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October 15, 2009

Book Notes - Michelle Wildgen ("But Not for Long")

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

In her novel But Not for Long, Michelle Wildgen crafts a skillfully told story of personal crises during a major energy crisis. Social issues are as much in play as the characters' personal lives and interactions in this thought provoking and moving book, a worthy successor to Wildgen's much lauded You’re Not You.

The Rumpus wrote of the book:

"You’re Not You had a more obvious throughline than Wildgen’s new book: the in-house care of a woman with ALS binding the disparate emotional strands of the story together from the beginning. The spine of But Not for Long is not, at first, so distinct, with more characters moving in more directions. Over time though, we begin to understand where these people came from, how they got out there, and how they may be helped. It’s a more diffuse experience than the earlier book, but possibly a more affecting one."

In her own words, here is Michelle Wildgen's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, But Not for Long:

But Not For Long follows the residents of a lakeside sustainable foods co-op during the latest and most severe in a series of blackouts. The fractures, however, had appeared even before the lights died: a very drunk ex-husband shows up looking for the newest housemate, another's parent has disappeared, and an odd incident on the lake leaves the neighborhood uncertain if someone has drowned right outside their doors.

Each co-op member feels the stress differently—Hal, who runs a food pantry, tries unsuccessfully to reach his father, whom no one has heard from since he retreated to a cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin shortly after the death of Hal's mother. Karin, a reporter for a dairy industry trade paper, decides impulsively to interview a cheesemaker in person instead of on the phone, and drives several hours out of Madison to escape the blackout. And Greta, the newest resident, is busy trying to avoid Will, the husband she just left, and instead concentrating fiercely on the solace of doing her fundraising job. Meanwhile, the blackout is unexplained and shows no sign of letting up.

So! Here's my soundtrack for But Not For Long.

"London Calling," The Clash


Sure, it's about London in the midst of an economic and social blight: but it always felt farther-reaching than that to me, too, so we'll press it into service here as an overall theme song: its apocalyptic bird cries, sparse wheatfields, and zooming sun. All is not well.

"Now You Know," the Afghan Whigs

At first all we know of Greta's marriage is that she's just left it and is still furious. When Will appears, too drunk to leave the co-op's front porch, it's pretty clear why. I have always been stuck on "Now You Know" and much of the Afghan Whigs' music for its rage and bitterness, which might be the tiniest red flag about my own psychological state, but that's not important now. What is important is the gut-punch of Greg Dulli singing, "Bit into a rotten one, now didn't you? Now I can watch you chew. Let me watch you chew." Now that's the end of a marriage.

"Lost Cause," Beck

And yet…. this is also the end of a marriage. Exhausted, hopeless, the memory of love still hanging in the air but not doing anyone any good anymore.

"Phantom Limb," "Australia," The Shins

Karin, a reporter, decides to flee the blacked-out city all together and heads north, persuading a cheesemaker she should be interviewed in person instead of on the phone—and somehow The Shins feel just right for Karin and for this section, in which Karin both revels in the beauty of the farm and its animals and cheesemaking caves, and also notes the first encroachments of trouble on the farm's animals and produce. "Australia" captures Karin's unsuccessful but game love life--the weird, excitable loneliness and expectation of being young, single, hopeful and filled with dread, too. As for "Phantom Limb"—it seems to evoke two people in motion, walking together and marking time, the strange mix of companionship, emptiness and loneliness all at once. So for me it's "Phantom Limb" as Karin and her lone cheesemaker, Elaine, stroll the farm, not sure if it really is an oasis anymore.

"Hold On, Hold On" Neko Case
"Dress" PJ Harvey
"Each to Each," The Gutter Twins
"Buena" Morphine

What's a party without someone there who's looking to forget about everything? Greta's entrance into the co-op world with this welcome party is jittery, sexually charged, and argumentative. She's ready to try it out—be it drugs or sex or alcohol—just something to get her out of herself, for once. So why not PJ Harvey's faintly menacing, faintly desperate ode to the powers of a hot red dress, Neko Case leaving the party alone with a discarded Valium, the sinuous repetition of the Gutter Twins urging you come down, slow and easy, and Morphine's Mark Sandman, forever making his way toward the siren call of the voice at the back of a crowded room.

"Lost in the Supermarket," The Clash

Hal's job involves delivering meals to people like Mrs. Bryant—hopefully not too many are like her. Ancient, steely, possibly evil, and happily, blatantly manipulative, Mrs. Bryant somehow gets Hal into her living room each day and never lets him out. The Clash's bleak song about a dead-end council-housing life in England works just as well for a woman who grew up in New Hampshire, married badly, dislikes most people, and for whom combativeness is a starting point. And yet you have to feel for the subject of the song and for her too: "I'm all tuned in, I see all the programs; I save coupons from packets of tea …The kids in the halls and the pipes in the walls make me noises for company."

"Jumpers," Sleater-Kinney

I am actually a little afraid of this song for its hypnotic, pitch-perfect rendering of a suicidal state of mind and all the quotidian details that take on an awful, tinny hardness: "I sit in traffic jams for hours--don't push me, I am not okay./The sky is blue most everyday, the lemons grow like tumors, they are tiny suns infused with sour." This song is Greta at the very heart of all her anger and abrasiveness: underneath it all, she is teetering. "Jumpers," with its pulsing, vertiginous heartbeat, makes you feel like you could be drawn to that edge, too, and maybe it won't be so bad.

"Gentle Hour," Yo La Tengo

Not to spoil anything, but there's a moment between two of the co-op members when they shut the doors to the house and close out the blackout, the nervous neighborhood, and drunk ex-husbands. It's all lush privacy and quietude: a brief respite.

"The Ghost of You Lingers," Spoon
"Mardy Bum," Arctic Monkeys

At the end of the novel, we shift into Will's perspective, and suddenly we're looking out from the black hole at the center of the room. Spoon's echoing, synthesized call--"If you were here, would you calm me down?"--could be directed from Will to a lot of people, but mostly to Greta. "Mardy Bum" also seems to sum up a lot of what Will would say about the end of his marriage: Greta's always angry, but I always have a good reason… a plaintive but almost-jaunty run-down of a man's screw-ups and a woman's simmering annoyance that, the more I listen to it, the more I think might be all about a guy missing the point.

"Fake Empire," The National

The book opens with an empty chair and abandoned dog on a dock left to float through Lake Monona—the first hint that someone in this place has jumped ship. It closes with Will back at the same spot, drawn as all of them are to speculating on just what happened to the person in the lake. To open and close, I hear The National's mesmerizing ode to staying resolutely half awake (but no more than half) in a fake empire—it's all about blocking out the crumbling world with diamond slippers and apple pies.

Michelle Wildgen and But Not for Long links:

the author's website
reading group guide for the book
excerpt from the book

People review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
Sarah Laurence Blog review

77 Square profile of the author
Isthmus interview with the author
PowellsBooks.BLOG posts by the author
She Writes profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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