Ambient Parking Lot
Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, Editors
Northwestern University Press, 2011
The Romance of the Overlooked Space: Pamela Lu's Ambient Parking Lot
Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot, described on the book’s back cover as “part fiction, part earnest mockumentary,” details the career of a group of musicians dedicated to recording and performing the ambient noise found in parking lots and structures, a group who “championed authentic experience and plunged headlong into the romance of the overlooked space” (Lu 32). The novel, largely told from the first-person plural point-of-view of the band, is a smart and lyrical document of an imagined avant-garde, a sort of Spinal Tap for conceptual music fans. While the novel is, as its back cover claims, earnest, it’s also hilarious and oddly touching given the absurdity of the band’s recording and performance of parking lots, a music that “emitted a low earthly growl, privileging bass-level amplitude over quais-narrative pop disappointment” (Lu 3).
The story of the band’s rise and fall is reminiscent of an episode of a better, more interesting version of “Behind the Music,” one that meditates on the creation of art, the struggle to balance commercial success with artistic integrity, and the pressure to innovate (rather than stereotypical rock-and-roll detritus). Ambient Parking Lot is more than a manifesto for a fictional band, but is also an exploration of the Ambient Parkers’ struggles and successes. At times I felt like I was on the verge of being bogged down by the novel’s conceit, that I couldn’t possibly be interested in reading anything more about the Ambient Parkers, but Lu’s consistent wit, insight, and ability to transform concept into a compelling narrative prevent this from happening. It’s easy to laugh at the Ambient Parkers—there are plenty of moments in the narrative that are self-conscious enough that the reader knows he or she is laughing along with somebody, but one of the remarkable things about this book is how, despite the absurdity of the Parkers’ project, and despite the earnest enthusiasm of the band's members, it’s easy to feel for them, but it’s also easy to be convinced that the art the book describes—the sounds of urban parking structures—is important. The novel strikes the perfect balance between earnest and mock, and though the Parkers' project may be absurd, the novel’s smart enough to create an intelligent, enlightening dialogue around the Parkers’ conceptual music.
The novel documents the recording of a soundless music and works, in a way, like the extended liner notes might for an album that need never be recorded; the fragments that make up the narrative are more interesting than any actual recording or performance by the Ambient Parkers could ever be, and though at times absurd, the band’s thoughts about their own project are interesting, again, in a way actual recordings wouldn’t be. In the words of the Ambient Parkers: “these recordings were meant to be made, not heard” (Lu 147).
Matthew Kirkpatrick's short story collection, Light without Heat, is forthcoming from FC2 in March, 2012.