February 1, 2006
Last year Ander Monson sent me his collection of short stories, Other Electricities, and I added it to my ever-growing pile of "to-read" submissions for the "book notes" series. I was impressed by the included Low mix cd to be listened to as accompaniment for the book (and spun it immediately), but the book slipped to the bottom of my reading list until I heard Ander being interviewed in the world's best literary podcast, The Bat Segundo Show. If the book was Bat-worthy, it deserved to be read. I popped in the Low mix CD, settled into the sofa with a cold glass of iced tea, and a couple of hours later smiled as I finished the book. These interconnected stories of life in Michigan's Upper Peninsula show Monson's craft as an artist of language, painting the cold landscapes and its inhabitants with the pen of a master.
In his own words, here is Ander Monson's "book notes" submission for his collection of stories, Other Electricities:
(All tracks by the band Low unless otherwise indicated.)
1. Canada: Low provides the soundtrack to this book, both in its writing (I listened to the Trust album above all when in the finishing stages) and in its readings. “Canada” is a pretty atypical song if you’re more interested in the early Low, since it’s certainly more rocking than their earlier stuff. But the book starts loud (even amid the hush that is everything under snow), and this is a shot fired across something’s bow. Being that the majority of the book’s action takes place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where we used to get Canadian TV from across Lake Superior, Canada is a symbol and metaphor that gets returned to throughout the book. My friends Emma, Chris, and I listened to this album driving back from Atlanta after the last time I saw Low—originally I thought this album, Trust, pretty dull, but it’s grown on me more than any of their work.
2. Violence: This song is more in keeping with the typical mood of the book (and of Low until recently), a shimmering lake of quiet containing something darker. This is the sound of snow coming down over and over through the long six plus months of winter we have, slowly accumulating, keeping us inside. Violence also plays a significant role in the book, with one character raped and killed, and another gone through the ice, with one more taken out by a SWAT team while robbing a bank, and there’s certainly the threat of more. Call that forecast or whatever.
3. Sunflower: While there’s lots of darkness enshrouding the stories/novel/whatever, there are bits of brightness too, magnified by the undercurrents of loss, wreckage, and abandonment. I think of Liz when I think of this song. Or I think of the mother speaking to the main character from Canada or beyond.
4. Two-Step: Restraint is everything in the North, and in the world of the book. There’s loveliness at hand, I hope, and then there is the wreck. There is the sheer face of ice across the surface, and there is the blackness underneath when it gives way. I love this song for Mimi’s backing vocals—hovering like a cloud just outside the song before she comes in. She is both there, and not. Like many of the characters hovering on the outside of the book.
5. Blue-Eyed Devil: One of my all-time favorite covers, Low doing Soul Coughing. Both are poetic in their way, though they each comprise a separate pole of the poetry world. This is one of the rare meetings of the two. This used to be extremely difficult to find until their rarities set was released, thus making years of music obsession suddenly redundant. The song moves slowly, advancing—flavors of Stereolab maybe even in the background. The song is inexorable, the creep of progress, of time throughout the book. Again, it’s all restraint, but hot underneath. This is the nature of the narrative in OE—it advances, but slowly, and always underneath something else.
6. Shame: One of the real songs of mourning that occur throughout the book. This runs underneath several of the Dream Obits in the book.
7. Words: This and the previous song are Old Low—classic stuff. Plus it’s f*cking words, man. Whoa, dude. Someone posted a note in the Low official website forums
8. “Starblood” (by The Cranes): This song is eruption filled with an unbelievable sense of longing, anger, and something beyond the usual boundaries of language. It almost approaches thrash, the ragged edge—this is the sound of violence, desperation, the sound of the motion of our killer towards the murderee, and then it dissolves into static.
9. Starfire: Low brings it back. This is one of my favorite Low songs by far—the song is a lullaby with an angry edge to it and it spirals outwards too, but reins back in. The images of stars show up, most obviously in the story “Constellations,” but all throughout the book—they are one way we attach ourselves to pattern.
10. Just Like Christmas: For a book all about winter, there’s not much of Christmas, which is appropriate given the shattered family situation of all involved. Still this is an oversight. Listening to this song makes me want to go back into the book and work a Christmas story in. Of course it would probably all go to hell, but still there’s the idea.
11. Venus: One of Low’s few pop songs. Major chords abound. There is lightness here. Maybe we’re working our way through the winter—on the approach to Valentine’s Day. It seems like the winter will break, like it must break, that it simply can’t go on. There’s love here too, mostly unrequited, and desire, interrupted by chance and loss, forever uncompromised.
12. Temptation (by New Order): arguably the best pop song ever written—this is the song playing on the radio as Yr Protagonist and Liz are on their way to Tapiola to visit the Oracle of Apollo, which does not of course actually exist in Tapiola, Michigan, which is a real place.
13. Monkey: Bad-ass. Low’s recent album opens with this killer—there’s all kinds of things beyond our comprehension, beyond our view over the horizon. This song signals that the winter is in fact not over, that we’ve got months yet to go, that we’re not out yet.
14. Dinosaur Act: I’m not sure what to say about this song—it crests and falls and rises again. It’s there in the book. What else is there to say.
15. That’s How You Sing Amazing Grace: Darker now, but quiet. A touch of Apocalypse Now. That sort of madness that comes from darkness. I had to sing Amazing Grace to get into Michigan Tech’s very selective jazz group in my first year of college up in Michigan, and I nearly didn’t make it. The group dissolved the year after. Doesn’t everything.
16. Those Girls (Song for Nico): This is a song for Harriet and Liz together (against those boys) and apart, later, before the big later and thereafter. Harriet could be listening to this song on the radio in her snowplow if there was a particularly kickass DJ on the local college station. Maybe this would give her some kind of reassurance.
17. California: This song goes very Red House Painters for me in the guitar. Pop action happening, though it’s still modulated by complexity.
18. Death of a Salesman: Acoustic. These last two songs are also on the new one, which is pretty great. This song is simple, unadorned, a real moment of vulnerability. Something the book could perhaps use more of, and something that only comes in intermittent bursts.
19. Below & Above: Here is Mimi’s voice again, emanating from the warm stereo on the dashboard through the dying light. I go from here to Cowboy Junkies, and then return.
20. Will the Night: One of the big questions of the book, will it last forever. This song wavers, wails, and nearly wanes, and then it wanes.
21. Last Snowstorm of the Year: Here then finally is the clouds breaking a bit—this song carries with it the various stories’ arcs, belied perhaps by the lyrics herein, the end of the season which seemed like it brought so much suffering. But still we get attached to it, to its constant blitz and blizzard. We don’t want to waste this while we have it, and we will mourn it when it’s gone.
22. Transmission: The best for last, perhaps, their great Joy Division cover. Everything in the book is a transmission. Everything emanates, comes from the radio, the sun, the stars, the Paulding Light, or beyond it. We are shot through with it all the time, all these constellations, all this radio and overboard and everywhere and brilliance. There is the radio. There is the dial. Orpheus, in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, is sitting in the car, trying to tune the radio to the right station, and when he does, we see what comes out, and it is good. Keep this song on repeat until you finish reading.
More Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)