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.
Matt Bell's short fiction collection How They Were Found was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and didn't disappoint. These short stories may defy genre classifications, but Bell's literary talent is not to be denied. Exhilarating, unsettling, and imbibed with a rare degree of humanity, this is one of the year's most rewarding short story collections.
The Rumpus wrote of the book:
"Bell brings us everything: symbolism, futurism a la David Ohle, devastation, surrealism, scenic energy, fractured fairytales, consumption, struggle, claustrophobia, and family decay. But this is not to say How They Were Found spreads itself too thin or is too chaotically varied; Bell knows how to keep his world in check, his every word balanced against another, delicately, like a system of weights."
I am never very long without music: These days, I'm in my office ten or twelve hours a day, and the stereo is almost constantly on. I listen to a lot of new music, and my tastes in music are always shifting, which made writing this essay harder than maybe it had to be. It was important to me not to list a dozen songs I might really be into as a writer right now, but rather to look back to the year or two I spent drafting the stories in How They Were Found, and to try and remember what I was listening to during that time.
Thankfully, music has such a big influence on my daily life that it's inevitable that some songs or albums had more direct impacts on certain stories in my book, and I've listed below five of those that I remember from my time spent doing the primary writing of the book, mostly in 2008 and 2009. Rather than writing a single paragraph about a dozen songs, as seems the Book Notes standard, I thought it might be better to do something slightly different, and try to tell the story of how I came to a song through a piece of writing, or else how a piece of music helped shape some part of a particular fiction. Here are five such pieces of music, and also how they came to be a part of my life as well as my book.
The longest story in How They Were Found—"His Last Great Gift," which weighs in at about forty pages—is based on the historical story of John Murray Spear, a nineteenth-century preacher who tried to build a mechanical messiah (which in my story is called The New Motor) based on instructions delivered in a series of visitations by the ghosts of the founding fathers. There's only one book on Spear that I know of—The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear by John Benedict Buescher—which I read a small part of while researching the story (I was more interested in creating from his story than trying to render it accurately, so my story should be taken as only loosely historical).
I first heard about Spear through the fantastic blog Dark Roasted Blend, which did a post on Spear that included some great art by two artists I know nothing else about, Vladimir Tsesler and Sergei Voichenko from Belarus. (I borrowed their last names for two of the characters in the story, in part because I wanted to recognize how their art became part of the obsession that had planted in me the seed of the story.) The only other notable mention of Spear I know about is this song, which I found only several months into writing and rewriting my story, during a quick google search for some possible detail or another. "Dream of the New Mary" takes a different tack of Spear's story altogether, by focusing on the woman who was meant to bring his machine to life rather than Spear himself: " She does not know the life she made / She did not see it when it moved / She lies there spent and disarrayed / And the New Mary falls asleep /And dreams the world has been remade."
It was great to hear their song for the first time when I did, already months into my own obsession with Spear and his mechanical messiah, and is just as great to listen to now. I don't think about Spear the historical figure very much anymore—that obsession morphed through the writing, so now my Spear is a different person altogether, and when I think of the story I think of my version, not the "real" one—but from time to be reminded of that initial burst of mystery that set me in motion, and "Dream of the New Mary" is able to do that, just as revisiting that Dark Roasted Blend post is.
One of the elements that ties the stories in How They Were Found together is exhaustion: The world in many of these stories, or the roles the protagonists take on, have to be pushed to the end somehow, where they break to reveal some other possibility or consequence—for instance, in one story, an unemployed factory worker becomes a detective to solve a drowned girl's murder, while in another a man whose family has been murdered obsessively indexes the murders of his father, mother, and brother, trying to determine the causal links between them, as well as the probable method of his own impending murder. This song seems similar to me, not in specifics but in the feeling behind those details: The song's narrator says over and over, "If you don't love me, let me go," creating a doubt that needs to be solved one way, or another—better to be loved, sure, but if you can't love me, don't pretend to try—and also provides a method for ending the tension himself:
And I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones
That verse has always stuck in me, and—outside of the song's own narrative—makes me think of my own obsessions, my own needs to put them down on the page and write and rewrite them in such a way that they'll stay there of their own accord, so that I don't have to carry them around anymore: To no longer be obsessed with this character or this voice or this image or set of sounds. It'd be impossible to be a writer without carrying some of these things around inside me, but it's sometimes just as impossible to feel ready for the real world if I let myself get too full of them. "Trying to rid you from my bones," indeed. What else is there to do with stories, and what's the chance of ever succeeding?
The last story I wrote for the book, "Wolf Parts," is a fragmentary retelling of Red Riding Hood, written by taking a series of elements from the older versions of the fairy tale—the girl, the wolf, the grandmother, the woodsman—and permutating them over and over into new combinations. One of the elements I didn't remember until I did all this rereading were these stones that appear in some old versions—for instance, in the Grimm, the girl and the grandmother fill the wolf's body with stones so that it cannot run, so it eventually dies—and so I wanted to be sure I got those stones into my versions. I was also listening to a lot of Okkervil River at the time, including this song, which I think could just as easily be read as a pretty fantastic fairy tale. There's a description of a girl in "A Stone"—"when that queen’s daughter came of age, I think she’d be lovely and stubborn and brave "—which has always stuck with me as both terribly sad and strong, a certain kind of woman I think I've been drawn to in fiction and probably in life. The avenging version of Red in my "Wolf Parts"—just one of many possible Reds—was influenced by this description, and I even borrowed that series of adjectives for describing her in this small scene:
The wolf did not see the girl again, not for many years. When she returned, grown lovely and stubborn and brave, he himself had declined, aged and weak. He was not sorry for what he’d done—he was a wolf, after all—but still he cried out for mercy. The girl acted as if she couldn’t hear him, scowling as she twisted her own ropes around his body, binding him still before setting to work on him in the same fashion he’d once intended for her—with sharp objects meant to cut, meant to tear, meant to render meat separate from bone.
It's a small theft, but one I hope is in the spirit of fairy tales, which are, at their heart, not a single story but a spectrum of retellings, an endless series of versions to which elements can constantly be added and removed, often in just this fashion.
It's not all being inspired directly by music, of course: Sometimes, the story leads you to the music. This album by E.S. Posthumus is one I listen to all the time, especially when I'm working on something where vocals would be distracting, which is any time I'm revising or rewriting, especially. I don't know much about the band themselves, except what can be read at their Wikipedia page, and I've never heard any of their albums except this one. I found this—somehow—by reading a lot of cartography entries on Wikipedia and elsewhere, trying to pick up some of the conspicuous language necessary to correctly render the character's world in the opening story of my book, "The Cartographer's Girl." When I found this album, I also found this text that came with it:
In 1929, the ancient map Piri Reis was discovered in Constantinople. The map is extraordinary because it depicts bays and islands on the Antarctic coast which have been concealed under ice for at least 6,000 years. What civilization was capable of such exploration that long ago? On "Cartographer", we imagine that these explorers were from the tiny island of Numa in the Southern Indian Ocean. As advanced seafarers, they navigated every corner of the Earth. We have created a language unique to them and tell stories through song that describe their creation, discoveries and ultimate demise.
How great is that? And so I downloaded the album, and found in it something like what I was in the process of creating: A music album meant to invoke the feels of a map which depicted what it could not possibly depict, to be listened to while I finished and then rewrote and rewrote a story about a map meant to help its reader find what might possibly never be found.
How many writers have listed a Neutral Milk Hotel song at Book Notes? Seems like nearly everyone, and here's one more: There's no other band that has influenced me as much as Neutral Milk Hotel, no other band's songs that consistently crush me quite as completely as theirs. A couple years ago, I wrote a 400-page novel draft inspired by In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, drawing on my interpretations of the album and my imaginations of a more mythical version of Jeff Mangum, a man with probably enough myth around him already. A few excerpts from the novel were published, but I never sent the finished book anywhere: It was, in the end, too derived, too borrowed, and of course it couldn't best the original that inspired it. Still, it was working that novel draft that taught me to write every day, that set in motion the good habits that produced all of the stories in How They Were Found.
Of course, it wasn't like I completely escaped their influence or inspiration: One of the earliest-written stories in the book, "Ten Scenes From a Movie Called Mercy," was started after a morning spent watching a series of Neutral Milk Hotel-inspired videos, at a website called Tomatoes and Radio Wires. The video there for "Two-Headed Boy" (by Jessica Dodd)—which I don't think I'd ever watched again before today, and which cost me about two hours of searching to find again for this post—clearly provided a couple of the images that seeded that story, including one I was aware of (the man walking toward the camera, down the hallway) and one I had forgotten, of the sun viewed from the bottom of a lake or river.
I at last got to see Mangum sing a few songs two years ago, at the excellent Elephant 6 Holiday Tour stop in Detroit. I was still revising that novel at the time, still hoping to make it somehow work by tearing it completely apart, by imagining it anew, and seeing Mangum happy and whole upon the stage, seemingly in possession of all his powers, was a revelation, but not the revelation I expected: Despite all the music and the magic and the myths, in the end, he's just a guy, just like any other. I mean, sure, he was extraordinary in his recklessness as an artist, in what he was willing to put into and onto each album, but that's perhaps where his powers ended. The rest is just a story we tell about him, because otherwise all we have is the music.
It's a good lessons—one that meeting other writers and musicians and artists always reminds me—that these things of great beauty that we venerate as listeners and readers can be done by anyone, anyone who is willing to put in the time and the effort and to give and give and give of themselves without reservation, even if it involves risk, even if there will be cost, even if there will be no more left when the thing is finished. That's how I think Aeroplane was made. It risked everything, and that risk made it beautiful.
Matt Bell and How They Were Found links:
The Believer review
Hayden's Ferry Review review
The Hipster Book Club review
Outsider Writers Collective review
Pank Blog review
The Rumpus review
Word Riot review
Art & Literature interview with the author
The Faster Times interview with the author
Fictionaut interview with the author
Metazen Blog interview with the author
Powell's Books Blog interview with the author
Redivider interview with the author
The Velvet 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