a lot of rock nostalgia, and a fair bit of weird millennialism. None of those are really elements I'm particularly interested in as a reader. And the bigger problem is that, well, the sort of hyperbole I want to use is mostly reserved for either mysticism or sex and neither of those is the point here.
The thing is, I read tAR in a sort of breathless ectasy. I can't even explain what I like about it; the writing is just so superlatively good. So reading it felt like encountering some really great art or music. I think it's much harder for a book to create that kind of emotional impact than for other art forms, because a book by its nature has to be read sequentially, one sentence at a time, so you don't get the same kind of immediate overall impression. But I did feel like that reading tAR, I think because everything seemed to fall into place so perfectly, as if the whole book was just building up from the first word and each sentence made it more wonderful.
And it's not as if the language is particularly beautiful; it's in the rather flat style appropriate to the genre that it starts out in. But every single word is exactly right. Generally when I love a book I read it very fast, but tAR I read rather slowly because I wanted to appreciate how each sentence made the whole more cool until it was finally complete. And I kept repeatedly coming on sentences which were in perfectly ordinary, everyday, almost journalistic language (appropriate as the viewpoint character is in fact a journalist), but which conveyed some new aspect of the story absolutely perfectly, so that no possible other configuration of words could have worked.
I should probably try to talk about normal book review type things, rather than just raving. I think I possibly liked the later part, when things get weird and freaky and apocalyptic, slightly less than the first half. But it's still very very very impressive, and part of what's amazing is the gradual transition from what appears to be yet another story of a midlife crisis played out over a road trip, and into the apocalyptic stuff. So the climax is absolutely inevitable with hindsight, with every single tiny detail of the earlier part of the story contributing to set up the ending.
In a way, the theme of Sandy visiting all his friends from college and finding what has become of them 15 years on is rather an obvious device. But it's done so well, and each person he meets is a totally plausible person as well as an archetype. I liked the way the book's version of musical and general history dovetails with reality, without making a big point about the alt-history angle.
The epilogue seemed a little bit too conveniently cosy, after such a magnificent book. I really want tAR's moral messages to be true: what really matters is the friends of your youth, an ordinary person can save the world by making the right choices, no cause is so right it's worth killing innocent people for. But it still seems a bit weird to go from such a powerful, mythic scene as the West Mesa concert, to what is effectively, and they all lived happily ever after.
I think my biggest quibble with a book that I absolutely adored is that Byrne is too crude a villain. When all the other characters are so real, despite also being figures from both Christian and Tolkienian myth, having someone who is that much the symbol of what the hippy movement rebelled against, and nothing more, is a weakness. Also, it seemed a shame to me that Sharon didn't get to share in Sandy's salvation; if he can redeem someone like Maggio or Lark, then why not her as well?
I'm not the ideal audience for the tAR, in that it rests on the assumption that music is of near-religious importance, and music just doesn't matter that much to me. I did enjoy the descriptions of people who are very much emotionally engaged with music, though. And I loved the idea of a heavy rock cover of Yeats, that's just adorable. It's also a little freaky to read the book now, knowing what was due to happen in musical history after its publication.
I'm trying to think of other books I've loved this much. Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed comes close, and I had something of a similar emotional reaction to William Goldman's The color of light. But the truth is, I'm really struggling for words here.