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July 21, 2010

Book Notes - James Kaelan ("We're Getting On")

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

James Kaelan's debut novel We're Getting On combines two novellas and several short stories to form an engaging, dark, emotionally raw and bold dystopian world.

The first edition of the novel features an elegantly designed simple cover impregnated with spruce seeds, embodying one of the book's themes of living ecologically (and a personal theme of Kaelan as well, of Kaelan's as well, his Zero Emission tour for the book has him cycling 1900 miles on the west coast to readings).

Big Other wrote of the book:

"The language is just concrete enough to make for a quick & smooth read while also remaining poetic enough to avoid any genre labels.The narrative is gritty & unexpected, the characters not inundated with expositional elements but rather cast in quick, shadowed light, the way characters should be written."

In his own words, here is James Kaelan's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, We're Getting On:

My taste in music, as in literature, is specific and narrow--to the point of negligence. I like certain flamenco arrangements of certain operas, but broadly speaking I feel the same about classical music and Russian literature: I want to like them, and they bore me. I have a sort of forced appreciation of Brahms, but I'd rather listen to Blind Willie McTell. As for the expansive, collapse-of-the-aristocracy novels, I'd like to agree with Isaac Babel when he said, "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." But I prefer to think that if the world could write by itself it would sound a little like James Salter: "When he comes back, she is combing her hair. Except for a pair of the cheap, black panties one finds on the counters in Monoprix, she is naked. She smiles at him, a little stiffly, a little uncertain." The world is an awkward, sexually-charged place, bereft of sweetness but full of light.

Maybe instead of glancing at Brahms I'd be happier immersing myself in Wagner or Tchaikovsky (they're more emotional, I've heard), or sifting through John Cage's oeuvre. But I like words. I like when music is surprisingly brutal. Take for example these lyrics from Blind Willie McTell's "Southern Can is Mine," recorded around 1928:

Now lookie here, Mama, let me tell you this,
If you want to get crooked, I'm gonna give you my fist
You might read from Revelations back to Genesis [pronounced as if the word were French]
But get crooked, your southern can belongs to me

The Murderous Cowboy, Edward Rey: "This Isn't the House of the Lord" [mp3]

Years ago I played in a little acoustic duo called The Murderous Cowboy, Edward Rey. The name was a reference to a film idea my friend Nate Smith and I had, a reimagining of Oedipus Rex as a western. We covered a few, old, killing blues songs--Blind Blake's "You Won't Quit Me," Mississippi John Hurt's "Nobody's Dirty Business"--and we wrote and recorded part of an album that descended aesthetically from that Delta hardship music. One of the surviving songs, "This Isn't the House of the Lord," begins:

Honey, where you been?
I know you couldn't have told me an hour ago
Honey, you're so thin
What you been doing that I don't want to know?
What's this mess you're in?
If it's worse than mine, I guess I'll be fine again
Honey, where you been?
Well, this isn't the house of the lord you've been sleeping in

As the publication of my first novel, We're Getting On, approached earlier this year, I started thinking back about the music I'd long since abandoned making. We're Getting On gets its title from Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies, in which one can find passages like, "The mule, in [Big Lambert's] opinion, had died of old age. He had bought it, two years before, on its way to the slaughter-house...[He'd] looked the mule full in the eye, at the gates of the slaughter-house, and saw it could [still] be made to serve." While writing the book, as if conducting some sort of exorcism, I returned again and again to the themes of tyranny and deprivation--even slavery. It occurred to me back in March that I'd been mulling over these ideas long before I started the novel. The characters in We're Getting On end up withering away in a desert. Similarly, in one of the old Murderous Cowboy songs called "Red Dress at a Quarter to Nine," a young man buries his girl after she dies of a gunshot wound or consumption or God knows what. He mourns:

I'm pouring out sand on the grave of Maria
I lost Maria at a quarter to nine
There's blood in my boots and salt in the water
In the red dress I bought her at a quarter to nine
I've come a long way from where I've been
I've come a long way for the shape I'm in

In a sense, the whole novel harkens back to that music I wrote almost a decade ago. So to eulogize that lost album, or to lay to rest temporarily the themes of decay and subjugation I've mulled over, or simply to give those oppressive motifs a little melody, a few months ago I rounded up some of my closest friends--all musicians--and rerecorded the surviving songs live. They're as far from Brahms as We're Getting On is from Tolstoy, for better or worse.

(The album, called Live from Gaza Strip Night--a reference to the first section of We're Getting On--was made available as a free download to anyone who "super-launched" my novel through Flatmancrooked's website. Later this summer, anyone who buys the book can get a download, too. There's awesome cover art and liner notes.)

James Kaelan and We're Getting On links:

the author's book tour blog
the author's book tour events
but a first edition of the book from the publisher
buy a signed edition of the book at Powell's Books
video trailer for the book

Big Other review
Pank review (and resulting e-mail dialogue between the author and reviewer)

Big Other interview with the author
Fictionaut interview with the author
Dreams Can be Reached interview with the author
Flavorwire interview with the author
The Hipster Book Club interview with the author
HTMLGIANT interview with the author
Treehugger 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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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

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