August 27, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
As inventive with language as any novel I have read all year, Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan is simply one of the year's standout books. This satirical sendup of the publishing industry is incredibly clever and funny. Literary allusions abound in this wonderful book.
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:
"Wonderfully mischievous…as soulful and morally committed as it is funny and clever…If The Thieves of Manhattan were nothing more than a boisterous skewering of the crisis-ridden publishing industry—a soft target already lampooned in countless romans a clef—it would still be a gas. But Langer has grander existential plans…Read The Thieves of Manhattan once, and it’s a wild ride through a ripping yarn. Read it twice, and you’ll discover that Langer, unlike his unworldly protagonist, is a subtly cunning foreshadower of plot and theme."
I'm not a writer who thrives on silence; I avoid it as much as I can. My best and most spirited work tends to happen in noisy settingsbusy—cafés, bars, my apartment—and I almost always need musical accompaniment. Each book I've written has come with its own soundtrack, one that gets me into the minds of my characters and the themes I'm addressing. When I was writing Thieves of Manhattan, I conceived it as a sort of kick-out-the-jams, improvisational, rock 'n roll album recorded in a weekend at some grimy makeshift studio—you know, the sort of album for which a band plans to record one song, then comes out 72 hours later with more than a whole album's worth of material. For Thieves, I was writing a quick, energetic, savage satire about truth and fakery and I needed music to reflect that mood and those themes. Here's a selection from my playlist:
"Girl, You Know It's True," Milli Vanilli
For a while, this was going to be the title of my novel. It sounded almost perfect—reminiscent of a heartfelt Wally Lamb novel, yet totally disingenuous. In addition to having the most unintentionally funny title in pop music history and inspiring a pretty lame music video, this is still a surprisingly infectious ditty. I ultimately decided "Thieves of Manhattan" was a better title, but I let Milli Vanilli provide the opening epigram for my novel.
"My Sweet Lord," George Harrison
It still seems somewhat funny to me that this earnest statement of faith wound up being the one song in Harrison's repertoire that inspired a major plagiarism lawsuit, the result of which was that Harrison had to turn over royalties for having unintentionally lifted portions of The Chiffons' hit "He's So Fine." Part of the inspiration for Thieves of Manhattan came from all the allegations of fakery and plagiarism swirling around authors during the early part of the 21st century, and this tune provides the title for one of the chapters in Thieves.
"I Hope You're Happy Now," Elvis Costello
Much of Thieves was written while I was marooned during a blizzard in a spooky Chicago apartment in which I blasted Costello, whose acerbic wit and lovelorn rage provided an apt fit for the mindset of my novel's narrator, the hapless writer Ian Minot. I remember when this song came out on Blood and Chocolate. Some friends of mine found this album to be a regression after the sweeping ambition of King of America. But I never cared for King of America, thought it was pretentious and maudlin, while I considered B & C a welcome return to Costello's late 70s form. 25 years later, my opinion hasn't changed, which shows either a remarkable consistency of taste or lack of maturity on my part. This is a great kiss-off song, part of a great tradition of such songs, which for me would also include John Lennon's "How Do You Sleep," Keith Richards' "You Don't Move Me," and half a dozen songs by Elvis Costello.
"She's Your Lover Now," Bob Dylan
I can't think of any songwriter who has written as brutally as Dylan without losing a sense of humor. I could have chosen any number of Dylan songs to exemplify the world view of Thieves—"Motorpsycho Nightmare" and "Positively Fourth Street" come to mind—but I love these lyrics, and Dylan's sarcastic phrasings give credence to the statement he once made to a Time Magazine reporter that he was every bit as good a singer as Enrico Caruso. Favorite line: "You just sit around and ask for ashtrays/Can't you reach?"
"I'm Easy," Keith Carradine
A beautiful mélange of romance and caddishness, Carradine's song and his performance of it in Robert Altman's movie Nashville provides one of my favorite musical moments in cinema. On one hand, the song is lovely, plain-spoken and true as it both mimics and transcends early 1970s singer-songwriter tropes. On the other, when Carradine introduces the song by saying, "I'm gonna dedicate this to someone kinda special who just might be here tonight," he knows perfectly well that there are at least three woman in the audience who will think the song is about them, and, despite the song's apparent naked honesty, the performance is a breathtaking act of passive aggression.
"Fingerpult av Gerhadsen," Kommune
One of the inspirations for Thieves was the 2006 Joachim Trier film Reprise, a hilarious and heartbreaking story of two young Scandinavian writers. I loved the energy and the comedy of this film, reminiscent to me of both Run Lola Run and some of the early films of the French New Wave, and I wanted to write something that would have the same sort of spirit. In the opening sequence of the film, a punk band performs this ridiculous and propulsive song, translated as "Finger-F**ked By The Prime Minister" and, though I couldn't find the film's soundtrack, I played the YouTube video of it often while I was writing.
"Pirate Jenny," Lotte Lenya/Nina Simone
In Thieves, Ian Minot meets a former book editor with a nefarious plan to scam the publishing industry and exact his revenge. I can't think of a better revenge fantasy than this story of a washerwoman who imagines a pirate ship laying waste to those who have mistreated her. Whether the lyrics are in German by Bertolt Brecht or in English by Marc Blitzstein, this Kurt Weill song possesses breathtaking power and always inspires me.
"Alles Wird Gut," Die Toten Hosen
Sometimes when I'm trying to write a complicated passage, song lyrics can distract me. Which is why I frequently blast non-English songs. My wife, a native of southwest Germany, turned me on to Die Toten Hosen a long time ago. She's really not a fan of the music, but I still am.
"Susie Before Sunrise," Stan Ridgway
For me, no songwriter encapsulates the ironic noirish sensibility of Thieves better than Ridgway, the former frontman of Wall of Voodoo. His best songs, which for me include "Don't Box Me In," "Going Southbound," and "Peg and Pete and Me," work like concise, pulpy short stories. Whenever I hear this song, I imagine a closing shot of a movie followed by a fade to black and credits. When Thieves of Manhattan is adapted for the screen, I'll suggest this as the closing tune.
"Stolen Car," Beth Orton
I love to road trip and there's one particular road trip that's central to Thieves as Ian Minot travels in the backseat of an Opel Manta with a hooligan librarian and a foul-mouthed manuscript appraiser. Right now, this is my favorite road song, which is why I listened to it while I was writing.
"Carry On, My Wayward Son," Kansas
Whenever I try to get into the mind of a character, I try to imagine a theme song for him or her. For Ian Minot, it's "The Imposter" by Elvis Costello. For the Romanian short story writer Anya Petrescu, it's the Stephen Sondheim song "I Never Do Anything Twice," from the film The Seven Percent Solution. For Faye Curry, the hip, sardonic barista and art forger with a surprising taste for bombastic 70s rock, I was imagining this song. She quotes from it in the novel.
"Fables of Faubus," Charles Mingus
Part of my reason for providing my own soundtrack for my novels is to feel that I have control of my environment, and one of the worst things that can happen is for some awful, unexpected sound to destroy my mood. I hated my Verizon-provided ringtones, which totally ruined my mindset whenever the phone rang while I was writing Thieves, so I downloaded this Mingus tune, whose loping and mischievous tone helped maintain my mood even when the phone was ringing.
"And He Slayed Her," Liz Phair
As I said, everything I write usually comes with its own soundtrack, and as I write this essay, this is the song I'm listening to from the new Liz Phair album Funstyle. Listeners and critics have said really harsh things about this loopy, self-released disc that's part Exile in Guyville and part stand-up comedy album, but it's growing on me, and, to my mind, this is the best song on it.
Adam Langer and The Thieves of Manhattan links:
Austin Chronicle review
Author Scoop interview with the author
AV Club review
Barnes and Noble Review review
Beattie's Book Blog review
Chamber Four review
Chicago Tribune review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Daily Texan review
Dallas Morning News review
Financial Times review
Literary Kicks review
Los Angeles Times review
New Yorker review
Newcity Lit review
San Francisco Chronicle review
The Second Pass review
Thought Catalog review
Time Out New York review
The Washington Post review
Huffington Post interview with the author
Jacket Copy interview with the author
Jewish Daily Forward profile of the author by Joshua Furst
Lena's Lit Life interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Newark Star-Ledger interview with the author
Powell's Books Blog guest post by the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author
Three Guys One Book guest post by the author
Time Out New York profile of the author
Weekend Edition profile of 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)
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