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March 30, 2005

Book Notes - Tom Bissell ("God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories")

Tom Bissell

In a brand new feature (Book Notes) for Largehearted Boy, authors whose work I admire will create mix CD's based on their latest book. There are no ground rules, I plan to just let these creative masters work their own magic with words. Many thanks to Kevin Smokler, who inspired me with his Virtual Book Tour.

Christening the series is Tom Bissell. Tom offers a selection of songs that go hand in hand with his recently published collection of stories, God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories. These stories feature Americans left stranded culturally in Central Asia, each story more compelling than the last.

Here is Tom Bissell's mix CD for God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories, in his own words:


Here goes. I'll list the story in my collection first, then the music.

1. "Death Defier": A story about two journalists stuck, and in an increasing amount of trouble, in war-time Afghanistan

Turgun Alimatov's "Nava," from The Silk Road, a collection of Central Asian music: Central Asian music is, of course, non-Western and, thus, a little hard to get used to. For instance, none of the string instruments used in most Central Asian music are tuned. Once you get used to it, however, it becomes hynotically powerful. "Nava" is something I listened to over and over again while writing this story. It transported me to Central Asia, and something about its harsh, doleful sound perjectly conjured the bleak beauty of the Afghan countryside.

Wilco's "Theologians": "Theologians / Don't know nothin' / 'bout my soul." I kept imagining my main character, a hard-bitten combat photographer from the Midwest, as a fan of the Midwest's signature rock group, and this song, which was released after I had written the story, seems to me to capture perfectly the feeling of being stranded amid a bunch of mujahadeen. Theologians don't know nothin' about anyone's soul. Particularly Islamist theologians, who might well be anti-soul.

2. "Aral": a story about a scientist coming to grief while investigating the disaster of the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water but, thanks to Soviet irrigation policies, the world's worst man-made ecological disaster

The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice": I was listening to a lot of Beach Boys when I wrote this story in 1997. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is about the saddest song I've ever heard. Fitting in that the story I was trying to write was itself punishingly sad.

The Beach Boys' "Til I Die": My favorite Beach Boys song. Sometimes, my favorite song of all time. Hard to listen to and not get a little misty. I wrote the story's final scene, which finds my scientist abandoned to an uncertain fate, with "Til I Die" on repeat on my CD player. (This was pre-Itunes.)

3. "Expensive Trips Nowhere": a story about an unhappy married couple falling apart while hiking in Kazakhstan

Radiohead's "Let Down": Something about this song just kills me, even though, as with a lot of Radiohead songs, I can't make out the lyrics for the life of me. It's such a quietly insistent song, and a crushing one. Something about it suggested to me the inevitable failure of all human relationships.

Ben Folds Five's "Smoke": Nick Hornby once ranked this among the the great break-up songs. Indeed. It imagines a relationship as a series of pages in a book that, one by one, are burned. The story is about that burning, watching the smoke, and being utterly helpless to do one thing to stop it.

4. "The Ambassador's Son": a story about a young degenerate American running amok in an unnamed Central Asian country

The Rolling Stones's "Gimme Shelter": The narrator of "The Ambassador's Son" is an avowed Rolling Stones fan, and even though he cites "Let It Bleed" as his signature Stones album, "Gimme Shelter" is such a wonderful rock song, as joyless as it is exuberant, as doomed-feeling as it is infectious. This story ends badly, too, for everyone. There is no shelter.

TaTu: "Ya Soshla s Uma": Or, as it is known in this country, "All the Things She Said." TaTu is, of course, a wonderful Russian phenomenon that managed to take two abiding taboos (pedophilia and lesbianism) and merge them into pop gold. The girls of TaTu, about fifteen when they hit the charts in Russia, were often photographed demurely making out. All of their songs are about teenage lesbianism. We live in an amazing world. "The Ambassador's Son" ends in a sinister, sex-drenched dance club. Something tells me TaTu is what's playing when my characters walk into it. The American version of "Ya Soshla s Uma" (roughly translated as "I Lost My Mind") is inferior, but, hell, we need to take our pubescent lesbian pop sensations as they come. (No, it is not lost on me that this is my longest citation.)

5. "God Lives in St. Petersburg": a story about a young Christian missionary losing his mind, and questioning his sexuality, in Central Asia

Sabjilar's "Kharagay (The Pine Tree)" from The Silk Road: Another haunting, amazingly powerful song from Central Asia's heartland. There's a kind of Nepalese-sounding chant in this song that is both beautiful is terrifyingly reminiscent of losing one's mind, at least insofar as I imagine that horrible process.

Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah": God, this song kills me. I know Leonard Cohen did it first, but Buckley made it his own. As I hear it, it's a song about falling short of the divine, and knowing it, and hating it, but going for it anyway. That's what this story is about: failing persistance.

6. "Animals in Our Lives": a story about a young man returning home from a long trip to Kyrgyzstan, and finding out that his relationship with his fiancee is dying

Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings": Otherwise known as the theme from "Platoon." I first discovered this, long ago, on some mail-order compilation of classical love songs my mother had lying around. I think Victoria's Secret put out the CD in question as some promotional gimmick. The mind boggles. At any rate, the song is so damned sorrowful I don't know what the musicologists at Victoria's Secret were thinking. Love song? It's a death song. I listened to it incessantly while writing "Animals in Our Lives." All of Barber's stuff is great.

The Beatles's "For No One": A lesser-known Beatles song, and a great one, from my favorite Beatles period: the middle Beatles. "Animals" is an autobiographical story, and this is the song I listened to not while writing the story but while recovering from the break up I tried to write about. It's a song about what happens to a boy when his heart is broken, and what happens to the girl who breaks his heart. "Your day breaks / your mind aches / you find that all her words of kindness / linger on when she no longer needs you." (I also have happy stories. Sort of.)


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)

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