October 6, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Thomas Mullen's new novel The Revisionists is a literary thriller with a science fiction angle, a thought-provoking and captivating exploration of the possible global, national, and personal ramifications of time travel.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Mullen explores the ethical implications of time travel in this excellent thriller set in the near future…The complex concatenation of events that follows make this book a one-sitting read despite its length."
I love listening to music, so much so that I can't possibly listen while I write, as it would be too distracting. The only time I write with background music is when I head out, once a week, to a coffeeshop for a change of setting. So if I were honestly to write a playlist of songs that I heard while writing The Revisionists, the list would include some solid Sixties soul, thank God, and the occasional new tune by Interpol or Death Cab, but there would be way, way, way too much Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, and Depeche Mode. It's true: the writing of this novel was done while under severe Eighties Retro duress. Every barrista in Atlanta seemed to be digging that (old) new-wave pop. There was even one day when I went out for coffee, and to lunch, and to get my hair cut, and all three venues were playing Eighties hits. Look, I know retro is cool and all, but, really, must this trend be so all-encompassing? (Count me as one person who is positively dying for the retro-grunge era to begin.)
Of course, my novel itself is sort of retro. In its paranoid dealings with intelligence agents and government surveillance, it's an homage to the wonderful Seventies films like The Conversation and All The President's Men. And the book is partly about a time traveler; my protagonist is a futuristic officer of the Department of Historical Integrity, wandering through contemporary D.C. to ensure that some awful event occurs, so I'm down with the whole notion of going back and resurrecting what once seemed goofy but now seems cool.
I just think I write better when not forced to listen to "You Spin Me Right Round."
So, the following songs were never played at any of the coffeeshops where I worked, but they fit with my novel for various reasons:
"Weapon of Choice," by The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
BRMC is a fun and very angry band, and this is the only song whose lyrics are quoted in The Revisionists. Much as I dig these guys, there are times when their lyrics seem a little too much like they were written by an alienated 18 year-old who just hates everything. Thus they were the perfect band to be listened to by one of my novel's ultra-left activists. The refrain of this song is a sort of anti-patriotic manifesto: "I won't waste it/ I won't waste it/ I won't waste my love on a nation!"
"What's Going On?," by Marvin Gaye
I'm a big soul music fan, and Marvin is on the top of the list. The fact that he was born in Washington makes him a natural for The Revisionists, which is set in D.C. This album, his first to be overtly political, was recorded soon after the 1968 D.C. riots, which receive some mention in my book and form an important backdrop for some of the characters.
"Silver and Gold (live version)," by U2
This song captures the difficulties inherent in having political themes in your art. It was a B-side recorded during the Joshua Tree sessions, and a live version made it onto Rattle and Hum a year later. It seems to be about, among other things, slavery and race, which makes it a natural for The Revisionists, which also deals with racial conflict. Like U2's best songs, "Silver and Gold" works well so long as it hints at political, big-picture, yearning issues without addressing them too directly. In the live version, though, during a lull before the crescendo, Bono steps out of the song and starts talking about South Africa, going on and on and on. His little sermon fits the politics of the song, but, ultimately, do you want to be preached to when you're trying to rock out? You do not. Apparently, someone in the crowd must have yelled as much to Bono, because he replies "Am I bugging you? I don't mean to bug you." And then he finally lets The Edge play his solo and close the song.
Lesson learned: it's all well and good to put deep and complex political themes in your art, but it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
"The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" by The Postal Service
D.C. doesn't get a lot of love from musicians. Which is a shame, because it's a much cooler city than it gets credit for, and it happens to be the home of the best rock venue in the nation, the 9:30 Club. I saw many, many bands there, and it's one of the things I most miss about living in Washington. I didn't see Death Cab or the Postal Service at the club, but this song wins its place on the list for obvious title-related reasons.
"Light's On," by Secret Machines
"Somewhere there's a record of your whereabouts/ Everywhere you go you leave a trace." That first couplet sums up the paranoid nature of this song and much of The Revisionists.
"We Got To Have Peace," by Curtis Mayfield
How could I not include this one in a book that features antiwar activists? Not much else to say, other than the fact that the anti-Iraq War movement would have been a lot more interesting if we'd had soul crooners in silk paisley shirts rocking out.
"Go To Sleep," the Avett Brothers
I wrote the majority of this book when my second son was an infant. Which means I wasn't getting a whole lot of sleep. Which means this song spoke to me on a deep, innate level.
One of the most astounding aspects of new parenthood, I found, was the sheer sleep-deprivation. I channeled much of my exhaustion through the character of Sari, a domestic servant and veritable slave of a mysterious foreign diplomat. She's trapped in the house and is constantly caring for two infant twins and a five-year-old. There were times when I felt similarly oppressed; I found the whole experience so amazing and overwhelming that I was certain there had to be a way to convey it through fiction without being really, really boring. So, throw in a mysterious diplomat and an invitation to be an intelligence officer's agent, and voila.
Also, the album that this song appears on was briefly my older son's favorite, so we listened to it most mornings on the drive to daycare, moments before I fired up my computer and tried to think in complete sentences.
"I'm a Concrete Wall," by The Makers
The Makers are my favorite never-made-it-big-but-should-have band. None of their songs are even vaguely political, but this song lands on the playlist because it's a tribute to cities, city life, and that awesome feeling of complete invulnerability you have when you're young and wandering the streets of an exciting town. (I once met the band on a book tour, an experience that is worthy of a short story some day.)
"NY I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," LCD Soundsystem
When my wife and I decided to move from D.C. and relocate to Atlanta, I kept thinking of this song, though substituting "D.C." for "NY." Being a Washingtonian was a great experience, and there's so much that I miss, and so much that I tried to cram into this book (rereading the final version recently, I was struck by all the different D.C. locations that work their way into the scenes). But there was a lot I didn't like, and a lot of things that made living in the city challenging. And I'm not talking at all about national politics; I mean the city itself. Sometimes you felt like you were making a political statement just by living there and not fleeing to the burbs, a political statement to live in a city that still has no voting member of Congress to represent it, a city that is shafted by Maryland and Virginia and the USA, a city that has deep and sustained problems, many of which can be traced to the aforementioned '68 riots but that also have a lot to do with the changing American urbanism over the last half century. I loved it and hated it. We lived there for seven years. We bought a house and had a kid. We left. I felt like I'd failed it, or it had failed me, or both.
It's a really, really cool place to set a paranoid novel about post-9/11 America.
"Fuck the People," The Kills
First, you need a good title. You need attitude. You need a good beat. What's true of rock is true of fiction. I hope I pulled it off half as well as these two bad-asses do.
Thomas Mullen and The Revisionists links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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