September 12, 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.
Kathleen Alcott's The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets is a powerful and fascinating debut novel that explores the complexities of love.
Bookslut wrote of the book:
"Heartbreaking, honest, and wholly engrossing, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets dredges the depth of love that divides us, unites us, and folds in on itself until we're nearly crushed under the sweet ache of its weight."
I've been a reader as long as I've been a listener of music, and the albums that meant the most to me probably influenced my work as much as the pages and authors that moved me. There's a brevity in a well-written song that I think most writers yearn for—the ability to reduce a narrative to its most integral points, to fully develop an emotion in a few turns.
I don't listen to music when I write fiction—I think I'm too sensitive a listener to be wrapped up in the story of a song while I'm involved with my own characters—but I do before and after, and particularly on long walks where I'm looking to be held and convinced. Excellence in prose requires a certain vulnerability not unlike that which bleeds through in the musicians I love. Below are songs that parallel the threads within The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets and those that featured prominently in my inner life then.
1. "April Skies," The Jesus and Mary Chain
This song was nearly always playing during the time I wrote this book, whether actually or just in my head. The sense of history and two people chained to each other in a way that's increasingly unfortunate just aches. The lyric "Making love on the edge of a knife" is terrifying, impossible to forget.
2. "Talkin' Like You (Two Tall Mountains)," Connie Converse
Converse warbles around the absence of a lover gracefully, and with dark humor explores the ways that the people who have left us imprint themselves on our neural pathways to an irrefutable extent, so that they're never quite gone. Ida, the protagonist of my book, suffers from a memory of a lifelong relationship that seems to re-express itself in every corner, despite the time that's amassed. "You may think you left me all alone / but I can hear you talk without a telephone."
3. "Four Strong Winds," Neil Young
Maybe the most beautiful way anyone's ever expressed I love you but I'm just so tired. Young's voice aches with a reluctance that's painful and too familiar, evoking those circuitous conversations we've all had when we're not yet ready to admit that the wires between two people have stretched too thin, but our bodies are starting to revolt and turn to other homes.
4. "Pleasant Feeling," Royal Baths
I was spending a great deal of time with the boys in this band when I started Alphabets, and so not only was I hearing this song a great deal, but I was watching them conceive their vision of who they were as a group. Their music was always unapologetically dark; I was getting comfortable with the idea of producing a work that was, at times, sinister—I think their music helped me dig deeper into my sad songs.
4. "Days," The Kinks
A restorative blend of gratitude and trepidation. There's something about this song that's always struck me as desperate but brave; Davies sheds the cynicism present in much of his other work to pay a tribute to the gifts that come with an insidious price. The refusal to let moments fade—"I won't forget a single day, believe me"—is especially in tune with Ida's obsession with cataloguing her memories.
5. "Don't You Take It Too Bad," Townes Van Zandt
A love song for people up late alone: instructions on how to carry time with us without giving in to wading. A heart mender if ever one existed.
6. "A Change Is Gonna Come," Otis Redding
In northern California, where the book is set, natural bodies of water are so numerous that they always felt to me like another figure in the conversation. The characters share a number of pregnant moments by the water, scenes that guide them towards a decision or change. I wanna drown in the Otis Redding version of this Sam Cooke song: "I was born by the river… just like this river I've been running ever since."
7. "Into My Arms," Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
I've always been fascinated by, and possibly envious of, the coping mechanisms of the deeply religious and the purported ever-present relief of faith. This song, for me, is about that kind of envy, the wish we could supply some true and enduring support or guarantee, and the steps forward, burdened with the knowledge we just can't. I think this factored largely into the creation of my protagonist Ida, who tries desperately to curate her life.
8. "Let Me See the Colts," Smog
There's this gorgeous construct of reconciliation and the lack of inertia that follows in this song that feels so accurate. I felt a similar mood in the close of the book, when forgiveness is finally possible but conversation is unnecessary.
9. "Carrickfergus," Bryan Ferry
In both writing and reading a book, there exist a series of releases and openings. Finishing Alphabets felt like prying loose a barnacle. This Ferry cover of a classic Irish folk song includes that type of letting go; we learn to stop looking across oceans, we grow closer to the ground.
Kathleen Alcott and The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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