May 10, 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.
Jac Lemc's novel My Only Wife is a brilliant, haunting, and heartbreaking debut that explores themes of loss and love.
Blake Butler wrote of the book:
"Jac Jemc's My Only Wife operates with the calm, pristine clarity of an enormous marble room. In moving, methodically arranged sentences, one comes across the surpassing surfaces and relics of a kind of intimacy that seems an increasingly difficult proposition to rightly preserve. At last, here is a novel concerned with timeless dedication, love, and respect, which phrased through Jac Jemc's steady warming eye needs no punchline or coincidence or cataclysm to give true glow to the glow itself."
There are really specific conditions that need to be met for me to listen to music while writing. It either needs to be brand new or I need to know it so well that I can ignore it. Otherwise I get distracted and sing along or try to pick apart the elements of the song. The following are a few songs that I listened to over and over while I was working on drafts of My Only Wife until they got faded sounding. Something about them makes sense of the book for me.
This is a sort of anthem for the book. I heard it after the first draft, but it clicked perfectly for me. The narrator of this song couldn't be closer to the narrator of the book. He contrasts himself to her. She is big and exciting and fancy, and he is simple. She's gone and he's haunted and he wants to know if this is what she planned and wanted. By the end of the song though, he flips it, and he becomes the hero. That flip, the poetic turn: That's one of my favorite things in the world.
This story strikes me as the wife's theme song in some way. I saw her listening to sad folky songs like this, and finding affirmation in them. "If I was where I would be, then I would be where I am not. Here I am where I must be; where I would be, I cannot." She saw herself as a riddle, but like most riddles, she didn't want anyone to solve her.
There's a similar obsession/self-awareness here that I think mimics the way the narrator feels about his wife by the end of the book. He wants his wife to know what she's done to him. He wants her to know that he knows about her dishonesty. There's that incredulous repetition: "You think it's alright."
It's not really a secret that I also like folk and soul music. So there's a lot of that here. But here's another one that the wife listens to on the couch: "Darling remember from when you come to me that I’m the pretender. I’m not what I’m supposed to be but who could know if I’m a traitor? Time's the revelator." Time is the definitely the revelator in this story, too. Given enough time and distance, the narrator can see that his wife was a pretender. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say a traitor. "Queen of fakes and imitators?" It all depends on where you draw the lines. She might be the most genuine or the least.
Obviously this is soul, like the warped records the wife listens to. But it seems like this could be the theme of even their happiest times, sitting at the table while she tells a story, smoking in the window, talking on the sofa. Even when times are good, there's that melancholy tinge. He's still begging for her to recognize the good time for what it is.
I hear this playing in a French cafe while they're traveling. Jezebel is obviously a character the wife would imagine. She's a symbol of controlling women. There's something in here for the narrator, too, though. My translation is imperfect but: "I believed faded memories are human beings living with the eyes of the still vibrating dead, but my heart is broken by obsession." Some such. Seems relevant. This song roars in a way that feels emotionally true.
More soul, though venturing towards rock, I guess. I like the lyric, "That her face at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale." I like the idea of the wife just sort of going out like a flame, fading until the narrator can just see through her.
I think this eventually became a song on her Bella Donna record, but it's almost unrecognizable as such. This impromptu recording is so simple and gorgeous and the repetition is so pure and the tune just gets under the skin. I look to music for rhythms to use in my work. The wife has a wild heart, I think. She wants to believe the blame isn't on her.
There is so much in this song. There's a little bit of mocking forgiveness, but it isn't really bitter. The narrator of the song has decided he's past whatever that relationship was. "Goodbye is too good a word, babe, so I'll just say fare thee well. I'm not saying you treated me unkind. You could have done better, but I don't mind. You just kind of wasted my precious time, but don't think twice. It's alright." It's a fast-paced memory. The narrator is protecting himself by not needing anything.
Gosh , I know that most people think this song is like nails on a chalkboard, but I think it's so sharp and sad and beautiful. It's such pure regret for having followed love and adventure so blindly. The story doesn't really redeem itself. It ends and the lovers are at the bottom of the sea.
This song is the narrator alone, left behind. "In my solitude, you haunt me with revelries of days done by. In my solitude, you'll taunt me with memories that never die." I listened to this song a lot while I was writing the first draft of this.
Jac Jemc and My Only Wife links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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