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March 19, 2008

Book Notes - James Morrow ("The Philosopher's Apprentice")

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

James Morrow's latest novel is fantastic both in genre and execution. The Philosopher's Apprentice is a novel of big ideas and social satire, filled with unexpected turns and humor.

The Denver Post wrote of the book:

"Morrow's world is one where ideas matter so much they come lurching to life as intellectual Frankenstein creatures. In "The Philosopher's Apprentice," they are wickedly hilarious — and then they can break our hearts and scare us silly."

In his own words, here is James Morrow's Book Notes essay for his short fiction collection, The Philosopher's Apprentice:

"Without music, life would be a mistake" the brilliant and bedeviling philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, and in an early draft of The Philosopher's Apprentice, I had my protagonist, Mason Ambrose musing on Nietzsche's aphorism.

On the night before I was scheduled to give my pupil her first lesson, I settled into the chaise lounge, uncapped a beer, and made ready to let Ralph Vaughan Williams liberate me from the prison of my skin. Friedrich Nietzsche has never been my favorite misanthrope, but he was right about one thing. Without music, life would be a mistake.

During one of the many rewrite sessions, I trimmed those last two sentences. I'd probably decided they hurt the rhythm of the paragraph -- or maybe I thought Mason sounded a tad too glib in characterizing Nietzsche as a misanthrope.

So what the hell is Mason talking about? Who is "my pupil," and why does she need a "first lesson"? Without getting into the byzantine details of the plot, I can report that Mason is a failed philosophy student who gets hired to fly to Isla de Sangre, "the coccyx of the Florida Keys," and impart a moral education to a beautiful young woman, Londa Sabacthani, an alleged amnesia victim whose conscience has evidently vanished along with her memories. As you might imagine, Herr Nietzsche reappears before too long -- most notably when Mason accuses Londa's overbearing mother of being an "Ubermom" -- and so does the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

"Sinfonia Antarctica" yielded to "The Lark Ascending," a composition through which Williams, during my worst bout of junior-year depression at Villanova, had single-handedly persuaded me that the world was not in fact a festering cesspool of such primordial meaninglessness that even suicide would seem like a gesture of assent.

A few pages later, Mason explores Isla de Sangre for the first time, and Vaughan Williams once again springs to his mind.

I donned my hiking clothes -- the crate containing my earthly possessions had arrived from Boston the previous evening -- stuffed my backpack with three bottles of Evian and a half-dozen Power Bars, and set off for the beach, humming my favorite melodic idea from "The Lark Ascending," that passage through which Vaughan Williams arranges for the listener's soul and the Hegelian World Spirit to fall madly and eternally in love.

I'd never thought about it before, but for Mason music seems to be philosophy by other means. Apparently he imagines that his beloved concertos and fantasias articulate truths about the soul that defy rational, or even Nietzschean, discourse. This is not to say that I would put frankly philosophical music on the soundtrack of a hypothetical Philosopher's Apprentice movie. For one thing, there isn't much of it around, though Williams himself wrote a long piece called Job: A Masque for Dancing, based on that most philosophical of verse dramas, the Book of Job. The other conspicuous example of this genre, of course, is the famous tone poem Richard Strauss spun from Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, but after Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, it would be impossible to smuggle that piece into a film, except as a gag, as Mike Nichols did in his adaptation of Catch-22.

So let's put Vaughan Williams on the soundtrack of The Philosopher's Apprentice, along with the other "source music" that figures in the plot, such as Linda Ronstandt: Greatest Hits, Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries," and Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" theme from Rocky. While I have the opportunity, I'd like to point out a lamentable packaging error in the 8-CD EMI box set called Vaughan Williams: The Complete Symphonies and Orchestral Works. The third track on disk 7 is allegedly "The Lark Ascending," but you won't find it there, even though the booklet, the sleeve, and the information printed on the polycarbonate itself indicate otherwise. Don't despair, for this "exquisite miniature" is hidden away on the unacknowledged eighth track.

Beyond the songs and performances identified in the text, there's another way in which my novel partakes of music. Like many writers, I often compose with headsets clamped on my ears, and I have no question that many scenes were, if not exactly inspired, then certainly energized by the CDs to which I was listening.

At one level, The Philosopher's Apprentice is a loopy reimagining of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It turns out that Londa Sabacthani's psyche is a blank slate, a tabula rasa, and she ends up taking Mason's ethics curriculum far more seriously than anyone intended. In time she becomes a kind of monster: not the enraged and brutish -- though surprisingly articulate -- outcast of Shelley's novel, but rather a "moral monster," cursed with an overgrown conscience.

Much of the music I consumed while writing The Philosopher's Apprentice came from my collection of soundtracks for various Hollywood and British films exploring the Frankenstein mythos. I also listened repeatedly to Gary Chang's compelling score for the John Frankenheimer version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells's great novella being another of my touchstones. Together these selections constitute a kind of "Symphony of Biological Diabolism": themes and cues by which to write -- and read -- homages to Mary Shelley.

Gary Chang
Music from The Island of Dr. Moreau

Before you plunge into The Philosopher's Apprentice, try putting this gifted composer's alternately lush and percussive score on your CD player. Chang's bizarre music was running through my head as I drafted the early scenes in which Mason explores the mysterious Island of Dr. Sabacthani. In the liner notes, Chang argues that his real job as a composer is "trying to express the subtext of the story and the characters ... There's a dimension that you can only get to with music..." Emotional subtext, of course, is no less the essence of prose fiction than of motion pictures. I wonder whether, as the age of e-books gets up to speed, novels will come equipped with their own original scores. It's a happy thought.

Franz Waxman
"Creation of the Female Monster" and "The Tower Explodes" from The Bride of Frankenstein

This eleven-minute cut appears on the Decca CD called The Ultimate Horror Movie Album. It would make a good setting for the climax of chapter four: the birth of Londa's genetic doppelganger, Yolly, being created in an "ontogenerator," a kind of alchemical vat, under the supervision of two arguably insane scientists. You'll just have to ignore the theme that maps note-for-note onto "Bali Ha'i" from South Pacific -- a bit of unintended plagiarism by Rogers and Hammerstein.

Frank Skinner
Music from Son of Frankenstein

The second act of my novel dramatizes Mason's affectionate but anxiety-ridden friendships with three important characters: the grownup Londa, his girlfriend Natalie, and -- the weirdest presence in his life -- an "adult fetus" named John Snow 0001, ontogenerated from the embryo Mason and Natalie aborted by mutual consent. It develops that John Snow 0001 is the first of a new race, the immaculoids, all of them pawns in an epic political protest being engineered by anti-abortion activists. Rowland V. Lee's Son of Frankenstein, perhaps my favorite Universal horror film, likewise revolves around the theme of friendship: in this case, the perverse emotional nourishment that the Monster affords the broken-necked blacksmith Ygor, played to the hilt by Bela Lugosi. The music in question appears on the Marco Polo recording called The Monster Music of Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner. Pop it on the CD player and let Skinner's eerie chords and expressionistic themes underscore your reading of chapters eight through twelve.

James Bernard
Music from Frankenstein Created Woman, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.

In the final act of The Philosopher's Apprentice, my hero and his pupil return to Isla de Sangre. Before long, Londa learns how to operate the ontogenerator that brought her into the world, putting it to a use every bit as audacious as the creation of the immaculoids. Over the course of a long career composing music for Hammer Films, James Bernard did a brilliant job of delineating what Gary Chang calls "the subtext of the story and the characters." Bernard's three Frankenstein scores, replete with hypnotic, high-strung motifs leavened with unexpectedly melodic passages, make the perfect accompaniment to chapters fifteen through seventeen. The music in question has been lovingly preserved on The Hammer Frankenstein Film Music Collection from GDI Records.

Before signing off, I want to mention a perk that, when I first began creating fiction, I never imagined my career would entail. Over the years a half-dozen composers have written to tell me that my novels prompted them to write songs or instrumental pieces. I'd love to hear from other writers who've had their prose fiction transformed into aural epiphanies.

Here's a brief catalogue of musical correlatives of James Morrow's fiction.

Towing Jehovah Suite. About seven years ago Colorado composer Kevin Slick created a CD comprising melodies and moods inspired by the first novel in my Godhead Trilogy. Check out this talented musician's website at You can order the CD by going to and clicking on CDs.

"All I Said" from Only Begotten Daughter. After reading my fourth novel, musician Sarah B was moved write this song about Jesus's ministry, which appears on the CD Wild Ride. To find out more, go to

"Learning to Lie" from City of Truth. Sean Browning, a Canadian filmmaker, musician, and comedian, wrote this song in tribute to my novella. It appears on his Web site,

The Believers Republic of New Jersey. Naturally I was pleased when musician Juustin Bourgeois contacted me several years ago with the news that he intended to start a band called The Believers Republic of New Jersey, an allusion to the setting of the final chapters of Only Begotten Daughter. This project seems to be in an eternal state of becoming, but you can learn more at

James Morrow and The Philosopher's Apprentice links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the author's blog
the book's page at the publisher
the book's first chapter

Denver Post review
Entertainment Weekly review
Genre Go Round review
wordynerdy review

BookBrowse interview with the author
self-intervew 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 (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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