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May 11, 2012

Book Notes - Jennifer Miller "The Year of the Gadfly"

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.

Jennifer Miller's debut novel The Year of the Gadfly is a riveting psychological thriller set in a prep school. Miller's depictions of adolescence are sometimes brutal, often hilarious, but always honest in this beautifully written mystery that will appeal to both adult and teen fans of literary fiction.

Gary Shteyngart wrote of the book:

"Hysterical and moving, Jennifer Miller's debut fiction fuses Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Portnoy's Complaint for girls. This book is an imaginative delight."

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 Jennifer Miller's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly:

My debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, is an academic thriller set at a forbidding gothic prep school in a remote New England town. It features a group of outcasts who are not the benign social underdogs they appear to be; love triangles and unrequited adolescent longing; and hypocritical adults who trumpet tradition and success over moral accountability (not to mention their kids' well being). Gadfly is a book in the tradition of Dead Poets Society, A Separate Peace, and The Secret History. Whether you loved high school or despised it, that time shaped how most of us see the world today—how we think about fairness and unfairness, acceptance and exclusion, failure and success. What we felt between the ages of 14 and 18, we felt more strongly than at any other point in our lives. The following play list, largely comprised of school-themed songs, reflects that intensity of that emotion.

"Another Brick in the Wall" by Pink Floyd

It would be an understatement to say that this song is a cynical take on school conformity. The students are bricks. Individuals don't matter. Creativity or originality is irrelevant. And that is school at its worst—an "education" that teaches kids to think the same, behave the same, and aspire for the same things. Mariana Academy, the prep school in Gadfly, does just that. The school's motto is Brotherhood, Truth, Equality. All three ideals are hollow in practice. Orwellesuqe thought control is prevalent, even among the losers who claim to be fighting the powers that be.

"The Last And" by John K. Samson

This is a sad, quiet, and devastating song about a teacher who falls in love with the school principal. The principal is married, but during the course of the affair, the teacher has never known such happiness. She feels that the relationship is too good to be true. And it is. The principal stops offering to drive her home and it's as if the relationship had never existed. The imagery in this song is wonderful: "the window growing snow" and how the principal once made her feel funny, thoughtful, and rare. For some reason, the school setting makes the teacher's loneliness more palpable than it would be anywhere else. I guess as kids we forget that teachers have their own lives—their own disappointments and loves.

"Lone Star" by Lori McKenna

This is an anthem for anyone who was ever bullied, taunted, or picked on in high school. It's about the lone star kid—the one who was always alone and lonely but who goes onto to become brilliant and famous. Meanwhile all the jocks and popular kids have made nothing of their lives. "The fat girl at the prom/the one who has her mother's dress on/she's smiling in the video/and you're the cashier down at the old Texaco." This is the song where the popular kids finally get their comeuppance. (It's not even the new Texaco they're working at but the old one.) This song is especially interesting because it's addressed no to the lone star but to his tormenter: "you know you'd beat him senseless/ if you could, and you always could."

"When I Write My Master's Thesis" by John K. Samson

This is a song about procrastination, meaning it is universally applicable to both students and anybody with a job. The singer plays video games, he hangs out, he drinks beer—he just can't seem to finish his damn thesis. But he needs to, because his girlfriend has left him and she won't come home until he gets his shit together. I recommend this song for anyone who is currently in a master's program and definitely for anyone who's been working on their doctoral thesis for four or five years. I also recommend this song if you need a pick me up. It's addictively cheerful, so much so, you're almost deceived into thinking that the singer is actually working. My favorite lines: "No more marking first year papers. No more citing sources." You've got to hear it with the music.

"Don't Stand So Close to Me" by The Police

So there's not student-teacher sex in The Year of the Gadfly, but there's definitely student-teacher obsession. My favorite thing about this song is the literary allusion to Lolita by Nabokov. I've packed The Year of the Gadfly full of literary allusions—not to be super high-brow, but because so many books inspired mine, many of them novels from my own high school years. The allusion thing is also a sort of prep school novel trope. (See Special Topics in Calamity Physics and The Secret History).

"Head Over Heels" by Tears for Fears

This is the opening song in my favorite high school movie of all time, Donnie Darko. The song plays to a slow-motion journey through the halls of Donnie's school, focusing on the film's main characters and the social relationships between them. It's a visual overture that foreshadows the unsettling events to come. Once I watched Donnie Darko, I never heard this song in the same way again. And there is quite a lot in Donnie Darko that inspired The Year of the Gadfly. If you're wondering, there is no kiddie porn. But there is vandalism, bullying, and mystery, drugging, and plenty of bad behavior.

"Jeremy" by Pearl Jam

My husband, who is the more serious Pearl Jam fan, says the band has never definitely said what this song is about (despite the video, which suggests that it's about a school shooting.) This is a song about a kid who is neglected, misunderstood, and angry. It reminds me of one of the characters in Gadfly, a brilliant and troubled boy named Jonah who is looked on with suspicion by his peers and teachers. In fact, after the Columbine shootings (which take place the year before the novel is set), Jonah is put on a watch list by the school principal. He cannot catch a break. It's no wonder that at the age of 28, he's still has the emotional maturity of a sixteen year old. My Jonah is never a serious physical threat to the people he despises, though I wouldn't put biting the recess lady's breast past him if she really ticked him off.

High School Reunion, A Tribute to Those Great 80's Films

I especially recommend covers of "In Your Eyes," "A Million Miles Away," and "Weird Science." In truth, I am too young for the songs on this album to take me back to my own school days, but they are highly affecting and nostalgia-inducing. They will make you remember the teenager you once were—those parts of yourself that you've forgotten (accidentally or willfully.) They will take you out of time and plant you firmly in the past. It's a dangerous thing when that happens to the characters in The Year of the Gadfly, but it's also a necessary indulgence now and then.

Jennifer Miller and The Year of the Gadfly links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Boston Globe review
Devourer of Books review
Kirkus Reviews review
Rhapsody in Books review
Unabridged Chick review

The Atlantic interview with the author
Capital New York profile of the author
Flavorwire guest post by the author
Long and Short reviews interview with the author
The Millions contributions by the author
The Wire profile of 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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