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November 4, 2009

Book Notes - Jeff VanderMeer ("Finch")

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

Finch is the third book in Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris Cycle, and also the third book in the series to inspire its own soundtrack (by Murder By Death). With Finch, Jeff VanderMeer has created a richly populated world with speculative fiction imbibed with impressive detective noir storytelling.

Paul Tremblay wrote of the book:

“Told in a pitch-perfect voice and steeped in the unrelenting menace authentic to the best works of noir, Finch is a wonderful, sad, brutal, and beautiful book. A tour de force.”

In his own words, here is Jeff VanderMeer's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Finch:

I've always listened to music while writing, because it helps me stay true to the mood and pace of the fiction. But starting with the first novel in my Ambergris Cycle, the actual separation between music and fiction began to crumble, in favor of a kind of cross-pollination. Robert Devereux, an experimental musician out of Pittsburgh, created a song cycle based on City of Saints & Madmen called Fungicide. The Church did a soundtrack for my second Ambergris novel, Shriek: An Afterword—and now Murder by Death has created an incredible instrumental soundtrack for my new novel Finch.

All of this music has or will influence my fiction, but I also had an iPod playlist of over one hundred songs that I listened to while working on Finch. Having that many songs on a loop was great because it remained fresh far longer than it had any right to. Many of these songs have what I'd typify as a gritty desperado sound that speaks to Finch's grounding noir tradition (detective, murder, complications) despite being set in a fantastical world. But the novel also has a phantasmagorical and visionary element, so I needed tracks for inspiration that seemed to wed the gritty with an ethereal and melancholy depth. Given that another layer of Finch steals from the thriller and spy novel genres, another necessary element was crazy and kinetic energy. Several tracks on my playlist combined their underlying darkness with waves or spikes of forward movement or “action".

Here are a few selections from that playlist. In the process of writing, rewriting, and editing the novel, the songs gained additional layers from their association in my head with various scenes, themes, or characters. I'm aware that in a sense I've repurposed them from their original meaning, or deliberately misinterpreted or misunderstood them to aid my creative process.

Magnolia Electric Co. "Almost Was Good Enough" from Trials and Errors

Early on, I adopted this amazing, sad, defiant song by Magnolia Electric Co. as my beleaguered detective's theme music. John Finch is an honest, compassionate man trapped in an impossible situation in the city of Ambergris, which has been subjected to an unholy occupation. Jason Molina's opening lyrics could as easily have come from Finch's mouth: “It's been hard/Doing anything/Winter's stuck around so long/Kept trying anyhow/And I'm still trying now/Just to keep working, just to keep working./And I remember when/ this didn't use to be so hard./This used to be impossible./New Season has got to begin./I can feel it leanin' in, whispering." The recurring refrain of “Almost no one makes it out" poignantly captures Finch's dilemma: there's no way out of the ruined, war-torn, dangerous city, and he knows he's probably not going to survive his mission. I seeded Finch with this refrain as a kind of mental hotlink to this song and to put subtle emphasis on what in Shriek: An Afterword was expressed as “no one makes it out," meaning no one escapes their own mortality. In Finch, that's not an abstract idea but a daily reality. As for the music, Molina's guitarwork is extraordinary. The clear, echoing, rising guitar notes, which remind me of Richard Thompson at his best, perfectly capture the theme of defiant hope/hopelessness in both the song and my novel.

Pleasure Forever
 "Curtain Call for a Whispering Ghost" from Pleasure Forever

I find Pleasure Forever demonic in the same way as the strangest parts of the Rolling Stones' catalog. This band's two CDs constitute some virulent strain of Decadent rock from an alternate universe where all the cities are on fire and no one's trying to put out the flames. For this reason, then, in my mind Pleasure Forever's music created a demented theme music for the ostensible villains of Finch: the inhuman gray caps. Subterranean inhabitants of the city, they've come aboveground and conquered Ambergris at the time period covered by the novel. John Finch must work for them if he wants to live, as they've set up the trappings of a normal functioning society as part of their dictatorship--a police force, food stations, and the like—even as their ultimate aims are unknowable. A song like “Curtain Call for a Whispering Ghost" seems to fit the gray caps perfectly. It's full of danger music and awash in lyrics like “weakened flesh and hollow bone nothing left but a sullen pose against the flame you stood too close certain call for a whispering ghost" that might've easily been created using automatic writing or some other surrealist game—a steady stream of somewhat alien or alienated thought. Like some of my other favorite songs, “Curtain Call" slowly ramps up the tension and energy. I also love their use of piano. (Other songs like “Gideon & Goliath" contain a lot of muttering that I interpreted as the speech of the gray caps.)

The Church
"Sealine" from Forget Yourself

For shimmering, transcendent guitars no band is better than The Church. What isn't always appreciated about that guitar work is how dangerous or threatening it can sound, even as it forms a beautiful tapestry of sound. On “Sealine" the guitars have a point, like a knife, and the edge to the lyrics reflects that sense of menace: “The minute the sting penetrates your finger/You're strapped to the pain like an angry stranger/The moment the rain freezes in the gutter/Caught the flaming birds and the hideous matter/The second the claw lifts up your head/I'm alone in your head and you can't get in./Somebody said it's all for you./It's a miracle, let it alter you." In Finch, John Finch's partner at the police station, Wyte, is slowly disintegrating. Having been colonized by a strange fungal weapon, he's been forever transformed and is trying with limited success to live day-to-day in a kind of growing horror and denial. Finch and Wyte have a friendship that goes back twenty years, so Finch stands by Wyte even as he's shunned by the other detectives. To my mind, “Forget Yourself" is about this transformation, the “claw" lifting up your head belonging to the gray cap who is Wyte's direct boss. Of course, to the half-human Partials, who have embraced the occupation, Wyte's transformation is a “miracle" and any advice they'd give to Wyte would be to “let it alter you." The “sting" is Wyte's initial contact with the fungus, when it infiltrated him. The rain freezing, the flaming birds, the hideous matter (probably a reference to C.S. Lewis), are all the symptoms of what Wyte's condition is doing to him. “Sealine" is a deeply strange song in the best possible sense. I love the way Steve Kilbey's lyrics are surreal and open to interpretation and yet grounded in concrete images. “Sealine" is Wyte's theme song because I find in it intertwined human and alien qualities.

 "Everything Hits at Once"
 from Girls Can Tell

Spoon's genius is often about coiled percussion and crafting songs where the words and guitar sound circle back in on themselves, returning to the same place only for the listener to find that that place has changed forever. In my novel, John Finch has a complicated relationship with his girlfriend Sintra, because it's so simple: to protect themselves from the dangers of the city, they don't share personal information. Their primary connection is through sleeping together. Finch doesn't even known where she lives. This creates strife because Finch has fallen for her and wants more connection. Yet more connection will probably damage that relationship. This is all taking place as Finch is under incredible external pressure: he has to solve an impossible murder case for his gray cap masters, yet if he does solve it, the rebels will kill him. It's in that context that Spoon's lyrics resonated with me: “Don't say a word./The last one's still stinging./Back of my mind, I feel that phone ringing./And there is no way back from this./Everything hits at once." In my mind, what Spoon means as personal to a relationship is much more in the world of Finch. It's about Finch and Sintra, but also about details of his case and his inability to talk to anyone about it without endangering them and himself—“everything hits at once." “There's no way back from this" also nicely echoes Magnolia Electric Co.'s “Almost no one makes it out."

Songs: Ohia "The Body Burned Away"
Ghost Tropic

In Ambergris at the time of Finch, the conquering gray caps have so altered the very air that the dead don't last very long. Within 24 hours, invisible spores turn them into beds of mushrooms, and then into more spores that drift away on the wind. (Finch has to actually use a preserving powder on his murder victims to make sure they don't disintegrate into nothing.) If you see a large human-sized stain on the pavement, it's probably where a body fell. This is another way in which the gray caps eat away at the city's past, obliterating it by removing all trace of those who once lived there. “The Body Burned Away"—more genius from Molina—has a definite requiem feel, and also makes me think of the body cleansing ritual my wife, who is Jewish, participates in when members of her synagogue pass on. “Death as it shook you/you gave it a fool's look.../I once had all the words./I forgot all the words." And: “We began to burn away/The body burns away." It's the music playing when Finch and Wyte encounter a body on the street while trying to track down a spy—a way of giving back dignity to the dead. It's also the silent song the dead are singing as they are broken down into spores and lifted away by the wind.

Afghan Whigs
 from Congregation

One of my favorite sneer-rock outfits, the Afghan Whigs, especially on Congregation and Gentlemen, did more for white guy relationship angst, bravado, and ruthless vulnerability than any other band of their time. It wasn't exactly pretty, but, infused with Motown influence and alt-rock riffs, it had real power and swagger. Scorched-earth guitars and the way they spiral to ever-greater crescendoes made me put “Congregation" on the playlist. There's a scene in the novel where John Finch has been ordered to meet with his gray cap boss in the station after work that includes this passage: “Waiting this way, helpless, his vision became apocalyptic, false. In his mind, mortar fire rained down on the city. Artillery belched out a retort. Blasted into walls, sending up gouts of stone and flame. The war raged on, unnoticed by most. He was an agent of neither side. Just in it for himself." Although Dulli is singing about anguished relationships, the music for me reflects what's going on inside of John Finch's head as he waits for this possibly fatal meeting with his superior: frustrated, furious, the external landscape of the city indistinguishable from the torment in his head. He wants to blow things up, wants to be in control in a way that overcompensates for his powerlessness, but he knows he can't be. Even as “Congregation" spirals out of control, it's trapped, the music eventually spiralling back down because it can't, ultimately, escape. For Dulli it might be a relationship. For Finch, it's everything. For a different reason than Dulli, Finch is thinking, “I'm gonna turn on you before you can turn on me.../And walk a mile into this web of my conspiracy.../I'm in a hole/but I don't feel the safety net."

Muse "
Knights of Cydonia" (crazy town live version from their site) from Live Radio

At their cheesy worst (best?) Muse can sound like Radiohead pretending to be a mix of Rhapsody and Mannheim Steamroller, with a dash of Queen thrown in. At their true best, they use excess like the Decadents used it—to get to a place no one else would ever even have thought of, not caring if their reach exceeds their grasp. The crazy live version of “Knights of Cydonia" on the band's website captures these qualities best, with its galloping pace and falsetto chorus. It's like Night on Bald Mountain and Ride of the Valkyries on glamrock acid. Every writer needs a healthy dose of caffeine or an adrenalin rush to carry them over those periods of fatigue that sets in while writing a novel. This crescendo of camp insanity served that purpose for me while working on Finch. More specifically, “Knights of Cydonia" provided the direct, no-nonsense fuel for scenes later in the novel where John Finch, tired of the constraints placed on him, decides to take matters into his own hands: “No one's going to take me alive./The time has come to make things right./You and I must fight for our rights./You and I must fight to survive." (The surreal gunslinger's video made for the song is played for absurd laughs, but in some of the images and juxtapositions achieve a rough genius that helped with the texture of a couple of scenes in my novel.)

The Black Heart Procession
 “It's a Crime I Never Told You About the Diamonds in Your Eyes"
 from 2

This song from one of my favorite bands has a rollicking tune to it, supplied by a drunken piano and drums—a kind of stagger, to my ear, evocative of being out late at night having had too much to drink, everything around you both hyper-real and blurred. There's darkness here, offset by shiny lights in the distance. The song's perhaps falsely hopeful, tinged with the desperate, as the singer regrets not telling his lover what he felt, while engaging in daydreams that are romantic but suspect: “And maybe someday we will be/Away with the wind we'll go/By the sea we'll float/And away with the wind we'll go/A million miles away/And you'll say maybe someday we will be/And you'll say please please/Don't tear your heart from me." These sentiments correspond to a scene in which John Finch's girlfriend Sintra takes him to a blackmarket party at night. He's had one of the roughest days of his life, and he's suspicious of her offer—he's afraid she's leading him into a trap—but as an expression of trust, he follows her. Night in Ambergris is dangerous if awe-inspiring. Shoals of iridescent emerald spores pulse and swoop across the sky, some composed of tiny nano-cameras reporting back to the gray caps. Because of curfews, parties are forbidden, but held anyway in the basements of abandoned buildings. They're traveling through a landscape of stunning fungal beauty in the sky and the shadows of crumbling, burnt ruins all around, people stumbling past in the grip of hallucinogenic mushrooms that allow them to live in their memories rather than the present. Finch is now finally demanding to know more about Sintra—“Something that makes you more real"—and she's resisting, telling him at one point, “You don't really want to know. There's nothing I can tell you that will help you more than what's already in your head." And, in a sense, Finch already knows the moment has moved past them, and that knowing more about her will only unmoor him by displacing his idealized image of her. In a similar way, the narrator of “It's a Crime I Never Told You About the Diamonds in Your Eyes" seems to have an idealized version of what happened in the past and what is going to happen in the future—the song has no real present. For Finch, that whole transition from apartment to party is one of the most important parts of the novel—getting right the mix of hope, exuberance at being out in the night, and truths about their relationship. For a long time, as I was writing and rewriting this very difficult scene, I played this song over and over.

Eleni Karaindrou & Kim Kashkashian
 "Ulysses' Theme: Lento-Largo" from Soundtrack to Ulysses' Gaze

Although I'm choosing “Ulysses' Theme: Lento-Largo" as my track from this CD soundtrack for the movie Ulysses' Gaze by the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, it functions as one component of what's meant as one continuous piece of music. I seeded the various tracks throughout my playlist to provide a kind of continually returning motif or musical theme. What you might call “neo classical," this melancholy and utterly beautiful music, with its violins viola, oboe, accordion, and its mood of continual seeking for something that will never be found created useful continuity between Shriek: An Afterword and Finch. In the movie, which is set in Eastern Europe around the fall of the Soviet Union, there's an incredible scene in which an enormous white stone head of Lenin travels down a river on a barge, while farmers and the like walk to the banks to watch it languidly move downstream. It's one of the most compelling images of the fall of an empire that I've ever seen, and I used it in Shriek—the great marble head of the despotic ruler/opera composer Voss Bender similarly travels down the River Moth as a sign of the end of an era. I discovered the music while writing Shriek, but continued to listen to it while writing Finch. Whereas in Shriek it denoted the end of an era, in Finch it serves almost as danger music promising a new era to come—one that will be strange and incomprehensible to the residents of the city. It also serves as a kind of ongoing musical brainscan of Finch's mind. It's the sound I imagine his neurons make firing, because he has the history of the city in his head—when he travels from neighborhood to neighborhood, he sees not just the fire-damage, the bombed out buildings, the human remains, the spent shells. He sees these places the way they were before the occupation. The music, then, slowly travels through the half-destroyed, destitute Ambergris and as it moves through the streets it reveals the past of those places. Rubble reconstructs itself into a cafe. Burnt wooden beams resurrect into the facade for a theater. This empty space overgrown with yellow grass and bullet casings is again a farmer's market. I imagine this is how it must be for anyone who still lives in a place once grand now brought low.

Murder by Death “That Crown Don't Make You a Prince" from Who Will Survive and What Will Become of Them?

Although songs like “That Crown Don't Make You a Prince," “Fuego!", “Killbot 2000," and “A Master's in Reverse Psychology" were on my playlist, I'd also bought all of Murder by Death's individual CDs so I could listen to them as I worked on Finch. To me, they epitomized the qualities I needed: a rough energy that seemed like misdirection because a precision and complexity fueled that energy—and a kind of outlaw Americana rock feel that, as my friend Matt Staggs put it, makes Murder by Death sound sometimes like “a jam session between Tom Waits, Kronos Quartet, and Sergio Leone." The texture of the songs had the kind of haunting, almost hyper-real feel I wanted, too, and I liked the way they worked in cello, violin, and piano. Some songs, like “Pillar of Salt," reminded me of the plight of characters like Wyte: “I made a deal/To get us out of this place/But I am falling apart/With each step I take/And as the pieces fall/I count them all."But, in the latter stages of working on Finch, as I felt my way toward the end, and realized the kinds of sacrifices that might entail for John Finch, I began to see Murder by Death's music in another way. Murder by Death began entering into a strange sort of dialogue with Eleni Karaindrou & Kim Kashkashian's Ulysses' Gaze soundtrack. If the Ulysses' compositions formed a wave flooding Ambergris with memories of its history from one side, then Murder by Death was a wave coming in from the other—populating the city with stories of beautiful losers, rogues, and ordinary people caught up in desperate situations. In the tension between both, I had the outline of the city and intimate portrayals of those who lived in it. On one level, this is nonsense, of course. This music had nothing to do with Ambergris, how could it?, and yet for me, spending day after day doing nothing but living in the world of the novel, it became real to me in ways that, as a particular piece played—as I wrote in a coffee shop or at home or jotting notes while hiking, totally lost in the words—left me with a lump in my throat or a moment of rising epiphany and euphoria, the music bringing forth not just idea after idea, but an ever-clearer picture of both John Finch and his world.

Jeff VanderMeer and Finch links:

the author's website
the book's website
the book's soundtrack album by Murder By Death
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (PDF link)

Bibliophile Stalker review
Bookslut review
BSCreview review
A Crotchety Old Fan review
Flames Rising review
J.M. McDermott's Blog review
Lunch review
MentatJack review
My Ghetto review
OF Blog of the Fallen review
Punktalk review
Vaguely Borgesian review

Clarkesworld Magazine interview with the author
Literary Kicks interview with the author
Prima Storia interview with the author
RevolutionSF interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

online "best of 2009" book lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks


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