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October 12, 2006

Book Notes - Brian Evenson ("The Open Curtain")

Brian Evenson's novel, The Open Curtain, is a truly psychological literary thriller. Melding religion, drugs, and horrific violence, Evenson has written one of my favorite books of the year, and has created a Mormon Holden Caulfield who literally has blood on his hands.

In his own words, here is Brian Evenson's Book Notes contribution for his novel, The Open Curtain.

The Open Curtain might be thought of as Big Love, without the love. It explores what it's like to be raised in a rigid religious structure, investigating what happens to a late 20th century Mormon loner when he becomes obsessed with an early 20th century murder.

Since each of the three sections of The Open Curtain does something a little different, I want to think of the play list as a kind of imagined record with three sides: you listen to a side, then you flip it over and then, when you flip it back, the first side is somehow different.

Because a good part of the novel is set in late 20th century Utah, while writing it I found myself listening to music that I'd grown up with:

Side One

The first section of the novel plunders my memory for what it was like to grow up in Utah, surrounded by a strict religious culture. Rudd Theurer becomes interested in a 1903 murder committed in New York by the grandson of Mormon Prophet Brigham Young. Fueled by his half-brother Lael, this interest quickly grows into a darker and darker obsession.

1. Come Come Ye Saints – The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Nothing personifies religious oppression quite so well as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (except for maybe the eternal sunshine of the Osmond smile). This particular song, with its constant and almost hysterical refrain of " All Is Well!" captures the Mormon insistence on always seeing only the bright side of things and repressing a lot of the rest.

2. Earth – Land of Some Other Order

This song captures for me the setting for The Open Curtain, the physical landscape of Utah. Earth's Hex (which was one of the dozen best albums to appear last year) marked a radical departure for the Dylan Carlson's band, with Carlson trading in his signature sonic mindsplitting drone for a simpler, slower brooding style informed by Morricone's Western soundtracks. "Hex" is full beautifully ethereal songs that straddle a previously unknown boundary between drone and Americana to create a kind of post-country, desert soundscape that captures the quietly dark side of the beautiful but unforgiving West.

3. The Fall — And Therein

The Fall's catchy and sardonic take on Christianity declares: "He turned the water into wine/And he insisted that we eat swine/And that's the sum of it.." When you add to that the pop simplicity of the music and Mark E. Smith's ability to give a one-syllable word like "swine" at least three syllables (Swiuhhneh), it's hard to resist.

4. Meat Puppets — Lake of Fire (Meat Puppets II version)

The upside of Utah's rigid culture, as the movie SLC Punk suggested, was that it bred a taste for transgressive music. When I was in high school in Provo, Utah, my friend David Beus and I used to drive up to Salt Lake to see punk shows. The best place for these was The Indian Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center, which had pictures of dancing Native Americans in traditional garb scattered around its walls—which always made me suspect that what we were doing was not just slam dancing (this was pre-mosh) but being part of a ritual. There was a moment, if you were with the right people, where you seemed to have drained out of yourself and to be part of a general selfless pattern of movement. You were being struck so efficiently by the bodies around you that the music, it if came at all, came pulse by pulse.

The first band we saw play was The Subhumans. We saw the Meat Puppets when they were somewhere between being the punk band they'd been and the country-folk band they would become. They were drawing on a range of influences, from hardcore to Merle Haggard. Meat Puppets II is where they strike the perfect balance. "The Lake of Fire," with quirky lyrics, d.i.y. production, and a vocal screechiness that makes Bon Scott sound operatic, feels like it's poised right on the edge of collapse—almost ridiculous but not quite, almost punk but not quite, almost hippy but not quite—and it's all the more uncanny and effective for that shimmer of near self-destruction.

The Meat Puppets proved how close to collapse the song was when they decided to remake the song for Too High to Die and killed it. Nirvana did a respectable cover of "Lake of Fire", but did so by smoothing it out; the uncanniness was lost.

5. Money Mark — Hand in Your Head (both versions)

This for me identifies what starts to happen to Rudd once he finds out about the Hopper Young murder case: "I've got my hand in your head/And I'm pulling out all of your mind." That there are two versions of the song seems all the more appropriate to The Open Curtain.

6. Sonic Youth — Eric's Trip

I listened to this song repeatedly when I was working on the drug scene near the end of the first section. At a certain point, I realized that I was listening to the song just to get to the last minute, which the whole song builds toward. I found myself compelled to turn the volume up to headphone-destroying (not to mention eardrum-destroying) levels. My own drug scene tries to capture the confusion and dislocation captured so well in the lyrics and guitar patterning of "Eric's Trip."

7. David Bowie —Chant of the Evercircling Skeletal Family

What better song to close the first section, with darkness coming on both inside and out and an unsuspecting family gathered below? I include it here to as a tribute to the improbably named Griffin Law, a dear friend of mine from Utah who managed to survive scrapes with all sorts of drugs and then died trying to swim across a lake at a drug rehab picnic. Griff and I both worked at Hamburger World in South Provo when we were 18, and it was driving home around midnight listening to the staticky Salt Lake City indie station that we both first heard this song. It would be an understatement to say that it changed everything for us. You can't underestimate the importance of accidental musical discoveries for kids caught in the throes of conservative culture.

Side Two

The second section of the novel shifts perspective, focusing on a woman named Lyndi, beginning with her discovery that her parents have died in a multiple murder. Slowly she becomes more and more interested in Rudd, who is the only survivor of a multiple murder. Eventually she becoming romantically involved with him once he wakes up. As time goes by, though, she begins to realize that there is something about Rudd that just doesn't quite seem right.

1. The Cure — A Strange Day

This song from Pornography is to be played after reading the first chapter of part two, after Lyndi's shock at learning about her parent's death. I'm less interested in the lyrics than in the very simple relation between the beat and the sparse instrumentation, the use of echo, the slightly haunted simplicity of the song itself.

2. The Rolling Stones — Gimme Shelter

In the hospital, Lyndi simultaneously wants to mother the comatose Rudd and be somehow protected by him, the latter being more than a little difficult considering that he's comatose. Some of the lyrics of the song suggest the dark direction the novel might be heading.

This song for me is in a category of songs I call "deep listening": I tend to feel when I listen to it that something is shivering just beneath the surface, waiting to be heard, always just slightly beyond me. I keep thinking that if I just turn it up a little bit louder I'll be able to hear "it." "It" in this song is somehow is lodged in the relationship of the guitars.

3. Buzzcocks — Ever Fallen in Love?

How is it possible to fall in love with someone who is comatose, and is it really love? More importantly, is it really such a good idea?

4. PJ Harvey —The Desperate Kingdom of Love

"Put on your spurs, swagger around / in the desperate kingdom of love. Holy water cannot help you now." Things are going wrong for Lyndi by this stage but she can't see it. Harvey's simple and spare and beautiful song, suggests why.

5. Iggy Pop — Gimme Danger

This is the flip side of wanting shelter, an always lurking desire. Part of Lyndi's confusion and willingness to get involved with Rudd, despite her doubts, is perhaps rooted in this, an unwitting and semi-conscious desire for danger.

6. Wire — I Should Have Known Better

After things go wrong, it always seems obvious why they did. Another nod to my teenage years, this Wire song follows the aftermath of an incompletely defined conflict between a couple, a kind of rage seeming to grow, but confusedly so. There's a kind of dislocation to the songs narrative that I find very appealing, and very much in the spirit of the book.

7. Echo and the Bunnymen — My Kingdom

What's going on in the shed? Lyndi wonders. What can Rudd possibly be doing? I like the tension between the violence of the lyrics of this song and the orchestration, the sense of conflict that seems to be evolving. I like as well the notion of a whole kingdom being generated within the four walls of the shed.

When I was a Mormon missionary in France, when I was still trying to follow the mission rules and not listen to pop music, I repeatedly dreamt that I was in a certain record store in Marseille where I would stumble across an Echo and the Bunnymen box set that didn't actually exist. The fact that it didn't actually exist didn't stop me from looking for it though.

8. The Severed Heads — Legion

There are some doors that should never be opened, particularly when those doors seem to lead down into the heart of earth. There's an astounding multiplicity to this Severed Heads song, with its flitting and floating voices and rumblings and the sense it gives of offering a narrative without ever fully revealing anything.

Side Three

When I was writing this final section—which fractures the world of the book in a way that I won't reveal—I became obsessed with artists who took other people's songs and transformed them. On one end are contemporary remakes like M. Ward's version of Bowie's "Let's Dance" or the Scissor Sisters's inspired disco version of "Comfortably Numb." These compel you to listen to a song you know well in all sorts of new ways. On the other were competing versions—Jimmie Hendrix's vs. Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" for instance—where each version claims a certain authority. What was interesting to me about these was the way they both were and weren't the original song, the way they simultaneously fractured and preserved the original song. This "is/is not" is at the heart of everything about this section, from the sense of place to the sense of personal identity.

1. Growing — In the Shadow of the Mountain

But first, before the covers, an intro. This song for me is a kind of summoning of the world, a swelling of a place into being in the way that the world of the third section comes to exist as if out of chaos. Growing's "His Return" was one of my favorite CDs of 2005, the year I finished and polished The Open Curtain.

Now the covers:

2. Low — Transmission

This is one of the all-time great covers. I love Low's ability to take Joy Division's song and stretch it to make it slow and langorous. There's some beautiful harmony here as well and a real sparseness and control that's admirable. If you know the frenetic Joy Division original, it might take some time to adapt to the pacing of this song, but once you get there, it's a real treat.

4. Johnny Cash — The Mercy Seat

The murderous subject matter attracts me, but what attracts me more is Cash's ability to take Nick Cave's mumbled original and bring out the strength of Cave's lyrics with a vocal style that feels incredibly vulnerable.

5. Nick Cave — Stagger Lee

Cave takes this traditional murder ballad and updates it mainly by inserting four-letter words. This synthesis of a traditional story with contemporary gestures to create a kind of gangsta folk ballad shows what can be done by forcing elements from two different time periods together.

6. Can — Spoon (Sonic Youth Remix)

This remix, from Sacrilege, takes the original Can "Spoon" and slows it way down, making it feel as if it's being performed underwater. There are great shifts in pacing, shifts in velocity, that really get somewhere. The first minute or two serves as the backdrop for what's going on in Rudd's head throughout the section.

7. Sunn 0))) — "Sin Nanna"

There's something perverse about using the intro track to Sunn 0)))'s Black One as the outtro for this section, but it seems to me a great place to end. I love the brooding quality of the track, the slight swirl to it that you'll best catch through headphones, the scattered and hardly audible noises that seem to be hovering just beneath the track. It suggests Rudd's fading out. Whether he'll fade in again is another story….

see also:

the author's website
Bookslut's interview with the author
Catalyst's review of the book

Previous 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)


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