April 22, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
J.C. Hallman's debut short story collection The Hospital for Bad Poets is at once timeless and essentially modern. On the surface Hallman's characters are seemingly common people, but all have fantastic and engaging tales to tell.
Time Out Chicago wrote of the collection:
"There's something decidedly old-fashioned about Hallman's stories. At times, he's formally inventive, but the way he wrestles directly with ideas reminds us of authors like Kafka or Gogol."
I originally thought finding songs to associate with each of the stories in The Hospital for Bad Poets would be well nigh impossible. I asked my girlfriend for help, and she was as lost as I was. We stared at each other for a moment, then decided on a radical course of action: alcohol. We walked to a famous bar near our apartment – a joint rumored to have been frequented by Fitzgerald during the Jazz Age – and set our minds to work over a couple of Pilsner Urquels.
It turned out to be incredibly easy. And maybe a little embarrassing. The stories in The Hospital for Bad Poets are unusual – occasionally fantastic – but nevertheless they come from a variety of phases in my life and associating songs with each of them revealed the highs and lows of my, and my girlfriend's, musical evolution.
Which might be the purpose of this whole exercise.
Like a Surgeon – Weird Al Yankovic
Title story first. The title of the book comes from a Nietzsche quote; the story itself is actually a defense of modern poetry. It's kind of a jokey story, almost like a skit, taking literal inspiration from what Nietzsche surely meant only as metaphor. As such, the first song that came to me for this one was Weird Al Yankovic's send-up of Madonna, "Like a Surgeon." Lest you think that's not serious, please recall that Weird Al went to Stanford. And check out how young he is in the video. I almost hate to admit it, but I once saw Weird Al "in concert," if you can say that. I was sixteen, on a date with a girl who was fourteen, and I believe she had the softest lips of any human being I have ever encountered. Thanks, Weird Al!
Space Oddity – David Bowie
The collection opens with perhaps its weirdest story, "The Epiphenomenon," which is kind of a way of meditating on the "normal." The "average man" protagonist heads to a doctor when he starts to feel unwell, and learns that his everyman status has been undermined by changes in the scientific definition of "normal." For some reason, I thought of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" for this story. It's a lonely song about an abandoned guy, Major Tom, and who knows, maybe some of creepy milieu I tried to give to the story is indebted to latent memories of Bowie's 1969 video.
Happy Christmas (War is Over) – John Lennon
Next comes a Christmas story, "Ethan: A Love Story," about a guy visiting his family for the holidays on the eve of the Iraq war, bonding with his young nephew over the video game Halo. The story ends late at night on Christmas Eve, with the uncle and nephew playing together, so I first thought of "Silent Night," but eventually my girlfriend and I agreed that because it's really an anti-war Christmas story, John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" was much more appropriate. It's not a very good song, but whatever.
Weird Science – Oingo Boingo
"Autopoiesis for the Common Man" borrows from the science of microbiology. The story's young narrator has brief relationships with two older nurses, and each affair is guided Kama Sutra-like by a textbook on the origin of sex in microbes. Accordingly, I settled on Oingo Boingo's "Weird Science" for this one. Oingo Boingo was huge when I was growing up in California, so it fits in more ways than one. The audio is a trip down memory lane, and it's hard to say whether we should be grateful that Danny Elfman gave up the band for the movies.
Pink Houses – John Mellancamp
The story "Manikin" was a tough one for us to settle on. It's about a kid who processes his parents' separation by building a Frankenstein creature out of junk from his family's garage. I intended this as a kind of suburban gothic, so maybe John Mellancamp's "Pink Houses" fits. The song's ur-America seems right, and its "young man in a t-shirt/listenin' to a rockin' rollin' station" might as well be the story's angsty protagonist.
We Are the Champions – Queen
"Carlson's Team" is about a guy who is so convinced that he is a boring failure – at the prospect of parenthood, at his role in a pickup basketball league – that his life might as well be a sitcom. It occurs to me now that Queen's "We Are the Champions" might be ironic, if not actually sarcastic. A quote from the lyrics seems to fit the story in some mysterious way:
I've paid my dues
Time after time
I've done my sentence
But committed no crime
And bad mistakes
I've made a few
I've had my share of sand kicked in my face
But I've come through
Asleep – The Smiths
The Smiths' "Asleep" is a good choice for the next story, "Dalrymple," which is actually on my website. The story's a pied piper fable about a guy who convinces a whole community to fall permanently asleep (read: death) in mysterious containers. The lyrics make a pretty firm link:
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don't try to wake me in the morning
‘Cause I will be gone
Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go.
The video is worth a look, too.
It comes from the era when videos played more like art installations than miniature movies, and the borrowed clip from Midnight Cowboy at the end makes it clear that the Smiths, too, were thinking death rather than sleep.
Hungry Like the Wolf – Duran Duran
"Savages" is about a boy observing his father's affair with a next door neighbor in a row of hedges between the houses. The yard becomes a kind of primal space, and everyone in the story is described in terms appropriate to animals. Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" fits in its imagery. Too, the story's character is a lot like me, and – gasp – I actually listened to shit like this when I was that age. I think I even liked the video.
Love Fire – Simply Red
Fire is as common a theme in music as it is in literature, so I had no trouble at all coming up with songs for "The Fire," a story about two men staying behind after the evacuation of their subdivision to battle a mysterious blaze. The lyrics of Simply Red's "Love Fire" does the job nicely:
Fire fire fire fire
Can't put it out with water
Keeps on burning
Keeps on burning
Keeps on burning burning burning
In my soul
Sex Dwarf – Soft Cell
"Double Entendre" is another very experimental story. I sort of think of it as my answer to John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse," but where Barth was riffing off Joyce's "Araby," I'm trying to criticize the theory behind writing erotic literature. This was another easy one: Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf." The song is pretty experimental itself and yet seems to have something of a cult following. It's a weirdly sexy song for me – maybe just because it came out right when my hormones were transforming my body, and I have a kind of Pavlovian response to it. Soft Cell, you'll recall, was that band that was made up of two guys, a synthesizer, a lot of makeup, and a bunch of special effects sounds. What's surprising about the video is that it's incredibly boring, incredibly unsexy.
Someone should go back and make something more suitable.
My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion
"The Year of the Diva," also online, is the only story in the collection written in response to a song. In the late nineties, I was working in Atlantic City as a table games dealer, and for a while it was impossible to be anywhere in town without hearing Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On (Theme of Titanic)." The story's really a prose poem about a bad storm that hit the city that year, and Dion is the unnamed diva of the title. One night, while Dion was actually playing the hotel where I worked, I ran into her in the back of the house. She was waiting for one of our shitty freight elevators. Everyone in the casino was sad for her because we knew that she was making more than a million dollars for the weekend gig…but her husband had already lost more than that in our baccarat pit.
White Heat – Madonna
Both my girlfriend and I thought of Madonna for "The Jockey," a story about a kid and his girlfriend getting roped into playing the role of "terrorists" in a local SWAT training exercise. (Pretty much a true story, actually.) We disagreed on the song, though. I thought of "Crazy for You" because we'd just ironically re-watched Vision Quest, the Matthew Modine film that I want to say has some of the same identity themes as the story. Plus, the performance Madonna gave as a bar singer in the movie seems, in retrospect, so much like a Madonna-impersonator that one wonders why Weird Al thought he needed to send her up. Anyway, you can see a bit of it in the film's video, and by now in the history of videos – not all that long after Bowie and The Smiths – music videos have become marketing tools. In the end, my girlfriend won the Madonna debate. Some of the lyrics of "White Heat" do seem more appropriate to the story's blend of romance and role-playing:
I don't want to live out your fantasy
Love's not that easy
This time you're gonna, gonna have to play my way
Come on make my day
Two Tickets to Paradise – Eddie Money
The story "Utopia Road" is named after the actual street I grew up on in Southern California. As it happens, I've got a book about utopian thought, In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise, coming out in August, and conveniently for Book Notes, there's a band called Utopia. More on that later. For "Utopia Road," however, I chose Eddie Money's "Two Tickets to Paradise." The live video is a bit disturbing, and it's worth noting that I could have easily picked other songs simply called "Paradise" by Kaci, Sade, or The Temptations, or "Future Love Paradise" by Seal, or "Anyplace is Paradise" by Elvis.
One Night in Bangkok – Murray Head
The book ends with "The History of Riddles," an account of a young couple as they wait in the evening for another couple to come to their home to play a mysterious fad game – something like Trivial Pursuit, but darker. Abba's got a song called "The Name of the Game" with some suggestive lyrics:
What's the name of the game?
Does it mean anything to you?
What's the name of the game?
Can you feel it the way I do?
Tell me please, 'cause I have to know
I'm a bashful child, beginning to grow
But Murray Head's "One Night in Bangkok," written for the musical Chess – it's of the same kind of proto-rap as Blondie's "Rapture" – is maybe better:
I don't see you guys rating
The kind of mate I'm contemplating
I'd let you watch I would invite you
But the queens we use would not excite you
J.C. Hallman and The Hospital for Bad Poets links:
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