April 12, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Every January, I scour online recommendations of the year's forthcoming books. Dave Cullen and Laura van den Berg both recommended William Lychack's short story collection The Architect of Flowers, so I immediately added the book to my ever-growing 2011 "to read" list.
In The Architect of Flowers, William Lychack translates mundane, middle class New England lives into mystical passages with his lyrical and poetic prose.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the collection:
"The disciplined storytelling and barbed wit strike a fine balance."
It's a strange game, noodling around with your iTunes, finding that you've played "Golden Slumbers," sung by Ben Folds, 448 times. Or seeing the fact—right there in plain-sight—that you've listened to Radiohead's OK Computer more than 150 times since life began on this new laptop two years ago. Or realizing that Glenn Gould's opening aria from his two versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations have been played back-to-back more than 100 times. God only knows what the stats mean, of course, but the numbers seem to stand as proof of something. For me, the numbers say that there's a soundtrack to all my days and work, and that music trues my emotional tires like almost nothing else in the world. As for the playlist here, all I can say is each of the songs have a certain degree of heart and emotion that I respond to. The earliest story in this collection, "Thin End of the Wedge,” was published in 1991, and I was writing the final story, "To the Farm,” as the book went into galleys, so these songs all seem to call forth a certain sentiment, a certain tone, a certain through-line of care and sensibility and feeling that I kept trying to maintain in The Architect of Flowers.
All right. 8 1/2 is my deathbed movie, the closing march stands as one of the perfect endings in film or literature, and I simply love the uplift of feeling this ending evokes and celebrates. It's puckish, hopeful, and full of imperfect love and messy compassion. The music distills and preserves all the hope and tenderness and joy and sadness that I aspire to in my stories. There's a wild sense of gratitude and mystery and wonder in the music—circus music, really—and I want to read and write stories that have the courage to care and to hope.
As Tom Waits says, "I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things." A creepy little lullaby of hope and sweetness, the video for this song so captures and expands feeling of the piece, that unshakable sense of almost drowning, of holding one's breath, of holding one's breath, of holding one's breath, of holding one's breath and of hoping and waiting and hoping and holding out for some relief or change or survival to arrive at the end. A story works for me if there's that sense of release. I've become mildly obsessed with Radiohead, truly admire the way their music subverts the expectations of a listener, and simply love the way everything seems touched by the same care and raw heart.
Can I even imagine a list that doesn't work Tom Waits—king of all noticers—into the mix somewhere? Is there a day that passes that I don't feel that I am a rain dog, too? Is there a story I've written that doesn't prowl the same rainy streets and junkyards and urge-driven people? Would I not kill small animals for some of his language and details? Is he not one of the stars to which I attach my little wagon? Do I even have to ask these questions?
Cue up a bunch of covers of this song—or of any standard song, really—and then see what catches you, what pulls you, and then try to learn from that. For me, there's something so fresh and appealing to the energy that Ray Charles bring to this. It's living proof that you can't always fuss a thing to life, but you can certainly fuss it to death. In other words, sometimes it's best if you can re-envision a song or a story.
Once upon a time, I happened to be in the company of a celebrated and eminent poet for a day. This esteemed poet—whose work I genuinely admire—was visiting my class and giving a campus reading at the school where I taught. Perhaps it was just me, but I felt that this writer was so awful and cold and belittling and dismissive to the students and to me and my colleagues that it honestly took me an entire weekend to recover or recreate any sense of hope or love for writing at all. This diaper-faced poet had a way of demoralizing everyone, which surprised and demoralized me, and which brought all the Fraud Police back to my door. What restored me was Springsteen, in massive doses, and this song and concert reminded me why I write at all. By Monday I was stronger for the whole ordeal, refocused on mission critical, and ready to untangle all the crap that the great writer left to my class and me.
Almost all of the stories in this collection—"Hawkins," "Griswald," "Like a Demon," "Thin End of the Wedge"—take some central trauma as their starting point. And each story is a character's attempt to lay to rest some loss, or necessitate some accident, or touch bottom on some deprivation, or shake some devil. This is a theme song for exorcising demons.
And if stories don't come out of some identifiable trauma, then it seems they arise out of some fabulous impulse. Literally fabulous—as in fable-like—and stories like "The Old Woman and Her Thief," "The Architect of Flowers," "The Ghostwriter," and "A Stand of Fables" stem from the desire to express some creepy lyricism. Dark and wondrous and tinged with both sadness and happiness (yes, both happiness and sadness at the same time), and the songs on Sparklehorse's album It's a Wonderful Life arrive to me like alien transmissions. One puts his or her ear to the wistful calliope tones of these songs and finds so much emotion and warmth and heart and—oh, here's that word again—gratitude.
William Lychack and The Architect of Flowers links:
A.V. Club review
Boston Globe review
Dave Cullen review
The Hipster Book Club review
Indie Reader Houston review
Kirkus Reviews review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Journal of Books review
Publishers Weekly 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
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