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April 23, 2010

Book Notes - Damion Searls ("What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going")

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

Like a handful of record labels with impeccable taste in the acts they sign, I can depend on a couple of publishers to introduce me to quality quality new writers. The Dalkey Archive is an indie publisher that always impresses me with both the writers and the books they publish, and Damion Searls' short story collection What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going is the latest example.

What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going's five stories are impeccably styled and filled with wit and insight. Searls' fiction is fresh and imaginativeand makes him an author to watch keenly in the coming years.

Thanks to Elif Batuman for recommending Searls for the Book Notes series.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"In the parlance of the postmodern classroom, there's a lot to unpack here. Whether these stories constitute a literary leg-pull or a journey of discovery depends on one's enjoyment of such discussions. Searls' book is a potent reminder that we don't always need to know what a story is doing or where it is going to enjoy the ride."

In his own words, here is Damion Searls' Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going:

My book of short stories, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, was written over many years and was mostly inspired by other stories, not songs. So instead of songs that inspired the stories I decided to use the stories to pick the songs. There are two songs per story, because at the end of the book (no spoilers!) you find out that each story has a sort of secret double. First, the book's cover:

Jimi Hendrix, "Driving South" (BBC broadcast version recorded October 6)

Dalkey Archive Press gave the book a mysterious cover, showing someone, or is it two people?, in a car heading into a monochrome psychedelic world. So before the words of the book start, an instrumental track: the best hard-driving driving song I know. If this song doesn't make you want to head somewhere new, you are probably dead.

Bob Dylan, "Meet Me in the Morning"
Belle and Sebastian, "Stars of Track and Field"

Despite what I said in the first paragraph, the Dylan song is what inspired the title of my first story, "56 Water Street." Dylan's first line is "Meet me in the morning / Fifty-six awuhbuwuh." I could never figure out what he was saying but decided to pretend it was "Water Street"; "Meet me in the morning" turned into "I'll see you at five" as the first line of the story. You need to make these changes sometimes. My now-wife, from Minnesota (like Bob), who gave me Blood on the Tracks and later became one of the models for Angela in the story, told me that the lyric is "56th and Wabasha," a street in St. Paul. But Wabasha apparently doesn't intersect 56th—you need to make these changes sometimes.

The story has a flashback to college, when the narrator's dear friend Simon Filigree liked to throw parties and managed to pull off "a sort of cross between Scott Fitzgerald and Belle and Sebastian." So the story's second track is some classic student decadence from B&S.

Van Halen, "Running with the Devil"
Elliott Smith, "Independence Day"

My second story, "The Cubicles," is about a cushy but soul-sucking Silicon Valley job during the dot-com boom. When I had a job like that, I went to a blowout catered industry party that included a private concert from the ultimate dot-com band, Smash Mouth. They phoned in their short set and were about to play the ultimate dot-com song, "(Hey now, you're an) All Star," before collecting their dirty paycheck. "This one's for all of you," the lead singer said, almost visibly suppressing a sigh, to the audience of freeloading carpetbaggers, when suddenly the guitarist started playing the opening riff of "Running with the Devil." The singer turned around in shock, barely kept from bursting into laughter, turned back to us with the first twinkle in his eye all night, and they blasted into an awesome note-for-note cover of the song. I don't know if anyone else in the audience got the joke, but I did. Here's to you, Smash Mouth guitarist.

Elliott Smith was the polar opposite of the dot-com years. I almost picked the track "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud," with more relevant lyrics ("There's a silver lining / In the corporate cloud"), but "Independence Day" has good lyrics too ("Don't go too far / Stay who you are"—the antidote we all desperately needed during the boom) and is my favorite Elliott Smith song. Or one of my favorites. The fact is I've been listening to Elliott Smith basically nonstop for two or three years, with no signs of letting up.

Beck, "Nobody's Fault But My Own"
Velvet Underground, "Ocean"

Pure mood music here. The book's third story, "Goldenchain," is about a marriage coming to an end on a visit to Puget Sound, so here are two watery, mopey songs, all atmosphere.

Bonus Track: Mulatu Astatqé, Nètsanèt [Freedom]

"Goldenchain" also has a long section on the beautiful art of Ethiopian healing scrolls, so here is a bonus track by the great Mulatu Astatqé, from the éthiopiques series, vol. 4. Astatqé's music from the early 1970s is now best known as the background music in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, but he is still active: I am loving his new (2009) album with The Heliocentrics, called Inspiration Information, and everyone should go buy it.

The Bangles, "Hazy Shade of Winter"
Nouvelle Vague, "A Forest"

Two upbeat cover songs for the fourth story, "A Guide to San Francisco." Mostly another intuitive mood choice. But the story takes place under a hazy December sky; the narrator looks into the wall of trees at the edge of Golden Gate Park and see a mysterious forest; and the fact that they're both covers songs, and both sung by women, lead into the plagiaristic and femme-fatale themes of the last story…

Prince, "Raspberry Beret"
The Smiths, "Oscillate Wildly"

"Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems" is the sexiest story in the book and mentions Belgian framboise (raspberry) beer. And really, what's a playlist without Prince?

I love The Smiths and love Morrissey in The Smiths, so it's mysterious to me that "Oscillate Wildly," their instrumental on Louder Than Bombs, is not only just as great as the other Smiths songs but feels the same somehow. Nothing is missing, even though Morrissey is everything and Morrissey is missing. He's still there even though he's not there. That's what my last story is about, in a way, and I thought another instrumental would be a nice way to close the covers of the book and return to the world outside the words.

Damion Searls and What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going links:

the author's website
audio excerpt from the book (the author reading "San Francisco")

BookFox review
Brooklyn rail review
Los Angeles Times review
Own This City review
The Rumpus review
When Falls the Coliseum review

Believer articles by the Author
Identity Theory profile of the author
Omnivoracious interview with the author
Publishers Weekly review
The Quarterly Conversation interview with the author
The Rumpus articles by the author
Significant Objects story by the author
Vice Magazine short story 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)
musician/author interviews
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

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