February 20, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Joshua Henkin's second novel Matrimony struck me with its understated story of the relationship of a couple touched by tragedy, betrayal, and loss. One of the New York Times notable books of 2007, the novel is unforgettable in both its tone and characters.
At the center of “Matrimony” are Julian and his girlfriend, Mia, who meet in a dormitory laundry room not long after Carter and Pilar are paired. They, too, fall easily into a domestic routine, and by senior year the two couples are cohabiting in a large house, eating chips, soaking in a hot tub and bantering about the future. Henkin’s prose is often arresting (Pilar, he writes, had “a high-alert face”), but its real power is tapped when Mia’s mother begins a losing battle with breast cancer, yanking Mia out of the easy flow of campus life. Henkin portrays Mia’s time with her dying mother in effortless scenes that float between past and present and are as painful to read as any I can recall on this subject, bringing to mind Jayne Anne Phillips’s classic short story, “Home.”
“Share a Load,” by the Bobs
More than any other song, this is the one that inspired the central relationship in Matrimony. The Bobs are an a capella group whose songs range from the clever to the cute, and though Julian’s and Mia’s relationship is neither clever nor cute, I got the idea for their meeting in the college laundry room from the love relationship that develops in “Share a Load.” “Pardon me, I couldn’t help but see that you have only a small amount of laundry. I don’t have much, you don’t have much, why, why don’t we both share a load?” I didn’t have a clear sense of Julian and Mia when I started to write them, but their relationship came to life to me as I imagined them meeting in the Graymont laundry room. Undergarments, bleach, quarters, fabric softener: quite a lot of fodder.
“Couldn’t Call it Unexpected Number 4,” by Elvis Costello
I’m a huge Elvis fan, I listen to him all the time, and he’s very influential for me, though I’m a very different kind of writer from him (if fiction can even be compared to songs in the first place). He’s a punster, arch, clever (sometimes to a fault), and my own work tends to be quieter, more understated. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I chose an unusual song for Elvis (though I love the usual ones, too), and not one that’s too well known—one of the last songs in Mighty Like A Rose. It’s a ballad, and coming from anyone else, and not animated by the way Elvis sings and in the context of his other songs, that line at the end, “I can’t believe I’ll never believe in anything again,” could be considered, well, maudlin. But not coming from Elvis. It’s a song my wife and I danced to at our wedding. And in its own redirected way, it’s an influence on Matrimony.
“John Lee Supertaster”
I didn’t know this song before I came across it on a CD given to my kids by a friend. It’s a compilation of songs by adult artists but these songs are intended for kids. I’m not even sure who sings this song (the CD is called For the Kids Too, by various artists; that’s all I know), but the song’s about (surprise) a supertaster, which is an actual scientific category. People who are supertasters taste food differently from other people; they have more taste buds and are therefore more sensitive to tastes. My science may be shoddy here (it often is), but my understanding is that the portion of the population that can’t stand cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, etc. because they experience them as bitter are supertasters. My college roommate is in that category. So is George Bush, senior. Or maybe the whole category has just been made up by scientists who didn’t want to eat their vegetables. Either way, the song inspired an early scene between Julian and Mia when they go into Boston and Julian does a riff on all the idioms he used to get wrong (“No holes barred” instead of “no holds barred” and “deep-seeded” instead of “deep-seated”) and he goes on a long excursus about the liking and disliking of vegetables. Anyway, this song set the tone for that scene, and thanks to it, Julian seduced Mia with a cruciferous vegetable.
“Choice in the Matter,” by Aimee Mann, from I’m With Stupid
I loved her in ‘Til Tuesday and I love her solo. I don’t know what it is about this song, but it gets to me. There’s a whole narrative in the song—the woman goes over to the guy’s house and she sees the phone message light blinking and the guy won’t play the message, which makes her wonder what he’s hiding from her and so she decides to leave. “As much as I would like to stay the message light just blinks away and while I’m here you won’t push play, ‘cause you leave me no choice in the matter.” In some way, though there’s no scene exactly like this in Matrimony, the feel and tone of the song capture something about the love triangle between Julian, Mia, and Carter—and of the secrets that lie between them.
“Bad Reputation,” by Freedy Johnston
I listened to this song a lot as I was writing Matrimony. No good reason for this other than that I love the song and it’s a real kick of adrenaline. The narrator of the song is nothing like any of my characters, but I find the song inspiring anyway—it’s like several cans of Jolt—and I once dragged my wife—then girlfriend—to some godforsaken club in the east village to hear Johnston play the song live. And he did. And I was happy.
“A New England,” by Billy Bragg
I got into Bragg a few months after I graduated from college (1987) and I was living in Berkeley and I saw him on campus in concert. Bragg was best known then for his political songs, and I like those quite a lot, but it’s his love ballads that always struck me most—how direct and honest they were, utterly unadorned, and I’ve always taken them as inspiration for my own writing. The feel of “A New England” is what I was going for in Matrimony when depicting Julian and Mia’s relationship. “I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a New England, I’m just looking for another girl. I saw two shooting stars last night, I wished on them but they were only satellites, is it wrong to wish on space hardware, I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care.” A couple of years later, I was living in a group house in San Francisco, and one of my roommates told me she’d had an affair with Bragg. I thought she was bullshitting me, but then one day I answered the phone and there it was, his unmistakable cockney accent: “Tell her Billy from England called.”
Joshua Henkin and Matrimony links:
Boston Globe review
Denver Post review
January magazine review
Jerusalem Post review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
One Minute Book Reviews review
Small Spiral Notebook review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
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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