February 11, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Adam Haslett's debut Union Atlantic is a relevant and powerful novel about the financial collapse of the past decade from both personal and national perspectives.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"The eerie overlap of Haslett’s narrative with current events in the American economy gives "Union Atlantic" unusual impact. This timely novel demonstrates not only how the financial crisis happened but why — by documenting the intersection of big, blunt historical forces with tiny, intricate, cumulatively powerful personal impulses. Businesses become too big to fail, Haslett suggests, because individuals fail one another, in a snowball effect."
Though music is never far when I'm writing—running through my head, accompanying scenes, calling me to take a break and listen instead of type—I don't actually have it on as I work. But it is the first thing I turn to at day's end. Having spent five or six or seven hours at the desk composing sentences, listening for their rhythm, editing and listening again, what I want most is the repose of gorgeous sound to lift and empty me. The list below, then, has two elements: the music that I would use to score my novel Union Atlantic if it had a soundtrack or playlist, and the music I played over and over each day after writing. I'll start with the novel's playlist.
Journey, "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)"
Ah, for the heady days of 80s stadium rock in all its feather-haired reactionary machismo! ("Someday love will find YOU, break those chains that bind YOU!). It is the sound of Doug Fanning's youth in Union Atlantic before he enters the Navy. The over-produced guitar, the angry, wounded voice, an anthem for sore, white Reaganite youth. And probably the last music he bothers to buy, as the sensual side of him shuts down.
New Order, "Leave Me Alone"
From the incomparable Power, Corruption, and Lies. Here I'm engaging in a small cheat. Union Atlantic is set in 2002 and so Nate Fuller, the teenager who gets a crush on Doug, a guy now in his thirties, would probably be listening to some dreadful Phish song as he got high with his crew. But because it was New Order and the Smiths that accompanied me through my high school days, I have to list it here; it was the music I had in mind writing his scenes. "You get these words wrong. I just smile."
Aaron Copland, "Fanfare for the Common Man"
Doug's neighbor is the reclusive, retired school teacher Charlotte Graves, a battle-ax of an old liberal who's enraged that he has built a gaudy mansion on land her family used to own. She's all for Copland, and the ironies of his being a Jewish, socialist, homosexual émigré who's credited with creating "the American Sound" in classical music in the 30s and 40s. When she hears "Fanfare" played at a banquet for bankers, she decries the loss of historical context and the piece being reused as congratulations for pirates.
Elliott Smith, "Happiness"
The second half of this song, when Smith turns from his characteristic downbeat story-telling to an unvarnished cry of mournful longing is my favorite passage in all his music. "All I used to be will pass away/And then you'll see/That all I want now/Is Happiness for you and me." It puts an ache in my heart every time I listen. To clear away the awful weight of the past and start anew. And yet one can hear in the voice the unlikelihood of that coming to pass. Charlotte Graves' one true love, back in the 1960s, was a philosophy major and dope addict named Eric. This is his song: a Vicodin dream of getting it all fixed, tomorrow.
Daniel Thomas Davis, "Two Prisoners"
While I was writing my book, my sister, Julia Haslett, was working on a documentary about the French social activist, philosopher, and mystic Simone Weil. Daniel Thomas Davis was the composer who scored that film. For its last scene, when the viewer learns of Weil's death and a more personal loss of my sister's, he composed one of the most haunting pieces of piano music I've ever heard. Spare, raw, elegiac but without a hint of nostalgia, it's flat out beautiful. These are the notes I would play for Charlotte Graves' last scene.
Radiohead, "Pyramid Song"
Nate Fuller, the gay kid in the story, does get his chance in the end. A chance to be with a kid his own age. To stumble gently, a little high, toward a bit of (perhaps passing) happiness. It's in a dorm room, late at night, and the music playing is the voice calling out through the dark orchestral swirl of my favorite track from Amnesiac. "There was nothing to fear, nothing to hide."
The opening quartet of Homogenic is my favorite sequence of Bjork's music and for a remarkably long stretch of time it's what I listened to every day after work. "Emergency, it's where I want to be," or at least where I felt I was. Never mind that the lyrics make no sense—after a day's writing I'm not after complete thoughts—the pleasure for me is in the orchestration, the layering, the pitch and yelp of that strangely powered voice roving across all that lush instrumentation. It lifted me up and emptied me out and that's what I needed.
Death Cab for Cutie, "For What Reason"
As is clear by now, I've got a melancholy streak. But I like it best when the melancholy has energy (see Donna Summer). The spurned lover's lament in "For What Reason" is more than complaint ("When your apologies fail to ring true/You're so slick with that sarcastic slew/Of phrases like ‘I thought you knew'"). It's a driven, melodic little hammer of a song, and I could listen to it five times a day, as I often did in the latter stages of writing this novel.
Adam Haslett and Union Atlantic links:
Band of Thebes review
Boston Globe review
Dallas Morning News review
Denver Post review
New Republic review
New York Times review (by Liesl Schillinger)
New York Times review (by Michiko Kakutani)
New Yorker review
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Time Out New York review
USA Today review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review
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