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July 7, 2010

Book Notes - Suzanne Rivecca ("Death Is Not an Option")

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

Suzanne Rivecca's short fiction has been praised by Lorrie Moore (who called her a "a wonderfully lively and fearless new writer") and earned numerous comparisons to the work of Mary Gaitskill.

Death is Not an Option is Rivecca's debut short story collection, and features seven tales of innocence and innocence lost. The understated elegance of Rivecca's prose perfectly suits the emotional heft of her themes, as does her sense of humor that balances out the darkness in these riveting stories.

Elle wrote of the collection:

"In her debut story collection, Death Is Not an Option (Norton), Pushcart Prize winner Suzanne Rivecca offers up seven bold narratives about the struggles we go through to ID other people, and in turn, ourselves. Rivecca’s refreshing tales, laced with biting humor and ’90s pop-culture references, cohere around the ideas of deception—public and personal— and, notably, lapsed Catholicism."


In her own words, here is Suzanne Rivecca's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Death Is Not an Option:


It's difficult for me to articulate what Death is Not an Option is about. When pressed, I usually say it's about disaffected Catholic Midwesterners. This is the explanation I gave to a nice Florida couple I recently struck up a conversation with while riding a New Orleans streetcar. The husband said, "Does this come from personal experience? Were you a Catholic in the Midwest?" I said yes. He reached out, patted my shoulder, and said, "I'm so sorry."

While my go-to encapsulation might be a charmingly self-deprecating and reliable sympathy magnet, it's not exactly true. It serves as a rather sheepish acknowledgment of the superficial similarities my characters share: their religious and geographic background, their gender, a certain chronic disenchantment. But this isn't what the book is about. When I look beyond the obvious, the seven stories in Death is Not an Option form a pattern of emotional evolution. Each protagonist is a little bit older than the last, and a little bit abler to face her true motivations and agendas. They each represent a phase in an imaginary Kubler Ross-esque scale: the Stages of Self-Definition. The fantasist college girl in "Yours Will Do Nicely" courts the dark romance of victim status, even as it alienates her from the love and intimacy she craves. The title story's fatalistic high school girl, Emma, whose favorite SAT vocabulary word is "futility," doesn't know how to define herself beyond the oddly comforting, well-worn groove of her outsider status. Despite a history of sexual abuse, Kath of "Very Special Victims" furiously rejects the role of victim; the social worker-in-training of "It Sounds Like You're Feeling" draws sharply stratified lines between herself and the "insane" people she's supposed to be helping; and the grade school teacher in "None of the Above" wants so badly to be a savior that she can't see the truth when it's staring her in the face. Victims and saviors, the unsaved and the unsaveable, and the tendency to hide, from oneself and others, behind the protective coloration of those roles: I suppose that's what the book's about. It's hard to spit that out to strangers on a streetcar. I've been writing fiction since I was five years old. At first it was an addictive form of escapism; and then, gradually, it evolved into the opposite of escapism. I am driven to discomfit myself with my writing. And the music that informs my work is similarly discomfited and discomfiting, lyrically and even aurally ("It sounds like you're listening to a tape of howling cats," my sister once complained as I wrote, blissfully lulled into productivity by my choice of musical accompaniment, in my bedroom). The songs below are a medley of victims, victimizers, wannabe saviors and real saviors. They are the musical midwives that birthed a book hopelessly indescribable to nice people from Florida.


1. The Innocence Mission, "Umbrella"

I first heard this song in the car with my father and sister when I was 14. Even though I barely understood a word—the lead singer of The Innocence Mission has a very odd voice, quavering and beautifully distorted as a waterlogged organ, a chanteuse's warble turned inside out and slowed down until the vowels distend and throb—I remember being transported, riveted and terribly moved by the way the vocals and piano interacted. Karen Peris' voice, equal parts ethereal lassitude and sweet, deliberate purpose, clutched at the chords' choppy scaffolding at one moment, only to slip away voluptuously the next. The song sounds like a child's piano recital—a dogged, dutiful banging of keys—hijacked by a plaintive siren with a story to tell. Upon finally learning the lyrics, I realized the song was about isolation, self-protection, and the fear of contagion that follows serious trauma. This ain't Rhianna's umbrella. No shelter from the storm, this, but a piece of armor that separates the speaker from the rest of the world: "I wear it like a crutch, to the ground, like a shade, and nothing comes down on me." If the protagonists in Death is Not an Option had their own theme song, this would be it: a half-ironic ode to the self-imposed shields that keep us remote, unknowable, and, as the song says, "saved from scarring anybody else."


2. Sufjan Stevens, "Holland" and "They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)"

Like me, Sufjan Stevens grew up in West Michigan. The region consists of a swath of cities bordering Lake Michigan. Life there is defined by a seasonal schizophrenia. The summer frenzy of resort towns, with their Coast Guards and parades, their makeshift, rusty amusement park rides hastily erected by the train tracks, their beaches filled with the pasty and affluent denizens of Chicago, gives way to snow-covered, iced-over silence in winter. "Sleeping on Lake Michigan/Factories and marching bands," Stevens sings in "Holland," a song named for a town whose infrastructure relies largely on its tourist-friendly recreated Dutch village, complete with Klompen dancing showcases and an annual Tulip Time Festival, incongruously existing within a landscape of towering grass-tasseled dunes, boundless lakes, and drifting seagull feathers. "They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black" evokes urban poverty in Muskegon, where I, along with Emma in the book's title story, went to high school: a once-thriving industrial town that began to deteriorate with the closing of its mills, automotive manufacturing plants, and factories. The verdant/industrial weirdness of this part of Michigan—settled by the Dutch, it's a sea of Calvinistic blondeness ameliorated by the occasional row of dark migrant-worker heads bowed in a blueberry field—is both enchanting and disturbing. It's the ancestral home of mountain lions, for instance: they were hunted to extinction a hundred years ago by loggers and industrialists, but in recent years, like cheated heirs returning for their birthright, they've been coming back to haunt the desiccated graves of the industries responsible for their exile. The tornado in "Consummation," the rogue tiger and murderous raccoon roaming the countryside in "None of the Above," the mythologized icescape of Isabel's lost home in "Look Ma, I'm Breathing": with these atmospheric details, I strove, like Stevens, to do justice to the tempestuousness and contradictions that inform the place where I grew up.


3. Cat Power, "Water & Air"

No other musician has provided such constant, steady, and reliable accompaniment to my writing as Cat Power. From the first time I heard her, when I was in my early 20s, I've been held in thrall by her oddly melodic disharmony, the disjointed, abstract dreamscapes of her lyrics, and especially by her voice, with its unaffected, raw, distinctly American inflection: even though she's Southern, her singing voice has always sounded bluntly and guilelessly Midwestern to me. She's been getting more bluesy and mainstream in recent years, but my favorite songs are her earliest ones, when she was at her most gloriously atonal, her voice a fitfully tuned instrument singing to itself, exploding occasionally into a full-throated and heartrending wail. "Water & Air" is an aimless, meandering song with a hypnotic refrain: "Oh to be at the bottom of a river/below the dark water/the devil all around." To me, it's a song about drowning, about wanting to drown for the dark romance of it, for the weightless thrill of succumbing to the siren call of your own shadowy, unexplored depths. For years, I've listened to this song over and over again as I wrote. It doesn't have a catchy hook or attention-getting rhymes to distract me; instead it draws me into a state suitable for mining the subterranean motives of characters who suddenly can't hide from me, or from themselves, any longer. It's a song that lulls with one hand and disarms with the other. Perhaps it's this combination of qualities that makes Cat Power such a no-fail soporific for my friend's sleep-resistant toddler daughter.


4. Bob Dylan, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"

Although he purports to dislike Dylan's voice, my father owns almost all of his albums on vinyl. I grew up listening to them on our record player in the basement. I was always taken with the shambling narratives of Dylan's longer songs: "Desolation Row," "Hurricane," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and especially "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." I first heard this song when I was about twelve, and I loved the way it told a story, its disenchanted, bemused first-person voice, weary and lost, caught in a mood that blurs the line between bohemian wanderlust and forlorn displacement. The voice's wan bravado—"I'm going back to New York City/I do believe I've had enough"—epitomizes the deep-buried yearning of an unreliable first-person narrator. The speaker adopts the guise of an advice-giver, but ends up inadvertently revealing himself. Like Katrina in "Yours Will Do Nicely" with her lie-riddled love letter, like the memoirist in "Look Ma I'm Breathing," who invents a self-serving rationale for her inexplicable actions, Dylan's narrator doesn't quite understand, or doesn't want to understand, what he's done and why.


Suzanne Rivecca and Death Is Not an Option links:

excerpt from the book ("Good Samaritan Points")

Counterbalance review
Elle review
Sacramento Book Review review
Time Out New York review


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)
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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