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March 29, 2013

Book Notes - Benjamin Lytal "A Map of Tulsa"

A Map of Tulsa

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.

Benjamin Lytal's debut novel A Map of Tulsa is a literary love letter to the city where the protagonist returns from college to truly discover his hometown.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Although the doomed girl is the focus of Jim’s obsession, the strength of this debut novel is Lytal’s evocation of place: Tulsa through Jim’s eyes is tenderly revealed. There is magic here if the reader has experienced any such provincial city, for the prose provokes remembered images, acutely vivid."

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 Benjamin Lytal's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, A Map of Tulsa:


My book is about kids in love, so there's a lot of important music. I want to offer three Warm-up playlists and then do a full-on annotated playlist essay for the Main Event.


First Warm-up

"Thick as Thieves" – The Jam
"California" – EMA
"Drugs in My Body" – Thieves Like Us
"Blue Jeans" – Lana Del Rey
"All My Friends" – LCD Soundsystem
"The Boys Are Back in Town" – Thin Lizzy
"Loft Music" – The Weeknd

This list is about youth, ad hoc party coalitions, adventures, pretend criminality, and night.


Second Warm-up

"Junco Partner" – James Booker
"Dank" – Arnold Schoenberg
"Suite en La" – J. P. Rameau
"Pastorale (in scordatura): Allegro" – Giuseppe Tartini
"Utah Dances" – Dave Soldier
"Cadenza on the Night Plain" – Terry Riley
"Hello Dolly" – Louis Armstrong (Berlin concert)

This list is about ecstasy, harshness, repetition, obsession, the idea of physical labor, and the transcending penetrating satisfaction of a performance climax.


Third Warm-up

"Free Money" – Patti Smith
"We're In This Together" – Nine Inch Nails
"She" – Emmylou Harris
"She's a Lady" – Pulp
"Pocahontas" – Neil Young
"Poor Song" – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
"When My Boy Walks Down the Street" – The Magnetic Fields

This list is about legendary girlfriends, death, the desire for magical powers, and Custer's last stand.


Main Event

This is the truest story I can tell using the playlist format. It's about how I wrote the first draft of A Map of Tulsa. Here are four songs that are like landmarks in my memory:


"An den Wassern zu Babel" by Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir from Pärt: Da pacem

I wrote the first draft in Switzerland, where my fiancée had a fellowship. It was a dreary block of time. We lived outside of town, in a development across from a sheep farm. Every morning I sat down with my laptop and put on Arvo Pärt. I didn't know how to write a novel. I watched the lambs play. It barely snowed that winter (the Alps are melting, you know). Pärt's music is Christian, spectral, and yet feels completely modern and contemporary. It's like a melting glacier. So it was the perfect thing to listen to while I drank coffee and let my brain thaw. The choir gave an aura of solemnity to my mornings, and made me feel less like a baby lamb, and more like a basso profundo.


"Let Me See the Colts" by Smog from A River Ain't Too Much to Love

I also remember listening to Smog in Switzerland. Bill Callahan was like the buddy I needed: a self-confident drinker, a grim, grown-up little boy, a womanizer with a heart of gold. I took songs like "Prince Alone In the Studio" pretty seriously: here was Smog, a rough lo-fi genius, singing the ode to obsessive pop perfectionism. It seemed like this was how I should write—like one kind of person being the other.

We used to love "I Break Horses," a slightly uptight dirge about keeping girls at a distance:

"Tonight I'm swimming to my favorite island. / And I don't want to see you swimming behind. // I break horses. / I don't tend to them."

It sort of anticipates "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe."

But later, this was after I moved back to Brooklyn, I settled on the more warbly, grown-up Callahan of "Let Me See the Colts". A man who gets his friend out of bed so they can go look at sleeping colts. "Have you been drinking?" // "No, nor sleeping." It's about the need to feed on a vision of youth. He wants to see the colts that will run next year. He insists on exacting his own idea of aesthetic perfection out of the morning. "Is there anything as still as sleeping horses?" Some people might find it a boring song. But if you stay up all night working on something and then listen to it at dawn, it's like the sunrise.


"Silver Stallion" by Cat Power from Jukebox

Another song about horses. I am still in Switzerland. Jukebox has just come out. Despairing, really, at the isolation of suburban Swiss life, I have taken money out of my very circumscribed debit account and bought train tickets to Paris. I have also spent $10 on iTunes, to download the new Cat Power. I have not yet discovered credit cards. I have not yet discovered much about life, or writing. But gliding through the wintry landscape and looking at the leaden French grass, I realize one thing: I am never going to have a vaguely horseback love affair with a woman who thinks I have "razor blades and dice in [my] eyes."

I wanted my book to be all books: I wanted it to contain that song, campy as it seemed. I wanted what Yeats calls "high romance." It was on that train ride that I figured out that, deep as I could take them, Jim & Adrienne (my characters) were going to come out somewhere else. Chan Marshall's song became a marker after that. I would listen to it in subsequent years of writing and it would symbolize a border: this is where I can't get.


"Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis

It takes blood sugar to write. iTunes became so important to me in Switzerland. I started downloading pop singles out of a kind of patriotism: I missed the ambient radio soundtrack of New York, what my wife calls bodega music. This was towards the end of our stay. If Arvo Pärt represented the gravity of a moon landing, Leona Lewis was the silliness of the astronaut's welcome home party. I was dying to get back to New York. I had finished a draft of my novel. I had carved an ice cave out of the blank white page. But just as we were preparing to leave (and I thought I was done) I got the idea of inserting some pinpricks of flashback into the story. These were liquid color, came easily, they were like draughts of the blushing south, as Keats might have said. It was spring, summer was coming: back in America I decided to turn those flashbacks into the gushing first half of the book.

Is it any wonder that Leona's song is a defensive song? "But I don't care what they say / I'm in love with you // My heart's crippled by the vein that I keep on closing / You cut me open . . ."

Some people like the second half of my novel best; some people the first.


Benjamin Lytal and A Map of Tulsa links:

excerpt from the book

Austin Chronicle review
Boston Globe review
New York Observer review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

KWGS interview with the author
Propeller interview with the author
Tulsa World profile of the author
Urban Tulsa Weekly profile of 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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