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September 21, 2010

Book Notes - Charles Yu ("How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe")

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

Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the rare book I pick up to read the first several pages, then decide to drop everything and finish at once. Emotionally resonant, funny, and as clever as any book I have read all year, this debut novel heralds the arrival of a talented young writer unafraid to take chances.

In the New York Times, Ander Monson wrote of the book:

"You might be forgiven for thinking that this setup smells strongly of vintage Douglas Adams. It does. Like Adams, Yu is very funny, usually proportional to the wildness of his inventions, but Yu's sound and fury conceal (and construct) this novel’s dense, tragic, all-too-human heart. "

In his own words, here is Charles Yu's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe:

The novel is about a time machine repairman who lives and works in a place called Minor Universe 31, which was damaged during its construction and, as a result, is only 93% complete. Inhabitants of MU-31, because they live in an unfinished universe, have been left with a lingering sense of incompleteness. All of which is to say, the approximate mood of the book is this:

(slight melancholy + tinged with somewhat frequent humor) x the 1980s

Or at least I hope it is.

I wrote a good chunk of the book with headphones on (I can't call them earbuds, that sounds too silly to me), listening to my first generation white iPod from 2002 or thereabouts. There are all kinds of overlapping spaces in the book (a shower-sized time machine, a smallish universe, a book-within-the-book, and the protagonist's own mind), all of which are, at certain times, supposed to feel psychological and interior in nature. With the headphones, I was hoping that by putting the music directly into my own head I might get more direct access to that interior-feeling-space. So some of the songs below were piped directly into my ears, and some I just listened to in the car on the way home from work.

"Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" by Arcade Fire

I know nothing about music in any technical sense. I'm a purely emotional listener, and what I often find myself doing is going back to bands or musicians who can conjure up emotional clusters that I wish I could conjure with my writing. This song makes me feel a feeling I might call Autumnal Anticipation. Wait no, that sounds like the name of a bad cologne. What I mean is, this song makes me feel this amazing surge of nostalgia for how I used to feel about the fall season, growing up, and how I still feel about it now. This is what I imagine the protagonist, Charles Yu, is feeling, as he goes back into memories of his own adolescence.

"Somewhere Only We Know" by Keane

Whenever I wanted to dip my head into a big bowl of melancholy, I would blast this and sing along.

"In A Little While" by U2

Whenever I was feeling a little too doused in melancholy, I'd splash this song on my face. It's like an uplift antidote.

"Astair" by Matt Costa

I'm going to embarrass myself by using non-musical and stupid terms to describe why I loved to write to this song, but here goes. I loved to write to this song because the lyrics and the guitar playing feel extremely articulate. It just feels really precise to me, especially the way Costa sings the consonants in his words. I wanted that to seep into my brain and make my prose more precise and articulate and musical.

"One Is The Magic #" by Jill Scott

I get goosebumps when I hear the horns at the start of this song. I don't know what it is, but this song feels inhabited by something otherworldly and spiritual. Some people have told me Universe 31 feels bleak and desolate. If that's the case, I think that was a failing on my part, because I wanted it to feel mysterious and lonely and yet also a place where unironic belief was still possible, which is what this song makes me feel.

"Stars Fell on Alabama" - Billie Holiday's rendition

Hearing the scratchiness of the recording, and of her voice, I feel like I'm listening to music made in a remote universe, one that is no longer accessible from here.

"Mansard Roof" by Vampire Weekend

Okay, obviously that's a lot of sad stuff. I had to balance it with some happier music. I listened to this entire album straight through at least once a day every day for probably 4 months, but especially this song, because of the incredibly melody, and the lyrics which seem kind of literary, and above all the velocity. It just gets me going.

"Happy Valentine's Day" and "Dracula's Wedding" by Outkast (but really Andre 3000)

Partly for the sheer verbal energy, but mostly because I wanted to remind myself: don't be afraid to be really, really weird. Whenever I was feeling like my syntax or ideas were getting too conventional, I'd listen to The Love Below and remember that, if the experience (of listening or reading) is basically a pleasurable one (because of the beat, the rhythm, the story, the prose), things can be very weird and people will still put up with it. The trick is the pleasurable part, of course. I don't know if I always pulled that off, but at least I wasn't shy about being weird.

"Think About It" by Flight of the Conchords

Just like I hoped Matt Costa would seep into my sentences and make them more articulate, I hoped that the Conchords' funny would activate the dormant humor lobe in my brain. Unfortunately, I don't think funny works like that. Beyond just being funny, though, I'm amazed at how the Conchords are able to take conventions of certain song genres (e.g., the "social consciousness" song, the "outrage at urban blight" song) and parody them in such a way that although the lyrics are satirizing the song-type, the song itself is actually a good example of that kind of song. They leave the structure intact, while using the lyrics to subvert the genre, if you will. This is somewhat analogous to what I tried to do. Although my book is not a parody of the SF genre (more like a love letter to it), it is an attempt to tell a meta-SF story while at the same time telling a competent science fiction story, too.

"Baby" by Justin Bieber feat. Ludacris

Just kidding.

"Across the Universe" as covered by Fiona Apple

I listened to this song for hours on end while writing and revising the book. The way she drags out the syllables is almost psychotropic. I would put this on repeat and just lose myself in it, feeling like she was dilating time for me, stretching out a song to cover a whole universe.

"Somebody" by Depeche Mode
"Oh L'amour" by Erasure
"Forever Young" by Alphaville

Because if you were a boy who went through puberty in America in the '80s, there's a good chance you pined for someone to one or all of these songs. Especially the Alphaville song. These are the songs I imagine Charles Yu hears in his head on the rare occasions when he allows himself to admit his crush on TAMMY.

Charles Yu and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Barnes & Noble Review review
The Book Smugglers review
Boston Herald review
California Literary Review review
Financial Times review
GeekDad review
io9 review
Literary Musings review
Los Angeles Times review
Neth Space review
New York Times review
SF Signal review
Siphoning Off a Few Thoughts review

CNN review of the book
The Daily Beast profile of the author
GeekDad interview with the author
GQ interview with the author
Owl and Bear interview with the author
Papercuts profile of the author
Suvudu 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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