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January 18, 2013

Book Notes - Jeff Backhaus "Hikikomori and the Rental Sister"

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister

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.

Jeff Backhaus's Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is a quietly powerful novel, crisply told and genuinely heartbreaking. A stunning debut.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"A mesmerizing debut at once sorrowful, intimate, and optimistic . . . Told in crisp and lyrical prose and a nontraditional narrative that shifts between first- and third-person, Backhaus's novel is courageous and spare, an enthralling success."

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 Jeff Backhaus's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister:


So then I thought, What if I used music as more than mere mood-setter to get myself in the right frame of mind to write a particular chapter, what if I actually used musical devices/techniques to write fiction, to create the story's emotional core and flow, would that be crazy? Yes. Of course. And in a way, foolish. But it worked.

I scrutinized how the following songs evoked certain feelings and tensions and resolutions, and then applied those techniques to my fiction. (I also spent hours reading and thinking about all the definitions for the word tone—Webster's 3rd lists thirty-seven.) I composed chapters in certain keys, which seems strange but wait: an E-flat minor chapter, for instance, might include words like “noxious fungus” or “revolting slop” whereas a C-major chapter might include “toothsome legume” or “bright blue lagoon” (I exaggerate here for illustrative purposes only: I'm pretty sure no such monstrosities appear in Hikikomori and the Rental Sister.) I gave each chapter a basic tempo, augmented with moments of accelerando or ritardando. Crescendo and decrescendo, which made screaming rage yield to tender, forgiving silence. I used words whose sounds (I thought) matched the timbre of certain instruments. Sometimes I syncopated sentences; sometimes I added accidental notes—words that seem out of place (for instance, in an otherwise shimmering C-major chapter a sudden lustful can be jarring). Leitmotifs—usually in the form of words or phrases—evolve over the course of the story to match characters' evolving relationships.

Although people seem to love calling my story's prose “spare,” within that overall restraint some passages are more rich and saturate, others more fragile, delicate. The same way a symphony's orchestration expands and contracts to create various feelings. And as the story's hikikomori (who has isolated himself in his bedroom for three years) gradually thaws to the world and reconnects, so do his vocals gradually shift from atonal fragments struggling to find the next word to more lyrical (or at least normal) sentences.

Just as composers do, I tried to make all this plain to see but not really noticeable. So that all you have to do is sit back and read and feel it.

Songs I love, whose musical tricks I stole to create a flow of emotion in Hikikomori and the Rental Sister:

Blonde Redhead, "23"

Grizzly Bear, "He Hit Me"

Alban Berg, “Orchestral epilogue: invention on a key (D- minor)” before the ultimate scene in Wozzeck.

Radiohead, "Everything in its Right Place"

Girls' Generation, "Oh!" (No part of my book resembles this song/lollipop in any way whatsoever. Okay, maybe one part. When I was in Seoul writing the book's final draft, this song came out and for a good month I heard it every eighteen minutes—such is the sweet crushing weight of K-pop ubiquity in Korea—and I've sung it in Korean in countless karaoke rooms, so who's to say how the song might've infected my psyche and writing.)

T-ARA, "Bo Peep Bo Peep" (See above.)

Gustav Mahler, "Symphony No. 3. VI. Langsam. Ruhevol. Empfunden. (D-major)"


Jeff Backhaus and Hikikomori and the Rental Sister links:

the author's website

St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Toronto Star review
Wall Street Journal 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

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists
The list of online "best of 2012" music lists

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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