Your eyes are not deceiving you: on the book cover above, that really is a bear playing the saxophone. Rather improbably, Rafi Zabor’s first novel The Bear Comes Home received the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award—and I say improbably not because it’s a bad book (actually, it’s terrific), and not even because of its oddball premise (involving a bear living in New York and trying to make it in the jazz world), but rather because so many of the novel’s passages portray the process of jazz improvisation at great length and in great detail. The book’s central storyline traces the Bear’s creative development as a band leader and alto saxophone improviser, and readers without a solid background knowledge of jazz will probably have a hard time following exactly what’s going on during Zabor’s extended descriptions of Bear’s solos. Zabor frequently uses the characteristic styles of significant jazz players as points of reference for Bear’s playing, and sometimes even includes transcriptions of melodies and chord progressions. But, as the friend who lent me a copy of the book pointed out, The Bear Comes Home is at its core not only a novel about jazz, but also about the creative process. As the Bear wrestles with his influences, practices his technique, negotiates thorny aesthetic questions, and attempts to find his voice, he’s struggling with the same problems that all artists must work through.
Another broader theme of The Bear Comes Home is the idea of artist as an outsider—as someone who is drawn to the human world, but by nature always remains on its fringes, uncomfortable with mainstream society and the ways in which most people live their lives. And the book is also a love story—albeit one involving lots of bear-on-woman sex. Though the abundance of interspecies action is without doubt the strangest aspect of Zabor’s altogether very odd novel, it’s also a vehicle for exploring some very conventional themes, such as communication problems between men and women and male struggles with emotional maturity. In fact, the plotline involving the Bear’s love life eventually becomes a little tedious—it takes him a terribly long time to figure out how to negotiate an adult romantic relationship. (Admittedly, he’s at something of a disadvantage, being a bear and all, but as the novel went on, I did grow increasingly impatient with his consistent inability to act like an adult.) Be warned: there are a number of very sexually explicit passages in the novel involving the Bear’s intimate relations with his human lover. But for the most part they’re written with a geeky technicality that helps reduce the queasiness factor; Zabor often seems preoccupied with exactly how interspecies sex might work, much in the same way he’s fascinated by what a bear would need to do physically in order to be able to play the saxophone. Also, Zabor’s very insistent throughout on not treating their relationship as a freakshow. You never forget that the Bear is a Bear, but Zabor all the same is only moderately interested in novelty and titillation. Aside from the obvious, there’s nothing Zabor’s portrayal of the Bear’s love life that wouldn’t seem at home in a mainstream romantic comedy.
For those of you out there who (like me) do love jazz, The Bear Comes Home is a real treat. Numerous real jazz players (ranging from Charlie Haden to Roscoe Mitchell) make cameos, and there’s even a scene in which members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago dress up as hospital personnel in order to rescue the Bear from captivity. (There’s also a scene in which the Bear joins the Art Ensemble onstage, and no one really pays much attention, assuming he’s in costume just like they are.) In-jokes abound, including some very funny passages about the rise of Wynton Marsalis and the marginalization of the avant-garde. And though the jazz-related humor is rich, Zabor’s serious treatment of improvisation, aesthetics, and creative development in jazz is far richer. In his lengthy accounts of the Bear’s solos, Zabor fully captures the fear, joy, and wonder of artistic creation, and in the process offers an intelligent and coherent portrait of the artistic growth and aesthetic personality of a jazz saxophonist. Zabor writes about the Bear’s playing with both the passion of an artist and the keen intellectual eye of a superb critic, and as a result The Bear Comes Home contains some of the finest and most insightful writing about jazz I’ve ever encountered.