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June 25, 2013

Book Notes - Gabe Durham "Fun Camp"

Fun Camp

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.

Gabe Durham's Fun Camp is a novel composed via alchemy, a collection of vignettes that coalesces into an honest and often hilarious exploration of adolescence.

Julie Klausner wrote of the book:

"Fun Camp is a beautiful flight of tragic-comic prose, so sharply realized it would actually be upsetting, if Gabe Durham weren’t so root-for-able in every way. Come for his astonishing & repeatably funny turns of phrase, stay for his furtive romanticism. Durham is lousy with wit and soul. I loved this book and did not want it to end."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Gabe Durham's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Fun Camp:

We control the music we hear. In the car, in the home, while exercising, while at work, the music we play is usually our own. And if the song playing in a public space is displeasing, you just put your buds in and drown it out.

Summer camp's a different beast. Like so many other freedoms, you surrender your musical freedom the moment you arrive. And not only must you LISTEN to the music the camp provides, you are expected to sing. Often. And loudly. Yet as the week continues, you adapt. Singing becomes the new normal, and you start to envision a Daily Communal Singing Time that probably took place in the Olden Days, not to mention the Daily Communal Singing that probably takes place in Other, Simpler (Happier?) Parts of the World.

By the end of your week at camp, you are wondering how you might bring communal singing back to the real world with you. Maybe you ought to join the school choir--there are girls in the choir. But then you go back home and the sweet choice of Spotify is right there waiting for you. And if you stop singing you can hardly be blamed--more artists than you could ever hear are now eager to do the work for you.

Below are some tunes that seeped into my debut novel, Fun Camp. Truthfully? I don't think I ever sang a single one of them at summer camp.

The National - "Lemonworld"
The National - "Bloodbuzz Ohio"

When High Violet arrived in May 2010, my book Fun Camp was 60-70% done, yet the album's distinct melancholy still found a way into my book.

"Lemonworld"'s line, "Lay me on a table, put flowers in my mouth / and we can say that we invented a summer lovin torture party," made such an impression on me, partly I think for how flatly the line slides into the pre-chorus. Berringer's one of those lyricists who understands that the smarter a line is, the less you should announce it, leaving repetition to simpler lines like "Cause I'm evil!" I think I tried to apply that in my book: The lines that are more self-consciously "good lines" I'd try to sneak into a thick paragraph, and then when it was time for a little one-sentence chapter, I'd flatten it out to a line like, "I feel like we're missing some campers. Are we missing some campers?"

But then I was writing a little speech about the grisly ways disputes used to get settled in medieval times (and how that might be instructive for a summer camp). After polishing the chapter, I had everything but the title, so I took it from the National lyric I loved so much: "Summer Lovin Torture Party."

There is another line that I now suspect was inspired by "Bloodbuzz Ohio," but probably not intentionally. On the last morning of camp, somebody goes, "Yeah, Sunday pulls the rug out from everyone." Every time I read that, I think, "The floors are fallin out from everybody I know."

Eagles - "Peaceful, Easy Feeling"
Van Morrison - "Brown Eyed Girl"

Late in the book, a camper laments her inability to give herself over to the camp experience the way she used to. Three camps ago, she recalls singing these songs around the campfire and meaning them. Now she wants to mean them again but something's broken, she can't do it. When I was going to church camps growing up, I remember this experience well: All the biggest and brightest spiritual awakenings occurred when I was around 14. I tried to recreate them for myself in the years that followed, but I think it must be like cocaine addiction where you're always kinda chasing that first high.

I want to tell this girl, "It's okay. Not feeling stuff as intensely is part of growing up! It makes you more stable and functional." And then I might add, "Those songs suck anyway!" but then I think: Maybe she's right to mourn it. Maybe the best thing a person can do with a shitty song like "Kumbaya" is to mean it.

Fiona Apple - "On the Bound"

For how much I love Apple's music, it's maybe too bad that the Apple quote that made it into this book is not from one of her songs but from her infamous award speech: "This world is bullshit." In the piece, the quote sits beside another unattributed quote, this one from Ander Monson: "Everything is good and ends badly."

Still, it's the nauseous lovesickness of so many Apple songs that best matches the tone of much of the book. The opener to her best album says it most plainly: "You're all I need / you're all I need / you're all I need / you're all I need." But she doesn't sound glad for it.

Johnny Greenwood - "Open Spaces" (from There Will Be Blood)

One of my favorite scenes in There Will Be Blood is when Daniel visits Eli's church for the first time, and Eli casts out an old woman's arthritis demon to the delight of the church. I'll include Eli's speech here because it's a tremendous piece of writing, even without the benefit of Dano's incredible performance:

"I had a vision. Yes, last night, I had a vision. And I felt God’s breath go through me, and it moved down into my stomach, and sloshed around, and my stomach spoke in a whisper, not a shout: “Touch this woman with your hands, and caress her.” My dear, Mrs. Hunter. You have arthritis, don’t you? … Yes, the Devil is in your hands, and I suck it out. Now, I will not cast this ghost out with a fever, for the new spirit inside me has shown me I have a new way to communicate. It is a gentle whisper. Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here, ghost. Get out. Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here, and don’t you dare turn around and come back, for if you do, all the armies of my boot will kick you in the teeth, and you will be cast up, and thrown in the dirt, and thrust back to perdition! And as long as I have teeth, I will bite you! And if I have no teeth, I will gum you! And as long as I have fists, I will bash you! Now, get out of here ghost! Get out of here, ghost! Get out of here, ghost!"

Fun Camp contains its own exorcism, which is a sort of opposite of the exorcism above. It's more of a soft sell in which the speaker/exorcist reasons with the demon who has possessed a little girl, going so far as to offer the demon an opportunity to cast itself out: "there's a dignity in that." It resembles a benevolent firing, and implies that the real reason the demon is being exorcised is that the demon has made its victim into kind of a downer: "I'd let you finish out the week but we need her bubbly for tomorrow's relay."

I thought, then, that there would be a productive dissonance in naming my scene after the scene above: "All the Armies of my Boot." What a great turn of phrase. The reference also hopes to corral a bit of the movie's discomfort, credited largely to Greenwood's jittery score, but that's probably more for me than for readers.

Pedro the Lion - "Secret of the Easy Yoke"

There are a couple pieces in the book that are straight-up autobiographical.

One is about the time, when I was a camper, that me and my friends put on a silly, tossed-off skit based on the show Family Matters. One of my fellow campers earnestly told me he'd found the message of our sketch touching and I was so surprised. How could he not see we were just dicking around?

The other is about the time an older camper played this Pedro the Lion song in its entirety over the P.A. and then told the camp about the time he'd met David Bazan after a Pedro concert. The whole thing made a big impression on me and my best friend Brent, and we became big Pedro/Bazan fans ever after. But there at camp, in that specific space, to hear a musical expression of doubt that was not immediately followed by a pandering reassurance was pretty mind-blowing.

Queen - "We Are the Champions"

This song song is sung by the camp in the book's penultimate chapter after a chaplain's final speech to her campers. She urges the campers to really focus on the lyrics. And for the temporary citizens of Fun Camp, there really is no better or truer song.

In his own final speech to the campers, head counselor Dave says, "There’s a confidence chemical that suddenly gets produced like crazy in puberty that explains why five-sixths of you think you know so much. Even now, as you scoff out into the night, that’s the chemical at work, and knowing about the chemical makes it no less potent. The goal is to harness that chemical and to run with it as far as you can so that when doubt catches up, you’ll be surrounded by people who angle their bodies toward you and nod brightly when you speak."

What the counselors of Fun Camp understand is that a major key to success is making your delusional narcissism work for you. No time for losers.

Gabe Durham and Fun Camp links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book
excerpts from the book (at American Short Fiction)
excerpts from the book (at Frigg)
excerpts from the book (at HTMLGIANT)
excerpts from the book (at Monkeybicycle)

Tarpaulin Sky Press review

Heavy Feather Review review
HOBART interview with the author
Puerto del Bloga interview with the author
Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview with the author
What Weekly interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
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

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