March 26, 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.
Kristopher Jansma's The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a magnificent debut novel, an innovatively told exploration of identity, truth, and the writer's life the Village Voice described as "F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson."
Booklist wrote of the book:
"A first novel with the strength and agility of a great cat leaping through rings of fire."
Growing up, I only knew the music I heard in my parents' car on the way to school and back – Lite FM's greatest hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. We didn't have cable, so my first exposure to MTV, or even a music video, wasn't until fifth grade when a boy in my grade invited me over for a Passover Seder and I saw Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" and The Spin Doctor's "Two Princes". I hated both songs equally. By middle school I was taking the school bus, and every morning Z100 would play Ace of Base and I would stick my fingers in my ears until it was over. At school dances, while everyone else rocked out to "Basket Case" and "Come Out and Play", I stood in the corner until the DJ finally took my request for "Tears in Heaven".
This lasted, I'm embarrassed to say, well into high school. Though I was an avowed fan of only the early Beatles, by my Sophomore year I'd steadily accrued enough teen angst to accept The White Album and everything after. Though I still groaned when "Blister in the Sun" came on, I bought a copy of The Wall on cassette during an awkward family vacation in Provincetown, Rhode Island and soon wore it out. Around 1994, I "discovered" the Rolling Stones and I alternated between their Greatest Hits album and The Eagles' Hell Freezes Over. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere.
Soon enough my friends got their own cars with their own radios and I had to quietly learn to appreciate the differences between Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Stone Temple Pilots. I even learned to like Green Day and The Offspring. My girlfriend introduced me to Garbage, Weezer, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, during the same year I first heard of The Beastie Boys or Radiohead. Yes, it was all brand-new to me, and very exciting, in the summer of 1998.
With the help of a little still-legal Napstering and college roommates with CD collections, I finally acquired some passable taste in music. By the year 2000, I knew the girl in a bee costume was something to do with Blind Melon, and that Ben Folds Five was actually a guy named Ben Folds and four other guys. I was so damned proud of myself that I promptly forgot to pay attention to music again for the next 13 years. Now I have earbuds instead of fingers to stick in my ears when Lady Gaga and Rihanna are playing on loop, and my car still has a tape deck, plus an XM radio tuned to the "Lithium" station.
Today I almost always listen to music when I write, but it has to be stuff I know very well, and so can tune out while it negates my cat's meowing, or the neighbor's parrot, or the NYU students pontificating at the café table next to me. My old standards still work best in this regard, and through them I can always reconnect to those brief years of sudden discovery, when a decade's worth of incredible music came to me all at once.
"We Never Change" – Coldplay
This was never a track I paid much attention to on Parachutes, though I'd worn out the rest of the album to the point that it made for good writing music. But I had it on, in April of 2009, while I was working on a new short story about three friends at a Jazz Brunch in Manhattan who seemed hopelessly stuck with one another. Each time one of them tried to change, the others would pull him or her back again to the miserable, comfortable status quo. This song was so perfectly suited to the scene that it was the first time I really listened to it. It was like the characters themselves were singing this lament to me. "We never change, do we? We never learn, do we?" If I could have reasonably ended the chapter with one of them moving to a wooden house and making new friends, I might have.
"Blank Page" – Smashing Pumpkins
Amongst my high school friends, The Smashing Pumpkins were greater than any other 90s grunge band... there were endlessly cryptic lyrics to puzzle over, and it seemed the gigantic, hairless Billy Corgan could do no wrong. Critics winced a little when Adore came out in 1998, with its heavier electronic sound, but it was just right for me and my sixteen-year-old brethren, who were just beginning to mess with DJ and audio software on our laptops. "Blank Page" is the second to last track on the album (followed by the mysterious 17 second track "17") and it was both refreshingly simple and super moody. An excellent "come down" song after all the noise preceding it. I can see it, similarly, fitting the close of Leopards, with blank pages symbolizing fresh possibilities, as old lovers reunite and part again to Corgan's nasal serenade: "You haven't changed, you're still the same. May you rise as you fall."
"Green Gloves" – The National
This song spooked the hell out of me the first time I heard it. I don't claim to have any idea what The National is singing about here, but to me it perfectly describes what it's like to sit somewhere writing. Your friends are off somewhere, getting wasted, and you're hoping they're staying glued together. It reminds me of something I read in a Salinger letter once. He lamented to one friend that he was sick and tired of writing stories where all the characters lay in pieces at the end. Just once, he said, he'd like to write a story good enough to put them back together again.
And though it feels very stalker-ish, the chorus sums up the job of a writer. "Get inside their heads, love their loves." It's creepy, but that's just what you're doing. Sitting around while everyone else is having fun, trying to figure out what makes them tick, trying to inhabit their heads. Love what they love.
"How to Disappear Completely" – Radiohead
You were supposed to be really into Kid A, I remember, when I first got to college, and be really psyched about the cool, new, anti-mainstream direction that Radiohead was going in. One of my writing professors, I remember, spent half a class once raving about how brilliant it was. But, then and now, I skip every track on the album without lyrics. Sorry Thom, but when you sing like that and you write like that, you can't be surprised when we note their absence. Anyway, this song was running through my mind the entire time I was writing the Sri Lanka chapter, as the narrator struggles more and more to get away from himself, and to simply, as the song puts it, disappear completely.
"Mr. Writer" – Stereophonics
I confess that I don't know where I first heard this song, or even who The Stereophonics are. But I love its dark, funky rhythm and the just dripping sarcasm when he goads Mr. Writer "to tell it like it is." To me it begs the same question we always have when reading… how much do we trust this supposed writer? What does he even know? How do I know if he's selling me a bill of goods, or something earthshatteringly honest? It's a nice reminder to myself that, if I'm not doing the latter, I might want to take the song's advice and go on home.
"Best Imitation of Myself" – Ben Folds Five
First of all, there's something about listening to Ben's fingers on the piano keys that never fails to get my own tapping on the laptop keys. It's a grade-A writer's block cure-all. And this song especially really just gets the tone of the first few chapters in Leopards. From those opening lines, "I feel like a quote out of context" to "do you think I should take a class to lose my Southern accent?" It perfectly describes the bind that the narrator starts to find himself in when he arrives at college.
As I said earlier, it was around this same point in my own life that I first borrowed a Ben Folds Five CD from my roommate, and it felt very, very true to me. Only a few months into this new environment with new friends, and already I barely recognized myself. I'd kicked off my combat boots and ditched my NIN t-shirts and was suddenly wearing khakis and button-down shirts. Was I faking it before, or now? It seemed impossible to know, as Ben puts it, "Did I make me up, or make this face ‘til it stuck?"
"Scared of Girls" – Placebo
Ok, first off, I just have to note that Placebo hails from Luxembourg, though I was a fan of theirs and this album especially long before I began writing about that country's fictional princess. The album as a whole, Without You I'm Nothing, would be a pretty good summation of the narrator's feelings towards both Julian and Evelyn in the first half of the book, but I chose this song in particular because it felt like an amped-up version of what's running through the narrator's head when he's in Las Vegas and contemplating ruining the wedding. There's something so pushy about his assertion that he's "a little liar, guaranteed in your bed" that jibes just right.
"Sad Professor" – R.E.M.
It really bums me out whenever I see a ranking of R.E.M.'s many albums and Up is always consistently in the bottom five. I always liked it and this song in particular. It begins with the disclaimer, "Dear readers, I'm not quite sure where I'm headed. I've gotten lost before…" which I feel might be a good preface for most books, and Leopards in particular. This song was in my head when I first thought of him in Professor Timothy Wallace's apartment ("late afternoon, the house is hot"), paying his bills and answering his mail and soon enough taking his job. He's just so filled with bitterness in that chapter and though he seems to be cynically celebrating his newfound position, he's really more miserable than ever. "Everyone hates a bore. Everybody hates a drunk. Everyone hates a sad professor. I hate where I wound up."
"Look At Me" – John Lennon
I wanted to throw some Beatles on here, but the country twang in "Act Naturally" just didn't quite seem to fit, even though I think it would be perfect for Evelyn. So here's John from his "and Yoko" period, in a track that I first heard on the soundtrack to The Royal Tennenbaums. I'm a huge Wes Anderson fan, and of this movie in particular, with its amazing cast and its Glass family overtones. I think because it is Lennon singing, and somewhat later in his career, I actually associate this song with Jeffery and not the narrator in my book. "Look at me. Who am I supposed to be?" I think about someone who has done something remarkable and now there's nothing left of them, like Jeffrey, and they don't know what they're supposed to do next.
"Gold Dust Woman" – Hole
I have nothing at all against Fleetwood Mac, but I just love Hole's version of this song. I was always fascinated by Courtney Love's role in the creative lives of both Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan, but it's easy to forget she was a lot more than just a muse. This one is here for the Portrait of Colette Marsh that pops up throughout the novel, but also for Evelyn… the grungy tone might not seem to fit the Princess, but I always saw her as a much tougher character than how she sometimes comes across in the book. On the outside she's always perfectly dressed in her leopard skin hat (a Bob Dylan reference that probably deserves to be on this soundtrack in its own right). But inside, I see her wearing some heavy eyeliner and a ripped t-shirt, for sure.
"The Stranger" – Billy Joel
I take it there's something tres uncool about liking Billy Joel as an adult, but growing up in New Jersey my family didn't love the Boss; we loved Billy. (Also the name of the charming Homecoming King in my book. Coincidence?) "We Didn't Start the Fire" was my first history lesson, "River of Dreams" was my first jam, and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" taught me that high school is not forever (a lesson sorely needed when you're in New Jersey). Along those lines "The Stranger" was maybe my first indication of people having any inner darkness. Even the people closest to us, and of course ourselves. "Why were you so surprised that you never saw the stranger? Did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?" Sure, it may not be Camus, but a good fifteen years before I'd read The Stranger, this song had me thinking about what was unknowable in others, and in myself. Where else does fiction live, but there?
Kristopher Jansma and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards links:
The Book Case review
Brooklyn Daily Eagle review
Full Stop interview with the author
Publishers Weekly review
Runnin' Scared review
San Francisco Review of Books review
Shelf Awareness review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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