May 10, 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.
Joanna Hershon's A Dual Inheritance is a sweeping and impressive character-driven novel, one that follows a compelling and vividly drawn love triangle over decades and generations.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Sharply observed and masterfully constructed, Hershon’s fourth novel is her strongest yet, a deft and assured examination of ambition, envy, longing, and kinship."
I don't write to music—I prefer the dead silence of The Brooklyn Writers Space—but music runs throughout my new novel, A Dual Inheritance. Because it's a multi-generational story, spanning about fifty years of the twentieth century, there's a tremendous aural arc. Sometimes music in the novel speaks to the changes happening in the popular culture, but--more often than not—the music that the characters relate to (or the music that reminds me of my characters) has little to do with the current culture. Music commands such nostalgic power, and my novel is, among other things, a exploration of nostalgia; though the characters often fight against its powerful - even brutal - force.
"Back on the Chain Gang"—The Pretenders
If this novel has a theme song, this is it. Chryssie Hynde's sensibility—dark yet melodic, kohl-rimmed eyes, British Punk (from Ohio but has lived for ages in London), tough but vulnerable—it's irresistible. One afternoon, in the early days of this project, I went running, and when I heard this song (a long-time favorite) through my headphones, I realized it captured the combination of longing and anger that I was working with. I jumped through plenty of hoops to attain the rights to use the following as the book's epigraph:
"I found a picture of you, oh,
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We've been cast out of, oh,
Now we're back in the fight."
"Body and Soul" - Billie Holiday
The first part of the story is set in 1962-63, mainly on the Harvard campus, and it tracks an unlikely friendship between Ed and Hugh. Hugh is a broken-hearted music lover and during the years of writing this book, I'd often imagine the songs that moved him. Can anyone ever really top Billie Holiday in terms of expressing raw desire?
"My Favorite Things" - John Coltrane
I can't help but think of how a cheerful song from an American musical being interpreted through Coltrane's brilliant jazz is a great example of American opening up and our culture changing from being one of set strictures to one of great questioning.
"Arabesque #1" - Debussy
Hugh's character begins as a melancholy romantic. As a student, he lies around a good deal - listening to music, smoking, brooding—but through the course of the novel he ends up taking action, much of which is pretty turbulent. Claude Debussy's compositions evidently reflected an individualistic life filled with torrid affairs and tragedy. His expansive, impressionistic sound seems a perfect fit for Hugh.
"The Tower" by Radionics
My husband Derek Buckner is a musician (in addition to his career as a painter) and because he's usually playing guitar and/or listening to music at home, whatever he's working on usually makes its way into my consciousness. His current music project (with drummer Jim Bracken) is called Radionics and their song, The Tower - with its bluesy hard-hitting sound - sticks in my head for weeks at a time whenever I hear it. I recently realized that the lyrics remind me of one of the main storylines of this novel. I love the image of building a tower as a physical expression of an emotional retreat. It also strikes me as very very male.
"Zombie" - Fela Kuti
Pan-Africanism plays a part in A Dual Inheritance. When Hugh and many educated idealistic Americans were heading to Africa with or without the Peace Corps, it was a heady time and the ideas of returning to traditional African values and self-reliance after colonial rule were intoxicating (though obviously nothing that followed was remotely simple and much corruption and violence ensued). Fela Kuti is one of the best-known African voices—beautiful, powerful and haunting.
"Beast of Burden"-The Rolling Stones
Such a sexy song. It also perfectly expresses the kind of contention that's present in the relationship between Ed and Jill, a character who comes into the story about mid-way through the novel and becomes Ed's wife. He thinks of her as out of his league, and his fierce attraction is laced with anger at her power.
"Riders on the Storm" - The Doors
The scene that ultimately brings Ed and Jill together is an awkward evening during which Jill's younger brother Mark surreptitiously vets Ed. Ed is completely outside of any cultural revolution (he's a player on Wall Street) and Mark is right inside of it. When he puts The Doors on the record player, Ed finds himself getting depressed and agitated. And while I love The Doors, and particularly this moody and fierce song, I had fun imagining Ed's take on their music.
"Summer, Highland Falls" - Billy Joel
Much of Billy Joel's oeuvre is cheesy but some of it is amazing. And I am, after all, originally from Long Island. New Jersey had Bruce and we had Billy. I just think this song is beautiful and dramatic and I also listened to it over and over after locking myself in my bedroom at age fourteen. There's also something about it that reminds me of Ed after he goes through a professional and personal crisis in the novel.
"Over the Hills and Far Away" - Led Zepplin
When Ed's daughter Rebecca (born and raised on Manhattan's Upper East Side) tells her friend that she's going to go to boarding school, he says, "I don't know what it is about boarding school, but I swear it's, like, relatively preppy arrival, followed by quick descent into patchouli cloud." Which is not exactly what happens to Rebecca, but there was a distinct hippie nostalgia happening—at least amidst a certain crowd--when I attended boarding school in the late 80's. In retrospect it seems a bit strange - even cautious--that most of the music we listened to was from more than a decade in the past, but it was undeniably great music and I still can't listen to Led Zeppelin without feeling like I'm sixteen and about to get into trouble.
"Scarlett Begonias" - The Grateful Dead
See hippie nostalgia. I was never a deadhead, though I liked them fine and went to a show or two. After the age of eighteen I began to see "The Dead" mostly as a joke—all those stupid dancing teddy bears, smiley face tattoos—and then recently I heard Scarlett Begonias on the radio and was unaccountably happy. It's all I wanted to listen to for the day. I forgot how much I loved some of those songs. (Nick Paumgarten recently wrote a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about the Grateful Dead and their recordings, which also rekindled my interest.) I enjoyed writing about the fringe hippie culture of boarding school and Rebecca's place in it. I rarely relate to books or films about boarding school, with the exception of Wes Anderson's Rushmore, which showed the genuine oddness of the experience as well as kids' creativity. Rushmore also had a great (nostalgic) soundtrack, come to think of it.
"Just Like Heaven" - The Cure
This glittery 80's pop masterpiece conjures the whirl of potential sex and love and everything intense that is either happening to you when you are a teenager or is maddeningly out of reach. Rebecca meets her best friend Vivi and the world—as it does when you meet the right friend—cracks open.
"Nocturne Op.9 No.2" - Chopin
When Rebecca invites Vivi to her father's apartment, he isn't home, and she tries to see the apartment through Vivi's eyes. When Vivi sits down at the piano and starts to play, Rebecca realizes it's the one piece her own mother plays on the piano, and because her mother no longer lives in the apartment, and because her friend is butchering the beautiful piece, it's a complicated moment, one heightened by the sorrowful beauty of Chopin.
"Pale Blue Eyes" - Velvet Underground
Oh the druggy seduction of the Velvet Underground. The sense that nothing could be more compelling than those pale blue eyes. There is a girl who is obsessed with another girl's father. There is a great deal of uncomfortable and complicated desire. His eyes are blue.
"Carolyn's Fingers" - Cocteau Twins
Who knows what they are saying? Who cares? The Cocteau Twins=Heavenly Sound. To me it's the sound of a humid summer in a small room with a fan deliciously whirring. But it could also be fall, coming in from the cold to someone good. The sound makes me think of interiors, and getting lost in a dream.
"Strange Boy" - Joni Mitchell
There is no better mistress of spiritual/erotic/jazzy mystery than the great Joni Mitchell. (Zadie Smith wrote a marvelously digressive piece "about" Joni in another recent issue of the New Yorker) This song is on the album Hejira, which Joni Mitchell evidently wrote out of a period of restless travel, and the music reflects this—there's Joni's moody guitar and Jaco Pastorius's fretless bass lending an exotic sound - but for me it is that image of a boy weaving his way through traffic on a yellow skateboard that keeps me coming back again and again. Her crystalline lyrics ground the restlessness and it's perfect.
"Pictures of You" - The Cure
Another nostalgic gem that says it all. Many of these songs are love songs, which are—of course - nostalgic songs. Is there a difference? If a song is a love song about the here and now, it's only a matter of time that it becomes a nostalgic song. We're always longing for that moment. The moment in this song.
"I'll See You in my Dreams" - Ella Fitzgerald, also by Django Rhinehart
I love these two recordings of this enchanting song. In the final chapters of A Dual Inheritance, there is a wedding reception on a lush green lawn and the band is singing this. Ed is almost seventy years old at this point, and his daughter Rebecca is almost forty. He hears the music to this standard from the 1920's and reflects that the singer is a young woman and the song is much older than Ed himself. I think that's what I love most about music. It's so outside any linear reality. It's even outside of nostalgia. It certainly lends fascinating context to know when a song was written or recorded, but when we close our eyes and listen, it doesn't matter. The sound is deeper and more intimate than anything we can possibly describe.
Joanna Hershon and A Dual Inheritance links:
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