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Saturday, August 14, 2010

ILLUMINATUS! the "trilogy"

It's interesting the way the commercial form of a work of art can dictate its contents. All of the Charlie Parker songs from the 1940s on my Parker CDs are no more than about three minutes long -- not because Parker and his buddies couldn't jam any longer, but because that's what the commercial recording technology of the time dictated. That's not all bad -- songs such as "Salt Peanuts" say a lot in a short amount of time.

When my friends and I read the ILLUMINATUS! trilogy back in college, we thought of those cheap paperbacks as three distinct novels. We knew they were part of a whole, of course, but we also thought of them as "The Eye in the Pyramid," "The Golden Apple" and "Leviathan," and judged them that way. If I recall correctly, our consensus was that "Leviathan" wasn't as good as the other two.

It's interesting to realize many years later, through reading my interview with David Harris, that RAW intended ILLUMINATUS! as one big book, and fought against breaking it into three separate novels, until Harris explained that it had to be done that way -- that's how commercial science fiction was published at Dell. It's impossible to guess what would have happened if ILLUMINATUS! had been published as in one volume, as a big mainstream book. Would it have been more, or less successful? Of course, for years it has been available as one book, but it's typically still stocked in the science fiction section. Is that good or bad?

What's interesting to me is that RAW's editors perceived ILLUMINATUS! as a science fiction trilogy, and succeeded in making that perception a reality, despite the intentions of the authors.

I am old enough to remember my years of buying LPs, and how that two-sided format shaped my perceptions of the music. It was usually considered a good idea to get both sides of the album off with a bang. And so, for example, side two of Stevie Wonder's "Talking Book" album begins with "Superstition." For years, when I listened to recordings of LPs, I thought of "side one" and "side two," distinctions that are erased when the same classic recording is listened to on a CD or MP3 player -- even though I can't listen to many of those albums without mentally dividing them into the sides that I remember. Everybody else drew such distinctions, too. I remember reading an article in Creem many years ago which noted that one hard rock band had put all of its slow songs on one side of its album. This was useful, the reviewer noted, because it made it easy to know which side of the LP to use for scraping cat shit off of the speaker wires.


Eric Wagner said...

Interesting post. I've hung out with one volume editions of _Illuminatus!_ enough that I now tend to think of it as a single text. I still prefer the three volume edition of _Schoedinger's Cat_, so that one exists as one and/or three novels.

I've taught _The Lord of the Rings_ four times from a single volume edition, so I've begun to think of that as one novel.

I still think of some lp's in terms of side one and side two.

Herbert Von Karajan used to memorize scores from multiple editions so that they would have page turns between different measures.

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