October 21, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jonathan Dee's novel The Privileges is a surprisingly engaging book. Dee's prose has always been compelling, and his dialogue always rings true again in this work, but his ability to captivate with the unlikable characters at the center of this novel (a wealthy husband and wife and their two children) is truly remarkable.
"At the core of this intelligent and ambitious book are questions about values. Dee’s primary message — that the family is essential to society, that we abandon it at our peril — is persuasive. Less so is the notion that uxorious idealism, not greed, might lie behind insider trading. But part of Dee’s appeal is his sympathy for his characters, and his generous tendency to endow them, no matter how foolish or contemptible, with a certain nobility. In any case, Dee’s writing is so full of elegance, vitality and complexity that I’m happy to entertain any notion he comes up with."
The Privileges spans twenty-odd years in the lives of a family called the Moreys, beginning with the wedding of the parents and ending with their younger child, Jonas - who along with his sister April has been raised in conditions of obscene wealth - in college at the University of Chicago. Though by then he has moved on to a scholarly obsession with the world of outsider art, in his high school years Jonas, not unlike his author, was, on the subject of music, kind of a snob. Not your garden-variety new-music snob like I was, though: as a teenage aesthete Jonas becomes convinced that American music – all of which seems so processed and inauthentic to him now – had a mysterious, unmediated heyday in which art itself was more real. In search of this lost paradise he keeps tunneling back further in time, through obsessions with punk, folk, bluegrass, blues, etc. He is the kind of teenager who prides himself on his contempt for other teenagers who don't know who Alan Lomax was. Insufferable? Sure. But at least it's not a pose. By the time the novel's over, his hunt for the mythical headwaters of authenticity has not just marginalized him but almost gotten him killed.
Unlike his creator, Jonas also has actual, if modest, musical ability. He plays guitar in a prep-school band whose search for a suitably ironic name gives the novel its title, and whose members have none of the interest in ideological purity that Jonas does – or, rather, they hold to a more mainstream sort of rock and roll ideology, namely that one plays in a band in order to induce girls to have sex and that's pretty much that. They are proud of their limits, and equally proud of their cynicism, the legitimacy of which Jonas is too much of a priestly geek to recognize.
Herewith, a list of some of the songs that figure in The Privileges – ending with one that, though it appears nowhere in the book, was crucial to the writing of it in a way I hope anyone else who loves that song will understand:
"Sweet Jane" – Lou Reed
One of the songs Jonas's band plays, because it's one of the only songs they can play. I am just going to out myself as a heretic here and say that I keep a mental list called the Inexplicable Pantheon, with overrated inductees from all branches of the arts, and Lou Reed is a charter member. He can't sing, he can't play the guitar, and as far as songwriting goes, have you listened to "Berlin" lately? Or "Street Hassle"? Or "Walk on the Wild Side"? Sometimes simple is an aesthetic strategy, and sometimes simple is just limited. Can someone please explain to me why Lou Reed is at the Royal Albert Hall and John Cale has a MySpace page?
"The L & N Don't Stop Here Any More" – June Carter Cash
I first found this song on one of those old Oxford American Sampler CDs. Nothing but guitar and washboard, and Cash sings it like she's at the tail end of a bad cold. It was written by Jean Ritchie, aka "The Mother of Folk," a native of Appalachia who is now 87 and lives on Long Island. As with a lot of great country music, you can either half-listen to the lyrics and think they're just another old-tymey conservative dirge, or you can really listen to them and feel like your soul has undergone some sort of chemical peel. The verse that begins "I used to think my daddy was a black man" is like the world's most economical short story. (Other finalists in that category: PJ Harvey's "When Under Ether," Gram Parsons's "$1000 Wedding.")
"People Who Died" – Jim Carroll Band
Jonas's band plays this song both because it's easy to play and because it was written by a guy who lived their dream: he had all the punk cred in the world, despite having gone to Trinity, one of their rival Manhattan prep schools. (Jonas and his bandmates go to Dalton). Because of its high-concept lyrical content and its status as the only Jim Carroll Band song anyone remembers, "People Who Died" gets treated like a novelty single. But its frantic speed, its bad soloing, and more than anything the way it walks the line between laughter and anger ("I miss ‘em! They died!"): if someone who had just come out of a hundred-year coma asked me for a mixtape that explained what rock and roll is – not its history, not its greatest achievements, just something that could get across in the simplest terms what it's about – I'd probably put this song on there.
"You Don't Know My Mind" – Jimmy Martin
Jimmy Martin, credited with the "high lonesome" sound that characterizes so much great bluegrass music, was a complete lunatic. Onstage he was like the Cat Power of his day: part of the reason you went to the show was to see if he could make it through the show at all. This song, with its bouncy banjo fill, is like pillow talk from a serial killer: "You say I'm sweet and kind, I can love you a thousand times/Baby, you don't know my mind today," he sings to a woman who is smiling woodenly and trying to figure out whether or not he's already cut the phone line. When Jonas tries to get his band to cover this song, a fistfight nearly breaks out, which is a better homage to Martin than covering the song would have been anyway. I was introduced to his work by my friend Tom Piazza, who went to Nashville to interview the elderly Martin for a magazine article in 1997 and nearly wound up killed.
"Analyse" – Thom Yorke
And this is the song that, in the five or six years I spent writing the novel, I probably listened to ten thousand times. Thom Yorke is one of those singers who sounds at first like he can't sing but then you realize he can really fucking sing. The voice I wanted for the novel had to do more than anything else with narrative speed, with the sense that these characters' lives are moving forward too fast to allow them to give in to reflection, not because that's how life is, but because that's the life the Moreys have built for themselves. Yesterday has nothing to interest them. "It gets you down," Yorke sings against that simple little rising piano line. "You're just playing a part/And there's no time/To analyse." I still feel like this song is the soundtrack to the novel, even if the characters are walking around with their hands over their ears.
Jonathan Dee and The Privileges links:
A.V. Club review
Chicago Tribune review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Entertainment Weekly review
Los Angeles Times review
The New Republic review
New York Times review (by Roxana Robinson)
New York Times review (by Janet Maslin)
New Yorker review
San Francisco Chronicle review
The Second Pass review
Three Guys One Book review
Time Out New York review
Washington Post review
3quarksdaily interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
New Yorker interview with the author
New Yorker video interview with the author
Paper Cuts interview with the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author
Wall Street Journal 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)
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