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April 2, 2008

Book Notes - Spencer Dew ("Songs of Insurgency")

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

Spencer Dew's short fiction collection Songs of Insurgency captures the post-9/11 psyche from the perspective of the individual.

The world portrayed in these stories reminded me of one of my favorite short story collections, Einstein's Monsters by Martin Amis. Where Amis's characters were consumed by the threat of nuclear war, Dew's protagonists are haunted by the effects of a bad economy, a hopeless war, and a national loss of hope.

Of the collection, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote:

"In their rawness and brevity, the stories send up a flare from the accident scene of our world.

'You can see the world in all its thickness, its dull threat,' one character ponders. 'You are so numb you can feel it.'

Numbness here is no symptom, but rather a choice. To choose numbness, or desolation, or an angry aimlessness, is to repudiate the false comforts of lies and willful blindness. The world is not all right, and these characters aren't going to pretend that it is."

In his own words, here is Spencer Dew's Book Notes essay for his short fiction collection, Songs of Insurgency:

Songs of Insurgency is comprised of twenty-three short stories, all thematically tied to “the post-9/11 zeitgeist,” though, in less epic language this just comes down to a kind of worry, terror, a loss of innocence or, better, a gradual rubbing off of the polish on things. The folks in this book aren’t so hopeful and they’re not even always so nice. As one of the main things that interests me, as an artist, is nostalgia, that whole phenomenon of longing for and thereby creating a fictionalized, somehow idealized past, music is of particular importance. In Songs, there is a cover band, overweight and out of tune, absurd on the surface level and a failure, musically, as a band… but, at the same time, they can butcher old, known songs, but they can’t kill them. For me there’s always something moving about covers, at least if there’s feeling involved. No matter how amateur, how screeching, that connection to a song, the tribute and the personalization – well, that always smacks me in the right way. Here, story by story, are some play-list suggestions for my book:

1) Blow: “Sometimes,” Pearl Jam: When I write to music I most usually just play the same track over and over again for hours, incorporating the bass line or percussive pulse into the prose. This is what I did here, trying to get a certain stripped down sense, post-storm, post-desolation, post-stolen election, post-giving up…

2) The Heart of it All: “Gimme the Car,” Violent Femmes and “Here Comes Your Man,” Pixies: This story is about a specific place in a specific time, or, more accurately, a time and place viewed through grimy, nostalgic lenses. The characters here are back together, maybe for the first time since college, at a wedding that is also a costume party. It’s like going back to your elementary school in a way: the halls are so narrow, the rooms so small. Though, at the same time, the smell of crayons now means something. What was just background noise is now gripping, visceral, and important. I’d try Liz Phair, “Cinco de Mayo,” too: “…burn-out, Ohio…” “…it wasn’t fun this time…”

3) Cervical Days: “Kamera,” Wilco: “…no, it is not ok…”

4) Voodoo Pastoral: “Santeria,” Sublime. I used this song writing this story. On one hand it’s pure bombast, a clenched front, defensive. But the impulse to violence is such a transparent shim over sincere vulnerability. You sure don’t get the sense that he’ll make it. Nobody needs a crystal ball to see how it will all go down.

5) The Disaster Addict: “Bodies,” Drowning Pool: I get the sense Michael Moore finds it immoral, pumping music like this through speakers before you go kill people. What I couldn’t take about his movie was an arrogance and lack of empathy. I think, rather than storm troopers, our kids on the ground in Iraq are folks with shitty, shitty jobs. Does this song rile you up, light some fires? Hell, yes. But it’s rock and roll, not a f*cking Beer Hall Putsch. It has civilian applications.

6) Pay for Soup, Build a Fort, Burn that Down: “Satellite of Love,” Lou Reed and “Lose That Girl,” Saint Etienne and “Boy with the Arab Strap,” Bell and Sebastian. I lived for a while by a bar that was by one of the larger regional postal facilities, which meant that the delivery folks came there, and I was there early on a Friday, the Friday one of those boy wizard books came out. Those postal workers, they sure hated that book. This was around one or two in the afternoon. Maybe they got off work early, or maybe it was a mutiny of sorts. They all made jokes about “going postal.” Everyone bought everyone shots.

7) The Sea Beneath: “Fletcher Christian,” Mekons: I remember, young and naïve, hearing this song live, at the Metro in Chicago, and feeling like my skull was rising up, through my scalp, toward the VIP balcony and the beams hung with lights. Thank you, Mekons.

8) After Art School: “Sniff the Glue,” Lupine Howl: I used to listen to this album all the time, play it at parties, work with it, hum along. This piece, the story, started actually as an essay, some kind of analysis of porn images. It’s terrifying the things you can tell from a picture, if you look closely enough.

9) The Placebo Treatment: “Shy Song (Or, I Want To f*ck You),” Containe: Only Cowards Walk Like Cowards is one hell of an album. I was introduced to it through a friend, bought a copy, listened all the time. What else can you say about a thing like that? There’s something, I think, very innocent about this story, the playground, the hunters, the apartment, the sex. Nothing’s quite what it should be anymore, but these characters aren’t paying so much attention to how it’s tainted. They’re getting by all right, ultimately, more or less, kind of…

10) Binge Drinking in Jihad Culture: I don’t know the names of any of the Arabic or Hebrew hip-hop songs that played at some clubs in Jerusalem, but the teen gay bar used as an inspiration for one of the spots in this story played “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, frequently, through the internet jukebox. One time some kids danced on a table to Christian Aguilera’s “Dirrty” (which, I guess, is so dirty it deserved the extra r?). Anyway, as there’s no recording of those kids on the table singing along, I can’t recommend it. One Hebrew song worth pairing with this story is Barry Sakharof’s “Two Faces.”

11) A Jar in Tennessee: “Two-Headed Boy,” Neutral Milk Hotel makes a nice pairing, though, of course, the story is about older, revved up songs, on cassette. For these I was thinking particularly of “Paradise City,” Guns-n-Roses and “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen.

12) Acrobat: “Acrobat,” U2: in some ways this song was an inspiration for the story. Again, it’s the pace of it that gets me, like eyes welling up with tears: “…so don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

13) Lines for Kate: “Estrella,” Cinerama: What a delicious song. And as perfect as the lyrics, the sound. This voice matches that of my story, which on one hand is about a liar, a bad guy, abusive in subtle or not so subtle ways, and on the other hand is my attempt at an ode to Kate Moss, unfairly maligned and yet, unshakably, larger than life.

14) Dogs of Goya, Velasquez, and Cervantes: Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime” and “Do it Now,” Mos Def and “Spanish Bombs,” The Clash and “Superman,” REM: This story is, in part, about the naïve optimism of college, or of a certain age, that sense that the world was simpler, both that, as the man says, “I can do anything” and, more naively, “I know what’s happening…”

15) Four Days Past the Ides of March: “Whenever, Wherever,” Shakira, and “Royal Oil,” Mighty Mighty Bosstones. This is a story about, in part, The Battle of Algiers.

16) In Kathy Acker’s Florida: This story is a cover of Kathy Acker’s Florida, which is itself a cover of the 1948 Bogart/Bacall film Key Largo. I quote lyrics from the Outfield’s “Your Love” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”

17) The Exit Colony: “Hurt,” Johnny Cash; “Little Earthquakes,” Tori Amos; “Metal Heart,” Cat Power. I imagined that some of the suicides in this story liked to listen to the Indigo Girls, but I never gave it that much thought. The three songs I’ve named have all been ones I’ve written to, are all perfect for it, growing richer after the twelfth or so listening…

18) The Body Museum: Again, here’s a story that, in some ways, is about a certain place at a certain time, though that place and time was a long time ago and since then I’ve written it over and over into something very different, removed from the original. Still, was I to go back to those days in Boulder, back when things (myself included) were still green, what would be playing would be Dave Matthews Band “Two Step,” Counting Crows, “Daylight Fading,” Ani DiFranco’s “Untouchable Face.” Though I guess, honestly, it’s especially the Dave Matthews Band, with this girl dancing for me in her apartment, an apartment without knives or sharp blades. She’d dance for a while, then tell me stories, then assign me a role. I’d be the construction worker who’d seen her from the bar, for instance, or she’d be her sister, young, afraid. Those are my Dave Matthews associations, that and the fact that his tour bus emptied its toilet over a bridge here in Chicago, onto the top deck of one of the architectural boat tours. Six of one, huh?

19) The Problem with Oracles: “I Want You,” Bob Dylan: Sleeping saviors and drunk politicians, broken cups. Dylan is one of our greatest American poets, not least of which because, between all the broken doorknobs and morbid postcards, he can also say the straightest, hardest, most true things: “I wasn’t born to lose you….”

20) The Thing with Feathers: “Pilgrim,” Steve Earle and Del McCoury: The only reason I can’t say that this is the saddest song I’ve ever heard is because every time I hear “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley I remember the shoulders of a certain girl as she let slip her wrap and steps out onto the dance floor, a summer wedding, and I think of every aspect of her body and, frankly, I just want to die, just want some physical pain that is as strong, as crippling, as the heartbreak encapsulated in that f*cking scene. So, anyway, before all that happened nothing brought tears to my eyes quite like “Pilgrim,” and I think, more that the high lonesome sound or the mournful acceptance of death, what hits me about the song is the optimism, resolute. I’d like to think my story and this song hit some of the same notes in this way. “We’ll meet again on some bright highway,” the man says, “songs to sing, tales to tell…” Put in a word for me, brother.

21) At the Darfur Bake Sale: My friend the priest and I used to hang out at this fake British place, which at some point in the composition inspired something about this story, and the guy there, the bartender who is also the owner, is a military nut, the kind of guy who plays Black Hawk Down on the tvs above the bar, for hours – all the screaming and blood. One day the Padre and I were there and the guy was playing the soundtrack to Patton. So that, jarringly, is the music I still associate with this piece.

22) After Constantina: “Kiwi Maddog 20/20,” Elliot Smith: trippy, luscious, ethereal. RIP, Mr Smith.

23) Likewise, Rise Up, All Your Angels of Disquiet: “A Quarter to Three,” Sleater-Kinney: one great thing about Sleater-Kinney is that their slow songs rock just as hard as their fast ones, hold the same tight-wire intensity. The slow songs scream, just in a different register, which testifies to the artistry of all their pieces. There’s no mere sound and fury from these women: there’s just raw guts, cleverness, heart. My last story here is really about silence and sound, and I’ve tried, through repetition, to create a music within it, rhythms and breaks, all leading to something new, the pigeons, flushed, fluttering up into the air. This song – “…finally tired, finally empty…” – does something of the same, not feigning, just digging deeper. By the end of the song, you don’t get the sense the singer is anything like empty at all.

Spencer Dew and Songs of Insurgency links:

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

St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Time Out Chicago review

short stories by 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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