May 25, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Anne-Marie Kinney's Radio Iris is one of the year's finest literary debuts, a modern office novel both lyrical and surprising.
The Brooklyn Rail wrote of the book:
"Though contemporary pop culture is often saturated with the sensational and overwrought as a means to present an enthralling narrative, Anne-Marie Kinney’s debut novel, Radio Iris, offers a refreshing alternative, reminding us that a finely-crafted, subtle thriller can captivate the reader just as effectively. Fraught with subdued humor amidst the backdrop of the absurd goings-on within the modern workplace, Radio Iris begs questions of an existential nature without feeling heavy handed."
Music is always on my mind when I'm writing, because it's always on my mind in general. In the same way that whatever I hear on the radio or in my head colors my idea of what sort of day I'm having, I'm always aware of the music in my characters' environments and how it's affecting their mood, their memory, their sense of time and place.
In Radio Iris, Iris Finch, a lonely young office worker who possesses a rich inner life, is obsessed with and haunted by the radio. The pop oldies she adores are the soundtrack to her daily commute, the songs seeping further into her unconscious with each listen until they weave themselves into her dreamlife, and work themselves, like termites, into her DNA. In this playlist, I've gone more or less chronologically through the book, noting the songs that permeate the action, explicitly or not.
Gram Parsons: "A Song for You"
Iris dreams of the desert: a recurring dream, and a recurring visual theme in the book. (On a side note, I wrote some of this book holed up in a room at the Joshua Tree Inn, a little motel that they say is haunted by Gram Parsons' ghost, and I like to think he was hanging around while I was working.) It's such a gorgeous song, evoking such longing, and it's lulling too, like falling asleep in the backseat of a moving car.
MGMT: "Electric Feel"
This is just a perfect party song. It's the song I imagine is playing when Iris shows up at a party, feeling totally out of place and slightly panicked. She doesn't fit in so well with other young people, especially at parties, where everyone is already locked into a fun zone of enthused conversation by the time she gets there and the music is loud and unfamiliar. It's a song of the body, of sex and of the ease of movement that Iris lacks.
The Beach Boys: "Don't Worry Baby"
Alone in her car, Iris sings along to the radio, softly, in the back of her throat. She knows all the words to every song in rotation at her local oldies station. It's one of the dreamiest, loveliest Beach Boys songs, but it's kind of ominous too, with the opening lyrics, Well it's been building up inside of me for oh I don't know how long/I don't know why but I keep thinking something is bound to go wrong. He goes on to talk about how this girl convinces him everything will be alright, but maybe his intuition was telling him something real, you know? There's a tension there, even though the song is so soft and pretty on its surface.
Buddy Holly: "Not Fade Away"
This song gets name checked when a woman calls in to request it while Iris is taking a bath after an unsuccessful blind date, with the radio on, natch. She closes her eyes, and imagines the woman dancing in a plush carpeted living room with yellow walls, an army of small children dancing around her in a circle. The song represents an unnamable and unknowable comfort. She listens to it in the bathtub as she lets the water drain, shivering in the cold bathroom air.
Rod Stewart: "Maggie May"
Iris listens to this song while driving very early in the morning. The streets are empty, litter like tumbleweeds skittering across the pavement. I chose this song for that moment mainly because of Rod Stewart's voice, and the intimacy it evokes. It's a voice you can cuddle up to and be alone with. (Side note: If Rod Stewart recorded an album of lullabies I would listen to it every night. Just an FYI, in case he would ever consider it.)
The Deadly Snakes: "Work"
Iris has a brother Neil, a traveling salesman who forces himself, for various reasons, to be subsumed by his work, and whose story weaves intermittently through his sister's. I imagine this song as his theme:
Work is such an easy way to lose yourself (…) You can't do it anymore, you look like a soldier praying for a war.
(Why are the Deadly Snakes not incredibly famous? They were the best. The best!)
The Rolling Stones: "Get Off My Cloud"
This is some weeknight radio heaven. It comes on while Iris is standing on her balcony, under the stars, eying the tennis shoes that swing from the power line overhead. The song captivates and elates her, so that she starts to imagine what she might throw, and where it might land.
What I love about the radio, and why I personally have never bothered to get my car set up to play music from my iPod, is the wonderful surprise factor. A song comes on and you didn't even realize how much you needed to hear it right at that moment. I like not always being in charge of the music I hear.
The Nazz: "Open My Eyes"
This song gets name checked in the same scene as above, but it holds a deeper meaning for Iris's particular situation at this point in the book. Her somewhat listless existence has been disrupted by her discovery of a mysterious stranger who is apparently living in her office building.
Underneath your gaze I was found in/ The haze I'm wandering around in/ I am lost in the dark of my own room / And I can't see a thing but the fire in your eyes.
Even though there are strange things afoot in her own office, and her own life, she's only interested in “the man from 2B.” This is one of many songs I first discovered on Lenny Kaye's Nuggets, which remains one of the greatest rock collections ever.
Lykke Li: "The Only"
I imagine this is the song that's playing when Iris is at a bar ostensibly celebrating her birthday when she's struck by a sudden, arresting memory. She's overwhelmed by the bass and the red lights and the wall of bodies that surround her as she flees the table to squeeze herself into a corridor. I love the simultaneous aggression and delicacy of this song.
Sam Cooke: "You Send Me"
If there is one continuing refrain, one song that captures Iris's soul and the soul of the book, it's this. Not the lyrical content per se, but the dreamy, hypnotic sound of it, the voice that echoes, that haunts, that you can still hear after the song ends. I like to imagine it repeating on a loop, first at normal speed, then slowed down little by little with each play until it's unrecognizable, but its pull remains.
Tommy James and the Shondells: "Crimson and Clover"
At this moment toward the end of the book, Iris starts her car and Tommy James is singing crimson and clover, over and over with the tremolo effect on the vocals, and as she listens, in her head, the sun dims and brightens in time. For Iris, music can change the world around her in an instant. What had moments before been a normal errand run, a trip to the bank, becomes fraught with meaning as mysterious as it is affecting.
Martha and the Vandellas: "Nowhere to Run"
I won't give too much away, but this song plays as Iris is showering on the last morning of the story. With the water running down her face, she separates Martha's song from the Vandellas'. If she listens to the background vocals alone, it becomes a different song, just two voices in unison, repeating softly, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, oooooohhhh. She swallows a mouthful of hot water and lets the voices merge again. It's a new day.
Anne-Marie Kinney and Radio Iris links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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