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September 6, 2012

Book Notes - Morgan McCarthy "The Other Half of Me"

The Other Half of Me

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.

Morgan McCarthy's The Other Half of Me is an auspicious debut, an assured and literary modern gothic novel.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Darkly lush, filled with an irresistibly sad glamour, this is a memorable debut. "

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 Morgan McCarthy's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Other Half of Me:

My first novel, The Other Half of Me, is the story of Jonathan Anthony and his sister Theo, beginning with their childhood - both privileged and neglected - on the isolated Welsh coast. Their close relationship is threatened by not only the arrival of their grandmother Eve, a charismatic former politician and keeper of family secrets, but Jonathan and Theo's own differences; their lives increasingly swallowed by ambition, drug abuse and mental illness.

A few of the tracks in this playlist are those actually listened to by the lead characters. (It helps that I was born at around the same time as Jonathan and Theo: our lives have had the same soundtrack). Other tracks evoke the mood of a moment or a character. I can't actually listen to music when I write - I tune it out - but I did listen to songs around that time that helped my ideas form and clarify. There's an immediacy in sound that gets straight to my own feelings and, accordingly, the feelings of my novel.

"People Are Strange" - The Doors

This is the song for the two children sneaking out of their grandly lonely house to explore the local town - the looks they get, their own unrepentant, innocent oddness. The song has a humorous sound to it. the honky tonk piano like a sideways wink, yet the lyrics are dark. There is something sinister in the strange, and something dangerous in being strange yourself.

"Float On" - Modest Mouse

The raw optimism of this song - with its chorus of 'we'll float on, good news is on the way' despite the related misfortunes, its guitar notes sweet and sharp as an apple - is a perfect expression of the precarious happiness of Jonathan and Theo's teenage years.

"Ca Mousse" - Superbus

When I think of Jonathan, Sebastian and Theo's sleepily sunny holidays in Wales - the languor of walking down the hill to the beach, straying under the alternating shadows of the trees, effortlessly drunk - I think of this song, coolly sweet, with an intimation of melancholy. The French lyrics are pleasingly incomprehensible to me (As far as I can gather the song seems to be about a bath as a metaphor), leaving the song open to my own associations.

"Supersonic" - Oasis

This is one of those songs that students love to sit in a circle and sing along to - an exercise in tipsy bonding. The lyrics are vague and surreal, easily co-opted, the innocence of singing about needing to be oneself, without considering the difficulties of that (What is a self? How many selves might one person have, existing not only alongside each other, but lined up in time). This is a song for the first party of the book, a forbidden bacchanal at the house of the hapless Charlie - a party at which everything is ventured, nothing succeeds, and it doesn't matter because they are all so young.

"Kid on my Shoulders" - White Rabbits

This is a piece of indie brilliance that, as Jonathan graduates and begins work as an architect, expresses not only his hurry into the future but his hurry away from the past. The jangling speed of the song has the feel of a hurtling train, that impending danger: insistent and tense. Its lyrics: "Boy, where are you hiding? Well, he was the kid on my shoulders" capture the idea of carrying the past around. In Jonathan's case the boy on his shoulders is the only one who knows the truth of their family history.

"Love is the Drug" - Roxy Music

This is an unashamedly big, bold song about not love, but sex. Looking for it obsessively, picking it up where it can be had. This becomes the workaholic Jonathan's other preoccupation. I wouldn't call him a sex addict, but his behaviour in his late twenties has that repetition, the unfulfillment of addiction.

"In the Past" - We the People

This 1966 gem is unfairly obscure these days. The song featured a contribution from an eight-stringed instrument one of the band's acquaintances invented, named the Octachord. This, paired with the blurred distortions of the fuzz guitar and the crashing pace, make for a singularly deranged rush of psychedelia. It's exactly the sort of thing Theo might listen to: high spirited and intoxicating, but dizzied, like someone spinning too fast, about to stumble.

"Crimewave" - Crystal Castles

This is an electro track for the nights of Jonathan and Theo's twenties, a time when their lives have started to become darker, more disturbing. The chilly beauty of the melody in this song is belied by lyrics hinting at not only sex but violence. Its stuttering, broken up vocals echo the increasingly dissonant nature of Jonathan's own existence.

"Anyone's Ghost" - The National

This downbeat, darkly luminous song, with its solemn, sueded vocals, expresses for me the evenings Jonathan spends alone in his vast apartment - the dead time between work and sex, when he is closest to confronting himself. Its lyrics, speaking of isolation and damage, are also close to the themes of my novel: 'You said it was not inside my heart. It was. You said it should tear a kid apart. It does.'

"Who You Gonna Run To" - Solid Gold

This is the song for Jonathan's walk home from Maria's hotel room. A shimmeringly desolate piece of electronica, with its lush synths and mournful, exhausted vocal. It shares Jonathan's sense that doors are closing, things are ending, and its too late to do anything about it.

"Gimme Shelter" - Rolling Stones

An iconic song that evokes the shock of the Vietnam war, the rise of counterculture. It captures the zeitgeist of its period, calling up both the desire for freedom and the desire for safety. Jagger himself called it an 'end of the world' song. For me this song clicks in various ways with the character of Eve. She represents shelter for Jonathan, the end of his wandering, untethered childhood. It's also a song from her own time, when she entered US politics and the public imagination, the upheavals of war and social change the igniting spark to her own blaze of glory.

"Runaway" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs

This is a painfully beautiful song, the poignant notes of the piano ringing like drops of water against a glass. Its lyrics: 'I was feeling sad. Can't help looking back. Highways flew by...' and the subsequent refrain 'Run, run away, no sense of time', express Jonathan's state of mind as he leaves the UK for America in a final, doomed pilgrimage; both the song and his narrative suffused with a sense of absence and grief, the overwhelming wish to return to a time that is lost.

"Ocean of Noise" - Arcade Fire

This is the sound of the present day: in which Jonathan is alone in a boarding house by a deserted grey seafront. The listener does not know what the lyrics of the song allude to, just as the reader doesn't yet know Jonathan's situation, but it has a universality of sorrow and regret that is more powerful. Its final question, 'Can't we work it out?' amidst the crashing, tidelike crescendo has a note of redemption that also suits the ending of the novel.

Morgan McCarthy and The Other Half of Me links:

video trailer for the book

Irish Examiner review
Kirkus Reviews review
Literary Inklings review
Publishers Weekly review

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
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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