peteg's blog - noise - books - 2024 01 01 FrancisSpufford CahokiaJazz

Francis Spufford: Cahokia Jazz. (2023)

/noise/books | Link

Kindle. Two years on from Light Perpetual: he's speeding up!

Spufford tries his hand at holistic world building, taking us to a 1920s America which is essentially the same noir as everyone else's (prohibition, racial divisions, the Klan, ... jazz ...) but bent in one specific way: Cahokia is a large Native American city on the Mississippi. (He explains the counterfactual fracture in an afterword which really should have been an introduction or, more Spufford-ly, stuffed into a character's mouth in the main text.) This and actual Utah are not-quite republican states: here there's a hereditary monarchy of the Sun and the Moon, of Aztec undercurrents fused with Catholicism by the actions of farsighted men and women. This functions just fine as mythmaking if only because it is so far beyond what is possible in the actual here and now.

The plot (murder, what else) moves slowly and sometimes unsatisfyingly, often finding excuses to explore his construction; the tone is didactic (Spufford can't help himself): this is how you do a recap! — but we needed a few more recaps. That's how you introduce an invented language! — just like Tolkien. Drop your clues like this! What, you think that coincidence was too much? That's just how it goes for this character, it's fate. Did I just lift a bit too much from The Godfather? Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain!

Spufford's bursts of Christianity feel less forced here (c.f. Unapologetic) but stinking things up are the transactional relationships (which is most of them; the ladies all want leading man Burrows but never on his terms), the cold calculational utilitarian vibe, the forced symmetries. Sometimes he can't keep his characters in character: their speech patterns become too playful.

It's lengthy and cinematic which invites the question of when he's going to get a film deal. (I'm now trying not to think of it as Spufford's Wakanda.) I felt it was well-researched — his hinge of history was as plausible to me as any story he told in Red Plenty — but could've stood more analysis. Clearly much of it is inspired by the topical breakages in present-day society though it is not reassuring that he has the idiocy of the Klan save the city at a critical juncture. As always I'll take what I can get.

Widely reviewed. Most are summaries. Much thoughtful criticism at Goodreads. Could've used an edit. It bears the scars of a sprawling pandemic project.