May 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.
Joan Silber masterfully connects the stories in her new collection Fools over three generations, illustrating with rare clarity the effects of our daily choices in this engaging and fascinating book.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Though they make bad choices and exhibit a multitude of faults, Silber’s characters display wonderfully lifelike vulnerability and complexity."
Fools is a story collection that begins with a group of anarchists in the 1920s and moves up to current times, pondering questions of when it's wise to be a fool for something and whether love and money can ever let us live without ideas. The stories form a web, with characters reappearing across a wide span. When I looked through them again for Book Notes, I saw that I'd stuck music into a lot of them.
Most of this story takes place in the 1920s, and there's a scene at a party where Village anarchists—including the otherwise serious Dorothy Day—are happily dancing. I picked the song "My Baby Just Cares for Me," a sweetly jubilant tune, and the main character Vera does a "light, not too bouncy foxtrot" to this with her husband. I wanted to get a sense of how young and buoyant they all still are.
When Vera finds herself developing a crush on her friend Dorothy's lover, she thinks of a favorite song sung at leftist rallies, "Die Gedanken sind frei" ("Thoughts are Free") as a way of telling herself that her attraction is no one's business but her own. We sang this song at camp when I was a kid.
"The Hanging Fruit"
Here the protagonist is a clarinet player, so I gave him lots of tunes. Anthony plays "Till There Was You" for his Parisian girlfriend and hopes he sounds like Jimmy Giuffre, who had a following in the early 60s, when the story takes place. "It was a simple, plaintive tune and some feeling in it survived my amateurish playing." In my own teenagehood, my older brother had jazz records I used to "borrow" and Giuffre was one of his favorites.
When Anthony is reduced to playing his clarinet for spare change on the streets of Paris, he does "The Pajama Game," from a perky fifties musical, a peppy choice for a downtrodden player. His first tune in the Métro is "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home?"—I wanted something bluesy. I asked a clarinet-playing ex-student, Kristen Witucki, about music in subway tunnels, and she suggested Benny Goodman--the upper-register notes wouldn't get lost. (Kristen happens to be blind so I drew on her sound-location sense.) Later, when Anthony is horrified to see his old girlfriend while he's panhandling, he's again playing the perky "Pajama Game" --"my clarinet sounded like the wheezebag it was and I had to stop playing. Enough music."
Marcus, a young lawyer, is pining for his lost lover, Nico. He is staying with friends in the country, keeping up enough of a front so he hopes his hosts haven't "guessed for a minute that he was wallowing in despair." I realized later that the phrase "wallowing in despair" was in my head because of a friends' CD. Their rock-and-country group, Deadly Nightshade, sings a song about the seventh deadly sin, which (who knew?) is despair—"it's not just rude, it's an actual sin/ to wallow in the slough of despair."
"Going Too Far"
Gerard, the main character, gets interested in Sufism and listens to musicians playing a song "with a lot of percussion in it" whose lyric is the paths of love are long and complicated—"it wasn't human love the song was about either, which made me think all of it was too fucking difficult." I got this from a great documentary, Sufi Soul, narrated by a very music-besotted William Dalrymple, an expert on South Asia.
"Buying and Selling"
Since anarchists have a presence in this book, I had Rudy, a contemporary character, go to a club in Brooklyn where he watches a neo-punk group doing its version of the Sex Pistols' classic about "how they wanted to destroy the passerby ‘cause they wanted to be anarchy." Rudy thinks--"Had anybody occupying Wall Street remembered to sing those songs? He hoped so."
Rudy, who has a past as a New York club kid, helps a girlfriend in India at a school for street children. He hooks up his iPod with speakers in the yard—"he gave them his favorite tunes and he downloaded some Tamil pop and Bollywood numbers in Hindi. The boys had their own moves (signs of the ancient roots of hip-hop) and worked up some giddy routines." An editor at a magazine about to print this story once questioned me about whether hip-hop really had ancient roots. I had to politely argue that she had missed the point entirely—that everyone is out there doing it, always and forever.
Joan Silber and Fools links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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