October 7, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Hector Tobar stunningly captures modern Southern California in his novel The Barbarian Nurseries, clearly illustrating the cultural and class divides. Tobar has earned comparisons to T.C. Boyle and Tom Wolfe with this book, and his gift for both social commentary and relatable characters make it one of the year's finest works of fiction.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Tobar is both inventive and relentless in pricking the pretentious social consciences of his entitled Americans, though he also casts a sober look on the foibles of the Mexicans who serve them. His sharp eye for Southern California culture, spiraling plot twists, ecological awareness, and ample willingness to dole out come-uppance to the nauseatingly privileged may put readers in mind of T.C. Boyle."
We write to create, to feel we are expressing ourselves. The protagonist of my novel The Barbarian Nurseries is a Mexico City art-school dropout who works cleaning a home in a gated Orange County community. She's come to the U.S. to become an artist, but can only draw in her free time, thinking that one day she might still escape her domestic prison and realize her ambitions. Her story is, basically, an allegory for my own lifelong experience to master language and create literature. My family, like hers, comes from humble Latin American circumstances: my grandmother was illiterate and my father had a six-grade education when he came to the U.S. from Guatemala. As an adult I longed to create writing that was "art." In this struggle, music has been my ally, teaching me along the way a lot of important lessons about language, sound and beauty. All sorts of musical artists have helped me along the way: I've listed eight of them here, in reverse chronological order to the moment when I discovered them.
1. "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us," by Sufjan Stevens
I have to start with Sufjan Stevens, because his music was my most faithful companion during the five years I was writing The Barbarian Nurseries. Plus, the only lyrics I actually quote in my novel come from a Stevens' song. It might seem strange for a Guatemalan guy from L.A. to draw inspiration from the folk-driven music of a Midwesterner, but Sufjan and I have a couple of important things in common: we're both Americans, and we both tell stories for a living. His two "states" albums, Illinois and Michigan, with their tales of Americana, wounded souls, poets, love, death and other mystical happenings seem to me to be the kind of music Walt Whitman would have made if he played guitar and lived in the age of stereo.
2. "Cosita Seria," by Aterciopelados
Having written a novel about a Mexico City hipster and artist who's forced to work as a maid in California, I'd be remiss if I didn't have at least one Rock en Español song. The two cities that are "characters" in my novel, L.A. and Mexico City, are two of the genre's biggest focal points, and for this list I could have named any of a number of groups from those places (Café Tacuba, for instance, or Ozomatli.) But I chose the colombianos of Aterciopelados because the sassy, raspy voice of lead singer Andrea Echeverri seems to me a good stand-in for the sassy, outsider protagonist of my novel. Like Echeverri in this song, the housekeeper in The Barbarian Nurseries can say "No tengo pelos en la lengua" (I have no hairs on my tongue), an idiomatic Spanish expression used to describe people who speak their minds, bluntly.
3. "Pyramid Song," by Radiohead
When I write, I often think: "Please God, make this feel like a Radiohead song." I want to write prose that's as precise and carefully crafted as the music on OK Computer, as exquisitely layered and haunting as on track on Kid A. Radiohead is an obsession of mine that dates back, more or less, to the time I went away to grad school to get an MFA in fiction. They are the musical left side of my brain, spinning lyrics and sounds that riff off ideas and imagery. Of all the songs in their excellent and extensive oeuvre, "Pyramid Song" is my favorite, for its piano and string orchestrations, and because its lyrics are about going down into hell and coming back out again, a la Dante. "I jumped in the river and what did I see?/Black-eyed angels swam with me." Writing a novel about a big city can be like that, I think: if done well, it's a journey into places that are, in turn, dark and hopeful.
4. "Hunger," from the album "Sahara Blue," by Hector Zazou.
The German philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin once wrote that all good prose writing is produced in three stages: an architectonic one when it's built, a textile one when it's woven, and a musical stage when it's composed. When I write, I try to hit certain notes, to pay attention to the sounds of words, and to reach a variety of moods, high and low. There's no formula that teaches you how to do this. You have to feel it. But music gets me closer to that place, a place of letting go. This song is from an album in which the poems of Arthur Rimbaud are set to music—in English, French, Japanese and Arabic—by the producer-composer Zazou, with performances by John Cale, David Sylvian and Brendan Perry, among many others. I've listened to it countless times, in the hope that a bit of Rimbaud's brilliant lyric madness will seep into my writing.
5. La Belle Et La Bete, Phillip Glass
Like a lot of writers, I sometimes find it difficult to concentrate with another writer's words in my ears, especially if those words are in English. So I've got a lot of film scores in my collection—from Ennio Morricone's The Good the Bad and the Ugly to Jonny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood. This work by Glass is not really a score, but an opera inspired by the 1946 French film by Jean Cocteau. Glass wrote it to be performed by an orchestra and singers while the film was projected behind them—I caught a mid 1990s performance at UCLA, with Glass conducting. The music, like the old black-and-white film (with its "beast," and castle and enchanted candelabras), is an extraordinary work of mystery and fantasy.
6. "Nuyol," by Roy Brown
This is a Federico García Lorca poem from "Poet in New York" set to music by Brown, a Puerto Rican folk singer. When I saw Brown sing this song in Santa Cruz in the 1980s, a world of language opened up to me. I was in college, about twenty or so, and much too literal-minded to be an interesting writer. I'd read García Lorca but hadn't "understood" or appreciated his surreal language, his Hudson River "drunk on oil," his "waterfalls of blood," his trains filled with "handcuffed roses." Then I heard Brown sing Lorca, in concert. It was like getting a whole new aesthetic transplanted into my skull. My language right brain was awakened and, in the years to come, my reading tastes shifted toward the absurd and the fantastic. I couldn't have written either of my two novels if I hadn't heard that song.
7. "Volver a Los Diecisiete," Violeta Parra
When I went away to college in the 1980s, it was to learn a lot about my Latin American roots. The soundtrack to this exploration was the "New Song" movement, with troubadours like the Cubans Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, Mercedes Sosa of Argentina, and Victor Jara, who was murdered in the 1973 coup in Chile. Their songs were calls to struggle for social justice, and celebrated the lives working people. Listening to their music—on vinyl and old cassettes—made the tragic and heroic recent history of Latin America all the more real to me. With the music of Nueva Canción in my head, I abruptly dropped my pre-med major and eventually became a writer. Violeta Parra, another Chilean, was for me the most profoundly emotional of all these artists, and especially in this song, in which an older woman (Parra was about to commit suicide, at age 49) looks back at the hope and pain of her youth.
8. "All Along the Watchtower," Jimi Hendrix
In the beginning, for me, there was Rock and Roll. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when The Doors, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were laying down tracks at Sunset Sound Recorders studio on Sunset Boulevard, I was a little kid living with his immigrant parents just a mile or so away, a block off Sunset in East Hollywood. A bit later, my father chauffeured around the Jefferson Airplane in a limousine. So Rock and Roll is part of my California heritage, and is down there deep in the reptilian core of my musical brain. In this track, the greatest rock guitarist of all time covers a song by rock's most influential American lyricist. When I was small, rock gave me words in English to play with, and introduced me to the idea that words could be vehicles of expression and of rebellion. I still feel that way about words and writing.
Hector Tobar and The Barbarian Nurseries links:
Bookworm interview with the author
Barnes and Noble Review guest post by the author (a list of his favorite L.A. novels)
Los Angeles Magazine interview with the author
The Madeline Brand Show interview with the author
Morning Edition interview with the author
Uprising 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