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May 15, 2012

Book Notes - Emily St. John Mandel "The Lola Quartet"

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.

With The Lola Quartet, Emily Mandel has written yet another brilliant literary novel that defies categorization. This story of four members of a high school jazz quartet and their lives afterward is a skillfully told and engaging character study, and contains one of the most satisfying endings I have read in years.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Evocative, intriguing, and complex, this novel is as smooth as the underbelly of a deadly, furtive reptile. Mandel’s substantial fan base will rejoice; word of mouth will bring new fans on board."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Emily St. John Mandel's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Lola Quartet:

1. Tomaso Giovani Albinon's Trumpet Concerto in D Minor Op. 9 N° 2. Adagio, performed by Judetul Gorj Chamber Orchestra & Constantin Nicolae

There's an iTunes playlist that I keep coming back to over and over again. I've been writing to it so consistently this past year or so that I sometimes catch myself thinking of it almost as a sort of landscape—this is where I go when I write—and it starts with this song, which might be the most beautiful piece of music I've ever heard in my life.

My third novel is called The Lola Quartet, and it's another one of those books that I have a hard time describing to people in terms of genre—crime fiction? Literary fiction? Both?—so whenever anyone asks I've been calling it literary noir. It's about a disgraced journalist, economic collapse, Florida's exotic wildlife problem, Django Reinhardt, a third shift waitress, a high school jazz quartet, the unreliability of memory, a seventeen-year-old who steals $121,000 from a drug dealer, fedoras, a paper airplane, foreclosed real estate and gypsy jazz.

Which probably all sounds really depressing, but there's music, a lot of music, and also a tremendous amount of hope.

I listened to this trumpet concerto a lot while I was writing it. If the sustained trumpet note at 0:42 doesn't pierce you through and through the first time you hear it, incidentally, your heart's made of stronger stuff than mine.

2. Summertime – Nina Simone cover

One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing
Spread your wings
And take to the sky
Until that morning,
There's nothing can hurt you…

In the new book there's a saxophonist, Jack, who plays this song over and over again in the backyard of the friend's house where he lives in South Florida. In high school he was the keyboardist and saxophonist in the book's eponymous high school jazz quartet, but that was ten years ago now. His life since high school hasn't gone very well. The song calms him a little.

There's a school of thought—and I was startled to read this—that the above lyric is about death. I've long been obsessed with this song, but I'd always thought of it as a lullaby, albeit a slightly unsettling one that's probably being sung by a nursemaid to a vastly more privileged child. ("Oh, your daddy is rich / And your mama's good-looking…") But then that lyric about rising up singing, taking to the sky, and the implication that while until that morning nothing can hurt you, after that morning all bets are off. In the Nina Simone cover, this is the moment when the piano melody—which up until this point has been muted and sedate—breaks from mere rhythm and achieves grandeur, a sequences of long runs and rippling chords. There's a sense of something coming apart.

3. "Grace" – Underworld

The waitress smiles
the music's too loud

Sasha is a waitress, and my favourite of all the characters I've written. She played drums in the quartet and then went to Florida State to study English Literature, but she didn't graduate. A decade later she is anxious, a recovering gambling addict, and while she's been working at the 24-hour diner for long enough that she could probably have any shift she wanted, she prefers the graveyard shift—there's a beautiful calm about the late-night and small-morning hours following the dinner rush, and calm is the state that Sasha most longs for.

I remember a wonderful piece of graffiti that I saw in Montreal a decade ago. It was a moment in my life when things frankly weren't going especially well—I was recently heartbroken, trying to live on $8.50 an hour, and marooned in a city where I didn't speak the right language—and one particular afternoon in a grey neighborhood I saw a line of text that someone had written on a wall: All of us are broken, but some of us have hope. I wouldn't say it changed my life or anything, but it buoyed me a little at that moment.

I think of that line of text when I think of Sasha. She's arguably a somewhat damaged character, but she leads a hopeful existence and she's created a life for herself.

4. "Shade and Honey" – Sparklehorse

The stars are dying in my chest
Till I see you again

Gavin Sasaki played trumpet in the quartet, but he was never really a serious musician. He's always had a suspicion that he was born in the wrong decade. His camera's older than he is. He wears a fedora in all seasons. The careers he dreams of are lifted from the noir films and Raymond Chandler stories he's obsessed with—if he lacks the talent to be a jazzman, he decides in high school, he'll be either a newspaperman or a private investigator. A few months before he leaves Florida to enroll in the journalism program at Columbia, his girlfriend Anna leaves town unexpectedly. He longs for her for a while, but a new life awaits.

Ten years later he's a promising journalist at a New York City newspaper, until he's fired in disgrace following a series of unforgivable lapses in his work. It's early 2009, and the world has gone dark very quickly. The economic collapse has turned an era that magazine headlines once heralded as the second gilded age into something that more closely resembles the Great Depression. The last thing Gavin wants to do is return to his hometown of Sebastian, Florida, but he's in no position to refuse when he's offered a job by his sister, Eilo, a real estate broker who deals in foreclosed homes.

Part of Eilo's job is inspecting foreclosed homes, and in one of them she came across a ten-year-old girl who looks very much like Eilo and Gavin and has the same last name as Gavin's high school girlfriend Anna, who Gavin last saw a decade ago. Gavin—a former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed properties, obsessed with film noir and private detectives and otherwise at loose ends—begins his own private investigation in an effort to track down Anna and their apparent daughter.

5. "All I Need" – Radiohead

It's a love song, but it isn't the lyrics of this song that hold my attention so much as the bassline. There's something in this song that evokes crushing tropical heat and darkness. I listened to it constantly while I was writing and revising the new novel, and I feel that the atmosphere of the song pervades the book.

Daniel, the fourth member of the quartet, went to police academy and became a detective in the town where they all grew up.

6. Lucky You – The National

You clean yourself to meet
The man who isn't me
You're putting on a shirt
A shirt I'll never see

A short time before he lost his job in New York, Gavin's fiancée left him.

7. "Bei Mir Bist du Schöen" – Swing Dance Orchestra cover (Album: Live in New York)

I've tried to explain, bei mir bist du schöen
So kiss me, and say you understand

The Lola Quartet's signature piece. "Bei mir bist du schöen" means "to me, you are beautiful."

8. "Ten.Eleven" – Luff

Floating slowly from us
I wish you'd stay…

I have absolutely no idea what she's singing about. Candidly, the above lyrics are just about all I can make out from this song. There are other lyrics that I think I can almost hear, but I can't help but notice that these almost-heard lyrics are surreal in that way that's specific to misheard lyrics. ("Crystal-bearing presence"? "Her senses a dream"?)

The bass player moonlights as a bartender in my favourite local restaurant (Moim, 7th Avenue and Garfield in Park Slope, order the pork buns if you go), but he didn't happen to have the lyrics on his iPhone when I asked. Still, though, it's a beautiful song, and something about the atmosphere of it seems in keeping with the book. What is noir if not a specific atmosphere?

9. "Free Fallin'" – Tom Petty

In a possible sign that I've listened to this song too many times, Gavin's sister Eilo actually has a freeway running through her yard.

10. "Maybe It's Just Sleeping" – Luff

I was drowning in my sleep
Woke up shaking, scared to breathe
To leave

To leave, or stay? The question comes up several times in the plot, and with it, the parallel question that arises every so often in any given life: what kind of a person do you wish to be?

I am fascinated by questions of identity, disappearance, and escape. I believe it started at eighteen when I boarded an eastbound plane and crossed a continent alone, to start a new life as a dancer in Toronto. There were so few opportunities that interested me in the place where I grew up. I was going to be a different kind of person in a different kind of life. There was a moment in your life when you made a decision, or several, that determined who you are today.

I'm equally fascinated by the idea that any action, no matter how seemingly trivial, can have profound and unexpected consequences. In her novel Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels wrote: "We can't stop the small accident, the tiny detail that conspires into fate: the extra moment you run back for something forgotten, a moment that saves you from an accident—or causes one." You make the tiny, split-second decision to run back into the house for a forgotten sweater, in other words, and your life spins in one direction instead of another.

There's a moment in the book when Eilo, Gavin's sister, makes a small decision that will have profound consequences. Part of her job as a real estate broker is to take photographs of foreclosed homes, and she visits a house whose occupants haven't yet moved out. There's a girl of ten who has Gavin's high school girlfriend's last name and looks very much like him, and so Eilo takes a picture to show her brother. Her decision to take a photograph alters the lives of every member of the jazz quartet forever.

Emily St. John Mandel and The Lola Quartet links:

the author's website

Globe and Mail review
Jenn's Bookshelves review
Library Journal review
Necessary Fiction review
Peeking Between the Pages review
Publishers Weekly review
S. Krishna's Books review
SheKnows review
Shelf Awareness review
Three Guys One Book review

Book Riot interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Last Night in Montreal
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Singer's Gun
The Millions essays by the author
Three Guys One Book interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
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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