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December 10, 2008

Book Notes - Tim Molloy ("How to Break Bad News")

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

Tim Molloy's debut How to Break Bad News is a refreshingly madcap comic novel that's not afraid to tackle bigger issues like the changing quality of news journalism.

In his own words, here is Tim Molloy's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, How to Break Bad News:

How to Break Bad News is about a reporter whose activist girlfriend dumps him because he doesn’t seem to believe in anything. To prove his progressive credentials, he goes undercover at Gringo’s, a fast food Mexican restaurant where he hopes to expose labor violations. But like everyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant, he gets sucked into the telenovela unfolding between the employees. He soon comes to prefer the restaurant job to working in TV news.

The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up – “Double Negative”

If the novel has a theme song, "Double Negative” is it. The singer’s scathing self-assessment is close to the one Scott would give himself: I keep forgetting why I’m here/It’s because I’m a petty guy who spends his time fabricating useless lies.

Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”

To me, Bad News is about the phenomenon some people call white guilt. Scott knows his status as the white, male son of well-to-do Berkeley lawyers gives him a head start over 99 percent of the people in the world. But like most of us who realize our advantages are accidents of birth, he’s at a loss about what to do about it. Should he give up his advantages? Use his position to help others? Or just be happy and pretend the sentiments behind "Fight the Power” don’t exist?

Scott dodges the dilemma through a series of defiant-but-empty gestures that pose zero threat to the Power. These include demanding a hybrid rental car, trying to get Jamaican phone operators to unionize, and setting “Fight the Power” as his ring tone.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Freebird”

Harper, whose dumping of Scott gets the story rolling, is just as well-off, but dedicates her life to helping others. Of course, she makes mistakes – going undercover as a stripper is a misguided idea, as is a later decision to protest the sale of meat at immigrants’ rights rallies. But Harper does more good than harm, and her clear conscience spares her venting her rebellion through a ring tone.

“Freebird” is a sweeping, gorgeous, gloriously self-serving song about a guy who dumps his girl but makes it sound like he’s doing her a favor. Why did Beavis and Butthead single it out as the all-time worst song request? I guess because it makes its petty case with the majesty of opera. Building from sentimental organ, gentle guitar and sweet piano to the most bewailing riff ever recorded, it finally asks a question equally sentimental and cruel: If I leave here tomorrow/would you still remember me?

Dirty on Purpose – “Audience in the Room”

Scott takes up with Keegan, his TV network handler, who drops bad habits as quickly as she picks them up. This song describes “a perfect day for a cigarette,” and for me it’s about addiction. (The band says it’s about playing onstage.) The song’s wide-open beat and My Bloody Valentine reverb are so smoky, romantic and lush that I couldn’t quit the song if it was proven to cause cancer.

A long aside: Bad News is published by Virgin Books. In a weird coincidence, “Audience in the Room” is in an ad for Virgin Mobile. Eric Steuer of the immensely awesome hip-hop group Meanest Man Contest is assembling a Bad News soundtrack coming out soon on RCRD LBL, and this song will be on it – but not because of any Virgin tie-in. Virgin’s book and music wings are so separate that we don’t have any Virgin artists on the soundtrack. We only discovered “Audience in the Room” because the song is on RCRD LBL.

There’s a twist late in Bad News involving a cross-industry corporate merger that my friend Steve found a little far-fetched. He is wrong. The corporation that published my book is also in the music, cell phone and airline industries.

New Order – “Crystal”

Part of Scott’s disappointment in himself comes from being too scared to quit his cushy job in TV news. Going undercover at Gringo’s is perfect for him because he gets to do honest work while keeping his TV paycheck. He daydreams about Maria, a 19-year-old single mom who works the Gringo’s counter, realizing vaguely that to date her would be the ultimate shortcut to authenticity.

Maria, stuck in a rotten situation, loves music as distant as possible from her life in Tempe, Arizona. I think she’s a Joy Division/New Order girl, and I mention a New Order song late in the novel in a fun bit of foreshadowing.

When we shot a video trailer for Bad News, I asked the talented actress who plays Maria, Ruby Wendell, to show up in a T-shirt for a really depressing musical act. She chose Meat Loaf: Depressing in a totally different way than I was expecting.

Nada Surf – “The Way You Wear Your Head”

Does Scott even know he’s stealing a line from the most likeable band of the decade when he describes Harper’s as “the strangest colored eyes”? I think he, like me, has a cool younger brother who plays Nada Surf all the time, and some of the melodies and lyrics have weaved their way into his subconscious. The full lyrics:

I’d like to say goodbye to a complicated mind/but when I walk and wave/I’m starved all day/like California lives/and things I didn’t try/and ways you were unkind/and the strangest colored eyes.

That last part, I don’t know why, just kills me.

Other songs that feel very How to Break Bad News:

Electric President – “Good Morning Hypocrite”

Hieroglyphics – “At the Helm”

Haley Bonar – “Something Great”

Mary Lou Lord – “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” (And the original version by Magnetic Fields)

Meanest Man Contest – “Partially Smart”

Stars – “Ageless Beauty”

Tim Molloy and How to Break Bad News links:

the book's website
the book's video trailer

Galleycat piece about the book
Sneakmove piece about the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
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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