June 26, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Writing speculative fiction isn't easy, and judging from most of the review books of the genre sent my way, sometimes reading it isn't either. Thankfully Jim Krusoe's Erased is an exception. The novel flows from one cleverly absurd situation to another as its protagonist searches for his supposedly dead mother, while exploring the blurry line between the worlds of life and death.
Erased is a novel about a guy, Theodore, who receives a postcard from his dead mother and heads off to find her. So you might say the book is part ghost story, part detective novel, part quest, and part travelogue (he goes to Cleveland). It's also—because I happen to have been raised in Cleveland, part memory—but in addition, because I haven't been back since I was a kid—part dream. All these elements find their way into the sounds of this book.
"Change" by Sparks
Sparks has a number of songs, all done with deadpan wit, but I'd pick "Change" partly because it is optimistic ("every dog is going to have his day") and philosophical ("I've been thinking we'll get together again some day and your hair will be some weird color"), but mostly because it has a talking part—one of those moments where the music steps to the background and the speaker adds a sort of extra-textual commentary to the lyrics. I love that mini-battle between style and sincerity, and how it sets both parts off.
"Don't Be Afraid" by Weba Garretson
Garretson is a genius of the contemporary art song, and this version of the Brecht/Weill standard is fabulously unsettling, a lullaby that's scarier than silence. It's collected in an album, backed by the Eastside Sinfonietta, along with a dozen or so equally nihilistic ballads, all of which seem to add up to the conclusion that nobody has much of a chance. Ever.
"I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance" by Clifford Brown
I first read about this amazing version of the old standard in Julio Cortazar's Around the Day in 80 Worlds, where he describes how Brown's trumpet hangs in the air between phrases as if it might decide to not even go on. A beautiful version of a beautiful, longing song, and Erased is, after all, a ghost story.
"Hat Szeki Tanc" (Six Dances from the Village of Szek) by Muzsikas
I think I'd love this group even if I hadn't been raised in Cleveland with a gypsy violinist as my godfather. Every other weekend, or so it seemed, my parents would take me to a dance, or wedding, or party, each of which had a live band consisting of four or five old guys with bad breath who were playing for free drinks. As a result, Hungarian music, with its manic and depressive speeds and distorted tempi and screechy off-pitch notes makes me happy and crazy all at once. Muzsikas isn't homemade gypsy music as I heard it, exactly, but it has that same improvised sound, and the singer here, Zsuzanna Vincz, sounds, at the end of this cut, like a joyous, excited animal.
"Black Wings" by Tom Waits
Not surprisingly, I'm inclined to favor the mordant sounds of Tom Waits, poet of things closing and of hopelessness, and certainly Erased is about things shutting down, as well as opening onto unexpected vistas. This cut also makes me think of a time back in my youth where one night during an open poetry workshop we were visited by an improbably scruffy (even compared to us), odd-sounding guy. He read his poem, and afterwards I opined that it was good, but maybe not quite complicated enough to stand alone. "Maybe you should try writing song lyrics," I told him. Waits looked me up and down, considering. "Well, man," he rasped. "I'm working on it."
"Cantus Articus" by Einojuhani Rautavaara
A lovely instrumental piece that just about breaks my heart every time I hear it. It's orchestral, but part of the score comes from the taped cries of wild arctic birds, long dead by now, even as others like them are being wiped out by us, the humans. All this business of what we are doing, and our perfect arrogance toward every other living thing on this planet, seems to be a theme that appears in all my books.
"The Germans at the Spa" from Nine, the musical by Manny Yeston
Nine is a musical version of the life of a Fellini-like character, and this is the opening number. Because Erased is very much a series of tableaux, it's easy for me to imagine it as a musical, with solos, duets, and production numbers, these latter being really big, a la Busby Berkeley, and set at the various women's clubs Theodore visits. There's an elegant Rotary/Lions Club, the sexy Hot Club, and the despicable (and Germanic) Christmas Tree Club. Who would have thought I'd be writing a musical?
( ) by Sigur Ros
Erased is about the uncertainty of where boundaries begin and end, and I love the drifting boundaries between unformed sounds, and language, and music, and ambience in this CD. The whole effect for me is like voices in a fog, and in fact the last scene of the book takes place in fog (with the howling of dogs as background), and suspended in water. It could be here, wherever that is.
"We're Desperate" by X
The narrative of the book is intersected by a series of short transcripts of taped interviews that have the sort of in-your-face quality I associate with the legendary Los Angeles band, X. In fact it was in that same poetry workshop Tom Waits stumbled into and out of, that, a few years later, John Doe and Exene would stumble separately into, meet, and go on to form X. They still take no prisoners.
"Ten Cents a Dance" by Ruth Etting
Somebody once said that somebody said that Donald Barthelme called Etting's version of this standard the most completely American song. In any case, there's something about its sweetness and sincerity, vulgarity and elegance, hope and resignation, that never quite wears out, and though a jillion others have sung it, Etting balances the package of art and ingenuousness completely. The song's message: " I can't go on; I will go on."
(PS: "Into the Unknown Region" by Ralph Vaughn Williams)
The quote that begins Erased, from the Whitman poem that begins, "Darest thou now oh soul/ walk out with me toward the unknown region" was actually set to music as a swell choral ode. There are a few versions, but I like the one by Adrian Boult.
Jim Krusoe and Erased links:
also at Largehearted Boy: