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October 11, 2007

Book Notes - Jonathan Messinger ("Hiding Out")

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

In his debut collection of short fiction, Hiding Out, Jonathan Messinger has crafted often hilarious stories filled with irony and oddness. The Omaha World-Herald compared the stories to the fiction of George Saunders, a worthwhile comparison. As books editor of Time Out Chicago, Messinger knows what makes quality literature, and has created some of his own with this collection.

Booklist said of the book:

"Messinger's stories are aching, not bleak, and the collection is fun, engaging, and a bit more than thought-provoking. A fresh, spot-on debut."

In his own words, here is Jonathan Messinger's Book Notes essay for his short fiction collection, Hiding Out:

I know this is going to categorize me in ways I may not want to be categorized, but: I only listen to jazz when I write (and am listening to it right now). Free jazz, to be specific, the less linear the better. What can I say? I like the way the musicians can't naysay each other's ideas, they have to continually yes-and each other, a good philosophy for me to keep in mind when I'm writing and despising every sentence as I put it down.

When I'm not writing, though, music heavily influences my thoughts about the stories I'm working on. Over the course of the few years that I wrote the stories in Hiding Out, I went through numerous phases, as we all do, but the bedrock of my CD collection has always been somewhat poppy, innocuous indie rock and hip-hop. It's a dichotomy that I've lived with ever since I started developing a taste for music (i.e. once I figured out that "Axel F" off the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack wasn't the be-all end-all). I think it's reflected in the book, too. Some of the characters share the conflicted optimism of The Flaming Lips, others the bleak struggle mentality of hip-hop. These make up the Hiding Out mixtape, and also happen to be the songs on heavy rotation in my head for the past few years.

Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow by Jonathan Richman

A good love song makes the contented feel swoony and the lonely crazy. Both Richman's "Pablo Picasso" and "You Can't Talk to the Dude," sum up well the approach many of the male characters in Hiding Out take toward the women in their lives: They see other guys as obvious assholes, but don't have the guts to do more than stew. This song, though, has such a lovely indulgence. It's a soundtrack to the pinnacle of a relationship, when you're both on the same page about obscure things at a very specific time: "she delights in the faded colors of night/just like i do, just like I do." In a story called "True Hero," a guy dresses as a robot and goes to a costume party to win back an ex-girlfriend who long ago moved on. In his head, this song still plays for the two of them.

Africa Dream by Talib Kweli

I actually took (and cited) a line from this song for a story called "One Valve Opens." In it, Julius, an African-American kid brow-deep in the slam poetry scene of Chicago, tries to reconcile his suburban class status with the urban art form he's immersed in. It all leads up to the big end-of-the-year slam, and he's prepared his magnum opus, an extended poetic rant bout race and class and the sub/urban divide. And then one of his teammates almost throws it away by stealing this lyric: "They had potty issues and snotty tissues, we been rockin'/Think you poppin' next year nobody will miss you." I love the way Talib Kweli just builds rhymes on top of rhymes. And for some reason "potty issues and snotty tissues" has always cracked me up.

Buggin' by The Flaming Lips

This is all about the happy confusion of being enamored with someone in the summertime. In "The Birds Below," a newly pubescent kid lusts after his older brother's girlfriend, despite being fully aware of the dangers therein. And while the whole song feels like one big, sunny, pastel Happyland, there's this whole thing going on where bugs are splattering "up and down the windshield, and the headlights." It always makes me imagine a couple in a car, smiley and world-beating and trying to pretend they're not witnessing/causing this wave of bloodshed--tiny as it might be--as they push onward.

What's up Fatlip? By Fatlip

"I can't believe how naive I've gotten." Truer words have never been spoken. I love how down on himself Fatlip is in this song, but how funny he remains.

Dead by They Might Be Giants

I write about death a fair amount in the book because it scares the ever-loving everything out of me. Sometimes, when I get caught up in the Death Fright, what goes missing is a drive to do anything. In "Bicycle Kick," the protagonist (Terry) is told by a doctor that he has an inoperable, terminal condition that could kill him at any second. Trouble is, "any second" could be in two seconds or years from now. Terry's not really the kind of guy you tell that to, and he just enters this sort of state of frozen animation, an endless inertia, epitomized by these lines, "Now it's over I'm dead and I haven't done anything that I want/Or, I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do."

Alison by Elvis Costello

I always thought Elvis's empathy was a little outsized in this song, like he presumed to know too much about the life of Alison simply because his aim was true. That is the delusion of the heartbroken. In the book, I'm thinking of Waysun, the hero of "Between Here and There," who daydreams so much about winning the heart of Li Wei (and showing up her boyfriend in a kung fu battle), that by the end, he's convinced himself of her affection for him. He's wrong.

We Major by Kanye West and Nas

Thematically, this song doesn't have anything to do with the book at all. But I dedicated Hiding Out to my friend Mark Sinclair, who passed away unexpectedly in 2006 (now you're getting a chapter of the Death Fright origin story). Mark and I worked together and he constantly sang this song in his cubicle. For some reason, he just loved it. Obviously it carries all of this melancholic air with it now--the song is about thinking big, getting out of the mindset that your goals should be limited and starting to view yourself as a success. Mark was one of the funniest writers I've known, and I'm sure he would have been major.

I have to admit, I'm conflicted about ending this essay this way. The last story in the book is called "Scream in the Dark," and it's a very explicit attempt by me to work through all of the sadness surrounding Mark's death, and how the living are supposed to treat the dead. Is it necessary to rigidly preserve the "facts" about a person, and how can we reconcile those with our ever-evolving and altering memories of the deceased? How should we "interact"--in a non-Ouija sense--with our dead loved ones? My sense is that we should speak of the dead in the same manner we did when they were alive. To that end, I almost chose for the final song "Tha Crossroads" by Bone Thugs N' Harmony, as one last joke on Mark.

Jonathan Messinger and Hiding Out links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at the publisher
the author's book tour
Featherproof Books
The Dollar Store $how

an excerpt from the book
Birmingham Weekly review
Independent Weekly
Omaha World-Herald review

Bostonist interview with the author
Chicagoist interview with the author

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
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
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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