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April 15, 2010

Book Notes - Leslie Jamison ("The Gin Closet")

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

Leslie Jamison's debut novel The Gin Closet is an emotionally intense tale of dysfunctional families and alcoholism told by a niece and her aunt.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"Fans of chick-lit be warned. In spite of a recognizable framework and archetypal characters, "The Gin Closet" is no escapist fantasy but a slow and steady heartbreak. It is also exquisitely beautiful. Jamison writes like a poet, her imagery breathtaking, her sentences unfurling unpredictably, to the novel's devastating end. "

In her own words, here is Leslie Jamison's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Gin Closet:

Bonnie Prince Billy, "The Way"

This song pulses with a steady heartbroken hunger. Will Oldham is basically crooning: "Love me the way I love you…" over and over again. I got attached to a particular moment in the lyrics ("let your unloved parts get loved") when I was 21 years old, in the middle of a tortured relationship with a tortured poet, locking myself in bathrooms when we fought. I thought nothing truer had ever been said about love: it meant getting seen, for all your shame and weakness and damage, and being cared for in this wholeness. I still pretty much agree with this—though that relationship, as it turned out, needed more help than these lyrics could offer. In any case, I wanted to write a book where people loved each other's unloved parts, where damaged folks found refuge (sometimes, too much) in the flaws and needs of others, and where all this could ache and glow with the cold raw beauty of Oldham's song.

Regina Spektor, "Summer in the City"

I've always been impressed by the fact that this song's most musically beautiful section coincides with some of its least appealing lyrics: "And the castrated ones stand in the corner smoking / They want to feel the bulges in their pants start to rise…" Which isn't a way of saying that my book is about eunuchs, but rather that this song has been one of my maestros in the yin-yang alchemy of gorgeous ugliness. This lyric nausea is something my book is pretty thick with: characters get drunk in closets and beg bald strangers to fuck them and rub oil over other peoples' scars. The song actually has quite a bit in common with my novel: "telling strangers personal things," feeling anger at the sight of a beautiful woman, repeating the word "lonely" multiple times in a row, coming and crying at the same time.

Nine Inch Nails, "Closer"

To tell the truth, I'm especially thinking of the music video here. Who wasn't blown away by this fever dream? The monkey on his crucifix, the beating heart hooked up to its mother-machine, Trent Reznor standing in front of a slab of hanging meat that looks like a pair of bloody angel wings attached to his back?* There's a grotesque poetry to the visual imagination here—as if the darkest parts of someone's subconscious had been forced at gunpoint into a parade—and I felt my book trying to do this, to find images and languages for a sort of pain that felt nebulous, beyond context or event. "I want to feel you from the inside" could be an anthem for the novel: characters are always trying to get inside each other's skin—literally and figuratively, by way of empathy and injury—and sometimes they fuck like animals, too.

*Credit to my boyfriend for this analysis.

Tori Amos, "Jackie's Strength"

A confession: my book is shamelessly about female business: sex and bodies and eating, and no one is more "about" these same issues than the inimitable Tori Amos—with her attention to angst and flesh, her ever-changing hair. Little Earthquakes was my first CD and shuttled pretty constantly back and forth between boombox and Discman. It took me about fifteen years to realize I should feel self-conscious about liking Tori as much as I did. All I can remember is that the most popular girl in my ninth-grade class sat down and talked to me for half-an-hour (the first and only time) after I told her that Tori Amos was my favorite singer.

"Jackie's Strength" is good for the book because it seems to be about a woman making a frame around her own sadness by linking it to the sadness of other women, historical women, and "Jackie's Strength" is the deliciously shameless, and possibly (but only possibly!) ironic name for this frame. Think: Bouvier-cum-Kennedy, blood-stained pink Chanel, 1963. The song is about wounds as advertisements: "you're only pop-u-lar with ano-rex-i-a…" I'm interested in this notion, and so is my book.

The Young Rascals, "Groovin'"

The chorus to this song includes the phrase "life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly," which I've always heard as "you and me and Leslie." What does this mishearing mean, exactly? I'm not sure. I suppose I fantasize about being fantasized about. I love the idea that a work of art—book or painting or song—could suddenly and invasively be about a stranger, someone encountering it with little expectation of being addressed so explicitly. This song doesn't really evoke the mood of the book but it does speak to my enduring tendency to find myself everywhere, a tendency that many of my characters happen to share. They find cosmic validation or damnation in the smallest signs around them—the graffiti image of a bulimic dog in a parking lot, a mural of Western pioneers on the outer walls of a seedy casino. And perhaps there is something of the book in the "would be" of the lyrics—the notion that happiness is only available for to the imagination when it's kept elusive by an ever-present hypothetical. That's what the book is, in many ways: the promise of would be thrust again the heartbreak of what is.

The Walkmen, "Red Moon"

There is haunted loveliness to this song: a feeling of cold salt wind, a blade of nostalgia, a tidal roll of yearning. I've always heard it as a very simple love song, but that might simply be my very simple ears: I miss you / there's no one else / I do / I do. (At first I thought it was: there's no one else I'd do… which is a different flavor of romantic.) I listened to this song at the end of one relationship and the beginning of another. I wanted to believe in this kind of desire: I miss you. Only you. That's it. I once scoured the internet to figure out whether the lead singer had a girlfriend, because I wondered whether I had any chance with him—any chance of being missed like this. But there's difficulty in this song too: And you shine like the steel on my knife… This steel-glow is a difficulty I'm fascinated by: how pain glitters, how instruments of pain reflect the light, how there's some beauty in what wounds us. I'd call this pain a double-edged sword, if the metaphor weren't already claimed by pocket-knife. But love can feel this way, like something sharp in the heart—and I was a cruel god with my characters, often driving the knife deeper before I offered any respite.

Leslie Jamison and The Gin Closet links:

the author's website
the author's page at the publisher
the author's bakery
Facebook page for the book
excerpt from the book

Bermudaonion's Weblog review
BNF: Best New Fiction review
Bookchidi review
Bookforum review
Bookviews by Alan Caruba review
Buffalo News review
Diane von Furstenberg review
Diary of an Eccentric review
Mrs. O'Dell Reads review
New Haven Advocate review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Sasha & The Silverfish review
Slog review
Time Out New York review
Vogue review

The Daily Iowan profile of the author
The Lit Show interview with the author
NPR Books essay by the author
The Page 69 Test for the book
Simon & Schuster interview with the author
Three Guys One Book guest post by the author
Yale Daily News interview with 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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