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June 27, 2007

Book Notes - James P. Othmer ("The Futurist")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

As I read The Futurist, I couldn't help comparing the author to a young Kurt Vonnegut. James P. Othmer's debut novel manages to mix clever satire with eye-opening humor.

Preview or download this playlist at iTunesicon

In his own words, here is James P. Othmer's's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, The Futurist:

I suppose I should have playlists called “Clever Dialogue Boosters” or “Anti-hero Anthems” or “Songs to Keep Me from Going Back to Writing Dog Food Ads”. But I usually just scroll to an artist who seems to be a sure bet to distract me on any given blank-screen morning. Sometimes, feeling reckless, I’ll hit shuffle and let the algorithm gods have their way with me, inspiring the thinking or giving me something or at the very least someone (yes, you, Shuggie Otis) to blame for not being able to think at all. The danger of shuffle of course being the sudden onset of a Hilary Duff song (downloaded into my library by my nine year old daughter who, for the record, has since moved on) – let’s say “Why Not?” that shatters the momentum of a particularly inspiring block of music, if not writing, killing the mood, assaulting the ears and triggering painful flashbacks about the Hilary Duffs of my youth. I’m convinced that, if not for Ms. Duff and assorted momentum-killing novelty songs (William Shatner, David Hasselhoff, the crazy Raleigh soliloquy(part II) from the Prodigy album Sublime) I would have finished The Futurist months sooner.

Sometimes the inspiration is quite literal. I listened to way too much Wilco while writing The Futurist so it should come as no surprise that the book’s morally challenged, disturbingly privileged, eponymous, minor celebrity character Yates once “sat in on drums with Wilco” (though I’m sure the real Jeff Tweedy would never have permitted such an outrage). Or this passage, in which Yates uses the gift of an iPod in an attempt to win the favor of an American-hating Italian boy.

In the back of the taxi, he connects the new iPod to his laptop with a firewire and shifts the entire contents of his music library – from Beethoven to Wilco to Johnny Cash and the Meat Puppets to Radiohead, Joao Gilberto, Loretta Lynn, William Shatner Live and his nephew Joey’s garage band…The iPod. Designed in California. Assembled in China. Purchased in Italy. With components out-sourced from who knows where. Filled with the music of Yates’ terrified, compromised, morally ambiguous world..Thousands of songs, hundreds of artists, each with some kind of personal connection, some kind of visceral relevance to Yates, revealing some aspect of his global, sentimental, badass, funky, classical, crude, manic, progressively nuanced soul. Copied for the pleasure of another. Kind of like sex, what the two small machines are engaged in. Digital sex. Cultural sex.

It’s the only thing that The Futurist could think of, to show him.

“The Beast and the Dragon, Adored”, Spoon
Never failed to make me stop everything and think of something completely different than the words on the page. China. Bhutan. Opium, for some reason.

“The National Anthem”, Radiohead
The opening bass line always made me feel like I was late for an outrageous party that might even be fun if not for the fact that everyone there was sure to be too cool for me. For some reason it plays twice in a row on my computer, serving the dual purpose of not just elevating my heart rate, but making feel as if I am losing my mind.

“I Hung My Head”, Johnny Cash
Of all the excellent songs on American IV, this stuck with me most. It’s the story of a young man in the old west who sees a rider in the far, far distance, raises his rifle and…whoopsie. Recounted from his place on the gallows, it’s narrative simplicity is haunting, probably because it reminds me of the time when I was seven and saw a bird sitting on a branch in the far, far distance and…you get the idea.

“I Will Survive”, Cake
Part homage, part parody of the original (at least in the ears of this humble listener), this cover from the Fashion Nugget CD never fails to make me smile. It’s much better after a few beers, so I played it with discretion, or at least late in the day.

“Ceu Distante”, Bebel Gilberto
I’d written half of The Futurist when my son was born. Forget about finishing the rest, my friends with children said with a bit too much pleasure. But they didn’t have Bebel. It went like this. Baby Jamie cried. Daddy Jamie took him for a ride with Bebel. Baby Jamie slept and slept. Every song is like a Portuguese lullaby. We played it so much that my daughter claims that it makes her want to do bad things to the progeny of the girl from Ipanema. I finished the book in four months.

“Haunted”, Shane MacGowan and the Popes (with Sinead O’Connor)
A duet with the most contrasting voices I’ve ever heard. Sinead and her lunatic, righteous, pure, angelic voice. And Shane sounding like he’s just finished a fifth of Jameson, broken the bottle over his head and then swallowed the glass.

“St. Joe’s Band”, The Ike Reilly Assassination
Quintessential Chicago former hotel doorman narrative poetry rock from the CD Sparkle in the Finish.

“Words Fell,” Lucinda Williams
Sometimes things are going a bit too smoothly and, now that my father has passed away, I occasionally need something or someone to make me feel sad, guilty, deeply moved and less full of myself. Lucinda never fails.

“Bittersweet Symphony” The Verve
When I started listening to this song too much and talking about it to friends they told me I was about 20 years too late. They went through their Verve craze back in college. Maudlin, annoyingly repetitive, lyrically challenged: absolutely. But it appeals on some primal level with the part of me that went to community college and never got to get stoned in a dorm room. What’s a verve, anyway?

James P. Othmer and The Futurist links:

the author's website
the book's blog
the author's page at the publisher
the author's MySpace page

"The Futurist" short story at the Virginia Quarterly Review
"Bones Like Ice" short story at the Chattahoochee Review

Ernie Schenck Calls This Advertising? interview with the author
YouTube interview with the author

reviews of The Futurist:

LA Weekly
New York Times
USA Today
Village Voice

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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