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September 3, 2008

Book Notes - Dirk Wittenborn ("Pharmakon")

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

Dirk Witteborn's Pharmakon is an intriguing novel. Semi-autobiographical, the book is at times a gripping psychological thriller and a moving family drama.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"What’s best about “Pharmakon,” beyond the curiosity value of its unusual premise and atmosphere, is Mr. Wittenborn’s colorful, affectionate evocation of a complex family story. While it goes without saying that the doctor can be envisioned as monstrous, “Pharmakon” prefers to see the humanity in his clumsy efforts at manipulation."

In his own words, here is Dirk Wittenborn's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, Pharmakon:

Pharmakon is a semi-autobiographical novel – a psychologically troubled former student and patient of my father came to kill him and my family before I was born in the early 1950's. He killed someone else instead. That murder and the mystery surrounding it has haunted me my whole life. On more than a few occasions during my life songs, particularly the blues, would make me think of the parts of my family history that didn’t add up. Through fiction I tried to invent a story that would make this seminal mystery more understandable. Music, particularly popular music, has not only provided a soundtrack to the life of my generation (I'm 56), it has been a touchstone that has helped me to understand, contemplate, process, and meditate on the subliminal, what I know but don't know. The blanks that the grownup world has either been unable or unwilling to fill in for me.
I was a teenager in the late 60's. My music – rock and roll – was the music of sex, drugs, and rebellion. It is funny, sad, and ironic that my father, a pioneer in psychopharmacology, was one of the world's leading authorities on psychoactive drugs, a man who knew everything about drugs, except that his own son was doing them. While my father was experimenting, trying to find a way to prescribe happiness, me and my generation were also experimenting – trying to synthesize a joy that would fill the hollow spots in the lives our parents had made for us. What I guess I'm saying is, the music of my youth was part of what filled the void, made life seem less hollow, at least while the song was blaring through the headphones I wore when my parents thought I was doing my homework. After too many late shows at Filmore East and a stint as an usher at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia, my hearing is failing now. But I still hear the songs of my youth echoing inside my head.
There are two soundtracks to Pharmakon: the first are the songs, lyrics, and titles I used to conjure up a specific time or feeling in the novel itself. The second soundtrack is the music that’s not specifically mentioned in the book, but played inside my head as I wrote.
This internal soundtrack that was playing within me while I worked on Pharmakon consisted of the following:
1. Neil Young's Old Man. Like all sons, I am a lot like my father. Pharmakon was my attempt to understand him and unravel the mysterious snarl of his narcissism, love, and paranoia that made him forever both remote and yet too close for comfort. The song is bittersweet, to say the least, and it conveys to me the feeling that loss, disappointment, and misunderstanding are part and parcel of the love between father and son.
2. The second song of this mental soundtrack that put me in the mood and helped me sustain the darker more ominous tone I wanted to be playing in the distant background of scenes that would appear innocent and carefree was The Doors' classic Riders on the Storm. To me, it has always been an anthem to the all-American bogeyman. "Riders on the storm… There's a killer on the road…" The bogeyman of my childhood was real. The bogeyman that haunts Pharmakon is fictional. But one can't watch the 6 o'clock news without being reminded he's out there on the road, wreaking havoc on some lonely lane, suburban cul-de-sac, or Interstate thruway of the heartland.
3. The third entry in this category would be Bob Dylan's Highway 61. This song possesses a lyrical light-heartedness juxtaposed with rhythms and text which convey a dark but strangely optimistic funhouse mirror view of the world. As the decades go by, I never cease to be amazed at how fresh, innovative, and originally American Dylan's lyrics are. As a writer, I find Dylan both humbling and inspiring.

4. Finally, I would include in this subliminal soundtrack any one of a number of works by Moby, for they have both a modern and operatic quality that I wanted to convey in Pharmakon.
As to specific song references in Pharmakon's text:

1. The first lyric that appears in the novel is "Ain’t no doctor in all the lan' can cure the fever of a convict man" from Leadbelly's recording of Midnight Special. I chose it because I thought it would be interesting to have a psychologist at Yale in 1952 to chance upon such a line sung by a pardoned murderer as he listens to his car radio. I thought it would tell you something about Dr. Friedrich that he knows who Leadbelly is and is not the square he might seem, and I hoped that the connection to both murder and the lack of a true cure for what ails a murderer might be a subtle way of foreshadowing what's to come.

2. Schubert’s String Quartet in C Major. I referenced this piece of classical music because I thought it would characterize the pretentious erudition that was such a part of Yale faculty life in the early 50's. I also picked it because of its back story. It was composed two months before Schubert’s death, it was his last instrumental piece, and as he wrote I he was dying of syphilis. I thought it might be interesting and telling for a psychiatrist like Bunny Winton to hear the final two notes of the piece – super tonic and tonic -- played forte and think to herself "Does the sound I'm hearing indicate Schubert knew he was dying?" What interests me is what does a listener brings to the music he or she is hearing that isn’t in the tune itself – the notes that are struck that aren't being played by any instrument save one's own brain.

3. Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere. I picked this song for a number of reasons. A) I loved the title. B) It was a minor hit in 1952 and C) Its lyrics were so full of cynical wisdom, "Dry those tear drops, don’t be so sad…some brand new baby can be had... " I had heard several recordings of the song, but was never able to find out who really copyrighted it. The version that I imagined Casper Gedsic hearing as he takes his first few steps out into the brave new world he sees under the influence of the drug Dr. Friedrich is testing was sung by a woman whose name I can no longer recall. But I, like Casper, have heard songs over the radio or a record player playing in another apartment that I can neither fully remember nor quote, yet somehow perfectly captured a new feeling or direction I was taking at that moment in my life. I remember once when I lived in Los Angeles, getting lost and hearing a Mexican ballad on a Spanish radio station – not speaking Spanish, I couldn’t understand a word of what was being sung, yet the song filled me with such loneliness and sense of homesickness I made up my mind then and there to move back to the city I loved, New York.

4. I make a reference to Doris Day singing Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, because for me Doris Day, as well as the song, which were both huge in 1952, epitomize the covert sexuality of lurking in the romantic fantasies of early 50's America. The darker rhythms of R & B and rock and roll are years away. But America is already, like the title of the song, already bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by forces and anxieties they don't yet have names for.

5. I have Dr. Friedrich's daughter playing Beethoven's Für Elise on a living room piano in the background of a scene where a younger brother gets his first glimpse of the nightmare that came before him and literally spawned his conception. I wanted something corny verging on trite but for those readers who recall the tune in their head to be struck by both its weight and deceptive simplicity.

6. Chubby Checker's Pony Time. I picked this reference because I thought it, like all Chubby Checkers recordings, convey an overt and happy teenage sexuality circa 1960. The heat is far more out in the open than it is with Doris Day. But still, the message is coded – as a kid I remember watching my sisters twisting wildly with their boyfriends to this song and wondering what "boogity boogity shoo" meant. In hindsight, I hear the sounds of foreplay and heavy petting.

7. Cream's Sunshine of Your Love. The scene I use it in is totally autobiographical. I listened to it while I did my homework. I had a girlfriend whose nickname was Sunshine. I felt I had been “waiting for so long to be where I’m going.” It was an anthem of my 16th year on the planet.

8. Iron Butterfly’s In a Gadda Da Vida. I didn’t like the song, but everybody else seemed to. And I remember its length and extended drum solo were particularly helpful in my fumbling efforts at teenage seduction.

9. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The song seemed ideally suited for a teenage Zach’s strange car ride with his father. Zach had been living on the dark side of his father’s moon his whole life. I have always thought of Pink Floyd’ songs as psychoactive, rather than simply psychedelic.

10. Finally, I had Friedrich as an old man listening to Billie Holiday because I have always thought her songs and her voice conveyed both hopelessness and hope – the same paradox can be heard in Friedrich’s thoughts. I, like Friedrich, miss the scratches on my old vinyl records. They made them more my own, somehow than today’s CD’s.

Dirk Wittenborn and Pharmakon links:

the book's page at the publisher
the book's reading guide
the book's video trailer

The A.V. Club interview with the author
The Australian review
Bangkok Post review
Book Page review
Book Sandwich review review
Chicago Tribune review
East Bay Express
Los Angeles Times review
Mainstream Fiction review
New York Times review
Portland Mercury review
Publishers Weekly review
Rocky Mountain News review
Seattle Times review
St. Petersburg Times review
Time Out New York review
USA Today review
Willamette Week review

27east profile of the author
Written Voices 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 (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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