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March 27, 2013

Book Notes - Jen Michalski "Could You Be With Her Now"

Could You Be With Her Now

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.

Though different in style and subject, the two remarkable novellas that make up Jen Michalski's short fiction collection Could You Be With Her Now complement each other perfectly. Michalski skillfully illuminates the heartbreaking fragility of her characters, and has me eagerly awaiting her debut novel, The Tide King (out in May).

PANK wrote of the collection:

"At the center of it all is Michalski’s masterful hand, at once compassionate and unflinching, possessed of extraordinary, aesthetic restraint. What she has given us are two lean bodies of incredible depth and ambition."

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 Jen Michalski's Book Notes music playlist for her short fiction collection, Could You Be With Her Now:

There's a couplet of novellas, "I Can Make It to California Before It's Time for Dinner" and "May-September," in the collection Could You Be With Her Now. "I Can Make It to California Before It's Time for Dinner" is the first-person narrative of Jimmy Dembrowski, a mentally challenged 14-year-old boy who accidentally kills a neighborhood girl on whom he has a crush. He winds up running away and hitching a ride with a trucker, Mr. Ed, who is not as trustworthy a companion as Jimmy believes him to be.  

In "May-September," which won first place in Press 53's Open Awards in 2010, a young writer, Alice, is hired by a much-older woman, Sandra, a widow who plays the piano, over the summer to help blog her memoirs for her grandchildren. An unlikely friendship, and more, follows.

"I Can Make It to California Before It's Time for Dinner"

That Justin Timberlake song

I actually had no idea what Justin Timberlake song Jimmy was singing in the novella when he tries to walk to California and find Megan, the girl he likes on television (I imagined her, when I wrote it, as an iCarly or other Nickelodeon-like teen actress). I wrote California in 2010, and I don't think Justin Timberlake had even made in album since 2006. But it makes sense that Jimmy would sing popular hits, possibly even out-of-date ones, the kind that he'd hear on Light W106 when he went to the dentist office. So I'm going to say it was "Cry Me a River."

That Rihanna song

Again, I wouldn't know Rihanna from Beyonce. But Jimmy's singing whatever is popular on the radio.

"Honky Tonk Blues" by Hank Williams, Sr

Jimmy and Mr. Ed sing this in the truck when it comes on the radio. Mr. Ed is a tough guy, a country music fan. The music, like most country-western songs, is jaunty and fun, but when you read the lyrics, it's about a farm boy going to the big city and being disappointed. I think it kind of mirrors Jimmy's quest here, too, only that Jimmy does not have the mental capacity for disillusionment, or to even know he's being taken advantage of. In fact, it's hard to say what he's going to take away from the whole experience or what's going to happen to him.


Etude no. 2, Etudes for solo piano by Phillip Glass

I tried to imagine Sandra's personality in the music she might play. I don't think Sandra would play Phillip Glass on the piano, necessarily (she's partial to Grieg, Barber, and Beethoven), but I think Phillip Glass could have written this piece for someone like Sandra. There's a lot of frantic energy in the piece in many levels, and it reminds me of someone who is stolid but conflicted and struggling, and if you sliced her open, thinking she was a stone, you'd see all these organs and arteries, slippery and pulpy and pulsating furiously.

"X&Y" by Coldplay

I was listening to this song a lot when I wrote May-September. The guitar kind of goes up the scale on these sharp or flat notes, and Chris Martin is singing You and me are drifting into outer space, and it just seemed like the perfect summation of Sandra and Alice's relationship. They're floating in space or in some strange purgatory, and while it's dreaming and beautiful and airy they can never ground it, weld it to their realities.

"One Wing" by Wilco

I listened to this song a lot, too, writing May-September. The lyrics of this song, one of my favorites by Wilco, seem especially fitting for Alice and Sandra's relationship: One wing will never, ever fly/neither yours nor mine/I fear we can only wave goodbye. The dissonant notes in the chorus are also very poignant, evoking yearning and regret. I can't ever listen to this song now without feeling a hurt in my heart for the fledging relationship of Alice and Sandra that never got a chance to take flight.

"Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" by Dionne Warwick

Sandra and her friend Georgi are in a car, coming from the country club after lunch and tennis. It's during the fifties and Sandra tries to kiss Georgi, who calls her a dyke (Georgi is probably a repressed lesbian). But this scene is also interwoven into the present action with Sandra and Alice and the lyrics to this song somehow weave both scenes together: And there you are without a friend/You pack your car and ride away. This is another song, ie, someone wanting to go back to the easy, innocent situation, before she knew what disappointment was. But you can never go back to San Jose.
Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 ("Pathétique") by Beethoven

Sandra and Alice attend a symphony together, and one of the pieces played is "Pathétique." In this scene Sandra parallels her own life with Beethoven's, noting that he was twenty-eight when he'd written "Pathétique" and was already going deaf. At that time in her life she was still bargaining with herself, promising she'd be a good wife and mother if her husband Jack bought her a Steinway to give her the escape she needs from domestic (and sexual) imprisonment. It's a powerful epiphany for Sandra and also an important scene in that she acknowledges her feelings for Alice (and vice versa). I don't remember why I choose this particular piece; I am a much bigger Beethoven fan than Mozart (although I was the exact opposite in college). So maybe it just means that you can change your mind at any time and that it's okay; no one will judge you.

"Mrs. Bartolozzi" by Kate Bush

Kate Bush never explained the lyrics, although some think that Mrs. Bartolozzi's husband has died or has been murdered and that she's going through the motions of daily living, such as doing laundry. I think of Mrs. Bartolozzi as Mrs. Dalloway. I listened to the song a lot when I was writing "May-September" because I was listening to mostly piano-based music⎯I wanted to write all of Sandra's parts with melody and cadence and songs I thought would represent her. I thought this song was a lot of Sandra's earlier life as a mother and life, short of going through the motions while there's a flicker of life under the surface, but when I listened to it again after I finished, I could see how it could apply to Alice, too. She loses her father at an early age and then her first girlfriend, and she's sort of stuck, going through the motions, until she meets Sandra.

Jen Michalski and Could You Be With Her Now links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at The Avatar Review)
excerpt from the book (at The Collagist)
excerpt from the book at The Nervous Breakdown

Am[persand Review review
Baltimore City Paper review
Chamber Four review
Little Patuxent Review review
The Outlet review
PANK review

Necessary Fiction essay by the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview with the author
Rain Taxi interview with the author
WIPs 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

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
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guest book reviews
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musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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