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July 3, 2007

Book Notes - Alix Ohlin ("Babylon")

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

Two years ago, Alix Ohlin's debut novel, The Missing Person, was the summer book I couldn't stop recommending to friends. Her debut short fiction collection, Babylon, impressed me as well with its desolate emotional landscapes, reminiscent of Jean Thompson but with its own distinctive flair.

The New York Times said of the book:

"In the title story and elsewhere in this admirably varied collection, Ohlin stakes out a home for her work in the fertile middle ground between the realism of an older generation of writers (Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates come first to mind) and the nod-and-a-wink fabulism practiced by a slew of younger authors, including Hannah Tinti and Aimee Bender."

In her own words, here is Alix Ohlin's Book Notes essay for her debut collection of short fiction, Babylon:

I wrote the seventeen stories in my book Babylon over a period of ten years. Looking back at the music I listened to during that decade is nostalgic and at times embarrassing, sort of like surveying pictures of your old haircuts. I am also somewhat appalled to discover, in glancing at the acknowledgments section of the book, that the only lyrics for which the publisher had to get permission are from the theme song to the ‘80s TV show “The Facts of Life.” Kind of sad, really.

“The Facts of Life” notwithstanding, here are some songs, older and newer, that are dear to me and that I think fit the mood of the book:

1. “Hold On” — Tom Waits

I was recently at a conference with an Irish poet who would answer any question he deemed uninteresting with a quoted lyric from Tom Waits. “How was your writing day?” I’d ask. “She left her blonde wig in the car,” he’d intone darkly in response. “I don’t think she’ll get very far.” It was kind of awkward conversationally, but at the same time, I can certainly understand the urge to include Tom Waits in one’s life whenever possible.

“Hold On” is my favorite Tom Waits song because it’s so melancholy and gruff and lovely. “Hold on, hold on/ Take my hand, I’m standing right here/ And just hold on.”

Another singer might make those lyrics sound sappy, but not, of course, Tom Waits. I’m always hoping for something near that effect, in my work, some combination of emotion and friction. In my story “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student,” a young boy and his mother face lives that are falling apart. The boy wants to play the piano and they have no money for one, so he practices on keys he draws on paper. Not much happens, really, except that by the end of the story he’s so beaten down by life that he declares he wants to quit playing the piano, and she won’t let him. And he holds onto her, and she gives him strength.

2. “You Are What You Love” – Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins

Jenny Lewis has the prettiest voice. I like all the songs on her album “Rabbit Fur Coat” and have listened to one or the other of them pretty much obsessively since I got the CD. The catchiest song is this one, with its jangly, happy chorus, “You are what you love, not what loves you back.”

In the title story of my collection, “Babylon,” a man falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a compulsive liar. Everything about her is a fiction: her job, her name, her background. She didn’t make these things up out of malice, or for profit, but in a strange kind of self-preservation, an attempt to be less vulnerable in the world. After the lies are exposed and they break up, he goes in search of her, and brings her back to New York, to her apartment. She gets up for a drink of water, and he lies in bed, not really knowing who she is or what he’s doing there. He’s left with the aftermath: all this emotion he has for her, lies or no lies, all the nothingness that exists just outside of it. It’s a love story.

3. “Do You Realize?” – Flaming Lips

I think this album, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” is brilliant, and it tells a whole story the way that, ideally, a collection of stories tells a whole story, too. In this song, the first on the album, I love the whimsy combined with sorrow. The title lyric goes, “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” but if you didn’t listen to the words carefully you might not even notice the direness of the question that’s being asked. There’s this tension between the lush, almost dippy sweetness of the orchestration and the horror of those lyrics, and in that tension lies a great depth. Plus, The Flaming Lips are just not afraid to be weird, and I love them for that. I’d link this song, I guess, to my weirdest story, “Edgewater.” It’s about a prosthetic leg that functions as kind of magnet, exerting some psychosexual pull over a young girl, a babysitter, a waitress, and a guy who picks the waitress up. Everybody wants to have the leg, and it winds up getting stolen, thrown out to sea, recovered, and stolen again.

4. “Paperback Writer” – The Beatles

“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look?” As I look over the collection, I see that quite a few of the stories take different writing forms as their structuring conceits. “Ghostwriting” is about a woman who takes a job writing bad mysteries, “A Theory of Entropy” is about a scientist struggling to write a popular version of his research, “Transcription” is about a medical transcriptionist, and “An Analysis of Some Recent Troublesome Behavior” is about a biologist working through his family issues in a made-up research report. I think I gravitate to this structure because I like the idea that to a certain extent, no matter what our jobs and circumstances are, we are all writers; we are always telling the stories of our lives, hoping, perhaps in vain, to be read—and understood—by those around us.

5. “If You Could Read My Mind” – Gordon Lightfoot

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, but I think Gordon Lightfoot is seriously underrated.
This is a sad, swelling seventies folk song. There’s a certain unabashed, unironic, un-stylized melodrama to this song that you don’t hear that much anymore. In case you don’t remember it, it’s the song in which he sings plaintively: “I don’t know where we went wrong but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.” Anyway, I think that this song gets at the notion of the unspoken—all the emotion of this song is going on in the mind of the singer, not in any actual conversation with his lover—which is a huge issue with virtually all the characters in my stories.

6. “Must I Paint You a Picture” – Billy Bragg

“Must I paint you a picture, about the way that I feel? You know my love for you is strong/You know my love for you is real.” I recently rediscovered this wonderful song, which was a favorite of mine in college. I’ll connect it, for the painting thing, with my story “You Are Here,” in which a college-age painter depicts her feelings about men in a series of canvases of Ken and Barbie reenacting Greek myths. (Ken and Barbie as Apollo and Daphne, Ken and Barbie as Zeus and Leda, etc.) For what it’s worth, this is also the story that quotes “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have…The Facts of Life.” I’d like to think this is the first time Billy Bragg has been aesthetically linked to The Facts of Life, but you never know.

see also:

Alix Ohlin and Babylon links:

author's page at her publisher

"The King of Kohlrabi" short story
"Who Do You Love" short story interview
House of Mirth interview
Identity Theory interview

Alix Ohlin's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for her debut novel, The Missing Person

reviews of Babylon:

New York Times
SF Station
San Francisco Chronicles
Time Out New York

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

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
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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