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January 7, 2009

Book Notes - Michael Mirolla ("Berlin")

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

Michael Mirolla 's novel Berlin is a surreal, metaphysical trip through the Berlin of the 1920's. The book is filled with fantastic lyrical wordplay, Mirolla has been compared to both Kafka and Vonnegut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Fans of the bizarre films of David Lynch are the most likely to enjoy this curious book."

In his own words, here is Michael Mirolla 's Book Notes essay for his novel, Berlin:

Right off the top, I need to confess that my idea of music is very similar to my idea of good writing (or any kind of art, really): if someone tells me that he/she knows something to be “true” or “real” or “undeniable” or “incontrovertible,” then I simply say “Thanks, awfully, old chap(ess), but I think I'll re-read Kafka and then get back to you.”

Suffice it to say that I like edgy. I like open-endedness. I like ambiguity. And I like the underdog. My own musical tastes start with a raspy-voiced Dylan in 1965 and what I would later come to realize was a fairly misogynistic song titled Like A Rolling Stone. But, when Bob was not railing against the women who he felt had done him wrong, he managed to put together some fairly decent lyrics over the years. Besides, I still remember lying down between two gigantic speakers on the living room floor, with my first (and last) love by my side, listening to Desolation Row and Visions of Johanna. Or Talking New York Blues.

Though I've maintained a musical connection to Dylan throughout and still listen on occasion to the early tracks (usually after a few glasses of homemade plonk), my musical tastes expanded to the point where I even reviewed and interviewed hardcore punk groups in Montreal in the early-1980s. In fact, one of the highlights was thrashing to The DKs live doing Kill The Poor at a venue called The Spectrum. From there, it was an obvious progression (in my mind, at least) to Paul Robeson, Tom Waits and the once-in-a-lifetime Laurie Anderson (especially when she hooked up with William S. Burroughs and Sharkey's Night: “Sun going down,/Like a big bald head./Disappearing behind the boulevard.”)

Ah, the good old days, eh?

Berlin. A soundtrack. Well, let's see. As the story starts in what we euphemistically now call rejuvenating centers for the mentally tired/challenged/other, I thought that an appropriate tune would be none other than Suicidal Tendencies' classic Institutionalized. I love the long lines of this song, the slow build-up towards the eruption of the chorus. Here's the first coupla verses:

Sometimes I try to do things and it just doesn't work out the way I wanted to.
I get real frustrated and I try hard to do it and I take my time and it doesn't work out the way I wanted to.
It's like I concentrate real hard and it doesn't work out
Everything I do and everything I try never turns out
It's like I need time to figure these things out
But there's always someone there going

Hey Mike:
You know we've been noticing you've been having a lot of problems lately.
You know, maybe you should get away and maybe you should talk about it, maybe you'll feel a lot better


So you're gonna be institutionalized
You'll come out brainwashed with bloodshot eyes
You won't have any say
They'll brainwash you until you see their way.

I'm not crazy - in an institution
You're the one who's crazy - in an institution
You're driving me crazy - in an institution

They stuck me in an institution
Said it was the only solution
To give me the needed professional help
To protect me from the enemy, myself

In the next part of Berlin, the main character of the novel-within-a-novel finds himself in what I think is a Leonard Cohen situation. At first, I thought that First We Take Manhattan might do. But then the Stories Of The Street seemed to make more sense:

The stories of the street are mine, the Spanish voices laugh.
The Cadillacs go creeping now through the night and the poison gas,
and I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose,
yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.

I know you've heard it's over now and war must surely come,
the cities they are broke in half and the middle men are gone.
But let me ask you one more time, O children of the dusk,
All these hunters who are shrieking now oh do they speak for us?


The age of lust is giving birth, and both the parents ask
the nurse to tell them fairy tales on both sides of the glass.
And now the infant with his cord is hauled in like a kite,
and one eye filled with blueprints, one eye filled with night.

The protagonist then wanders through the streets of Berlin in a stutter-step progression that leaves him confused and unable to distinguish between so-called reality and literary creation. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds had to provide the track with Darker With The Day:

And in my best shoes I started falling forward down the street
I stopped at a church and jostled through the crowd
And love followed just behind me panting at my feet
As the steeple tore the stomach from a lonely little cloud

Inside I sat, seeking the presence of a God
I searched through the pictures in a leather-bound book
I found a woolly lamb dozing in an issue of blood
And a gilled Jesus shivering on a fisherman`s hook.

As I actually had the opportunity to see Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds live while in Berlin, I thought it might be appropriate to include a second song. This is Hallelujah, not to be mistaken for Cohen's much more famous song of the same title.

On the first day of May I took to the road
I`d been staring out the window most of the morning
I`d watched the rain claw at the glass
And a vicious wind blew hard and fast
I should have taken it as a warning
As a warning As a warning
As a warning

I`d given my nurse the weekend off
My meals were ill prepared
My typewriter had turned mute as a tomb
And my piano crouched in the corner of my room
With all its teeth bared
All its teeth bared All its teeth bared
All its teeth bared.

Hallelujah Hallelujah
Hallelujah Hallelujah

In that one of the pivotal scenes in Berlin centers around a demonstration protesting the visit of Ronald Reagan, I thought it might be good to insert one Dylan song in the soundtrack—Gates of Eden:

Of war and peace the truth just twists
Its curfew gull just glides
Upon four-legged forest clouds
The cowboy angel rides
With his candle lit into the sun
Though its glow is waxed in black
All except when 'neath the trees of Eden


With a time-rusted compass blade
Aladdin and his lamp
Sits with Utopian hermit monks
Side saddle on the Golden Calf
And on their promises of paradise
You will not hear a laugh
All except inside the Gates of Eden


The motorcycle black madonna
Two-wheeled gypsy queen
And her silver-studded phantom cause
The gray flannel dwarf to scream
As he weeps to wicked birds of prey
Who pick up on his bread crumb sins
And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden

Okay, I confess. I could have set up the entire track consisting solely of Dylan lyrics. But just one more to satisfy our morbid curiosity. Here is Talkin' World War III Blues, which I thought might be fitting for the standing-at-the-Wall scenes, and also for that fuzzy zone where “reality” and creation clash, and as a tribute to the psychiatrist in the novel:

Some time ago a crazy dream came to me,
I dreamt I was walkin' into World War Three,
I went to the doctor the very next day
To see what kinda words he could say.
He said it was a bad dream.
I wouldn't worry 'bout it none, though,
They were my own dreams and they're only in my head.

I said, "Hold it, Doc, a World War passed through my brain."
He said, "Nurse, get your pad, this boy's insane,"
He grabbed my arm, I said "Ouch!"
As I landed on the psychiatric couch,
He said, "Tell me about it."


Down at the corner by a hot-dog stand
I seen a man, I said, "Howdy friend,
I guess there's just us two."
He screamed a bit and away he flew.
Thought I was a Communist.


Well, now time passed and now it seems
Everybody's having them dreams.
Everybody sees themselves walkin' around with no one else.
Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time.
But all of the people can't be right all of the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
"I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,"
I said that.

There's a secret behind Berlin. It glimmers very near the surface but I'm always trying to make sure the reader doesn't catch on. Tom Waits and Innocent When You Dream might provide a hint:

It's such a sad old feeling
the fields are soft and green
it's memories that I'm stealing
but you're innocent when you dream
when you dream
you're innocent when you dream


I made a golden promise
that we would never part
I gave my love a locket
and then I broke her heart
and then I broke her heart

Finally, I'd like to end this with Eine Berliner whose lyric perhaps sums up (if anything can) a few of the things I'm trying to say. Yes, I'm talking of Kurt Weill!

Lost in The Stars

Before Lord God made the Sea and the Land
He held all the stars in the palm of his hand
And they ran through his fingers like grains of sand
And one little star fell alone.

So the Lord God hunted through the white night air
For the little dark star on the wind down there
And he stated and promised
To take special care
So it wouldn't get lost again

Now a man don't mind if the stars grow dim
And the clouds blow over and darken him
So long as the Lord God 's watching over him
Keeping track how it all goes on~

But I've been walking through the night, through the day
Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey
And sometimes it seems maybe God's gone away
Forgetting the promise that we've heard him say
And we're lost out here in the stars--
Little stars and big stars
Blowing through the night
And we're lost out here in the stars--
Little stars and big stars
Blowing through the night
And we're lost out here in the stars.

Michael Mirolla and The Order of Odd-Fish links:

the book's page at the publisher

Genre Go Round Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

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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