October 1, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Elizabeth McCracken is simply one of my favorite authors, and her latest book is a memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. An unforgettable example of her crisp prose, the book is powerful and often sad, but never wallows in its sorrow. McCracken's honest tone rings through the book to its eventual uplifting ending in one of the year's most moving and well-written memoirs.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"The best memoirs transcend their particulars, offer a fresh look at the bumpy terrain of sorrow, love, youthful folly, aged folly, resilience and selfhood. McCracken's is one of those, and it would be a shame to pass it by because it strikes at one's deepest fears."
For years my ambition, as a writer, had been to make readers feel the way I did when I listened to Ella Fitzgerald sing Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets (She’s Unable to Lunch Today).” The song in its three verses contains a fall from innocence, a murder, and a lynching, and yet is polite and weirdly funny. And all of this is delivered with Fitzgerald’s honey warmth and technical brilliance. Not so much to ask from writing, huh? Warmth, laughs, sex, death, violence, impeccable manners, chops.
I was thinking of fiction, of course, since I was a fiction writer. For me (of course I’m not alone in this) music is about longing. You long after someone, or after a time I was too late to born in, or to have an effect on strangers: I want to make people feel the way I do when I listen to this. I have never listened to music while writing, the way some folks do, but I’ve always loved to wander while wearing earphones to see where music might take my brain. When I want to write something funny, for instance, I like to listen to Spike Jones. What I like best in music is the same thing I like it writing, weird juxtapositions, and Spike Jones and His City Slickers—man, they sound like ridiculous chaos, and yet they are so technically accomplished it’s amazing. Once I was watching a bit of the Spike Jones TV shows, from the 1950s, finding it touching and bizarre and dazzling and funny, and I thought, That’s what I want to do, and then, Dammit, that’s what George Saunders does. George Saunders writes fiction like that.
But my latest book is a memoir. I suppose every memoir has two soundtracks: the music you listened to during the experience, and the music you listened to during the writing. The memoir covers my first pregnancy, and the death and stillbirth of that child, and then my second pregnancy, and the birth of that healthy kid. I lived in France for all of the first pregnancy, and it’s amazing what I can’t remember about it, especially the music. I remember hearing James Blunt’s, “You’re Beautiful” for the first time on the car radio, driving through the French countryside with Edward, my husband. This was before Blunt hit it big. French radio loved him. I don’t know if it was the sudden English lyrics in the sea of French words, of understanding something effortlessly when normally we had to listen very carefully and piece meaning together, but we couldn’t believe what a very, very bad and stupid song it was. We howled with laughter at the lyrics. “I saw your face/In a crowded place”? Was the singer kidding? When, at the very end, he rhymes “truth” with “you,” we had tears rolling down our faces. The French and pop music! I thought. They’ll buy anything! Well, it turned out not to be just the French.
I must have played CDs around the house in France—I always do—but I can’t remember what they were. I did though go to a bar in a small French town on St. Patrick’s day; we had expat Irish friends who frequented it. Very surreal, to be in a bar in France, pregnant, on St. Patrick’s day. We went because our friends Maud and Jack said they were going to play some music, and eventually, standing up at the bar, they pulled out their guitars and played and sang an acoustic version of “Space Oddity.” I’ve always been a sucker for acoustic versions of unlikely songs—I’ve never forgotten an amazing version of “Stop in the Name of Love” I heard from a guy with a guitar in a Boston bar more than twenty years ago—but I was already feeling sentimental about “Space Oddity.” I am not the first person to note the strange similarities of the astronaut and the fetus. Still, every time I had a sonogram, I thought of that song, and of the little astronaut—somanaut?—inside me.
Once I’d lost my own beloved astronaut, I wondered how I could have been sentimental about a song that ended so badly. Later that summer, I listened to “Space Oddity” about 17 times in a row, my finger poised over the repeat track button on the CD player. In other words, I was heartbroken, and needed to thump my heart against a song. Years before, I realized my downstairs neighbor had broken up with her boyfriend when she played Lyle Lovett’s “North Dakota” over and over again. I knew it, and I was right. No-one who wasn’t wistful could withstand the wistfulness of that song times a million. It’s humanly impossible. My own obsessive listening to songs when I was young wasn’t necessarily attached to a person: I remember punishing myself with The Band singing “It Makes No Difference” when I was 15, a time I had exactly zero romantic experience but wanted to feel as though I had. When I hear that song now, I feel vaguely embarrassed, a pantless feeling, exposed and dumb. I feel something similar to “Space Oddity” as well—as though I trusted that the calamity at the end of the song couldn’t possibly happen to me. I feel like a rube. But that one time, it was exactly what my longing needed, the impossible beautiful yearning of Bowie’s voice.
But the song that really meant a lot to me, the summer after my first kid died, was “I Still Miss Someone” by Johnny Cash. Someone had sent Edward “Johnny Cash at San Quentin,” and I loaded it on my iPod. I never hit replay, but I was always happy to hear the song, and I always thought, This is about me, and I was always grateful for the slightly inappropriate jauntiness with which Johnny Cash sang the song. A weird juxtaposition, in other words. I still love to hear that song, and it still reminds me of my first lost kid.
Elizabeth McCracken and An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination links:
Booking Mama review
A Bookworm's World review
Entertainment Weekly review
Los Angeles Times review
Medeival Bookworm review
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Publishers Weekly review
Reading in Bed review
USA Today 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)