October 7, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Libba Bray's novel Going Bovine, a modern day Don Quixote tale, hurtles through time and space with self-effacing humor. Mad cow disease, string theory, punk fairies, and animated lawn gnomes, combine with Bray's storytelling genius to produce one of the year's funniest and most surprisingly moving books.
Catch Libba Bray reading (with Lev Grossman) at the first edition of the Largehearted Lit reading series on November 8th at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.
Going Bovine is loosely based on Don Quixote, if Don Quixote were a misanthropic, stoner sixteen-year-old from Texas who’s just been diagnosed with mad cow disease. In the hospital, Cameron is visited by Dulcie, a punker angel/possible hallucination with dubiously spray-painted wings (she’s not a great speller, for one), who tells him that there is a cure for his disease if he’s willing to go in search of it. And also, he’s needed to save the universe from a band of dark energy that just hitched a ride into our world from the Higgs Field. No pressure.
Together with his new friend, Gonzo, a profane, video-gaming, hypochondriac dwarf, and an enchanted yard gnome who claims to be the Norse god, Balder, Cameron sets off on a quest through a twisted America of happiness cults, reality TV, mystical jazz musicians, bizarre physicists, roadside diners, snow globe vigilantes, Disney World, and some other stuff, tilting at windmills the whole way in his search to find what matters most.
I make an iPod playlist for everything I write. It helps me get into the right mood. Plus, it’s great to be able to claim that as work. For Going Bovine, I wanted something that captured the way midnight movies make you feel when you are seventeen, when the night and freedom collide to put you in a strange space where you are open wide and everything is possible. But, you know, all of that with a beat you could dance to.
"Add It Up" The Violent Femmes
This seemed like the perfect pre-mad cow disease-road trip song for Cameron. Adolescent angst and frustration coupled with an amphetamine beat and Gordon Gano’s bursting-at-the-seams yelp. Why can’t I get just one kiss? Word.
"Pompeii AM Gotterdammerung" The Flaming Lips
I listened to a lot of Flaming Lips while writing. Maybe it’s that we’re from roughly the same geographic region (Their Oklahoma City to my North Texas), but hearing this song is like driving solitary stretches of I-35 late at night, the street lamps strobing over your face, the lonely night lights of the anonymous motels and truck stops the only witnesses to your existence. I also like the relentless space-age drive of this track, like Pink Floyd at 850-horsepower.
"Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)" Gnarls Barkley
Cameron begins to see freaky, terrifying visions of Fire Giants and destruction and a shadowy guy in a space helmet who is known only as The Wizard of Reckoning. He’s starting to figure out that something is very, very wrong—whether that something wrong is within him or the universe is the question. Ceelo and Danger Mouse know exactly how he feels. Yes, they do.
"Roadrunner" The Modern Lovers
This was the first song I picked for the GB playlist, actually. Cameron is obsessed with a cartoon, which is clearly a stand-in for Wile E Coyote/Roadrunner. But it’s Jonathan Richman singing about driving past the Stop & Shop, the radio keeping him from being lonely late at night, and the “suburban trees, suburban speed/And it smells like heaven” that really capture the spirit of the journey for me.
"Trouble" Ray LaMontagne
One of my favorite movies is Harold & Maude, and certainly Cameron and Harold could be in the same Outsiders’ Club. (Can you have an Outsiders’ Club? Or does that automatically make you Insiders? Just wondering. Anyway…) Cat Stevens’ soundtrack really augmented that movie in just the right, wistful way. Ray LaMontagne was my stand-in for Cat Stevens here, though certainly, he is no stand-in for anyone, really. The song is achingly romantic. His voice is raw and gorgeous. The rhythmic strumming reminds me of bus wheels on rain-slicked highway. And who doesn’t need a little saving sometimes?
"People Who Died" Jim Carroll
Cameron and Gonzo have an encounter with a mystical jazz musician, Junior Webster, in a New Orleans nightclub. My friend Laurie and I once took a legendary trip from Austin to New Orleans (just how legendary shall remain a closely guarded secret). We both have a primal fear of bridges over water, which became a bit of a problem when we hit the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. “Uh, tell me we’re not going over that,” Laurie said. “Okay, we’re not going over that,” I said, choking back manic laughter. And then there were twenty-five miles of screaming. This song was playing at nosebleed level. I can’t think of New Orleans without it. Consider it a raised middle finger to fear.
"Keep the Car Running" Arcade Fire
A paranoiac’s anthem. Cameron, Gonzo, and Balder are trying to keep one step ahead of the Fire Giants and the Wizard of Reckoning as well as Cameron’s disease. I really like Win Butler’s voice on this, the way he manages to mix anxiety with longing in a primal howl. I just know that when this song comes on, I have the urge to grab my keys and run.
"Kick the Stones" Chris Whitley
My older brother, Stuart, was a huge musical influence on me. I can remember driving with him out country roads in Texas, a real Ry Cooder landscape, while listening to this song, talking about music and life. There’s something haunting about the tune for me, like Robert Johnson heading toward the apocryphal crossroads. That Whitley died between the first and second drafts of the book intensified the feeling of time bearing down on the characters, with an otherworldly presence nipping at their heels.
"Mama Told Me Not to Come" Three Dog Night
I think Quentin Tarantino directed this song in another life. It’s the perfect song for finding yourself in a bizarre situation where things promise only to get weirder from there. So you might as well surrender and take the ride. Mama may have told you not to come, but hey, Mama’s not here.
"God Only Knows" The Beach Boys
When you’re writing about mysterious, vanishing Inuit rock bands, you need a starting point. (C’est vrai. C’est vrai. Look, I can type French.) In the book, there’s a band called the Copenhagen Interpretation who may or may not have existed, who may have been sucked into a parallel world or who might have eaten each other in a drug-fueled frenzy. Maybe it was growing up in a music town. (Denton, TX—home of UNT.) But I got so sick of hearing about how influential Pet Sounds was that for years I just refused to listen to it out of spite. Because I’m stupid like that. And then one day, I listened to Pet Sounds and went, holy cow, this Brian Wilson fellow is a stone-cold genius! Turns out I was a little late to that party.
"It’s All Too Much" The Beatles
A joyful, psychedelic aural assault to go with the characters’ wild experiences and newfound freedoms. It is physically impossible for me not to smile when I hear George Harrison singing about “the love that’s shining all around you.” This is the song I want played at my funeral, by the way. Not that I’m hoping to shuffle off this mortal coil anytime soon. But if, by chance, I meet up with the wrong end of a city bus next week, and my iPod is found, please let them know to play this and not, say, “Xanadu.”
"Stuck in the Middle with You" Stealers Wheel
Cameron, Gonzo, and Balder are forced to pick up some frat boy hitchhikers at one point. Hijinks ensue. “Clowns to the left of me/Jokers to the right/Here I am—stuck in the middle with you.” Plus, you gotta figure they can only pick up crappy AM in that busted Caddy.
"She’s a Mystery to Me" Roy Orbison
Cameron is obsessed with a Portuguese novelty singer named The Great Tremelo, who plays songs of love on the recorder and sings falsetto. My inspiration, strangely enough, was Roy Orbison. In my ignorant youth, my thought about Orbison was that he was no Robert Plant. It should be noted that I also thought home perms and mullets were a good idea. It took me a few years to be haunted by the beauty and passion of that voice. When I got it, I really got it. Just like Cameron finally comes to understand the Great Tremelo.
"Guiding Light" Television
This is my favorite Television song: the slow ache, the existential musings, the hypnotic guitar riff. In the book, Dulcie talks about embracing life’s mystery; here, Tom Verlaine sings, “All intent/remains unknown.” There’s nothing more to say.
"Light & Day" "Reach for the Sun" Polyphonic Spree
The trio is sidetracked by a visit to Putopia, the Parallel Universe Travel Office…pia. (The physicists at Putopia who are working on parallel universe travel haven’t figured out the acronym completely, but they wanted to make sure to secure the domain name.) I thought about using Fountain of Wayne’s “Supercollider” for Cameron’s little ride in the atom-rearranging InfinityCollider™, but something about this song suggested being hurtled through time and space to me, a wave-particle experiment in sound.
"The Cold Song" (from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur) Klaus Nomi
If you haven’t seen The Nomi Song, the excellent documentary on singer/performance artist Klaus Nomi, I highly recommend it. I also recommend you go to YouTube and watch this performance, one of his last before succumbing to AIDS the year after. Anyway, I listened to it a lot while writing the climactic scene.
"Joy" Apollo 100
This is an absolute musical McCheeseburger with an XL side of cheese sauce, but I love it. Bach goes disco! It’s the "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring" you can dance to! There’s just such an exuberant, “aw, what the hell” goofiness to this that it seemed the perfect endnote to Cameron’s weird little journey. Part smirk. Part grin. And 100% joy.
Other songs on the Going Bovine soundtrack:
"Heart to Hang Onto & Keep Me Turning" Pete Townshend & Ronnie Laine
"Pink Moon" Nick Drake
"One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" Ben Folds Five
"Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans" Louis Armstrong
"New Slang" The Shins
"Solsbury Hill" Peter Gabriel
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral”: IV/Ludwig Van Beethoven—Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
"Company in My Back" Wilco
"This Time Tomorrow" The Kinks
"Who Knows Where the Time Goes" Fairport Convention
Libba Bray and Going Bovine links:
Blogging for a Good Book review
Bookish Blather review
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy review
Common Sense review
A Confederacy of Books review
Em's Bookshelf review
In Between the Pages review
Martha Flynn review
Mrs. Magoo Reads review
Publishers Weekly review
Reading Rants review
Through a Glass, Darkly review
3 Evil Cousins interview with the author
Alien Onion interview with the author
All Things Girl interview with the author
Book Chic interview with the author
BookPage interview with the author
Cynsations interview with the author
The First Novels Club guest post by the author
Teenreads.com guest post by the author
Write for a Reader guest essay by the author
Young Adult (& Kids) Books Central Blog interview with the author
Ypulse interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy: