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October 2, 2012

Book Notes - J. Robert Lennon "Familiar"


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.

J. Robert Lennon's new novel Familiar is a complex and uniquely told literary thriller, yet another mesmerizing book from one of America's most talented authors.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Stunning, convoluted, and compelling, this thoroughly mesmerizing work is recommended for discerning readers who savor an unusual story brilliantly presented."

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 J. Robert Lennon's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Familiar:

Writing a playlist for one of my novels feels like a peculiar exercise—I never listen to music while writing, and have a lot of trouble concentrating even if somebody else is playing music nearby. It isn't that the two aren't related in my mind, but music commands my attention in a way that writing does not. Music seizes me, in other words, but I have to seize writing on my own. And so the process of writing, for me, is in part the process of trying to push music entirely out of my head.

It's not hard, however, to generate a mental soundtrack for Familiar, as, in it, I am trying to evoke some of the emotions I more commonly associate with certain kinds of music: melancholy and confusion, personal and temporal dislocation. The novel is the story of a woman, long in mourning for a dead child (and haunted by the possibility that she could have prevented his death) who is transported into a parallel universe where her child is alive. In the novel, I play all this as realism, in much the way a strange piece of music situates itself inside the larger context of received forms, cadences, and subjects.

A normal song is not shy about being a song. It declares itself aggressively, telling its listener that it is now, and the silence before it was not it. A book is the same way. It exists as an object on the table (or a digital file on an e-reader); you open it up and can see, quite clearly, where it begins. But life isn't like that. We often wish it were—that our experiences were neatly delineated from each other, categorizable and easily explained. Familiar is about, among other things, the porousness and, sometimes, unrecognizability of boundaries. It's exciting when a piece of music tries to address that, which is why I love the opening track of Gil Evans' 1993 live record Farewell. "Let The Juice Loose" begins with a disconsolate honk from a bass saxophone, set against the backdrop of a busy nightclub. It sounds like a mistake. A few seconds later, there's another mistake, and then more—seemingly random noises, perhaps of musicians tuning up, getting ready to play. But in fact, this is the song—it has begun, and consists mostly of negative space, cut through with strange clanks and groans. A melody doesn't appear until one minute in, and the song proper begins after two—but by this time, you feel as though your life itself is the song, and you have always lived in it. A neat trick.

I've always been fascinated by the idea that music is lurking everywhere around us—that art is a thing that can be created accidentally, by circumstance, and that all it takes for somebody to hear it right. Elisa, in my novel, is left to wonder whether she is the victim (or, perhaps, lucky recipient) of some grand cosmic prank, or of the vicissitudes of nature, and so my playlist for the book would have to contain music of doubtful intent and provenance—like this recording of a dial-up modem slowed down 700%. It would be hard to argue that this isn't music, but who created it? If I could slot this bit of sound into my book, it would be at the place where Elisa is staring at jar full of swirling liquid on her son's kitchen counter and wondering what it is. It would be important to carefully cue the piece so that the guitar-like sound that emerges at 1:16 would be paired with Elisa's epiphany, false no doubt, that her son has somehow created the universe she now inhabits.

And then there's destroying the universe. There's only one composer whom you could say is virtually synonymous with that idea, and it's Alexander Scriabin, the Russian piano virtuoso, composer, and all-around madman. When Scriabin died at 43, he was working on a grandiose piece of music called Mysterium, which was to have been played in the Himalayas by multiple orchestras, and would, if completed, have destroyed everything and synthesized a new world in which, among other things, the sexes would be collapsed into one. That didn't pan out. But Scriabin did write an extraordinary body of beautiful and disturbing music, most notably for the piano. His Sonata No. 7, Op. 64 ("White Mass") is a fine example, vacillating between Chopinesque lyricism and furious cascades of atonality, separated by strange fits and starts, and by unexpected, awkward silences. Over and over the piece almost loses the thread, then pulls back together by renewing and redefining itself, which is what also passes for plot development in my novel.

I was tempted to throw some Brian Eno onto the pile here, because what novel of hallucinatory unreality, shifting personal identity, and malleable time wouldn't benefit from a soundtrack of, say, On Land or Music for Airports? But I thought better of it in the end—the ambient Eno is a little too palliative for this material. Instead, let's try the harsher, more metallic ambience of Experimental Audio Research, the droney, guitar-and-synth-based project that emanates primarily from Spacemen 3's Sonic Boom. "Beyond the Pale" seems like a good choice—it's the nearly-15-minute title track of the 1996 record of the same name, and is composed of overlapping and looped hums and chimes, overlaid by long, slow electric guitar solos. This thing could easily serve as accompaniment to the whole book, but I like to think of it being emitted, tinnily, by a clock radio on an end table in Elisa's weird therapist's house while she attempts to explain, unsuccessfully, what has happened to her.

At first, the Feelies' "Forces at Work" sounds like a continuation of the E.A.R. Song, with its fade-in drone and quietly chiming electric guitars. But then the band introduces a distorted guitar chord, passed through a hard fast tremolo, and pins it down with a kick-and-snare pattern that gradually increases in volume, and all of a sudden we've got a hypnotic, danceable rock and roll song with utterly incomprehensible lyrics. I'm sure the words are out there, on the internet, but there was no internet when I first heard the Feelies' debut record, Crazy Rhythms, in the 1980's, so let's leave them to the imagination. That's what Elisa has to do, anyway, in the novel's last pages, when...well, I'd better not describe the ending. But I will say that involves trying to discern meaning where perhaps there is none, and that's one of the things we like about weird music, isn't it—that it leaves so much to the imagination.

And since we've come to the end of the book, how about a song that's ultimately about endings? I've always loved They Might Be Giants, the Brooklyn dork-rock duo best known for its sprightly, catchy pop sensibility. But you have to get rather deep into their catalog to discover the band's experimental elán, which manifests itself in all manner of clever instrumentation, lyrical obscurity, and production trickery. John Linnell (the skinny, quiet one) is probably the more radical of the band's two members, and this is reflected in his 1999 solo album State Songs, which contains the peculiar tune "Nevada." It's a comically slight ditty (there is no other word) underpinned by a live marching band, recorded outdoors. And when the song proper is over, the marching band launches into an extended outro, and marches away while playing it. As the band recedes into the distance, the music vanishes, and all that is left is random street noise. It's the last track on the record—and so there is no clear boundary between listening to the record and not listening to the record. A fine joke from Linnell, and alienating, to be sure, but also capable of heightening the listener's sensitivity to everything around him. Which we must hope a good book does, as well.

J. Robert Lennon and Familiar links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (read by the author)

Kansas City Star review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

Burrow Press Review interview with the author
Ithaca Journal profile of the author
The Outlet guest post by the author
PowellsBooks.Blog interview with the author
Unstuck interview with the author

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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