February 25, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.
From Henry Chang's Year of the Dog to Kris Saknussemm's Private Midnight to John Wray's Lowboy (which I just finished last night), books that feature detectives as protagonists have dominated my reading list over the past several months. I enjoyed all these books, but Jedediah Berry's debut novel, The Manual of Detection, impressed me most. Part noir detective novel, part speculative fiction, The Manual of Detection captivates with its clever writing, even the ancillary characters are well-wrought, as well as its surreal atmosphere.
The Boston Globe wrote of the book:
"Attentive readers will recognize that the missing detective's name, Travis Sivart, is a palindrome - the first hint of many that we're in the hands of an author who relishes puzzles and inside jokes. Surreal, absurd, and cerebral, full of sly humor and winks, this novel is meticulously written and plotted. Fans of George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Jasper Fforde, take notice."
The city of The Manual of Detection is really several distinct worlds sharing a public transit system, and the music is different at every stop. The sleepwalking Cleopatra Greenwood sings her bluesy torch songs at the upscale Cat & Tonic, while the clientele at the Forty Winks bar make do with a crackling radio in the back room. Other settings were conceived of and written with the work of particular musicians in mind. For the Travels-No-More Carnival, which occupies the city's fairgrounds and serves as hideout to some of the book's more dangerous villains, I looked to Tom Waits's ballads and chanteys, and to the old world clamor of Beirut. For the offices and archives of the rigorously organized Agency, I favored the more crystalline compositions of Michael Nyman, as well as David Byrne's instrumental and film score work.
The mystery that file clerk Charles Unwin is compelled to solve leads him through all these regions, and eventually into other people's dreams, and then someplace else I can't tell you about. What I can tell you is that the boundaries turn out to be more porous than Unwin thought. There's a weird old jug band playing backup at the Cat & Tonic, and a barrel organ's drone accompanies a nightmare carnival as it spreads through the sleeping city.
So rather than present this playlist according to geographical categories, I've chosen songs that fit with certain parts of the book. The chapter titles are derived from The Manual of Detection within The Manual of Detection: the guide that's meant to help Unwin solve a crime involving somnambulists, a missing detective, and an alarm clock heist.
David Byrne, "Glass, Concrete & Stone"
a clerk behind schedule—the woman in the plaid coat drops her umbrella—an unexpected promotion—a dream of detectives & bathtubs
A song about inhabiting a city and having the city inhabit you back. The instrumentals—cello, marimba—alternate between a lively kind of stasis and a tumbling-forward momentum, and for me capture Unwin's state at the beginning of the novel. Someone told me this song is played over the opening credits of a movie. I haven't seen it, but that decision makes sense--it's a good song to start something with.
Tom Waits, "Cold, Cold Ground"
a sleepy new assistant—the messenger delivers a pistol—how the detective started thinking about retirement—the typewriter remembers something important
Bits of inspiration from Tom Waits songs are scattered throughout this novel—enough for a scavenger hunt, probably. In this case: "There's a ribbon in the willow, there's a tire swing rope, and a briar patch of berries takin over the slope." The rest is classified.
Gogol Bordello, "Through the Roof ‘n' Underground"
the detective & the magician—the mortuary taproom—there is no business but the business of blood—a game of information poker
By now Unwin has left the safety of his desk job and entered the darker and more dangerous world inhabited by his missing detective, Travis Sivart. Many of Unwin's movements are vertical rather than horizontal, and he must sometimes abandon his bicycle to use stairs, elevators, and at one point a dumbwaiter.
The Magnetic Fields, "Infinitely Late at Night"
sleepwalkers' party—"in my dream of your dream of me"—gunplay—a trail of red & orange leaves
I see this song as a short German Expressionist film: a man stays out too late and becomes lost in a world of unreadable clocks, long shadows, outrageous geometries. That's also what happens to Unwin. He wants nothing to do with the mystery he's solving, but he's part of it now.
Joanna Newsom, "The Book of Right-On"
how the magician stole November twelfth—a subway beneath the subway—the custodian is still asleep--escape to the fairgrounds
I like guidebooks and compendia. One of my favorites is the Encyclopedia of Wonders and Curiosities*, which my friend Jon sent me some years back. But I also like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and I wish the movie Beetlejuice had given us more from that Handbook for the Recently Deceased. I'm not sure what's in Joanna Newsom's "Book of Right-On," but it must be useful.
3epkano, "Caligari! Caligari!"
the knife thrower nods off—a keg for the giantess—concerning the dreams of elephants—a game of backgammon
The Dublin-based ensemble 3epkano composes music to accompany early silent films. In addition to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, they've provided soundtracks for Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin, and F.W. Murnau's Faust. The Caligari of The Manual of Detection inherited his carnival from a long line of wandering showmen; he stole the name outright.
Rachel's, "M. Daguerre"
a ghost-white phonograph record—the secret of the third archive—how to visit loved ones in your sleep
If there's a better song to listen to while following a shady character down rain-drenched city streets, I haven't heard it.
Soul Coughing, "City of Motors"
another city, another carnival—a stolen manual—lost in a house of mirrors—back in the bathtub
This song is one of my favorite mystery stories: about an interstate manhunt, maybe, and the perp is maybe the devil. Most of the action of The Manual of Detection is confined to a single city, but the pursuit moves sometimes through interior territories.
Morphine, "The Saddest Song"
papers and pigeons—his assistant's previous job—the sleeping king and the madman at the gates—they always come back to the scene
"My biggest fear is if I let you go, you'll come and get me in my sleep." Several characters in the novel are keeping one another in check: these old enemies are like lovers who can't let each other go. Some of them are awake and some of them aren't. It's left to Unwin to upset the balance and break the stasis.
On Dream Detection
Beirut, "Scenic World"
second train ride—almost everyone has a gun—time for breakfast—a thousand and one voices
I prefer the version on the Lon Gisland EP, which replaces a synthesized sound with an accordion. The last few pages of the book were written with this song on repeat (if sometimes only in my head). I can't tell you what's happening in those pages. This is supposed to be a mystery, after all.
Jedediah Berry and The Manual of Detection links:
the author's website
Writertopia profile of the author
the book's website
the publisher's page for the author
the publisher's page for the book
Goodreads page for the book
Goodreads page for the author
LibraryThing page for the book
LibraryThing profile of the author
excerpt from the book (the first chapter)
Boston Globe review
Fantasy Book Critic review
Fantasy Reviews review
Flavorwire review (by Sarah Weinman)
The Inside Flap review
The Mossy Skull review
Publishers Weekly review
The Scotsman review
Time Out New York review
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
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)