March 8, 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.
Rajesh Parameswaran's short story collection I Am an Executioner may be subtitled "Love Stories," but these diverse tales explore the point where love turns most intense, and often deadly. An impressive debut from one of our finest young short story writers.
The Daily Beast wrote of the book:
"These stories are without fail brightly original, and despite his dark themes, there’s a real levity in Parameswaran’s writing. This is a world of many fools, but few villains—a world where tragedy and farce are plentiful but evil is debatable: for every death or disappearance in this collection, there’s a wink."
Of course I listened to a lot of music while writing my short story collection. But since much of the book was written in other people's spaces (coffee shops, friends' apartments), the music was often not of my choosing. The songs—if I could list them, and I can't—would span eras and musical styles. While it's as true for writers as it is for lovers, that sometimes the right tune helps get you in the mood, perk up your energy, shut out the world; it's also true that sometimes the right tune has to be whatever happens to be playing at the moment.
As for the playlist to be found inside of books, one of the most vivid descriptions of music in literature that I can remember is EM Forster's description of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, in Howard's End. Here's a snippet:
…the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time.
Goblins marching, elephants dancing: clearly, Forster saw the music. But for many other fiction writers, the emphasis lies in what is actually seen rather than in what is heard. Joseph Conrad famously said, "My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see." In this formulation, Conrad seems to place hearing at the bottom of his hierarchy of senses.
This bias appears to be widely shared. In my own short story collection, songs are sometimes described, but just as often left to the reader's imagination. Here are their rough analogues:
In the story "The Infamous Bengal Ming," a homeless woman serenades a zoo tiger with her version of the following folk tune:
A sweet-voiced immigrant from South India, married to a fake doctor, sings for her friends, in "The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan:"
At a funeral on the Planet Lucina, a winged being belts out an elegy. ("Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319.") Unfortunately, I couldn't find any videos on YouTube of winged, multi-legged aliens singing elegies, but here's a video of a cat singing the theme song to Game of Thrones:
In "Elephants in Captivity: Part One," an elephant describes how the members of her herd communicate with each other:
"Four Rajeshes" is about trains. There's no music in the story, which is a shame, since there are so many great songs about trains. Here's one:
(Incidentally, I highly recommend listening to "Train Song" while simultaneously playing the elephant sounds from number (4), as I just did. Tom Waits' elephant heart reveals itself.)
"The Final Storyboard of Bibhutibhushan Mallik" describes a love triangle involving a fictional Bengali filmmaker, whose film is taken to task for not having more songs in it. Here's a strange and lovely music-and-dance interlude from Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray's film Gupi Gyne Bagha Byne:
Rajesh Parameswaran and I Am an Executioner: Love Stories links:
Barnes and Noble Review interview with the author
Capital New York profile of the author
Granta interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Wall Street Journal interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
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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