October 26, 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.
Jeanne Thornton's The Dream of Doctor Bantam is an intense and moving novel about loss, and its protagonist, the 17-year-old Julie Thatch, is as memorable (and haunting) a character as I have encountered all year.
Grantland wrote of the book:
"A slow, dissonant burn of a novel, a haunting meditation of young, wayward love."
In a creative writing class, I once read a classmate's three-page story about two people in a car going to an airport. A song plays on the radio, its lyrics written out in full, and the emotional movement of the lyrics is literally the entire narrative content of the song. It was such a classically lazy writing workshop story; total plagiarism through sly use of diegetic music. It troubled me because it was such a self-evident strategy. Most of our emotions now come from pop songs anyway, so why not just admit it? Why not just have the song be the whole story? It would be so eassssssy.
Thus when I started writing The Dream of Doctor Bantam in 2007, I was initially leery of trying to get across emotional content by including fun references to songs that made me feel specific emotions, rather than through, like, writing. Yet as those who read the book know—first chapter contains the protagonist, Julie, listening to Gish and Siamese Dream and "[pulling] out of the parking lot and onto the highway like a jet screaming in takeoff—a jet that sounded like Billy Corgan and stank like an ashtray at a renaissance fair—and Julie decided that there would never be a better moment than this in her life"—I gave up early on that fool idea. The book I'm writing now, Dumb Angels, is basically a narrative exegesis of things I enjoy about thirty or forty classic Beach Boys tracks. There is no point in resisting the sinister marriage of popular music and fiction. Music will get you.
I had this reluctance because, as ought all right-thinking people, I felt embarrassed about how much songs can mean. Music is essentially fascistic mind control: marching drum beats play, a clever manipulation of chord changes and tone qualities gets you in a certain state of mind, and then the singer gets to say whatever she or he wants into your brain without benefit of rational scrutiny or any other democratic process. It's seriously creepy, and yet what can we do? We can't return to a world without pop music haunting our emotional landscape like the football ghosts singing "Day-O" at the foot of our staircase in Beetlejuice. Music lets us dance on air in an unwholesome modern way.
So all that said, here are some songs to listen to while you read The Dream of Doctor Bantam:
Pink Martini - "Je ne veux pas travailler"
Basically the theme song for the character Patrice. It's meant as a parody both of grammar textbooks and of intellectually extreme New Wave attitudes—effort is purposeless; the best cause we can dedicate ourselves to is cigarettes—but this character actually has these attitudes in a much more mundane, terrifying form. The best we can do is to lie on the couch looking at photos of Paris, or to be in a cult.
When I was trying to listen to this again on YouTube for purposes of putting together this playlist, I found that a good fifty percent of available videos mislabel this as an Edith Piaf song. I think I spent most of the book thinking that it actually was an Edith Piaf song. Julie's surprise at finding out it isn't is my surprise; it is all of our surprise.
Trivia: harpist for Pink Martini = daughter of token "evil Beach Boy" Mike Love.
Hole – "Miss World"
Julie's sister Tabitha is only in the book for about twenty pages at most, but people seem to dig her a lot. Hole is maybe an unsubtle choice to represent this character, but she's not a particularly subtle character. She would be all about rasping out things about how she's made her bed, she'll lie in it; she's made her bed, she'll DIE in it.
I didn't get into Hole until sometime during the long phase of revising the text. I was an extreme Smashing Pumpkins partisan for a long time, and somehow it was hard to reconcile being a fan of both Billy and Courtney for me. And then that stuff came out about Billy Corgan calling one of his trans fans a "sad creation" and talking on his Livejournal about how he'd threatened to break that transwoman's arms back in the late 1980s. So Billy's music is hard for me to listen to, though "Cherub Rock" and "Annie-Dog" remain honorable mentions on this list. (I feel that it's important for the reader to know that there were like twenty songs on this list, but I cut a lot of them for space. You are only getting the gold material today, dear readers!)
Cheap Trick – "Surrender"
This is the one real allusion to Julie's family life on this list. The book's portrayal of family life I find kind of cheerful, but other people don't seem to, so let's all just remember that we're all all right.
Rilo Kiley - "The Good that Won't Come Out"
This song was released when Jenny Lewis was twenty-six, according to Wikipedia-fueled calculations. I had the same experience Julie has with it in the book sometime around 2003: sitting in a coffee shop, having to completely stop what you're doing because the song is revealing everything you feel, there on that frozen lake. I still think the song is neat, but there's also something quaint about it now. It's a song about believing that you are permanently damned, and probably you are not.
Pat Benatar – "We Belong"
An emotionally immature song about believing with perfect certainty in everlasting love.
L. Ron Hubbard (feat. Chick Corea and Julia Migenes) - "Why Worship Death?"
So I just saw The Master, as I hope you will too, and it made me really wish I had gotten more creepy Scientology stuff into the book: the fleet of ships doing impromptu jazz performances in Grecian harbors, the teen girl messenger corps, L. Ron Hubbard's attempt to summon a Satanic "moonchild" with Jack Parsons. One of the weird little eddies of Scientology history is L. Ron's late-eighties religious album, The Road to Freedom, which is mostly terrible but for this unforgettable song. Somehow Hubbard got Chick Corea and Julia Migenes to put eerie jazz fusion keyboards and opera vox behind his lyrics about how "death is a sham" and how "beings are not bodies." This is actually what mind control sounds like.
For anyone interested in real exciting dirt on Scientology and its founder, I highly recommend Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller, which is hosted free on Operation Clambake (xenu.net) by Andreas Hedlal-Lund, one of my book's dedicatees. Clambake provided lots of excellent, lurid data for me to pore over through many irreplaceable hours of my college experience.
Dead Can Dance – "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove"
One of the most spiritually bilious songs I've ever heard, and I once listened to it to get over being dismissed from a job I kind of liked, which at the time felt embarrassing and cool in equal measure. I like how the anger of the hand drums and pizzicato strings resolves into open space at the end of the song, the sad waste field of total lack of any belief left to be angry about. Also contains the apropos line "Dream on my dear / and renounce temporal obligations."
Joy Division - "Atmosphere"
In some ways an obvious inclusion, but I bring it up because of an alternate lyric: Ian Curtis sings that "people like you find it easy," but in some concert recordings (I think the 1979 Les Bains Douches one) he sings "always in tune" instead of "naked to see." I like that these have basically opposite meanings: "people like you," people capable of survival in this world, are either emotionally honest and vulnerable, or they never present any moments of vulnerability ever.
Siouxsie and the Banshees – "Lullaby"
A strangely maternal love song. I like its relentlessly opaque lyrics and the way the song opens up at the end into a flower of swirling, protective love, one that radiates at some distance. Honorable mention as far as songs about Julie go: "Dazzle," with its narrator who is "swallowing diamonds, cutting throats / in a dead sea of flowing mercury."
Tune-yards – "Fiya"
This is the song that made me a Merrill Garbus fan-for-life. Whatever she does, I will now listen to. The song has this intense strength to it, though it's the breakup song to end all breakup songs. It never loses its sense of pride, even though the singer would never call this pride. "Why'd you think that I'd put out your fire? / Don't you know that I breathe in fire / And breathe out fire?" These lyrics sung in a small, sad voice. And to conclude: "I am not beautiful / And I am not magic yet / But I am in bloom at the end of the world." Even on the last page of the book, something about Patrice remains in bloom, and Julie is going to have to live with this forever. Somewhere in this is the key to everything I wanted the novel to say.
Jeanne Thornton and The Dream of Doctor Bantam links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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