Master essayist Geoffrey O’Brien tunes in to Radio Nabokov


Sociable title notwithstanding, Sonata for Jukebox is closer to an all-night DJ’s labyrinthine monologue, a stream-of-memory fugue for headphones. In the dreamtime spirit of his Borges-gone-Blade Runner cine-mosaic The Phantom Empire, O’Brien evokes music’s expanding infiltration of the world—a planet of lonely surfers floating in their own individually sealed soundtracks. Even with an ecstatic crowd of revelers, a tight circle of friends, or that ideal, true-blue listening companion, musical gut experiences remain profoundly solitary things. Epiphanies may be like fingerprints, yet encountering unsettling songs and talismanic performances for the first or the thousandth time, we meet the Unknowable and It is us.

Meanwhile, there are still those damn childhood jingles we’ll never get out of our heads (even if we can no longer remember the track listings to Out of Our Heads) and those lush box sets stuffed with history’s outtakes. There is the way certain sounds reverberating in certain rooms become entwined with personal history (O’Brien’s grandfather being a very small-time bandleader, dad a hotshot radio personality: platter familia), until every snatch of closely harmonized melody, orchestral tumult, hipster sax, or folk sincerity becomes a piece of lost time trapped in amber (or tar, as the dinosauric case may be). As it approaches the present, Sonata begins to feel more emotionally diffuse, pro forma, or just understandably reticent: a sense of loss using familiar signposts like the Beach Boys to annul itself. (A “Dear Rhonda” letter is a weightlessly self-conscious conceit that pales into a “long tidal sigh”; any chapter called “The Years of Overthrowal” is contractually obligated to appear rehashed.) No matter: Kick back, cue up a Steinski megamix, lose yourself in a voice like Barry White reciting Nabokov, tour the James Masonic temple of bygone pop openings, and twist again to the big beat’s intimations of sweet mortality.