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September 14, 2012

Book Notes - Mat Johnson "Pym"


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.

Pym is Mat Johnson's masterful and brilliantly modern retelling of Edgar Allen Poe's lone novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Relentlessly entertaining...It's no easy task to balance social satire against life-threatening adventure, the allegory against the gory, but Johnson's hand is steady and his ability to play against Poe's text masterly. The book is polyphonous and incisive, an uproarious and hard-driving journey."

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 Mat Johnson's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Pym:

Ravel, "String Quartet in F Major"

This is some straight fucking gangsta shit right here, in my book (not the actual book, the metaphorical one). It starts off with that lovely, sweeping, sorrowfully melody, then the plucking. I mean, that's hip hop. I mean, it's not, hip hop wasn't invented yet, but that's the same concept. The layering of emotions, the concept that you can capture the essence of our turbulent existence in the contradiction and compliments of rhythm. And it sounds good, too! I love European culture- there, I said it. Or I love aspects of it, and one of the blessings of its material wealth has been the opportunity for artists to focus their lives on elevation of their art, as opposed to doing art while they also scrounge to find the basics like clean water and sparse food to make it through the day. What Ravel captures here sounds to me like a life spent pursuing the perfection of sound. I wish he got more props. Oh well.

Janet Jackson, "Got 'till It's Gone"

I actually think every other Janet Jackson song is crap and somehow this is one of the favorite songs of my whole life. Why? I have to ask myself this, repeatedly. I actually wrote a long essay on it for the Amsterdam News when it first came out. They didn't publish it; they don't do essays like that. But it helped me work through that idea. For me, it presents a vision of blackness that is forward thinking, that is damn right futuristic. The video and the song are synonymous for me, and while that's a tad intellectually dishonest I'm not going to pretend differently. The scene we see is of an Africa in a post Apartheid moment, and it is clearly Africa we are seeing, caught best by the last scene where a "Whites Only" sign is seen with a bottle smashing against it, and Q-Tip's voice saying, "Dust." It was shot in LA, but still. It is a black image that is defined purely by itself, not as a reflection of Whiteness, of white people, or even really white oppression. It simply embraces the joy of people, of one ethnic group celebrating a future that just might be less encumbered. A child is lifted into the air, innocent, just happy. The coolness of the clothes, or rather the way the clothes are worn, is a celebration of life as well. The garb references the height of the Afropop 70s, but there is a hipster retro element to them as well, which makes them about the future. A future that takes the past and uses it joys as a launching pad.

Afro Celt Sound System - "Dark Moon, High Tide"

The first time I went to Ireland I was shocked to see how "Black" the culture was, and considering how pasty the people were, that my notion of what was "Black" and what was "White" were completely skewed. What I was responding to was the Irish humor, the way they carried their pain like an overcoat in rain, the way they used music to make sense and alleviate  the struggles of their lives. Everywhere I went, there was music. The conductor on the train sang, the bartender sang, casual groups hanging by fountains in the park had music instruments playing just like their kids were in the grass beyond them. Growing up in America with an Irish dad and an African American mom, the contrast between the two worlds seemed an insurmountable challenge of identity. But in Ireland, it seems the most natural of combinations, seamless and complimentary. The Afro Celt Soundsystem captures that for me. Writing Pym, a lot of the struggle was about my own combination of Whiteness and Black Identity. This music reminded me that there could be beautiful harmony in that as well.

FatLip- "What's Up FatLip?"

Remember FatLip? He was the dopest rapper in the Pharcyde. He was huge, when they were huge. Then they weren't huge, and everyone thought he had become a crackhead. He was nothing. His follow up solo album took a decade to produce. So he was nothing. When my first novel, Drop, came out, there was a lot buzz, and a lot less sales. The second, Hunting in Harlem, had even less of both of those. So I basically thought my writing career was over, in any big sense. When I wrote Pym, I was thinking maybe some tiny press in a mom's basement may print a few copies, but that was about it. So I listened to FatLip's solo project when it finally hit, lamenting the state of his career, and I got it. The amazing thing is that, if you are an artist, it ultimately doesn't matter if there's much of an audience, you're still going to create. Pym found it's way to a bigger publisher, much to my shock, then went on to reach more people than anything I'd done before. Maybe in part because I didn't think anyone would see it, so felt free to do whatever the hell I wanted. Sometimes you sing best in the shower, when you're sure no one's listening.

De La Soul - Are You In?: Nike + Original Run

This is supposed to be a running track, but it's produced by overweight men largely associated with donuts. As a result, it's actually really good for typing too. It start's off with a nice, "Good morning!" and really, I work alone, in a windowless office, so it's kind of nice to have someone, you know, wish me a nice day. I deserve that too. If I'm writing well, the harder beat hits in right as I'm really typing away. I imagine that I'm composing in front of a crowd, maybe at Ibiza, and instead of that being one of the most boring performances imaginable it's actually an ecstatic experience for all involved. Writing is so solitary, and even when you share your art it's this distant thing that happens somewhere that I don't see and only hear about later, sometimes. I guess that's why I waste so much time on Twitter, for that instant response. By the end of this extended track, I can come up with about 3 pages. But I feel like I've just run a marathon. Minus the muscle cramping and self-defecating. Actually, being a novelist is a lot like being a marathon runner, if you took breaks every 0.5% of the way and then went back again and again to polish your form. Ah, but the end. When you reach it, I suspect it feels about the same.

Mat Johnson and Pym links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

The A.V. Club review
Austin American-Statesman review
Bookmarks review
Dallas Morning News review
Fresh Air review
Full Stop review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
National Post review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Salon review review
Washington Post review

Suvudu interview with the author
Tell Me More interview with the author

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Dark Rain

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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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