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February 27, 2009

Book Notes - Brian Francis Slattery ("Liberation")

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

Brian Francis Slattery's Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America is truly a book for our times. The dystopian novel features a haunting post-U.S.A. America, the revival of slavery, and postulates the long-term effects of bad economic policy. Liberation is a worthy successor to Slattery's well-received debut Spaceman Blues, and is a book I have recommended unrelentingly to fans of science fiction as well as literary fiction.

At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow wrote of the novel:

"Slattery's prose style is complex, poetic, visionary and reeling, a cross between Kerouac and Bradbury, salted with Steinbeck. His people are all magic -- a tribe of stoners called the Americoids, a resurgent Sioux nation led by a visionary war-chief, a hive-like murderous circus, a free-state in Asheville presided over by an American Brahmin-turned-mayor, the prisoners on the liberated ship."

In his own words, here is Brian Francis Slattery's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America:

I’ve told a lot of people that I write books because I’m a failed songwriter and composer. I’m a decent musician and a good enough sideman, and I’ve been lucky to be able to hang with some truly outstanding players in the last few years, but I’m always peeking over the other side of the fence at the people that have that thing, that ability to take those same notes in the scale that we’ve all heard a billion times and turn them into something that sounds new and extraordinary.

It’s no surprise, then, that my favorite music is always creeping into the stuff I write, both as an actual soundtrack in the book and as a soundtrack to the vibe of the book. My first book, Spaceman Blues, was heavily influenced by Latin grooves, funk (thanks, George Clinton, for everything, seriously), and African music, and those are never far from the stereo, the headphones, the car speakers, the brain. But as I got deeper into writing my second book, Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six after the Collapse of the United States of America, a book I’ve settled on describing as a heist story written in the style of a hippie novel, I drew more and more from what I understand of the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s: that point in history where, at the same time, everything seemed possible and maybe, just maybe, the planet was about to explode, and a lot of music, whether it was overtly religious or not, was a kind of religion in itself—shamanistic, incantatory, both an escape from and headlong plunge into the chaos in the world.

Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues”

Really, all of Highway 61 Revisited is the theme album for Liberation, for its sneering anger and its bruised hope, its vision of America as a horrible, beautiful mess. It’s Dylan at his most transcendent, the words rushing out of him as if something else, something huge, is speaking through him. On “Tombstone Blues” in particular, the band really goes for broke. I love that Dylan doesn’t even remotely bother to tune his guitar; I love that the band doesn’t seem to know the tune very well, but shreds it anyway. And it sounds old and new at the same time, a raw slab of blues like the way they played it when they were inventing the form, and like the way a million bands with nothing but three chords and the will to rock might be playing it all across America today. It’s also like the way I tried to write my book.

Burning Spear, “Marcus Garvey”

Like Highway, Burning Spear’s 1975 album Marcus Garvey is all over Liberation, for its spirituality, prophecy, and righteous anger at what history has done; also, it’s a terrific party album. And despite the controversy around the album being gussied up for international audiences because the original cut was “too Jamaican,” it’s a tutorial for how to play reggae, as you can hear everything that everyone’s doing; hear, too—as on Highway—that silly things like intonation don’t really matter all that much when the groove and vibe are so strong.

Jimi Hendrix, “Machine Gun”

For some of Liberation's most psychedelic moments, I turned to—who else?—Jimi Hendrix, and this take on “Machine Gun” in particular, which seems to be from the 1970 New Year’s Eve show at the Fillmore East. It’s just an incredible performance, and I want to find whoever recorded it and get down on my knees to thank them. I hear Hendrix doing the same thing with music that Dylan does with words, except more so: He’s exploding the blues, making it open out, taking it somewhere far away, but astonishingly, never losing sight of where he started.

The O’Jays, “For the Love of Money”
Sly and the Family Stone, “In Time”

Then there’s the funk. As I said above, my first book invoked Parliament and Funkadelic all over the place, but for the second one, I found myself reaching for funk’s darker side. “For the Love of Money” comes dangerously close to covering more ground in eight minutes than I covered in my entire book. Its famous opening bars are routinely used to celebrate profligate spending. But have you heard the whole thing? The lyrics? The heavy, swirling groove that, in the second four minutes, makes you want to cry? Which brings us to Sly Stone, first funk’s king of joy, then its lord of despair. The stories about the state that Sly was in when he recorded the greasy, excoriating Fresh are many and all too plausible. Never has desolation been so danceable.

The music in the book itself, though, is harder to point to recordings of, because much of it is a ridiculous mash-up of different musical styles I love. There’s Fela Kuti and Kanda Bongo Man, but also the Carter Family and Ali Akbar Khan, and a host of other voices and instruments. It’s the sound people might make when they want to play together but have almost nothing in common. I imagine them opening their ears as wide as they can, to let in just about anything, and then playing together until they’ve developed a vocabulary, a pulse, a beat, that they can all understand. Then they play together for the next week straight. I don’t know exactly what it would sound like the end of that week, but I’d love to find out.

Brian Francis Slattery and Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the publisher's page for the book
excerpt from the book (chapter 1)
audio excerpt from the book

The Believer review
Birds Before the Storm review
Boing Boing review
Edmonton Journal review
io9 review
Jeremiah Tolbert review
Las Vegas Weekly review
Strange Horizons review

Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
Bookslut interview with the author
Fictional Frontiers interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author
Mumpsimus interview with the author
Omnivoracious interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
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
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
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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