March 10, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.
Patrick Somerville's debut novel The Cradle takes two seemingly disparate stories and masterfully intertwines them. The characters' secrets connect them in unpredictable ways, and Somerville's understated storytelling skills make The Cradle one of the year's most surprising and wonder-filled books.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"All of this sleight of hand is executed with the light, graceful touch that makes Mr. Somerville, also the author of a short-story collection (“Trouble”), someone to watch. A writer who looks at airline clerks at a boarding gate and sees brightly dressed figures typing as busily and happily as Muppets has a charmingly idiosyncratic way of looking at the world."
If we're talking music, The Cradle is a weird book. I'm therefore grateful for Book Notes, which allows oft-confused artists to work through their muddled feelings on esoteric subjects with little shame, in a flexible form, and even offers a distant hope (very distant) that others in the same boat might be interested. While there's almost no music mentioned in the narration of The Cradle, and neither of the central characters spend any time thinking about music, I nevertheless privately consider music to be a driving force behind the story, as well as what I think of most when I remember writing about Matt and Renee traveling down their mutual roads. This makes no sense, maybe; for sure, no one would be able to extrapolate what I've just said from what's in the book itself, which is a sure sign, if you're at all serious about being a critic, that everything herein should be ignored. And yet here I am, going on, and what's more, I'm the actual author. Awful. What I'm talking about is more about art in general, I guess, but wait, wait, it's okay, don't worry! Don't go! Rather than trying to solve the paradoxes of intent and personal biography when it comes to the act of creation, I'll just say some deeply subjective things here and relate a few anecdotes about that time, and I won't know what they mean, and hopefully you'll be entertained.
I wrote a good portion of the novel at a retreat in Virginia, and while it wasn't the first time I'd been to one, it was the biggest, and the furthest away. Because I'd quit my job, I was going to be there for what seemed like an impossible amount of time—four weeks. Insanity. I brought my guitar along, not because I was much of a musician, but because I liked having it nearby, and the sheer amount of time—an absolute epoch when you've been a working stiff, angry about being too brain-dead when you get home to do what you want to do—was suddenly a little intimidating, too, as it provided ample opportunity for failure as well as success. Having a guitar around is always a good anxiety-attack prophylactic, no matter your skill-level. It makes nice sounds if you're gentle with it, for one thing, and you can hug it if you need to. You can take it to bed. I guess you can even hump it, but of course that will get complicated. Personally, I find it most useful when I'm trying to write, as it provides a nice opportunity to not write.
Most artists I know have a "second art". It's often music, although I do know a bowhunter-writer, and an interior-decorator-writer (man, straight), and I used to know a puppeteer-writer, although he went on to get a PhD. It doesn't take a psychiatrist to see the great utility in such moonlighting, and I doubt it has a whole lot to do with an overflowing fount of creativity or skill lodged in the breast of a few lucky souls. However, I won't try to speak for anyone else; some people are good at everything, the f**ks. For me, though, no matter how much I actually did love playing music, I think a second art had long served to provide me with a forum in which I was allowed to eat shit. To suck really badly, or at least feel like I sucked really badly, relative to the titans of the form, without beating myself up about it. That had always been the key: something art-like, but no self-criticism, away from the flamethrowers. It's very easy to be too cruel to yourself when you're writing a novel. Having time to take it easy was a crucial thing when placed alongside huge chunks of time wherein I aspired toward a doomed, impossible perfection in fiction.
But anyway. There was also a little more going on with me and this trip, too, linked to this specific place. I would soon be in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and I began to see it about a week before I left: my payment for all that old, beautiful public domain Americana I sometimes hacked up at home, songs often actually set in the goddamned Blue Ridge Mountains, so old they have no authors and are simply "traditional" songs, had finally come due. I needed a next step, and I got it into my head that in order to transition past the larval stage of northern, urban music poser who played old-time music while sipping either imported beer or espresso drinks, or both, in private, surrounded by only brick and concrete, developing his super-authentic beard, it was time to pay my respects by becoming an adult artist, exposing myself to the real place, becoming vulnerable, shedding the pretensions, and ceasing to think of music as the hamburger-helper of my writing, which was the only "real" art I cared about. F**k it, because it wasn't really true, and also, it was all very cowardly and undignified. And come to think of it: time, too, to get over my embarrassment about some occasional pitchiness in my voice and an occasionally flubbed chord progression, which was just vanity anyway, and just play a little bit. Play in front of people without turning red, shaking, or apologizing for it, or worse, without making godforsaken, burbling ironic asides about being "the guy with the guitar" and laughing at the floor—the trademark self-denigration (aka self-hatred) of my generation, and now the darling mode of the mass media. Stop being so goddamned uptight, basically, Patrick, as uptight is anathema to folk music, anyway.
Such was the long speech to myself that played on loop as I drove east. Predictably, I forgot about most of the self-righteous goal for my first week at the residency.
I was busy with the opportunity to write all day, every day, you see, without interruption, and I felt as though the time was yielding good results. I finished up a draft of a long story I'd been thinking of writing and decided to step away from it. I thought it might be good. I worked on another story. I still hadn't started The Cradle and in fact I did not yet know of its future existence.
One afternoon, tired of reading, I finally played a little guitar by myself, very wimpily, out in some field, staring at foliage, and in so doing creeped out a number of the other residents.
"Why do you play guitar by yourself in the middle of a field?" one of the artists, a surrealist painter named Tazeem, asked me after a couple days of the same routine. "Are you shy? Also, were you singing?" It was pretty clear it was Tazeem's way of asking me if I was a sociopath.
"I just don't want to bother anyone," I said, and I thought: you are pathetic, Somerville. And uptight!
It was around this time that the big group began to jell a little, and people relaxed and intermingled more, and I began getting to know, among other people, a writer named Tom Piazza, who was at the VCCA to work on his Katrina novel City of Refuge, which I believe has, as of today, sold over seven-hundred million copies worldwide. Tom described his book to me and I told him about what I was doing, but we spent more time talking about Woody Guthrie and music than writing, and it soon became clear he knew everything there was to know about American music, from blues to jazz to folk to country; the man had a blurb on one of his books from Bob Dylan, so that was kinda final. Not only that, but Tom played the piano in the lounge before dinner—intimidating, I-understand-jazz jazz, in public—and he also played guitar and had it with him, too, and he liked the same kind of music I liked. One evening after dinner he found me sitting on the picnic table, playing a Ramblin' Jack Elliott song (I was improving with my willingness to be seen in public with a guitar, slightly, but I was still pathetic), and he invited me back to the common-room to play. I joined him, and we sat on the couch for two hours with a few other people sort of hanging around and I ran through just about every single bluegrass or folk song I knew, and he ran through about 50 more, and many country songs, and we both sang a little, and that was that. Nobody died and nothing exploded. It was nice.
In my 15 or so remaining days at the VCCA, Tom and I probably played together 7 or 8 nights. It was casual. We were the writers who played music, and we became a part of the landscape. Sometimes people were around, sometimes it was just him and me; the stakes were low, but in the best possible way; one night another writer showed up with a ukulele and quite a lot of tequila; one night, out of nowhere, a quiet poet sang a Cisco Huston song a capella; that same night, a poet named Star sang (chanted?) one of her own poems in a gritty, Appalachian minor. There were no judgments. No criticism. Only positive community. Tom taught me many songs, I taught him a couple, and one night he even taught me a very good, core lesson of music performance in brief, clear, concise terms. How was I to know? No one had ever told me. On this night, his teaching was aided greatly by our mutual consumption of Jameson's whiskey.
"Stop trying to play so f**king fast all the time," he said, frowning at my hands.
He was right. I was not actually skilled enough to play as fast as I was trying to play, not by a long shot, but the deeper and more interesting part of that lesson was that there was no reason to bother trying, as I could just play slower. This was not the Guinness Book of World Records. This was folk music, and I'm sorry, my friend, but the human heart does not care about your picking skills.
We're finally to the part that's relevant to The Cradle, and I will of course not explain this relevance because it's almost too embarrassingly romantic now, although I hope it's clear why it's taken me this long to get here, although I also hope that it's totally unclear what the exact point of all this has been. You definitely got that all those things I was uptight about regarding playing music were actually my concerns about fiction, right? About writing? My first art? And how that was a big problem? Perhaps my fear of embarrassment was a permanent wall to taking any steps forward, in any medium? That might not have been obvious, thank God. We'll never know what I really meant in the previous paragraphs of this essay.
Yes we will. Here's the truth, here's what I learned: my assumptions were bad regarding music being a safe retreat and not mattering (and feel free to replace the word "music" here with anything else you might try to do while you're also trying to create something), about art being compartmentalizable or even really linked to a particular medium. Art is a state as much as it is a craft, as much as it's an object or product. That's why I began with the point about there being little music in The Cradle, but being unable to think about it without also thinking about music. My state had to do with music. I became totally steeped for a little while there, for those couple of weeks, facilitated greatly by a new friend, Tom Piazza, who was just doing his thing and to whom none of it was at all a big deal, and who I'll probably never know very well again, and with it came a nice little community, and that's around the time I was writing the main part of The Cradle for many hours a day, so I like to think a little window opened up for me. Not a huge epiphany, but something interesting. And not coincidentally, this window opened right when I finally identified what I loved about the American folk tradition: yes, definitely flawed, yes, a little messy, yes, more than a bit predictable, but that's all fine, because those things aside, it's one of the few mediums we have that's accessible, communal, and yet still able to deal with complicated and real human emotion directly, unadorned, and fearlessly. Directly, unadorned, and fearlessly. At its bravest, indifferent to virtuosity, which is overrated anyway, magnanimous in the face of irony, which is perhaps a form of terror, and instead open to the risk of communicating love and pain in a straight line, speaker to listener, trusting in the power of that to be the hearty core of its art.
Amazing I'd never considered something so outlandish before.
Patrick Somerville and The Cradle links:
Backstory profile of the author
Goodreads page for the book
Goodreads page for the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by the author for Trouble
publisher interview with the author
Writers at Cornell 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
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)