July 12, 2005
Alix Ohlin's debut novel, The Missing Person, draws you into the characters' drama from page one. A masterfully told tale of family relationships, I have been recommending this book to friends all summer.
Here are some songs that I was listening to while I wrote The Missing Person or that I think make a good accompaniment to it. It’s a novel about a young woman named Lynn, who is called home by her mother to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when her brother Wylie goes missing. It turns out that Wylie has gotten involved with a group of slightly ridiculous but basically good-hearted, fringe-living eco-warriors fighting to save the desert landscape. When she finds him, Lynn becomes entangled with the group and their cause, while at the same time she and Wylie try to close the distance that’s grown between them since the death of their father a couple of years earlier. Parts of the book are comic—like the pranks the eco-warriors try to pull off, which often fail miserably—and parts are sad, like the way Lynn’s family has fallen apart and is having a hard time putting itself back together.
1. The Damnations TX: “No Sign of Water”
Since this is a desert book, I have to start with “No Sign of Water.” When I began writing the book, I lived in Austin, and the Damnations—an alt-country band fronted by two sisters with great voices—were one of my favorite bands there. I listened to this song, and the album it’s on, Half Mad Moon, over and over again (I’m the kind of person who listens to the same song over and over again obsessively for a couple months, then moves on to the next thing) and even considered stealing the title for my book. There’s a line in the song that goes, “They’ll act as if you could have made better choices” which I think is apt for the characters in my book—Lynn and Wylie, especially, are always sniping at each other the way siblings do, questioning each other’s choices in life.
2. Magnetic Fields: “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin”
I think Stephin Merritt is a genius.
In addition to the eco-pranks in The Missing Person, there’s also a love story between Lynn and one of Wylie’s cohorts, a sexy, anarchistic plumber named Angus. On their first date they go to a cocktail lounge and drink gin martinis (“Gin is the canonical martini,” as Angus says) while an aging waitress sings karaoke in the background. I made up the song she sings, which has completely preposterous lyrics (“I met a man from out of town/He said I was cute/I thought he was quirky/He took me for all I had/and left me in Albuquerque”). But I imagined her voice as low and rumbling and similar to Stephen Merritt’s in this song, which concludes, “love is like a bottle of gin/but a bottle of gin is not like love.” In the book, Lynn definitely loses track of that distinction for a while.
3. Frank Sinatra, “Night and Day”
This is the only one of these songs that is actually in the book. Angus, the plumber, is a big Sinatra fan and he keeps playing this song. He finds it soothing, and so do I. “Night and Day, you are the one/only you beneath the moon and under the sun.” In the book, it becomes a love song whose object is a place—Lynn realizes, by the end, that she feels this way about her scruffy, unique hometown of Albuquerque.
One person who interviewed me wanted to know, “So, in your book, is the Frank Sinatra song the later version or the earlier one with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra?” This was my favorite question anybody asked me; I loved that someone had thought about it enough to ask. For the record, I was thinking of the earlier Frank, but I love the later Frank too, when his amazingly smooth voice starts to fray around the edges.
4. Big Country: “In a Big Country”
I first loved this song when it came out, in 1983, when I developed an enormous crush on Stuart Adamson, the Scottish lead singer, and his plaid shirts. I spent ages trying to figure out the weird exclamation he makes at the beginning of the song (Shah? Shock? Shee-aw?). Over ten years later I rediscovered the song. I was living in New York City at the time and about to make a break for it and move to New Mexico to try something completely different. I used to go to work in Midtown humming the lines “I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert/But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime”. In my mind it’s forever associated with my move West. Probably I shouldn’t admit any of this.
5. Joe Henry, “One Day When the Weather is Warm”
“One day when the weather is warm/I’ll wake up on a hill/and hold the morning/like it was a plow/And cut myself a road/And I follow it until/I know better by God than I know now.”
This song is so sad that sometimes I can’t even listen to it. This idea expressed in these lines, that someday you’ll know better than you do now—be able to cope and act better than in the present—just strikes me as being so hopeful and so unlikely. Lynn, in my book has all these problems with her love life, her family life, her career, and she thinks that if she just puts it all off for a while, she’ll be able to deal with it later. In the end she has no choice but to cope with it in the present, long before she’s ready, which is the way it usually works, I guess.
6. Leonard Cohen, “Tower of Song”
I think this is such a pretty song, and throughout it Cohen makes fun of himself (“I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice”). When I’m Your Man, the album this song is on, came out, I went to see Cohen in concert with my brother. The crowd went wild at the end of this song, and Cohen leaned into the microphone and said, unbelievably slowly, “Thank you…for your…modest…ecstasy.” The irony was so thick in the air you could have cut it with a knife. I admire Cohen because he manipulates that irony so well, managing to be funny and self-mocking and genuinely sad at the same time—sometimes you’re not even sure where one feeling starts and the other leaves off. I aspire to that.
Later my brother and I found out that he used the “modest ecstasy” line at every single concert. Ah well.
7. Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations
I usually can’t listen to music while I’m writing (before, and after, and while taking all-too-frequent, supposedly-only-five-minutes-long “breaks”—but not during); this is one of the few exceptions. Gould has this full-blown manic intensity that is just barely contained by the rigid formal variations of the music. You feel like he’s almost about to blow a gasket but he never does. And I love how the music itself is constantly discovering new patterns in itself and making something new; it’s beautiful and mathematical at the same time. The Missing Person was my first novel, and the whole experience of writing it was like trying to handle a huge piece of gloppy dough that wouldn’t roll out and kept sticking to my hands. It was nice, in the middle of a huge mess, to listen to something perfect.
8. The Handsome Family, “So Long”
The Handsome Family is a great deadpan band that lives in Albuquerque. “So Long” is an apologia and a list of everything that the narrator has killed over the course of his life, from a rosebush to a dog who ate tinsel to “everything I burned in a magnifying lens, that long lonely summer when I was only ten.” Sometimes it’s important to listen to songs that break your heart; other times, it’s equally important to listen to songs that make you laugh. My book has a lot of loss and sadness in it—missing parents, an eroded desert landscape, frustrated family miscommunication—and I tried to temper that sad mood with some comedy—like the eco-warriors’ ill-fated attempt to drain the swimming pools of rich people in Albuquerque, to teach them a lesson about water conservation. I wanted humor and sadness to be entwined together in the book, same as they are in life.
9. The Beatles, “Julia”
This is such a wistful, ethereal love song to a person who’s forever out of reach. Julia in the song is sleeping, silent, a cloud; she’s distant and mysterious, but beloved. “Half of what I say is meaningless/But I say it just to reach you Julia.” I guess everybody knows that Lennon wrote this song about his mother, who was killed in a car accident. In The Missing Person Lynn is struggling with the sudden death of her father from a heart attack several years before. (I went home for the funeral and stood with my mother and brother at the graveside,” she remembers, “thinking that these were the most appropriate words for death I could imagine: "heart" and "failure.") She loves and misses her father, and most of all she can’t believe she’ll never have a chance to communicate with him—to draw his attention or make him mad or ask him questions or understand him better. He’ll always be a mystery to her, a fact that’s so hard to accept.
10. Sam Phillips, “One Day Late”
I listen to this song all the time right now; she has a great voice. I like the lyric in it that goes, “There always has been good like stars you don’t see in the day sky/ Wait til night.” There’s a lot of pain in The Missing Person but it concludes on a hopeful note; people keep loving each other even while dealing with change and loss all around them.