May 15, 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.
Norman Lock once again proves himself a master storyteller in his new collection, Love Among the Particles. These stories are brilliantly imaginative and wonderfully unsettling.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"[Lock’s stories] are gems, rich in imagination and language. Readers will happily suspend disbelief, perhaps even finding particles of humor . . . And beyond the entertainment lie 21st-century conundrums: What really exists? Are we each, ultimately, alone and lonely? Where is technology taking humankind? For all their convolutions of space and time, these stories are remarkably easy to follow and savor."
I do not listen to music when writing – fascinated as I am by the sound of my own voice, as it dictates lines whose music is sufficient. I am incapable, as well, of giving my attention to two things simultaneously, and no doubt the rhythms enlivening my prose would be overwhelmed by music's more forceful character. I do not believe that music is in any way central to my writing, as it may be to some others and as painting certainly is for me. But music is and has been always a pleasure, and for the purpose of this playlist, I shall give it its due. I will say this, however: John Adams's "The Chairman Dances," from Nixon in China, which I heard for the first time in 1985, determined, in no small way, the course of my mature work. That sardonic and sensuous foxtrot confirmed for me what Doctorow's Ragtime had first brought to my attention in the 70s: that one could bring into one's fictions – a dreaming on paper – persons who had had actual lives, as opposed to persons with equally plausible and often more satisfying imagined ones. (That being said, one can hardly deny that an aspect of real life, in any guise, is always at least partially imagined.) And so, the dancing Chairman Mao, a charming conceit, drew me after him into realms of story-telling that led, first, to A History of the Imagination (FC2, 2004), then Land of the Snow Men (Calamari Press, 2005, in which Captain Scott and his doomed Antarctic explorers waltz on the Ross Ice Shelf), and now – thanks to the good offices of Erika Goldman and the excellent Bellevue Literary Press – Love Among the Particles (May, 2013). In each of these chronicles of the marvelous, which is the incursion of the fantastic into the "real" (is it an affectation to insist always on enclosing that word in quotation marks?), someone is "dancing." I mean by this, that I delight in the improbable, chance convergence of persons from the world as it is truly composed: by an exterior and an interior – and when once you allow the latter, you are helpless not to accept the supremacy of the purely imaginary.
Now to play David Gutowski's delightful game (for me, play is an essential aspect of my fiction), I'll associate pieces of music for the stories in my Love Among the Particles:
(1) "The Monster in Winter." Since the monster happens to be Hyde, who has survived his tormentor Jekyll by a quarter-century's confinement in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, I think it appropriate that we listen to Arvo Pärt's Mirror in the Mirror while Hyde regards himself helplessly in his other self. We might also, if you like, hear Elgar's Enigma Variations.
(2) "The Captain Is Sleeping." Before it, too, vanishes into a world of ice and silence, The Light Orchestra Society regales the strange assortment of passengers aboard the labyrinthine ship The Minos (after the Minotaur). While the central character (who, as in so much of my other fiction, happens to be me) descends into the interior of the ship, like Orpheus in search of his ravished Eurydice, let us have Offenbach's "Infernal Gallop" from Orpheus in the Underworld.
(3) "The Mummy's Bitter and Melancholy Exile." There does seem to be ample music being made inside my stories. In this, a mummy, at large in New York City in 1934, shares a cigarette and a piano bench on New Year's Eve with Noël Coward, while he plays Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Earlier, the Mummy was a guest, with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, of The Chase and Sanborn Hour, when Benny Goodman may have sat in to play his theme "Let's Dance," in which he swings Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance.
(4) "A Theory of Time." We can't be sure whether the solitary train traveling with uncertain purpose through the earth's most desolate regions terminates – in the far distance – in a circus wagon or something more sinister. But let's listen to Stravinsky's wry Circus Polka, or, if you wish, Villa-Lobos's toccata Little Train of Caipira as it sambas noisily through Brazil. Or, if you want to experience a more hectic time signature, Honneger's Pacific 231.
(5) "The Gaiety of Henry James." Having abandoned his art and Edith Wharton (whose straw hat was despoiled of its cherries by an orangutan in the Central Park Zoo) for la belle époque, Henry James will fly "into the clear blue Parisian air – upheld by waves of desire, transmitted by M. Eiffel's magic tower like a radio program of boleros." And though we are by now sick to death of it, we may listen to Ravel's Bolero – or, less familiar and more mysterious, Debussy's bolero from La soirée dans Grenade.
(6) "Ideas of Space." How does one accompany, musically, my bewildered Umberto da Silva across the Adriatic coastal plain and through successive meanings imposed imperialistically upon it by an eighteenth-century painter, militarist, surveyor, historian, businessman, and prototypical industrialist? Perhaps with something far in the van of Modernism such as Elliott Carter's Symphony of Three Orchestras. Now, I do not pretend to an ear for musical subtlety or intricate structure, but the notion of three orchestras imposing their separate ideas on a single space fascinates me.
(7) "The Sleep Institute." Once again a character in my own fiction (in this, in fact, a fiction-making character whose well of invention has run dry), I have checked myself into a sleep institute to acquire a new mental imagery. To cultivate a sympathetic entrancement, you might listen to Copland's Quiet City or else Philip Glass's Music in 12 Parts – or, if you feel yourself in the least danger of falling asleep over my story, his Akhnaten. (For those of you who have already fallen asleep, I suggest Varèse's Ionisation.
(8) "Love in the Steam Age." In this, my epithalamium to steam and its nineteenth-century contrivances, the narrator (me, again) and his disingenuous lover attend a concert of the Empire Steam Calliope. Its "burbles, chirps, and hisses, accompanied by the clanging of cast-iron radiators" might remind you of Morton Subotnick's lovely, otherworldly Silver Apples of the Moon, or an example of musique concrète. But maybe something from a 70s album of Bach played on a Moog would be nearer the mark (which is to say, nearer the noise).
(9) "Ravished by Death." My retelling of Alberto Casella's play Death Takes a Holiday (you may know the Fredric March 1934 film better) ought to have a musical score characterized by a majestic slowness (my ambition was to write something quite Robert Wilson-like in its glacial unfolding). You can listen to a Phillip Glass composition, again; but I propose, instead, Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (for its wrenching and pensive melancholy) or Puccini's "Largo Religioso Sostenuto Molto" from Tosca. Or else Rószsa's movie music for Lost Weekend (with a Dies Irae thrown in for good measure).
(10) "The Love of Stanley Marvel & Claire Moon." I wrote this story thirty-five years ago to see whether gravely important themes of love, betrayal, war, and death could be handled with the colors and casual structure of a comic book. We might listen to some of Satie's eccentric miniatures – say, Sports et divertissements, written near the time in which my story takes place: before, during, and immediately after World War I. Or for its brightness, a Scott Joplin rag or a jazz tune from 1917 – say, W.C. Handy's "Joe Turner's Blues." (In my story, someone plays "Where the Mountains Meet the Moon" on a ukulele, a piece I once heard on an ancient record in my grandparents' house.)
(11) "To Each According to His Sentence." Determined to disappear for good inside another's literary text (what better sanctuary for a misanthropic author?), I (no point in dissembling) enter the depths of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, where the Phantom holds sway and plays Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue. Other music figures in the text, notably Gounod's The Funeral March of a Marionette and Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre.
(12) "Tango in Amsterdam." Any tango will do to accompany this story of insouciant authorial intrusion in the lives of Peter and Karin, a Dutch married couple, and their talking dog Maus. (Maus speaks a low Dutch, of course.) We might hear a tango by Satie or by Stravinsky or by Ástor Piazzolla – or even Milton Babbitt's It Takes 12 to Tango, which I have never heard. The story is light, a confection that plays with a few postmodernist themes. In all candor, I must tell you that no tango is ever heard in my story, although I do resist – ostentatiously – the temptation to have Peter tango with the heroic yachtsman who saves his Karin and Maus from drowning. An occasion as splendidly improbable as Chairman Mao's sudden swerve out of character in John Adams's "The Chairman Dances."
(13) "The Brothers Ascend." A meeting in the time of legend of certain persons who figured largely in the early twentieth-century imagination: Freud, H.G. Wells and his Time Traveler, Huck Finn and Jim disembarked from their raft, Freud, and the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who, at story's end, vanish – "dissolved into higher mathematics, or Paradise, wearing raiment of light...." You might hear in that final ascent into myth Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending – or, perhaps, a John Cage construction for wood or metal as the wind might play it in the struts of the brothers' mythic aeroplane.
(14) "Love Among the Particles." In this the first story of the book's concluding trilogy, I am reduced by celestial accident to a swarm of intelligent subatomic particles and, having visited places of interest such as the New York Public Library, Tahiti, Seville, a Magellanic Cloud, and Darwin's Gálapagos Islands, compose my thoughts on time and space and loneliness, in a word processor. (I am data after all!) The accompaniment to this absurd picaresque (possessing serious themes!) most certainly is electronic. Music by Brian Eno, Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt, or Wuorinen (especially his Time's Encomium) will do.
Norman Lock and Love Among the Particles links:
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