March 19, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jeffrey Rotter's debut novel The Unknown Knowns has already earned him comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and praise from Colum McCann and Jennifer Egan. Rotter's clever melding of the post 9/11 hysteria of Homeland Security with his quirky protagonist's life results in a deeply satisfying book that is often as touching as it is filled with humor and political satire.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"The title of Rotter's first novel recalls merely one of the many atrocities our previous administration committed against the English language. At first glance, Donald Rumsfeld's brow-cinching formulation regarding intelligence reports might seem an easy target in a satire about (among other things) the way America has handled threats to homeland security in the last eight years. But Rotter's perceptive and humorous story goes beyond the obvious sendup to explore the private and at times desperate ways his characters strive to secure their own homeland, from the borders of their bedrooms to the cargo of their dreams, showing how the logic of personal rhetoric is never far removed from the political. "
Listening to music while I write is about as helpful as playing Pole Position while driving. I'm a highly suggestible person, so the minute I hear a melody, my prose rhythms start to follow the beat, and before I know it my narrator is talking like Freddie Mercury.
Which would be awesome except that the narrator of my novel The Unknown Knowns is no Freddie Mercury—not by a long shot. Jim Rath is a 38-year-old resident of Colorado Springs whose life and marriage are going to shit. In his grief, Jim retreats to a lost aquatic world of his own imagining. Nautika is a gentle, matrilineal society informed by Rath's affection for second-wave feminism, the Aquatic Ape Theory, and Prince Namor.
Each of these songs concerns a fairy-tale world that—like Nautika, like Jim Rath's fragile world—is threatened by sinister forces.
"Flash's Theme," Queen
At one point in The Unknown Knowns, Jim Rath is renditioned to a CIA black site. Drugged, blindfolded, he bolsters his crumbling ego by pretending he's Galactus, Marvel Comics' planet-eating supervillain. Queen should have written Jim's prison soundtrack. As Ming the Merciless sez: "I like to play with things a while before annihilation!"
"Parachute," Pretty Things
The Aquatic Ape Theory tells us that our early African ancestors were driven by famine or predation into the sea. Jim Rath expands on the theory, suggesting that these aquatic humanoids founded Nautika, a domed city of milk-glass spires. But don't look for it. Nautika was annihilated when Mount Etna erupted in 1509 BC. "Parachute" was recorded by British dudes in 1970 AD, but it reads like an epitaph for our fallen aquatic cousins. "White ice towers, slow dissolving, now fall…/Warned first by the gathering shadows, they fled/from wide vapor deserts/they turned towards the sea." Dude.
"Space Cowboy," The Jonzun Crew
The Jonzun Crew was an eighties electro outfit that wore football shoulder pads covered in glitter glue. When I was 15 this single convinced me that America would one day be a utopia of synthesizers and chrome helmets. And in a way I was right. The summer after "Space Cowboy" came out, I was working a construction job in Columbia, South Carolina, and got to watch a solar eclipse through a welding mask!
"Old World," The Modern Lovers
Jim Rath is a child of the '50s apartment house, bleak in the 1970s sun. Postwar suburbia as utopia? It doesn't get any more speculative-fiction than that.
"Ninety Day Cycle People," Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Get very high and try to imagine the awesome funk album Jorge Luis Borges might have recorded with Clyde Stubblefield. Then get even higher, and you might begin to approach the sonic majesty of Charles Wright's strange utopia. These Ninety Day folk enjoy a lifespan of about three months, during which time they squeeze in all the sensations and thrills of a normal life.
"Somebody Come and Play," The Kids
Yeah, Sesame Street. Here the fragile fantasy world is childhood itself. Then again, what fantasy world—from Oz to Manhattan—isn't just a metaphor for childhood? Like the Kids of Sesame Street, Jim Rath desperately wants his wife to join him in his delusional sandbox. Alas, she'd rather play with a guy named Josh from her office.
I have to end with this one, because it actually was written as a soundtrack to The Unknown Knowns. With lots of help from my friends in (or formerly in) Obits, GvsB, and Tuscadero—and one foam-rubber volcano costume. As the great cosmologist R.J. Dio once said, "Look out!"
Jeffrey Rotter and The Unknown Knowns links:
Boston Globe review
Columbia Free Times review
Dayton Metro Library review
The List review
New York Times review
Oxford American review
The Rumpus review
The Skinny review
Arts Desk profile of the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Five Chapters short story by the author
Fogged Clarity interview with the author
Granta articles by the author
The Page 69 Test for the book
Papercuts music playlist by the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists