October 19, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
David Bajo's new novel Panopticon is an entrancing, intelligent literary thriller. This beautifully written novel explores "digital omniscience" (as Bajo puts it), and skillfully observes the connection between the observed and those doing the observing.
I have found myself recommending Panopticon to fans of the bestselling journalistic thrillers of Stieg Larsson in my quest to get more literary fiction into readers' hands.
With this essay David Bajo joins Elise Blackwell in becoming the first husband and wife to contribute to the Book Notes series, joining other family tandems Lev & Austin Grossman (brothers) and Peter and Emma Straub (father and daughter).
I don't seek thematic, tonal, or even mood inspiration from music while working on a novel. I worry that the verve of the music might delude me into believing that what I'm putting on the page is equal to the wonder produced by the song, sonata, prelude, symphony, or solo I happen to be listening to. I don't seek any connection between my writing task and the music I chose to work alongside; I don't want to emulate the music and I don't want any particular music to get into my words. Thus, music plays a huge role for me in the years-long composition of a novel. I rarely work without it and whenever I'm out (not writing) and hear a work that impresses me in some way I instinctively begin to think about scenes and characters I'm trying to shape. I write with a landscape in front of me and I want that to be pretty much like the Bonneville Salt Flats at sunrise or an early summer snow storm that gathered before me on a solo drive from Cheyenne to Denver. I don't imagine soundtracks for scenes and I forget all music. Here is what I had to forget for Panopticon.
1. The Dead Man soundtrack by Neil Young
I loved the movie and have listened to Young all my life, but I hated this music during the Jarmusch flick and for a long time after. Legend has it that Young locked himself in a barn with an 8mm cut of the movie and an electric guitar and cranked it out. I listen to it now and remember the visual and visceral impact of Dead Man. Somewhere in that tiny gap between early hate and fatal love is where I want to be.
2. "And So to Sleep Again," Coleman Hawkins' rendition
We think of the panopticon as visual. But as my protagonist Aaron Klinsman begins to uncover the true depths of our collective voyeurism, how thoroughly it cuts into his imagination, what leads him toward that depth is the sudden and mysterious whisper of this Hawkins tune. How would you feel if you found online a visual of yourself accompanied by a haunting piece of music you did not choose or recognize, there for anyone and everyone to experience, beyond your control?
3. "Dayvan Cowboy," by Boards of Canada
Post-rock electronica often sounds one-dimensional, but this group always manages to weave in a dark, enigmatic string. The Bonneville Salt Flats at sunrise put to music, you want to fall into the middle of it, but that just might kill you, Kant's definition of the sublime. In Panopticon, Klinsman fails to sleep for seven days, the duration of the novel. This is what he dreams.
4. "Nada Mio es Fake," by Los Abandoned
Another song that appears in the novel. Klinsman's photographer, Rita Valdez, even quotes a bit of it, needles him with it in bed and in the car. I chose the song and the group carefully because I needed an LA band that had broken up, played the Tarfest, and who weren't really Mexican (they're Chilean). Rita's irked by how writers and artists and movies clump all Spanish-speaking cultures together; her hopes for the emerging panopticon are to somehow readjust that, or at least rescue Mexicans from the paternalistic worldview they have to endure, even in literature (see Bolaño).
5. "Can't Find My Way Home," by Blind Faith
Never listened to this song while writing Panopticon, but whenever I happened to hear it on the radio or on some friend's playlist, I was prompted to think of characters and scenes, to think of an insomniac lost in the city night knowing he is watched, knowing his dreams and desires are made visible for everyone, are at the disposal of anyone. For the seven day duration of the novel, Klinsman never finds his apartment or his car.
6. "Go, Zapata, Go!" or any song from El Vez' Graciasland
While working as a journalist in the borderlands, like Klinsman, I saw El Vez play the Mayday festival in Balboa Park, the Tarfest in LA, and the San Diego Street Scene. He's from Seattle, but he plays the Mexican/American borderlands wherever they may be—New York, Madrid, Chicago, Tijuana. I choose this song because he performed it at the Mayday festival, tearing off seven pairs of tight pants while his Pistoleras sang the titular refrain dressed in hot pants and ammunition belts. What he does is serious and a lot of fun. I'm pretty sure the Pistoleras' guns were loaded. You have to see him live to understand what it is to go to Aztlán.
7. "Swedish Rhapsody," from the Conet Project
Sound artist Nathan Halverson introduced me to the Conet Project. It's the music of the panopticon we now live in, composed of indecipherable codes released by spies all over the world, there to be found, there to find you.
8. "Rothko Chapel #4," by Morton Feldman
I listened to Rothko Chapel a lot while writing Panopticon, and will listen to it many more times as I write future novels. It leads me to that landscape I need, clear of my own words and imagination, window shadows sliding across open floors holding art far greater than anything I could hope to achieve, another perfect soundtrack for Dead Man, in that tiny gap between impulse and contemplation.
David Bajo and Panopticon links:
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