Dancefloor-Driven Literature: The Rave Scene in Fiction
Guildhall School of Music and Drama (UK)
As reviews editor of Dancecult, one of the delights of my role has been discovering the wealth of ways that filmmakers around the world depict, interpret and critique electronic dance music culture through an artistic lens. Until encountering Simon Morrison’s excellent book on Dancefloor-Driven Literature I perhaps had not given the same credence to novelists for going beyond simple descriptions of club cultures, but as this delightful foray into the entangled world of prose and beats demonstrates clearly and effectively, fiction has produced as much considered and vibrant commentary on EDMC as film, if not more.
In his book, Morrison sets out to explore this entanglement by mobilising sociocultural knowledge around the UK rave scene in the 1990s as a lens through which to analyse literary texts. He draws on three central uses of EDM in fiction—figurative, mechanical and diegetic—as “ways in” to the texts, unpicking the multiple ways that authors choose to (re)present the sonic and haptic world of rave both in and through text. At its heart there are some central questions (or even tensions) which need resolving: “How might authors write about something so otherworldly as a nightclub scene? How might they write lucidly and fluidly about the rigid metronomic beat of electronic music? … [And how] might they accurately recount in fixed symbols the drifting, hallucinatory effects of a drug experience?” (61).
Morrison chooses to answer these rigorously and strategically by moving from the broad to the specific. Beginning with the broad, the first half of the book (chapters 1-5) employs sub/club-cultural theories as points of disciplinary grounding to help define the terms and contexts at play. Whilst a lot of this material is well-trodden in EDMC scholarship, Morrison presents it with an admirable deftness, and as he starts to introduce elements of literary theory in chapter 5, the more unique and interesting qualities of this work begins to reveal itself. For me though, it is in the second half of the book (chapters 6-9)—the literary case studies—that the book really comes into its own. Beginning with Irvine Welsh’s seminal Ecstasy (1996), a vivid picture emerges of authors not so much compelled to recreate or even aesthetically elevate the subterranean deviance of clubspace, as to revel in the messiness of it; to wallow in the rich, sticky potential of all those chaotic signifiers of excess and abandon and use this potential to radically redefine the literary canon.
What comes across clearly from Morrison’s writing is the richness and playfulness with which his case study authors both guide us, and are themselves guide by, the visceral expressionism of rave and club spaces; intertwining vivid descriptions of these hedonistic spaces with nuanced and layered narrative approaches that capture of even mimic the non-hierarchical and anti-teleological anarchy of repetitive beats. One beautiful example Morrison shares is of Jeff Noon’s Needle in the Groove (1999) and the way his prose style allows the complexity and repetition of the music to almost infect his language, creating textures of language—a liquid dub poetics, if you will— that cleverly reflects the repeating, layering, sampling and splicing of sonic material.
Another interesting theme that emerges is the complex dependency on drug-taking imagery as a shorthand for depictions of power, hedonism and release. It is interesting how many of the novels that Morrison discusses employ the postmodern storytelling strategies of “classic” partying writers (think the hazy multiplicities of William Burroughs or the brutal clash between fact and fiction in Hunter S. Thompson) to invoke the paradoxical vigour and fragility of drug-taking. We see this tendency particularly clearly in Morrison’s third case study on Nicholas Blincoe, whose chaotic fictional ethnography portray the acid delirium admirably. There’s something more general about technology and control in dance spaces that is strongly hinted at here, but perhaps not fully unpacked. I was reminded of the wonderful moment in China Miéville’s bizarre urban fantasy King Rat (1998)—a reimagination of the Pied Piper fairytale set in London’s breakbeat and DnB scene, not included by Morrison—where the protagonist discovers that instead of merely spinning records, a DAT with multiple layered flute samples loaded onto it is much more effective for controlling everyone in the club.
Omissions aside—I’d also want to include Rainald Goetz’s stunning avant garde novella Rave (1998) here—Dancefloor-Driven Literature is wonderful book, filled with both academic richness and personal joy. A particular strength of this book is Morrison’s ability to dance between literary theory, thick description, journalistic interviews and unabashed connoisseurship with elegance and ease. Intermediality, rather than translation, is at the heart of Morrison’s approach, and where a lesser writer might have tried to pin the literature down into rigid theoretical frameworks and taxonomies, we are left with a beautiful sense of aesthetic awe and openness that has more than inspired me to go and read more fiction. Highly recommended.