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May 17, 2012

Book Notes - Isaac Adamson "Complication"

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.

Isaac Adamson's Complication is a surprising, dark, and fascinating literary mystery.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Adamson blends the Czech magic realism of Milan Kundera and American gumshoe fiction with an admirably light hand. A freshly imagined work, this novel boasts clever twists and revelations right up until the end."

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

In his own words, here is Isaac Adamson's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Complication:

Music plays a role in all my books, and as Complication was darker than anything I've written previously, I guess it only makes sense that in reading about the tracks below you're going to encounter words like "creepy" and "spooky" and "atmospheric" a lot.

Various music influences my work, be it through lyrical fragments or just the mood certain songs evoke, but when I'm actually sitting at my keyboard, I tend toward instrumental tracks since lyrics often distract me. Accordingly, I've split the playlist into two parts.


"Half a Person" by The Smiths

"In the days when you were hopelessly poor," sings Morrissey in one of his countless lyrical bon mots, "I just liked you more." One of my characters references this line as I feel it kind of sums up the way many long-term expats (or even frequent visitors) feel about Prague. Perhaps when people of a certain age talk nostalgically about the energetic buzz and feelings of unlimited possibility brewing the city following the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989, they're also talking largely about their own spent youth, but its also true that the post-Communist glow has started to fade over the last 20 years in some ways. It's no longer a super cheap place to live, beer doesn't cost a quarter anymore, and those English-teaching jobs are a little harder to come by. I've visited three times over the last decade, and each time Old Town is a little more touristy, there are more global brands dominating Wenceslas Square, and the city generally looks more clean-scrubbed, less timeworn and gritty. All of which is no doubt a good thing for Prague – Morrissey's line carries a heavy whiff of condescension, after all – but still.

"Three Red Birds" by Mr. Gnome

Mr. Gnome are a two person outfit from Cleveland who pen some wonderfully dark tunes built on percussive drumming and guitar work that goes from chiming melodies to crunching blasts of heavy riffage at times worthy of Zeppelin (check out the chorus riff on "Plastic Shadow" if you don't believe me). I discovered them during the period I was working on Complication and had them on heavy rotation throughout. My favorite Mr. Gnome album is Heave Yer Skeleton, but the song I picked to highlight is from Tastes Like Magic, a collection of B-sides. Lyrically, I have no idea what this creepy song is about, but I love heavy ascending riff and the build and release of tension throughout.

"Captain" by Ween

Though they long ago shed their helium-voiced, pantyhose-on-the-head image and are now known more for their virtuoso musicianship and amazing live shows, they're still not a band I spend much time listening to while working on anything requiring concentration (and a straight face). Except this track. It makes me imagine standing on the deck of a boat in the middle of the ocean on some lonely moonlit night and seeing a tattered ghost ship suddenly emerge through a heavy fog only to disappear one long, hair-raising moment later. "Captain," beseeches the disembodied sounding voice on this song over and over, "turn around and take me home." It's a sentiment I can well imagine Lee Holloway would share as he finds himself increasingly in over his head when trying to discover what really happened to his brother. Then there's that weird "demon voice" interlude toward the end of the track, which…well, I should shut up now so I don't give anything away.

"Dear Darkness" by PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey might be my favorite musical artist over the last 20 years, but I was a little bemused to see all the accolades given Let England Shake, because for me White Chalk was the better record. True, it's a more sparse, gothick-y kind of album, morose at times and shrill at others, chock full of ghosts and demons and violence, but it boasts some of Harvey's best lyrics. The haunting "Dear Darkness" seems written from the perspective of someone who has seen a lot of bad luck and is begging the darkness itself to return some of what is has taken over the years. I thought about this song a lot in relation to my character Vera, a troubled woman at the heart of the mystery in Complication.

"Knives Out" by Radiohead

"I want you to know," sings Yorke, "he's not coming back." It's a line echoed in various forms throughout Complication in relation to Lee Holloway's dead brother and the protagonist's drive to figure out why he disappeared. In interviews Thomas Yorke has said this cheery little number is partly about cannibalism, and partly about "when you look at someone close to you and know they're going to die. It's like a shadow over them or the way they stare right through you." It's a stare various characters in Complication would no doubt be familiar with. I also like the Christopher O'Reilly cover of this on classical piano, which I listened to probably more than the Radiohead original when writing the book.

"Turpentine" by Ocean Versus Daughter

When a filmmaker friend and I went to Prague last year to shoot a book trailer, we were fortunate enough to get some help from Flanna Sheridan, leader of the Prague-based, piano driven quintet Ocean Versus Daughter (she's the one running down the hill screaming in the video). I've listened to the band's album a lot in the months since and it's a layered, moody gem of a record. And when Sheridan confesses "I ate all your cake while you were away," during "Turpentine," I can't help but think of certain passage in the novel having to do with the unwelcome discovery of a half-eaten sponge cake.

"At Night" by The Cure

Downbeat, repetitive, keyboard heavy minimalism perfect for walking around an unpeopled Prague on a cold winter morning at 4 a.m. because your jetlag won't let you do anything else.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen

I don't know why, maybe it's the ‘Bohemian' thing, but this song seemed like it was everywhere when I visited Prague for the first time in 2002. Same goes for Madonna. Now I can't hear Bohemian Rhapsody without thinking about Prague --well, Prague and Wayne's World.


"Dwarfland/Love Theme" by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch

I listened to the Mulholland Drive soundtrack incessantly while working on my previous book Kinki Lullaby, and that habit spilled over a bit into this one as well. For me, Badalamenti ranks with giants like Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone, and Bernard Herrmann, and Mulholland Drive is his darkest, most ominous work, truly the stuff of nightmares. And from a writing perspective, the fact that this track clocks in at over 12 minutes is a bonus as well. Put it on repeat 20 times, you've done a days' work! (Incidentally, Badalamenti's first soundtrack experience was for Czech director Ivan Passer, and Badalamenti chose the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to record the Mulholland Drive score, so maybe there's more than a little of the Czech Republic in his work as well).

"Thirty Cases of Major Zeman" - Zdeněk Liška

This is the brassy theme song to a popular 1980s Czechoslovak detective series following the rise of handsome policeman Major Jan Zeman. The show was hugely popular if heavily propagandized, its most famous episode featuring a thinly veiled version of the true-life underground Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe portrayed as drug-crazed, child-abusing, murderous hijackers. During the section of Complication that takes place in 1984, a character references hearing the theme song blasting from a television on the floor above in the cheap housing complex where she lives.

String Quartet No.2 – Gyorgi Ligeti

Hungarian composer Gyorgi Ligeti is not a household name by a long shot, but you've almost certainly heard his unnerving soundscapes at the movies. Lontano was featured in both Kubrick's The Shining and Scorsese's Shutter Island, and Kubrick used other Ligeti compositions in 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut. The Ligeti piece I listened to most often though was String Quartet No. 2. I'm pretty ignorant about classical music, but read somewhere that Ligeti spoke about his work being the metaphorical fusion of clocks and clouds. That's an apt enough description for me – and, of course, clocks play a big part in Complication.

"Als Jakob Erwachte" - Krystof Penderecki
Penderecki is another favorite whenever dark films go shopping for dark sounds. As with Ligeti, Penderecki's songs were used in both The Shining and Shutter Island, as well as featuring in The Exorcist and David Lynch's Inland Empire. In the 50s and 60s, Penderecki wrote compositions that called for musicians to scratch their stringed instruments or bang on them like drums and he claims some musicians refused to play his pieces as a result. This one dates from 1974. See also "Polymorphia" if your idea of a good time involves paranoia.

Isaac Adamson and Complication links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

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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