November 12, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Joshua Gaylord's debut novel, Hummingbirds, caused Kirkus reviews to call him "an impressive new voice in American fiction," and I have to agree. Gaylord eloquently paints the relationships and interactions of his characters, both adult and teen, male and female, with rare and impressive insight into human character in this compelling story of an all-girls high school..
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Especially good at characterization, Gaylord has delivered a story that's ripe with acute and wry observations on men and women, competition, sexuality, and secrets. He's created a slippery slope, but readers will find the terrain surprisingly navigable as the novel ends. Highly recommended."
Hummingbirds is about the intimately interwoven relationships between the teachers and students at an all-girls private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. When asked to think about a soundtrack for the book, my first impulse was to return to the music that served as a backdrop to the Golden Age of teen cinema, the 1980s, with its achingly emotional ballads of loss and alienation by bands like Simple Minds and Tears for Fears. But because the book is already antique in its narrative sensibilities, it felt like the musical backdrop should tip its hat to our own moment, so (other than one homage to the 80s) I resisted the my initial impulse and tried to offer a more contemporary selection.
The soundtrack below comprises songs almost entirely from the last year or two—songs that, in my hopeful fantasies, high school students might actually be listening to at the moment. Most of them are steeped in sentiment and high drama—and the same could be said of the students and teachers at Carmine-Casey, the school in question, or, perhaps the students and teachers of any high school anywhere. I remember how important music was to me in high school, especially songs of sorrow and outrage. I have memories of driving in the middle of the night, my car stereo blasting music that was all climax and cacophony, my heart twisted with unrequited love and bitter angst. In truth, I'm sure it was 9:30 in the evening, the music was at very reasonable volume, and I was just bored. Oh, and the car was a Nissan Sentra. But that's the transformative magic of adolescence, isn't it?
"Starlings" by Elbow (from the album The Seldom Seen Kid)
I think this is the ideal aural background to Hummingbirds. It is a very simple song—almost entirely driven by a quiet xylophonic fluttering interspersed with moments of sudden cacophony that die out as quickly as they come. That's how I picture these prep school girls: fluttering around, soft and harmless—up until the moment that they're not.
"Graveyard Girl" by M83 (from the album Saturdays=Youth)
This song comes from an album inspired almost entirely by John Hughes movies—and I don't think there's a contemporary high school story that doesn't owe some debt to John Hughes. So this song reflects my (slightly ironic) homage to the much-missed master of the teen film: "She collects crowns made of black roses/but her heart is made of bubblegum." Curiously enough, in Hummingbirds, this kind of shameless emotionality belongs more to the adult characters than to the girls.
"Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen (from the album Songs of Love and Hate)
Leonard Cohen and John Updike are the two people who introduced me at a tender young age to the complexities of marital infidelity. This song in particular articulates the intense (and nearly romantic) relationship between two men who have both had a relationship with the same woman: "What can I tell you, my brother, my killer? . . . I guess I miss you, I guess I forgive you. . . . And thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes. I thought it was there for good, so I never tried." Can a man learn to appreciate (and even love) his wife's lover? The answer, in certain cases, seems to be yes. Fidelities are frequently near-sighted: it's unclear what person or social convention or abstract notion we are being faithful to—and that's one of the foundational concerns of the book.
"Crash! Boom! Bang!" by Roxette (from the album Crash! Boom! Bang!)
This song is for Dixie Doyle, the popular pig-tailed girl at the center of Carmine-Casey's social structure. I think this unapologetically sincere pop song ("My mama told me not to mess with sorrow, but I always did, and lord I still do") is the kind that Dixie would find meaningful and touching. I like to picture her sitting in her bedroom, all the lights turned off, her knees folded under her chin, staring out her window and suffering with great dramatic dignity the injustices of teenage romance.
"Inflammatory Writ" by Joanna Newsom (from the album The Milk-Eyed Mender)
This song is for Liz Warren, the socially awkward smart girl of Carmine-Casey. Joanna Newsom has the brain of a grad student and the voice of a Mouseketeer—which perfectly captures the painful self-consciousness of a staggeringly brilliant teenage girl who finds herself locked in a world of ridiculous social convention. The impossibly baroque lyrics of the song articulate the classic smart girl's stumbling luminosity: "While across the great plains, keening lovely and awful/Ululate the last Great American Novels,/An unlawful lot, left to stutter and freeze floodlit./But at least they didn't run, to their undying credit."
"Blue Tulip" by Okkervil River (from the album The Stand Ins)
At the center of Hummingbirds is a student play written by Liz Warren and starring Dixie Doyle. I see this song as the soundtrack of that play. The song opens with a quiet note of classic teenage petulance—"They're waiting to hate you, so give them an excuse"—but then it builds to a very emotional climax that sweeps you up in a kind of mad melodrama. That's the power that the minor key dramas of teenagehood have for the teachers at Carmine-Casey: they find themselves being caught up in them despite themselves.
"That's What I Like" by Spottiswoode and His Enemies (from the album That's What I Like)
The book is about gender dynamics as much as anything: two men clinging together in a turbulent sea of women and girls by whom the men feel, alternately, adored and subjugated. This quasi-cabaret song catalogs the exhaustive list of all the different kinds of girls loved by the singer (including "born-again Christians who read Solzhenitsyn"), but then the refrain claims that he likes these girls "only just to look."
"Busby Berkeley Dreams" by The Magnetic Fields (from the album 69 Love Songs)
This is one of the saddest songs I know. It's about the way our experiences in the real world never quite meet up to our idealized expectations—and, as a result, we tend to live our lives in flawed versions of beautiful dreams. Sometimes, though, we insist upon those dreams and indulge in them unabashedly: "I haven't seen you in ages,/But it's not as bleak as it seems./We still dance on whirling stages/in my outrageously beautiful Busby Berkeley dreams." In Hummingbirds, I think most of the characters are living within the beautiful fictions they have built for themselves—and, as the author, I tend to validate those fictions for them. They are lovely, after all.
"Every Shining Time You Arrive" by Sunny Day Real Estate (from the album How It Feels to Be Something On)
One of the central (though platonic) romances in the book is the romance between the two teachers: Leo Binhammer and Ted Hughes. These would-be enemies can't help themselves: they find each other charming and endlessly entertaining. They are always so happy to see each other.
"Sometime Around Midnight" by The Airborne Toxic Event (from the album The Airborne Toxic Event)
This song is for the somewhat tragic character of Sibyl, who, at one point in the book, finds herself wandering alone in Central Park very late at night—psychologically torn to shreds. There's a marvelous quality to this song that takes rasping and ragged grief and turns it into something that gleams like crystal. I feel very badly for Sibyl in this book. She deserves a song that honors her ability to endure.
"An Animal in Your Care," Wolf Parade (from the album At Mount Zoomer)
I think this is the way Binhammer feels about his overly idealized wife Sarah. "You let me hang around./You put ribbons in my hair./It's in this language that I found/I am an animal in your care." The function of authority in romantic relationships is one of the dynamics the book is fascinated by—the natural erotics of the teacher/student relationship, the seductiveness of a guide leading you through something you don't understand. Binhammer always feels like a supplicant at the feet of his wife, which, of course, is probably not the best marital dynamic.
"Angels" by Black Mountain (from the album In the Future)
If Hummingbirds were a movie, this would be playing over the credits at the end. This song is gritty, but still lyrical, and one of the key lines calls for angels to "lay their haloes down." I think that reflects an underlying sentiment in the book. In high school, teachers and students alike are supposed to be comporting themselves with a kind of rigid moral rectitude—but experience tells us that no one (adult or teenager) comes through the battlefields of high school with his or her halo intact.
Joshua Gaylord and Hummingbirds links:
Armchair Interviews review
Booking Mama review
The Dartmouth review
Jack Pendarvis review of the cover flap
Library Journal review
MostlyFiction Book Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
The Roaring 20s review
S. Krishna's Books review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)