February 20, 2013
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
The linked stories in Louise Aronson's collection A History of the Present Illness depict the frailness of our lives through their hospital setting. Doctors, patients, and their families make up the exquisitely drawn characters in this impressive and compassionate debut.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"It’s the tense atmospheres that Aronson creates, and her empathy for her characters, that make this a promising debut."
I am a doctor and a writer, so maybe it's not surprising that my first book, A History of the Present Illness, contains so many dualities: it's a book in the an-entire-singular-world-between-two-covers (or at a finger's touch, as the case may be) sense, and it's a collection of 16 linked stories. It's about people who are patients, and it's about people who are doctors. It is almost entirely fictional, and it is completely true.
Some people say that last duality isn't possible; I say that's what fiction is: re-imagining life so as to be able to (re)present it to readers in a way that tells the truth in a more compelling, entertaining, and meaningful way than a factual chronology ever could. The book takes readers into the lives of diverse doctors, patients, and families, most of whom never existed in real life, though each grew out of some actual experience, the vaguest remnants of which may or may not remain on the page and in the stories, given that some were written over a decade crowded with other activities such as doctoring and learning how to write in a way that might be called literary. More importantly, each character in A History of the Present Illness is for me as real and flawed and wonderfully human as a flesh-and-bone friend, and as a true to my experience of life. Together, these stories offer my insider's view of illness and medicine, which is to say my view of life since as Chris Adrian, the only doctor on The New Yorker's 2010 "Top 20 Writers Under 40" list, has pointed out, "These stories are about medicine exactly the way medicine is about life."
And that thought – almost – brings us to the music.
Almost because in order to better hear the sometimes faint voices of my characters, I write in silence.
So there is one perspective from which this could be my playlist:
But that would only tell part of the story, because modern life is noisy. Its rhythms are fast and polyphonic, funky and eclectic. Its melodies play over and around one another. Most days, its harmonies only occasionally sound harmonious.
In the twenty-first century, we have become an outlier species. People walk down the street with white cords hanging from their ears. Our lives are punctuated by beeps and rings, trills and sirens and alarms. On television and in movies and videos, we recognize life's most dramatic moments by an orchestral crescendo or percussive cacophony. And we take all this in stride. At the gym this morning, I exercised beside a young woman whose music I could easily hear despite her headphones and mine, and I imagined the thousands of fragile hair cells of her inner ears straining to do their jobs, each standing tall and waving back and forth to pick up the unique note for which it was responsible, and then as the auditory assault continued, bending, shearing and breaking off, lost forever in the tsunami of sound.
Some of my characters would make similar choices. Others would have more sense (and sometimes less fun,) their music is as varied as their lives. I present here the stories from A History of the Present Illness, in order, each followed by a song or two.
"Snapshots from an Institution"
Ryuichi Sakamoto Trio 1996 - Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
This story is told as a series of photographs you see via the words. So much of medicine (and life) is each of us seeing others via one or a series of still pictures, and that's a problem, even when it's a great photo, because life is, if we're lucky, an eighty plus yearlong video…This gorgeous piece of music fits this story because it captured Quingshan's elegance and pathos, his poignant pride in wanting to let his son make the decisions as in a new country, even as the son misses most of what matters, not least his father's abiding love for his mother.
"An American Problem"
Big Country - In a Big Country
This child is so smart, so brave. She breaks my heart, and yet I know she'll be ok. I often think of how old she'd be now, of how she managed high school, of the first boy she kissed, of what she's doing now. The music speaks to quantum change...displacement...a need to belong...and confusion....and human needs both basic and abstract, the need to be understood.
CHORUS: And in a big country, dreams stay with you, Like a lover's voice, fires the mountainside.. Stay alive…
"Giving Good Death"
Radiohead - "High and Dry"
Being in prison gives Robert time to think, so the tone and mood of the song fit. As do the lyrics: now he's the one "drying up in conversation" and wishing he "could still make love." But is it that he doesn't want to lose Kate, the real Kate, or the Kate he saw as part of the life that worked for him? He thought he had most things figured out in life. He was wrong.
Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
This song is loud and sometimes ugly, the way the protagonist, Marta, finds her own daughter ugly, the way Sophie sometimes is ugly. And it's brutal, signifying the C-section and all the other times Marta has been ripped apart as a mother, a daughter, and a doctor. Cobain's screaming is almost painful to listen to, and it's poignant since we know his fate and because of the words and meaning of the song. I also like the moments in the last new verse toward the end where it gets quieter and gentler, like a mother's love. As he sings, "love is a verb…"
"Becoming a Doctor"
Depeche Mode - I Just Can't Get Enough
This story is like life in one's twenties, all consuming, whether it's these young medical students' passion for bodies, for food, or for knowledge and competence. Yet it's also light and full of hope. Given the play on feminism and the characters' experiences, the song choice might seem flippant; it's not meant to be. This is the crazy, painful joy of youth.
Public Enemy - Fight the Power
This story is a short-short. I'm told it packs a punch. It's about self-delusion and an attempt at rebelliousness in the face of hopelessness. And it was the subject of one of the best compliments I've received on my work. The main character is a young man back from Iraq. The compliment came from an octogenarian who served in some of the bloody battles of World War II. He said all wars are the same in all the ways the count. He said I nailed it.
"Twenty Five Things I Know About My Husband's Mother"
Norah Jones - "Rain"
Norah is half Indian, which seems right, and this is a sad and beautiful song, which seems even more right, a tone that captures all the key characters in this story: the mother in law the narrator has never met but who figures so prominently in her life; her husband who eats his sorrow, denies his truth, and loves with a quiet ferocity; the narrator herself, trying to pull it all together.
"Soup or Sex"
Seal - "Love's Divine"
This story started with a patient I loved. This was year's ago and now when I try to see him, I see Maurice instead. They are very different. The patient didn't tell stories the way Maurice does. He didn't have cancer, and he made different decisions. This song tells the story of a man defeated but not willing to give up the fight. That seems about right. This one's for the real M, in memoriam.
"Fires and Flat Lines"
U2 - "One"
It was tempting here to say "Fire Starter" by Prodigy but that would be too easy. U2 is the better choice because if this kid had had the love he needed he might not have done what he did...
"The Psychiatrists Wife"
Nina Simone - "Funkier Than a Mosquito Tweeter"
The easy part of this choice is that the word mosquito and the incredible rhythms speak to the story's setting. But the pace is also her mind racing around. The edge is her anger made pretty. She's a woman on the edge and only she can decide what of, and she can decide, and maybe she does at the end.
"Blurred Boundary Disorder"
Mary Poppins - "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"
Because Noemi may be a little bit crazy, but she's also absolutely right about what she sees in the world. And for all people and professionals who, not without reason, think the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is as dangerous and insidious as a Disney movie! After all, the current version lists grief at the loss of a longtime spouse as pathological psychological reaction…I don't think life is ever that easily categorized, as this and I hope every other story in the collection shows.
"Vital Signs Stable"
Radiohead- "Karma Police"
This one I picked for tone – meandering, lingering and yet somehow contained – and for the words, the ‘karma' and the ‘this is what you get'. It's about Edith who doesn't die, and Quentin Chew who becomes who he thought he wanted to be, and Frank and FJ and Frankie who are three generations of the same thing, meaning three completely different sorts of guys. The ‘this is what you get' part isn't meant to be punitive; we all make decisions that influence the course of our lives.
"Days of Awe"
Lady Antebellum - "Need You Now" (her)
Johnny Cash - "Ring of Fire" (him)
I considered Klezmer music for this one, but it was too facile a choice. This is better: two narrators. Two songs. Two points of view. Some stylistic similarities, but the tones, lyrics, and intent are completely different, and possibly irreconcilable.
Pet Shop Boys - "West End Girl"s
It's all right there in the song: Boys/girls (How much do you need?) Choices seen/unseen (How much do you need?) Hard and soft options (How much do you need?) A heart of glass and a heart of stone (How much do you need?) Future/past (How much do you need?)
Etta James - "At Last"
The doctor-narrator speaks for himself in this story so this song speaks more to the largely silent patient. I imagine she might have listened to Etta James herself back in the day. And they both blazed trails. What's more there's a way in which the lyrics here speak to where her mind might have gone, and to how she'll find her way back to her deceased husband.
"A Medical Story"
Madonna - "Secret Garden"
Because we all have a secret garden, because too many of us look for perfection, because the sounds are jazzy and funky and individual and don't sound much like the famous/known Madonna songs, because though fiction, this is the story that comes closest to finding and telling my story, my secret.
Louise Aronson and A History of the Present Illness links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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