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March 7, 2013

Book Notes - Ariel Djanikian "The Office of Mercy"

The Office of Mercy

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.

Ariel Djanikian's debut novel The Office of Mercy is a remarkable coming-of-age dystopian novel, fast-paced and thought provoking throughout.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Djanikian's fictitious world combines both the horrifying consequences of ethnic cleansing with the bright new hope of how much one person can do to change history. Both believable and chilling, this tale transports readers to a futuristic utopic life where good and evil mingle with equal opportunity and are often indistinguishable to the characters. This intriguing slice of future drama ends much too soon, and will leave readers begging for a sequel, if not a series."

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 Ariel Djanikian's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Office of Mercy:

In The Office of Mercy, Natasha often finds herself doubting the work she does. She's proud of her office's "sweeps"—the drone blasts meant to mercifully annihilate the drifters outside her settlement—and yet she's weighed down by her strange, persistent feeling that killing is wrong. She thrives under the organization of the settlement, but also yearns for the chaos of the wild forest outside its walls: a place left mostly unpopulated after a planned, worldwide, and catastrophic storm. Her relationship with Jeffrey, a big shot in the Office of Mercy, hits its highs and lows as Natasha discovers more about the sweeps she's always worked so hard to perform.

While I was writing this novel, I kept my little square office in a state of monkish silence. Any sound was an invasion to the rhythms of the fictional world. But when going over the final edits, and especially now that the story's been told, music seems to howl up from the pages. The songs that the book calls up are ones that bring together a clash of tones and feelings. For someone a bit lacking in musical aptitude (it took me seven years of piano to play "Für Elise") this has always been the magic: how musical lines can fuse and layer to become harmonious, surprising, unlikely wholes.

Rufus Wainwright, "Rules and Regulations"

This is life in America-Five: where bureaucracy reigns over the routines of sleep, love, doctor's visits, procreation, and mealtimes. But as this song suggests, orderliness isn't always soul-crushing, it can sometimes have a bouncy spirit. (The piccolo trumpet!) I love the mix in this song between coyness and resignation—its sense of spiritedness in the midst of constraint. Can't you just imagine the playful smirk on Rufus's face? For me, this is Natasha early on in the novel: contentedly teetering at the edge of rebellion.

The Flaming Lips, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1"

The rules and order of America-Five are not purposeless. Totalitarianism doesn't exist for its own sake; there's no Orwellian "boot stamping on a human face." In many ways, the leaders of Natasha's settlement see themselves as humanitarian warriors, battling against suffering and mortality. And it's hard work too: defeating "those evil natured robots" with the epic quest vibe this song gives off.

Alicia Keys, "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart"

Alicia Keys locates that wonderful territory between crush song and breakup anthem: that moment when the relationship could go either way. Natasha and Jeffrey are often caught in this murky state, in part because Natasha remains steadfast and resilient even when love's (possibly) lost.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Who'll Stop the Rain"

Plangent and strong, worn down by years of endurance—this is a song for the "Tribes" who live outside America-Five. As much as they band together and travel the ravaged coast, they can't escape the lingering dark clouds of the Storm. They're exhausted and looking for a savior. So, "who'll stop the rain?" For now, they've set their sights on Natasha; though they might "wonder," and "still wonder," as Fogerty does, if it will all be okay soon enough.

Erasure, "Solsbury Hill"

When Jeffrey gives Natasha the chance to go outside for the first time, Natasha responds with more than a little bit of childish glee and naiveté: she really does anticipate "walk[ing] right out of the machinery." For me, this song captures not only the excitement of leaving the trappings of a place or social group, but also the release from any kind of emotional imprisonment. If Gabriel's original is bittersweet honey, the Erasure makeover is one of those gummy Coke bottles wrapped up in strawberry Twizzlers. Just the right amount of synthpop.

Nine Inch Nails, "The Beginning of the End"

This list wouldn't be complete without a song from the dystopic album, Year Zero. It's a driving, pulsing, frenetic record that starts with a driving, pulsing, yet pretty relaxed (for NIN) song about control: governmental, personal, having it, losing it. For me, the lyrics capture the fear of being stranded outside after generations of existing underground. There's lots of good mechanical-type noise—if you're sensing a trend in how I hear the book!—and also a fitting chorus:

We think we've come so far
On all our lies we depend
We see no consequence
This is the beginning of the end.

Radiohead, "All I Need"

Raj, who once headed the America-Five archives, forms a strong bond with Natasha. He's a moralistic voice of reason, a rabble-rouser whose calls for resistance have grown increasingly urgent: "All the days / That you choose to ignore." Thom Yorke's patient—and maybe a little smashed?—delivery evokes that thoughtful, honest center that only our most reverential can reach. Part of what unites Raj and Natasha is also their loneliness and deep empathy for those outside the settlement's walls: "I only stick with you / Because there are no others."

Yo La Tengo, "Shadows"

This song had a habit of persistently sneaking onto the end of mix tapes during a few years of my life. It's a tune of quiet deliberation, perfect for Natasha when she's tamed her emotions in favor of more calculated plans. Of course, you have the sense that when the "she" of this song decides to emerge, it's going to be with tremendous force: "So until I truly believe that your words convey what you mean / I'll wait in the shadows."

Modest Mouse, "The World at Large"

The Office of Mercy is Natasha's book, but Jeffrey's choices hold huge sway over the story. When writing about America-Five, I kept wondering what would happen to the people whose explorer spirit no amount of emotional manipulation could change. Would they find satisfaction in dreaming about the outside world? Or would the settlement still feel overwhelmingly constrained? Modest Mouse's swells of instrumentation against the steady beat of the everyday get at Jeffery's wonderer core. It's a spirit that I think many of us have too.

Ariel Djanikian and The Office of Mercy links:

the author's website

Bookreporter review
Kirkus Reviews review
NPR review
Toronto Star review

Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
I Am a Reader, Not a Writer interview with the author
My Bookish Ways interview with the author
RT Book Reviews 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

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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