August 31, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jacques Strauss's The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. is a stunning debut novel. This coming-of-age story astutely captures South Africa of the late 1980s through the eyes of its eleven year-old narrator.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Strauss's often-hilarious debut captures a remarkable period of time without resorting to any heavy-handed political messaging. And in Jack he has created an unlikely, and utterly believable, voice of a generation."
'Bohemian Rhapsody' - Queen
In 1980s white South Africa, nobody, but nobody was as cool as Freddie Mercury. And nobody, but nobody suspected for even a minute that Freddie was not a white, virile heterosexual of the first order. Perhaps we were rather sheltered but I don't recall anyone ever suggesting that the word 'Queen' could be used to refer to anything but a monarch. My father was perhaps the biggest fan of all, though I hasten to had that Freddie's sexuality would have been of little concern to him. He has shown an unusual proclivity in spawning gay children and being a very laid back sort of guy, it seems to have been of little consequence to him either way. (Some might suggest that his choice in music would lend credence to those who argue that homosexuality is a consequence of nurture not nature. As a homosexual I don't really like the genetic theory. It's a bit like Darwin reaching across the ages and slapping me in the face. Please do not procreate. I prefer to think that my gayness is a choice and stands as a testament to my outstanding strength of character. Anyway, that is a discussion for another day). Much like Jack in the book, I too had a fascination with executions, in particular the rituals and other minutia of all forms that where then still practised. So it was unfortunate that my father's favourite Queen song was 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' It would drive me into a horrified frenzy: 'Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth. Mama, ooh, I don't want to die.' The song would always make me imagine my own execution, which for reasons too long and complicated to get into here, I thought was inevitable. And my mother, being a very decent sort of mother, would no doubt, out of her very decency, be forced to bear witness to her son's demise. I still have a complicated relationship with Queen. (In fact, I could probably choose a Queen song for every moment in the book – but for fear that a potential reader out there is not a Queen fan – heaven forefend – I won't).
'America' – Neil Diamond
Another incident in the book based on my own experience was my father's belief that fate could grant you no greater kindness than making you a citizen of the United States of America. He was very much of the mind that we were new world people and would adapt very poorly to the ways of the old world. Therefore my parents regularly got drunk and hatched plans for the family's imminent departure (children of course do not fully appreciate the extent to which half a bottle of whiskey can impair the cognitive functions of otherwise sane adults). Once all the arrangements were satisfactorily concluded, he would play 'America' very, very loudly. My parents' sometimes incoherent, always inchoate talk, together with Neil Diamond's poetry led me to believe that we would arrive in America by ship. Our family, tired and hungry from our perilous journey away from benighted South Africa, would fling ourselves at the feet of the Statue of Liberty and sing, 'Sweet land of liberty – of thee I sing – of theeee I siiiiiiing! Today!' and the people of America would welcome us (as the strings swelled in the background) and we would sing, 'Far - we've been travelling far, without a home, but not without a star,' and the people would take us to our five bedroom house in Manhattan and feed us bagels and we would laugh and be happy, because now we were Americans. Jesus, I'm not always sure how I managed to graduate from high school.
'Nightswimming' – R.E.M.
The connection between this song and the book is, I grant you, rather obscure. On the last day of university my friends and I finally did what we had been threatening to do for three years: break into the swimming pool of Nerina (a women's hostel) and skinny drip. At some point someone switched on a radio, which happened to being playing 'Nightswimming' (this was not much of a coincidence because the campus radio station played very little but R.E.M. in 1998, but anyway … ) We of course were drunk and spooked and thought this massively portentous in the only way that a people who have a propensity for religion and other shit could be. And for all of us that night, the song took on a ridiculous significance such that we can't hear the first piano chords without tearing up. It's totally pathetic. I am not, as a rule, either melancholic or nostalgic, but to borrow a phrase from the greatest movie ever made (Stand by Me) it was the last time, 'We knew exactly who we were and where we were going.' South Africa, to me anyway, seemed a brighter place back then than it does now. But on the other hand, the very nature of our small rebellion (breaking into a swimming pool and skinny dipping) is so sweet and innocent and charming that I can't help but wonder whether we weren't just better, brighter more innocent people. I left South Africa a few weeks later. If you play 'Nightswiming,' it's a bit like taking a chisel to the memory of my youth and cracking it open, and a South Africa, long since gone (most of it mercifully) comes flooding back. For better or worse, it was still my youth, and sometimes, if you're a little drunk, it can make you cry.
'You Are My Sister' – Antony & the Johnsons
The relationship Jack has with his sisters is not entirely dissimilar to the relationship I have with my own. When I look back I am still astonished at how, within the course of a day, sometimes less than that, an hour, these relationships could alternative between genuine tenderness and real cruelty. I didn't ask my sister to watch me as I slept though. I reckon that's more of an Anthony & the Johnsons thing. Except there was that one time when I borrowed a bootleg copy of The Exorcist (still banned in South Africa at the time) and the movie freaked me out so much that I had to sleep in my baby sister's room for a week. When my mother found out she grounded me.('Age restrictions are there for a reason, young man') and then pointed out that if Satan really did like possessing young girls then sleeping in your sister's room was a piss poor defensive strategy. I regarded my sister with new eyes after that. Previously she was a pain – now she was a potential portal to hell.
'Hamba Kahle Mkhonto' - Freedom Song
It wouldn't be giving anything away to say that at the end of the book, Susie, the family's maid, disappears out of their lives. When I was writing the last few chapters I listened to this song often. If you haven't heard it, it's haunting and beautiful and well worth looking up. It was traditionally sung at the funerals of Umkhonto we sizwe soldiers (Umkhonto we sizwe was the military wing of the ANC and its name means 'Spear of the nation'.) The first line loosely translates 'Go safely soldier'. Sometimes you know people are disappearing from your life forever. Sometimes you realise it after they've gone. Of these people, a few have died, mostly of AIDS, which speaks to some of the particular dangers that South Africa poses not to political activists or soldiers but ordinary and often very poor people for whom life in South Africa is, and always will be, a struggle. But of course, it is not only South Africa. Jack and I share the sentiment that the universe can be a mean and capricious son-of-bitch. And so, if as an atheist I have a prayer for someone I care about who disappears from my life, for whatever reason, it is simply this: Go safely soldier.
'Love Is a Stranger' – Eurythmics
In the book Jack falls in love with many people including Amie, Chad and an entire family consisting of a father, a son and a daughter. He feels something sexual for Petrus (his best friend) and lusts after his sister's friend Nicola. Jack, not unlike me, epitomises polymorphous perversity. It is little wonder that we look back with such envy on our younger selves – it's not just that we were more beautiful and more resiliant – even the sex acts were better. The sexual experiences of one's childhood are so heightened by guilt and shame that it's enough to make one yearn for religion and innocence that one can again experience the carnal pleasure of the forbidden touch. I long for the magnitude and novelty to be restored to the act of sex that it does not require the co-operation of ever more, and ever more unfamiliar, participants in an incremental progression toward outright depravity. Without religion we are doomed not to a childhood, but a lifetime of polymorphous perversity that we may find any of the pleasure so abundant in the first acts of sex. Having said that, I loathe, absolutely loathe falling in love (something which I do as easily as catching a cold) It is savage and it's cruel and it distorts and it deranges. What Ms. Lennox does not mention is that it is humiliating and undignified. At university, I fell hard for an almost stranger (let's call him Samuel). I lay awake at night, agonising about how I might proceed. The scope for action which might be considered normal was so limited, so narrow, that an act of any kind, should its trajectory be miscalculated by even the smallest margin, might easily have become a faux pas of socially, perhaps psychologically damaging proportions. There were no pretexts for direct action. In those evenings I wondered bitterly how it was possible that the entire social order, a thing of such complex interactions and intimacies, could be built when suitable pretexts were in such maddeningly short supply. When I discovered that he was a Derrida enthusiast, I considered that the laughable drama of my infatuation might be played out on the stage of the contemporary French scene. This would be apt, after all, who would be more attentive to the turn of a phrase as it sailed forth, never quite striking where it ought to?
Jacques Strauss and The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
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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)
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