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March 3, 2009

Book Notes - John Wray ("Lowboy")

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

Already named by Granta as one of America's best young novelists, John Wray impressed me with his first two novels, The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan's Tongue.

His third novel, Lowboy, is easily the standout novel of 2009 for me so far, literary fiction that defies categorization. Part coming of age novel, part thriller, the book examines schizophrenia in a truly shocking (and amazing) fashion.

In the New York Times Charles Bock wrote of the book:

"It’s impossible to predict what will capture the fancy of whatever remains of the reading public. But here is something certain: Wray’s third novel, “Lowboy,” is uncompromising, often gripping and generally excellent."

In his own words, here is John Wray's Book Notes essay for his novel, Lowboy:

I had a mentor of sorts, when I started out writing, who insisted that the 4/4 meter of conventional pop music was death to the rhythmic variation necessary to superior prose. Pretentious horseshit, I know—but I was on shaky ground at the time, eager to make some sort of sacrifice to the writing gods. I banished all my treasured soul singles and indie-rock LP's from the room in the basement where I wrote my first novel (which was probably for the best, considering the mildew) and worked either in silence or with something suitably highbrow playing at a moderate volume in the background. I allowed myself a handful of exceptions to this embargo—Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, Al Green's Full of Fire, The Clash's Sandinista—but for the most part I avoided anything with a straight 4/4 beat while I worked, and especially anything with vocals. I've long since realized how simplistic my friend's theory was, but I don't regret taking her advice: I've gotten into a lot of phenomenal music that way, from Eric Dolphy to Tortoise to Pablo Casals.

In spite of it all, however, certain popular songs persisted in creeping into my awareness as I wrote, and eventually I began to think that my subconscious was trying to tell me something. I started to make a list of the recurring songs, and discovered that each of them related to the creative process in some way. This embarrassed me a little, as though my subconscious were trying to generate some sort of Linda Barry-ish self-help soundtrack, but I'm grateful that the songs it picked were actually worth hearing: it could just as easily have played the Oscar Meyer Wiener song over and over. There are still a few tunes that tend to start playing in my head as soon as I sit down to work, which is, for the most part, annoying. But here a few that I'm happy to hear.

The Silver Leaf Quartet, ‘Daniel Saw The Stone'

If there's anything more motivating than old-time unaccompanied gospel music, I haven't found it yet. At their best, the early twentieth-century quartets had a harmonic power that was as gorgeously simple as a Bach cello suite, and as driving and feverish as the Ramones. Whenever I hear this song, I imagine Daniel coming across a stone in the desert, and moving the stone aside with the power of his determination and his faith. I have no idea what the actual fable of Daniel and the stone is, and I don't want to know. I'm going to hell anyhow.

Sly & The Family Stone, ‘Que Sera Sera'

There are untold versions of this song, with Doris Day's being the best known, but for some reason Sly's version is the one that always comes to me. I say ‘for some reason', but in reality Sly's (sung in part by Rose Stone) is hands-down the most glamorous and honest of them all. The particular type of sensual fatalism that this song evokes is the ideal antidote for the blank-page jitters. I recommend it with a middling pinch of pot.

Destroyer, ‘Farrar, Straus & Giroux'

Is it a coincidence that the best song by one of my favorite indie crooners happens to be named after my publishing house? Almost definitely. But it's a great song either way, managing to graft delightfully obtuse lyrics onto the most straightforward and hookish progression Mr. Bejar ever wrote. My personal favorite lyric: “No man has ever hung/ from the rafters of his second home.” If I were Canadian, I'd probably understand what that means.

Fat Lip, ‘Writer's Block'

Fat Lip, of Pharcyde fame, occupies a unique and unchallenged position in the hip hop firmament, if only because of his morbid willingness to rap about topics (drug dependency, repressed homosexuality, unpopularity, his overbearing white girlfriend) that most of his colleagues wouldn't even discuss with their EST counselors. Hearing Fat Lip wax lyrical about his writer's block is the most enjoyable tonic for my own that I know of, and one of the most effective: by the end of the song, you can't help but feel that you're taking yourself a wee bit too seriously, and—more importantly—that you're not alone. As Mr. Lip himself puts it:

Writer's block, for those unaware
is a condition that is hardly rare
often compared to a tree that bears no fruit
a bank account with no loot!

A.C. Newman, ‘Miracle Drug'

Any song about a novelist is a welcome addition to my mental soundtrack, even if—as is usually the case—the novel in question never sees the light of day. The ominous fate of the writer in this tune (“He was tied to the bed with a miracle drug in one hand/in the other a great lost novel that I understand/was returned with a stamp/that said ‘Thank you for your interest young man'”) is amply compensated for by the take-no-prisoners velocity of the music: he may be a tragic hero, but he's a hero just the same.

John Wray and Lowboy links:

the author's Twitter account (where he is Twittering about a character cut from the book)
Wikipedia entry for the author
publisher's page for the author
the author's book tour
publisher's page for the book
video trailer for the book
Goodreads page for the author
Goodreads page for the book
LibraryThing page for the book

Bookforum.com review
Bookgeeks review
Buffalo News review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Very Short List review

Esquire profile of the author
The Millions "A Year in Reading" essay by the author
New York Magazine profile of 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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