March 31, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Framing its story in a subtle and engaging second person narrative, Manuel Munoz's debut novel What You See in the Dark is a stunning example of modern noir fiction.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"The lyrical prose and sensitive portrayal of the crime's ripple effect in the small community elevate this far beyond the typical noir."
My novel What You See in the Dark is set in 1959 Bakersfield, California, and both Ricky Nelson and Patsy Cline provide necessary background to a few scenes. But my favorite song by those artists—Patsy's magnificently desperate "She's Got You"—wasn't released until three years after that period, and it would feel like cheating to list it here. I also toyed with providing a list that could somehow include Aretha Franklin's "With Everything I Feel in Me" (featuring her trademark belting at the end, as if someone dared suggest she get off the stage) or Laura Nyro's "The Bells," with Labelle singing backup and, in every way, announcing they're ready for prime time. But I couldn't come up with good reasons to tie them into my novel, nor could I justify Bobby Womack or Shirley Brown or the salty Millie Jackson (look her up—just not at work.)
So I went with movie soundtracks—and with good reason. I used to be able to write with music playing in the background, but started becoming increasingly distracted by lyrics. I turned to movie soundtracks because most of them wrapped themselves around a motif and stayed there, doing exactly as intended: provide ambience, set the stage. When I started writing this novel, I sometimes needed to remind myself that cinema does, in fact, do some things that literature simply cannot. Music can't come in to assist us with mood. But rather than rail against this as a shortcut, I relish it, putting my finger on the effect and seeing if I can duplicate it via words.
Chinatown, score by Jerry Goldsmith
The loneliest horn you'll ever hear, ripe in its suggestion of Hollywood, noir, romance, and despair. The score plays over the opening credits, with nothing much on the screen to indicate a time period or a setting—it's up to the music to suggest the mood for a mystery. A knockout.
Taxi Driver, score by Bernard Herrmann
Ominously sexy, it's paired beautifully with New York's erotic neon and the grime of the night city, and jumps thrillingly from nervous tension to longing.
Klute, closing theme by Michael Small
The music lasts less than a minute, but I replayed this last scene endlessly when I was writing the novel. The empty apartment depicted at the end of the film, along with this music, was crucial in helping me imagine where Teresa, one of the main characters, might have lived.
Talk to Her, closing theme by Alberto Iglesias
Another instance where I looked again and again at a film's closing lines and observed what the music did to enhance the meaning. "Nothing is easy," says the character played by Geraldine Chaplin. "I'm a ballet mistress, and nothing is easy." It's a terse line, but delivered with some forgiveness. It made me think about what endings are supposed to do in novels. In the film's case, we get a last dance number, and a reminder of the effort of its choreography.
Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann
A dark, penetrating music that should be more recognizable than the opening credits of Psycho, but its very complexity and its patience probably prevents that. A long stretch of it plays during James Stewart's surveillance of Kim Novak, a beguiling, almost never-ending pursuit that helped me, much more than the peephole in Psycho, in thinking about how people are observed.
The Piano, Michael Nyman; The Hours, Philip Glass; and Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Three Colors: Red) by Zbigniew Preisner
What all three of the scores share in common is the symphonic grandeur I love in films—highly resonant without being over-the-top, emotionally suggestive but still dependent on image or last lines to earn it. I find moments like these to be quite rare in books: the build is slower, and it can sometimes take paragraphs to achieve what films can swiftly suggest (like Holly Hunter staring at her piano abandoned on the shore, Nicole Kidman stepping with determination into the river, or Irène Jacob strutting down the runway). Sometimes listening to any of these made me push for the sharpest possible image or turn of phrase that could match that power of a justly edited bit of film.
Touch of Evil by Henry Mancini
In watching this film again to see Janet Leigh in another context, I fell in love with the opening scene's musical accompaniment to the famous long tracking shot: everything from the rhythmic ticking of a bomb, a traffic cop's whistle, cantina horns, the laugh-sigh of a girl in a passing car, and even some livestock help shape the chaotic, explosive beginning. We can catalogue such background in novels, but can't match how film bundles it together simultaneously.
Nashville, "Dues," as sung by Ronee Blakley
In preparing for a chapter in which one of the characters sings in a cantina, I came back to this (my favorite film) and watched how the camera, by the way it almost imperceptibly closed in on Blakely, showed how a performer could drown so unwittingly in the power of her own performance. Pauline Kael described Blakely's performance in this number as "willowy and regal, tipping to one side like the Japanese ladies carved in ivory." It's easy to see, given her white dress, her swaying to the music, her handling of the microphone's cord as if might help her hang on to something crucial. It's riveting, and somewhere in there is a gorgeous lyric about why any artist would even bother: "Writing it down kinda makes me feel better," she sings. "It keeps me away from them blues."
Manuel Munoz and What You See in the Dark links:
AARP Viva review
Austin Chronicle review
A Circle of Books review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
ForeWord Reviews review
A Garden Carried in the Pocket review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review
Pop Culture Nerd review
Publishers Weekly review
Spectrum Culture review
Three Guys One Book 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