March 28, 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.
Ron Currie's novel Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is an innovatively told story of obsession, love, and truth, and yet another impressive work of fiction from one of America's finest young writers.
Bookslut wrote of the book:
"A powerful, brilliant, compelling novel about love, writing, fame, fiction and shame that is emotionally effective and intellectually engaging, coming as close to anything I’ve read, to meeting David Foster Wallace’s call for fiction that makes the head beat like the heart."
Early in the composition of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, I declared on some social media site or another that I planned to write a book that read like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounded. Difficult, to say the least, and also probably unwise from a career perspective: Foxtrot was the hunchbacked, club-footed follow-up to the bright-eyed boy that was Summerteeth, and the bean counters at AOL/Time Warner didn't hear a single, or the attendant cash jingle, and so YHF's sonic weirdness got Wilco booted from the label, forcing them to delay release of the album by over a year. As anyone who's read my books can attest, though, I'm perennially compelled to make things difficult on myself, so it was all-ahead with the literary equivalent of YHF. In the end, one track in particular on the album came to both inspire and then, eventually, define the book.
In order to induce the state of mind I hoped to inspire in readers with Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, you should pour yourself a tall glass of cheap rum—no ice or mixers. Down it, then pour another. Ideally, it should be no later than noon on a weekday. Next, hit yourself in the face with a brick several times, and do so like you mean it. Then sit down under a midday summer sun with no shirt on, turn the TV to a Three Stooges marathon and set it on mute, and cue up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at high volume. Keep the bottle of rum close at hand. Extra credit for pissing your pants rather than bothering to get up and go to the bathroom when the rotgut eventually makes its way to your bladder.
Or, you know, you could just read the book.
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"
From the opening notes, you know that this is not going to be like any other album you've ever heard. There are a few successive waves of weird synth punctuated with television static. Then emerges a drumstick keeping time on the rim of a snare, followed by a sound like an old analog alarm clock going off. A piano tinkles disjointedly somewhere in there, too, and the synth continues to throb way in the back like atrial fibrillation. The whole thing is gentle chaos, and this was what I imagined waking up in the morning was like for the protagonist of my book, a guy who most every night shuts down his synapses with the better part of a bottle of rum. Of course I didn't really have to imagine it, though, because my protagonist is named Ron Currie, and at the time I was, like him, on a remote Caribbean island drinking too much and trying to write a book. Often, in fact, I would turn this song on first thing in the morning, as the sun blasted through the gauzy curtains over my bed, and over time this was how Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became the soundtrack of that period in my life, and thus the soundtrack of my protagonist's life, and thus the soundtrack of the book—both in the process of writing it, and within the finished narrative.
After the ground fog of “Heart"'s opening lifts, like the mental fuzziness of a hangover dissipating, a lazy acoustic guitar riff rolls to the fore, over which Jeff Tweedy sings: “I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue."
Like so many other lyrics on the album, which appear on their surface to be utter gibberish—and possibly the worst kind of gibberish, which is what happens when poseurs try to pass off the obscure as the profound—it actually makes its own definitive and peculiar kind of sense. Or at least it did to me, sitting there every day feckless and hungover and sweaty, banging desperately at the keyboard, having at that point written an entire failed novel, then embarked on another book altogether without telling the people whom I was contractually obligated to deliver a book. I felt like an American aquarium drinker, whatever that was. When I left the casita I didn't walk down the avenue, I assassined down it. Of this I was certain.
In the song, though, this overtly nonsensical lyrical opening is followed immediately by a couple of lines that make the plainest kind of sense (it's a narrative strategy that Tweedy uses often and to great effect, this juxtaposition of the obscure and the bald-faced): “I'm hiding out in the big city blinking/What was I thinking when I let go of you?"
Well shit, I and my protagonist both knew what that was all about. Here we were, hiding out, having both walked away from women we loved, women who in fact we'd love for quite a long time, and who had just recently come back into our lives—right before we let them go and started hiding out on our respective islands.
Now “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" settles into a pattern of short, laconic verses followed by moments of lazy yet propulsive drum lines and tinkling piano. These interludes are jaunty, almost playful, and they hint at a sort of mordant amusement with the otherwise downbeat tone of the song. This, to me, is of huge importance—even at our worst, both I and my protagonist always have a bit of a smile playing at the corners of our mouths, and are always ready to crack wise no matter how bleak the situation. If I'm to be honest, humor is the only thing that makes this mortal coil bearable for me, and if not for my ongoing ability to have a hearty laugh at our dumb world, I would have exited stage left a while ago. Everything, everything is ultimately funny in one way or another. Cancer is funny. Homelessness is funny. Drinking until you shit blood is funny. Having your heart broken can be, at times, downright hilarious. Whether or not you're willing to admit it, you know it's true. Laugh or die, is my motto, and it's a philosophy that permeates both Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles.
One motif that repeats itself throughout “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is when Tweedy asks a series of rhetorical questions that each begin with the words “What was I thinking when…" First, the one we already mentioned: “What was I thinking when I let go of you?" Straightforward enough. Then, though, before we know it, Tweedy has pushed us into the tar pit of relationship ambivalence. “What was I thinking when I said it didn't hurt?" he asks the song's subject, who presumably caused the hurt he refers to. “What was I thinking when I said goodnight?" comes next, followed by “What was I thinking when I said hello?" and then, the coup de grace: "What was I thinking when I let you back in?" This, of course, is the question that my protagonist asks himself over and over on the Caribbean island, because this is not the first time that the woman he loves has kicked his ass—she did it to him years ago, when they were high school sweethearts, and the memory of her has haunted and enticed him since. Now, twenty years after the fact, when he gets another shot at her, she does it again (or at least, that's how he sees it), and he, like Tweedy, spends a lot of time asking himself what, exactly, he was thinking.
And there are plenty of other obvious parallels, as demonstrated by the lyrics, between Tweedy and the narrator of FLPM. “You were so right when you said I'd been drinking," Tweedy sings, and, as I've already mentioned, Ron in the book is taking in far more ethyl alcohol than is healthy for a human his size. The line “This is not a joke, so please stop smiling" is delivered both in earnest and with a wink—Tweedy's inviting you, again, to see the humor in it all by insisting that there's nothing funny happening here. Similarly, in the book Currie is constantly making jokes about such grave matters as lost love and the slow, gruesome death of a parent, and while on the surface it may seem as though he's being flip, a careful read reveals he's agonizing in a genuine and ongoing way. Tweedy and Currie share and express an abiding longing as well—Currie for his beloved Emma, the woman who eludes him at every turn, and Tweedy for the woman whom he wants to “hold in the Bible-black pre-dawn" and whose brown eyes he wants to “glide through."
All of this comes to a glorious head when Tweedy finally intones the song's title. “I…am trying…to break your heart," he says, and you can tell that, much as he obviously loves the song's object, he means that shit. He wants revenge for all the times she's made him wonder what he was thinking. And in the book, Ron Currie says more or less the same thing: basically, that when he and Emma first got back together, he did consider doing everything he could to make her fall in love with him again, just so that he could then drop her like she'd dropped him many years ago, watch her fall apart and smile at the heartache he'd wrought. His mistake is forgetting that, when it comes to breaking hearts, he is nowhere near Emma's equal.
At this point, all the musical elements that have been toying around throughout the song—the throbbing synth, the undulating drums, the tinkling piano, the strumming acoustic guitar, even (what sounds like, to my layman's ear) a xylophone—come together for an extended outro. Gone, now, are the disjointed and out-of-tune aspects that have led us here; all the instruments fuse in masterful symmetry, gathering the power and momentum hinted at up to this point and galloping forward. But then, at the song's conclusion—as at the conclusion of FLPM—it all comes apart again. The momentum is lost, the instruments buzz and clank, at odds with one another once more, and from within the cacophony Tweedy, shrieking now, asks a final time: "What was I thinking when I let go of you?"
Ron Currie Jr. and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles links:
A.V. Club review
Kirkus Reviews review
Minneapolis Star-Tribune review
New York Journal of Books review
New Yorker review
Typographical Era review
Washington Independent Review of Books review
Washington Post review
Bangor Daily News profile of the author
Bookslut interview with the author
Gothamist interview with the author
Hobart interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Everything Matters!
Metro interview with the author
Words With Writers interview with the authir
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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