Nicholas Currie, who works as Momus, is a Scottish songwriter, musician, journalist and author who turned 60 in 2020. He simultaneously chased and avoided commercial success as Momus in the 1980s and 1990s but had more significant impact as a songwriter for Shibuya-Kei artists in Japan. Niche: A Memoir in Pastiche is the story of his failure/success (delete depending on perspective), delivered in a unique form as a series of 217 short pieces about 'N' by dead authors, each chosen for their relevance to a time, event, process or emotion in his life. For example, Dr. Spock is chosen to describe the child rearing style adopted by his parents, Ray Bradbury describes N's first trip to Japan as if a trip to Mars, and Poe describes his arrival at a foreboding boarding school. Each author appears - reluctantly summoned sometimes, 'somebodies' forced to discuss a 'nobody' - and then returned to the void, although Tony Wilson appears twice, enthusiastic to the last.
This is a triumphant and important contribution to modern literature, a novel way to integrate the influences of 'N's life into his story. The pastiches are effective, but do not prevent Momus' voice and history coming through. The story thus told is of interest to everyone, not only Momus fans, but anyone with a love of literature, or interest in 80s and 90s music. While this is all from unreliable narrators, masking some truths for the sake of others, as a "showbiz" memoir it can have little equal in recent years. Not only is this a history, it is a love note to literature, in his own preface Momus suggests the title "Speak, Library!", mimicking Nabakov, as an alternative, for once giving these dead authors contemporary purpose.
Duality, of the real and imagined, the honest and invented, is a common thread to the book, the comparison of "success" and "failure" is often made. Since Momus has enjoyed forty years in the arts creating and working as he wishes and travelling freely (not this year of course) and enjoying erotic and promiscuous encounters, he has in many ways succeeded. In the gross sense of lucre or chart placings, he may be judged to have failed, but this memoir implicitly describes how dull such success would be. Imagine a darts match, the purpose of which is to entertain and provoke interest. Imagine a skilled darts player, who forever scores treble twenties, bullseyes and required doubles, how tedious it is to watch them hitting nothing but the required spot again and again. But imagine a darts player with no knowledge of the game or no respect for it, and untroubled by concerns of aim or arc, their dart could sail straight to the centre of the board, or into the wall, or break a light, or rebound into a drink, or fly away into someone's face: how much more watchable, how much more interesting, and therefore successful at the core requirement: to provoke.
Early in the book the architectural historian Colin Rowe is invoked to talk about the facades of houses in Georgian Edinburgh, where 'N' grows up, the falseness of their grandeur compared to the slums behind the houses, and Elspeth Davie confirms 'N's childhood interest in the back gardens and tenements. This contrast of public and private spaces, of public and private moralities and games, runs through the memoirs, and through the work of Momus. The early part of the memoirs is necessarily much about 'N's family, and Goethe makes an important entry about "Elective Affinities", the movement in life from bonds of family, race and geography to those affinities and connections we choose to make. Goethe appears shortly before 'N' is taken to boarding school, where he encounters Bowie's music for the first time, a key influence. Much of the memoir is about those "affinities" which N makes through his life, kaleidoscopic movements through different artistic, musical and literary scenes.
The authors focus much on N's early life and the music and culture of the 80s and 90s. Something is said about each album and the influences that went into them at the time, the ones they consider important at any rate. It is interesting that they skip over the album Don't Stop the Night, the container of N's nearest proximity to a hit, The Hairstyle of the Devil. Perhaps they did not want to look too hard at that almost deliberate grasp at the spotlight, for the commercial failure it was considered to bring. Other troubles such as the legal issue that caused the recall of the album Hippopotamomus are described comically, but the greatest legal issue suffered over the album The Little Red Songbook cannot be described for precisely those legal reasons, and the ghost of Hercule Poirot is brought in to investigate it. Unfortunately, Christie's little Belgian cannot solve the problem without access to the internet, which he suggests the reader uses.
Since it is a memoir of early life, the last twenty years are quickly rolled over, and the story brought up to date with the voice of David Bowie describing how N heard about his death, and leaving us with Momus living between Berlin and Paris with his girlfriend. That the death of a hero appears at the end reinforces another theme, that of death as the final failure always en route to us, with worldly success merely a consequence of failing in a sustainable manner.
Niche confirms Momus' status as one of the most interesting artists working, a hyper literate and multi-layered journey through his life and thoughts, a fascinating exercise in pastiche and a prismatic study of literature. Along with his latest album Vivid - an album about the impact of Covid-19, isolation and confinement - it represents not a late flowering, but a confirmation of genius.