June 4, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Teddy Wayne's novel Kapitoil succeeds on so many levels, it's hard to believe the book is his debut. Told innovatively through its Qatari protagonist's journal entries, Kapitoil explores both corporate greed and the power of language in this smart and heartfelt novel.
The Boston Globe wrote of the book:
"Teddy Wayne has written one of the best novels of my generation. Free of the traps recent fiction writers have fallen into — uninteresting, paralyzed, dysfunctional characters; inorganic plots stemming from too narrow an appreciation of reality; overwritten language that pretends to be lyrical as a substitute for clear thought — 'Kapitoil' cuts through our cultural moment as sharply as Evelyn Waugh's 'Scoop' or 'A Handful of Dust' did for their time."
Music plays a large role in Kapitoil. The Qatari protagonist, Karim Issar, is exposed to several musicians and genres he has not previously encountered, mostly through Rebecca, his American colleague. Karim's prior engagement with pop music was confined to the Beatles, whom his deceased mother loved and played for him as a child. Rebecca introduces him to the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics he analyzes; she takes him to an indie-rock show of an anonymous band; and he also overhears or is otherwise reminded of some of the most popular songs of 1999, the year the novel is set in. Here's the playlist for songs that appear in Kapitoil in some form, minus one Beatles song that might spoil a plot point near the end if you read it:
Bob Dylan is overrepresented here because he's my favorite musician by a wide margin, but also because his lyrics represent something new to the somewhat robotic, logic-minded Karim: the possibility of contradictory, muddled, "blended emotions," as he puts it. This song is rife with it; Dylan has described it as not "a love song. It's a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It's as if you were talking to yourself" ("But I wish there was something you would do or say / To try and make me change my mind and stay / We never did too much talking anyway / But don't think twice, it's all right"). It also has one of the more wistfully beautiful finger-picking melodies in Dylan's arsenal. In my iTunes library, I have 22 variations of it, including live versions and covers (I recommend Mike Ness's, and in looking for the nonexistent original on YouTube, just came across a ukulele version by Sophie Madeleine, on whom I've just developed an inevitable crush). I sort of like it.
Another wistfully beautiful one. Karim, from an Arab country, perks up because of a line in the chorus—"My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums"—but then he fixates on the image of "warehouse eyes" and asks Rebecca what it means. She doesn't give a definitive answer, and he's forced to confront another system of language (complex metaphor, in this case) that doesn't yield its answers so easily. I've always paid attention to this line because of the close reading Christopher Ricks applies to it in his book Dylan's Visions of Sin, in which he also acknowledges the linguistic impossibilities and pleasures of using a noun as an adjective.
I'm not as big a fan of this song's lyrics, which wear its political affiliations a bit too openly on its sleeve, but I do have an affection for some of Dylan's early, stripped-down, Guthrie-like songs. The harmonica is an underrated instrument.
Karim focuses again on another image—"Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm"—and "mentally link[s]" the simile. This song also has the gorgeous simile "It's just the way things change, like the shoreline and the sea." Cohen's not bad with this rhetorical device; in "Sisters of Mercy" (not mentioned in Kapitoil), he uses one of my favorites: "If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem." The angelic backup female vocals are also an incredible counterpoint to Cohen's melancholy voice.
His most famous song, so I felt a little foolish using it in the book, but I did so more because of another line Karim submits to a close reading: "And she shows you where to look / Among the garbage and the flowers." I've always liked the conflation of garbage and flowers (waste is a major motif in Kapitoil), and it reminds me of a reading of The Crying of Lot 49 my professor gave in a college lecture about the reincarnation of waste, which I later reincarnated in a grad-school paper. Rather than recapitulate it, I'll copy the relevant section here and drive off any readers who have gotten this far:
These castoffs follow the competing models of Oedipa's paranoia: either everything means something, or nothing does, and garbage contains all our secrets and codes or shall simply return to dust. While individuals cannot formulate meaning out of waste, waste itself, like the hairspray can that knows where it is going, does have an idea, forming one of the few optimistic threads in the novel. Genghis Cohen has made dandelion wine from dandelions in a cemetery that is now gone, and the wine is a product of its past associations with the human waste of skeletons: "'[I]n spring, when the dandelions begin to bloom again, the wine goes through a fermentation. As if they remembered'" (79). Though Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" "shows you where to look / Among the garbage and the flowers," in Pynchon's work the garbage is the flowers.
Genghis and Leonard Cohen, together at last in mediocre critical essays.
Yes, it's a little corny in its earnestness, though I do like that melodic upturn on the piano at the end of the main riff.
Karim's white coworker, who fetishizes Japanese culture and also loves jazz, calls their other white coworker, as part of a joking putdown, "straight-up racist," which is an allusion to this line from "Fight the Power": "Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / You see straight-out racist, that sucker was simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne" (most people, including me and Public Enemy's own Web site, mishear it as "straight-up racist" instead of "straight-out racist").
Karim sees one of his coworkers illegally downloading a mashup of "Beast of Burden" with "Livin' La Vida Loca," called "Livin' La Beasta Burden," which, as far as I know, has never actually been made, but I liked the idea of mixing a classic song from colonial England with a contrived, heavily commercialized pseudo-Latin song. I'm also not ashamed to admit that I like the Bette Midler cover.
Yes, this was inescapable in 1999.
As was this. It also launched the trend of Auto-Tune.
So as not to end this playlist on Cher, this is the song that I used for my book trailer and which many people have asked me about. Beulah Purple was an unsigned Arizona band that recorded 13 semi-psychedelic rock songs from 1998 to 2002, all of which are here; my other favorites are "Truth," "Before You Know," and "Monkey." Frontman Mark Purcell still makes music and is also a film director and producer.
Teddy Wayne and Kapitoil links:
Barnes and Noble Review review
Boston Globe review
Houston Chronicle review
The Millions review
Publishers Weekly review
San Diego Union-Tribune review
[tk] reviews review
Tottenville Review review
BlackBook interview with the author
Codex essay by the author
GQ interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Page 69 test for the book
The Rumpus interview with the author
The Sisterhood interview with the author
Time Out New York
Vanity Fair interview with the author
Wall Street Journal essay 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 the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists