November 17, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sean Ferrell's debut novel Numb is a wonderfully unsettling book that had me on edge from its first page to the last. The book's protagonist Numb appears at a traveling circus one day with no recollection of his former life and the inability to feel physical pain. His numbness becomes the centerpiece of his act, and propels him toward stardom.
Ferrell skews celebrity culture throughout the book, and his dark comedy balances well with the various grisly scenes. The author's true talent is shown in Numb's complex character and his interactions with others, which often left me far more uneasy than any of the bloody sideshow tricks.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"He’s an accident-prone amnesiac, the lead, but his inability to feel pain brings him celebrity; Ferrell’s eye-catching debut is a mordant take on contemporary culture."
Music both motivates and shapes my fiction. It's known that listening to music that moves you, regardless of the type of music, can alter our emotional state. More than that, I use Pavlovian conditioning to jump-start myself: certain pieces of music make my writing-brain start drooling. It is one of the ways I can take myself from a listless, out-of-writing-shape mindset and into a productive state of mind. And with playlists easily created and edited on the go, I find myself shaping characters and scenes in my iPod before they're in my laptop.
My first novel, Numb, was written and edited through a number of listening phases, so when I was thinking of the songs that helped shape and reflect the tone of the novel and its characters, I found a slightly schizoid playlist. Not a bad thing. My main character, Numb, can't feel physical pain. He drifts from hurt to hurt, layers on scar after scar, lets himself be directed by those around him, and ignores his own wants in a misguided attempt to be safe. He abuses his body and is made famous for it. He can't feel pain, but he suffers throughout. If only there were a playlist reflective of this. Oh, wait...
"Numb" by U2
I almost didn't include this song as it's too obvious, too easy. However, it's also very apropos. If there's another song that better describes my main character's emotional disconnect and sense of being overwhelmed by the very world-ness of everything, I haven't heard it. The monotone chanting, the listing of “don't”s, the falsetto backing vocals. This is the sound inside Numb's head. It beautifully illustrates how hard it is to navigate the world when you're submerged from the neck up in ice water.
"Feelin' Alright" by Joe Cocker
Numb's “sidekick” and sometimes best friend is Mal. Their relationship isn't easy or necessarily healthy, but they sometimes have a good time despite themselves. The second chapter involves Numb letting himself be nailed to a bar by Mal in an effort to make some money, and when the bar is full and rollicking and liquor and money is ebbing and flowing over the bar, Numb wants to leave but physically can't as he is literally nailed down. This song could very well be the song playing from the dive bar's jukebox: everything is great and fun and happy except for the fact that everything sucks.
"All Rights Reserved" by The Chemical Brothers
When Numb gets an agent he finds himself pulled into the belly of the pop culture beast. This fast paced song is a bit like the non-stop urgency of more more more now now now that Numb finds himself in. Photo shoots, gallery openings, Hollywood producers and nail guns. Sure he might make some money for all his new scars, but does he get a moment to breathe?
"Past Mistake' by Tricky
Hiko, Numb's lover, was a lovely, haunting character for me to write. There's something in the reverberating piano in this song that makes me think of her walking barefoot through her brownstone, silently down the stairs to her art studio, quietly turning on light after light for no one, not even herself, as she is blind. The promise of “My love for you,” something Hiko gives completely and happily to Numb, is sadly echoed back, as if said to an empty room.
"Magic Door" by Portishead
When Numb arrives in LA, he's on the verge of really understanding himself and his life for the first time. He can't see it fully at first, and nothing seems to fit. Surroundings are both familiar and corrupted with a false light. He moves through LA as if in a fog, following a trail he'd rather not be on, recognizing for the first time that he has no idea who he is. “Magic Door” is a song made of lovely discord, with a message that's both horrible and necessary.
"Overcome" by Tricky
When Numb meets Hiko there is an effortless cool to their time together. Instead of embracing or developing it, Numb plays a part, repeating back to Hiko those day to day symptoms of life together that he thinks she needs or wants. This song, a sad description of emotional disconnect from the point of view of a passionate woman, strikes me as both sexy and sad, a missed opportunity instead of a true connection. In other words, I hear Numb following Hiko around her home, wondering what it is she, or he, wants.
"Fuck the Pain Away" by Peaches
Emilia is a complicated character. She never reveals herself to Numb, but she gives certain impressions that she does. Even the woman he sees in California, the one he almost refuses to recognize is Emilia, might not be any closer to the Emilia than the one he knew in New York. The one thing that is evident is that she uses sex and the power of her sexuality to work out her issues, not to mention her fingernails and the occasional can opener. You want angry? I'll give you Emilia. Which brings us to our next song:
"Wtf?" by Ok Go
When he's with her he's blissfully disconnected. When he's not with her, Numb is.... confused. Not even Mal cutting to the chase about what he thinks Numb ought to do cuts through his inability to reach obvious conclusions. The moment you ask yourself the question this song poses, you probably already know you are going to hate the answer.
"Pills Won't Help You Now" by The Chemical Brothers
Numb spends a lot of time living in hotels. Staring at bad wallpaper patterns and unwrapping every drinking glass that you'll use with ice from a plastic bucket is a bit like voluntary hospitalization, only with less, or different, medication. Numb witnesses his time in these environments as a timeless void. Maybe medication would have been preferable.
"Peur Sur la Ville" by John Zorn
Numb's friend and sometime enemy is haunted by ambitions he knows will never be fulfilled unless he can do something so monumental that it will probably lead to his destruction. His efforts to live fast and leave a beautiful corpse are reflective of the void he carries inside, one that echoes with the faulty machinery running his life. Disturbed and disturbing, this song is Mal's best soundtrack.
"This is the Thing" by Fink
After a trip to California, Numb returns to New York City more self-aware than he probably ever cared to be. This song, with its hurt and humility, oozes with the emotional revelation that Numb practically bleeds as he tries to undo some of the things he's done, and carries those things he knows he can't. Sometimes I think the biggest revelations come in the quietest moments, and for all the sturm und drang of Numb's days, it's the quiet of this song that reminds me of his self-discovery.
Sean Ferrell and Numb links:
The Biblio Blogazine review
Blue Truck Book Reviews review
Boston Book Bums review
Dead End Follies review
Devourer of Books review
Follow the Thread review
Hayley May review
In Lieu of a Field Guide review
Kirkus Reviews review
Musings of an All Purpose Monkey review
New York Journal of Books review
What's on the Bookshelf review
The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog interview with the author
The Debutante Ball guest post by the author
Jessiemac interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
Victoria E. Schwab interview with the author
Writers on Process 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