June 12, 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.
Travis Nichols' The More You Ignore Me features two of my favorite literary devices, an unreliable narrator and ambitious, experimental form (the novel is one long blog comment) in one of the year's most ambitious and thought provoking novels.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"An experimental novel of obsession and violation that makes Nicholson Baker and Mark Leyner look positively banal."
The More You Ignore Me is a novel composed of a single comment on a recipe blog, posted by one of those guys. You're familiar with the guys I'm talking about, so we don't need to talk about them in detail here, because we all know—I mean, wow, do we ever—so let's talk about something a little less obvious.
Let's talk about the Tato Skins song.
I can't say when I first heard the Tato Skins song, but it's safe to say it's been in my head ever since. I sing some part of it to myself at least once a day, usually the "sour cream and chive / tasty baked potato / you won't believe your eyes!" part, often at totally incongruous moments such as changing a massive diaper for my son or after dialing into a teleconference, but I don't sing this to myself as a kind of prayer, or because I enjoy its melody, or because it is a soothing reminder of childhood. Absolutely not. In fact, this little ditty makes me wish I could unhear every note of music I've ever heard, including those in Television's Marquee Moon, an album I deeply love, but over the years I've had to resign myself to a few realizations, and one of those is that this Tato Skins jingle is most likely the last thing I'll hear in my head before I die. And I sing it to myself because I can't stop.
Now, for what we've come to accept as "good" music, the artist's sensibility acts as a kind of refinery, filtering out the crude and useless bits of sound in order to get at the most potent and revelatory. A song like Television's "Friction," which I enjoy very much, makes me feel like the world is full of possibilities as new thought and strange sentiment ride a wave of just-evil-enough melody in perfect time. Let's listen:
God, that is good, isn't it?
The Tato Skins song, on the other hand, makes me want to drill a hole in my frontal lobe and pour in some Drain-O.
Why? We start with a "Welcome-to-Tin-Pan-Alley" piano tinkle, followed by a barbershopy chord progression. This makes sense, because elves who bake things in trees also hang out at the Brill Building. Fine. Then the central melody comes bobbing along like a deranged farm boy chirping about these amazing chips made from . . . potato skins? Just like during the potato famine! Who would want that? Who cares, here's "the kazoo (?!?)! And then of course the big show stopping chorus where we learn of all the wonderful flavors Keebler has developed for their alien prison food. Clearly, these Elves are in some kind of Looney Toon hell with Bobbi McFerrin keeping time with his pitchfork made of dredlock. And yet, despite its terribleness, there it is, taking up more of my cognitive life than the entire Classical tradition. Aside: what possible awful fate befell this "they FINALLY got Bar B Q" girl? What good is child protective services if they can't help us with this?
So right, this novel. In writing it, I realized the effect the Tato Skins song has on my brain is the same effect many "nasty comments" have on my brain – they both represent and embody my pathological attachment to terrible shit. And I have further come to realize both things spring from the same fount of sadness, both in me and in humanity (grandiose, but fuggit, this is Tato Skins, Jake.). Humans must create, and, stifled as they may be in certain creative endeavors done out of love they resort to others, often less lovely. A budding Bob Dylan takes out bad-interest-rate student loans and must find steady employment with the cable company. Or turn tricks. A Proustian daydreamer takes a Creative Writing course taught by Bobby Knight. Thus the jingle and the comment are born. And as the jingle takes familiar melodies and bludgeons us with them, so too does the comment tear horizontally across the linguistic surface to gather whatever's nearby and fling it willy nilly at whatever happens to be around. The commenter makes no distinction, switches codes clause by clause, ventriliquoizes, lies, ingratiates, and bullies. The comment, like the jingle, assumes capitalist competition, and so strives to win at any cost. Barbershop Elves with chips made from potato skins? Comparing Tina Fey to Hitler? If it racks up the right numbers, go for it.
To get into commenter character for The More You Ignore Me, I found that instead of carefully selecting the grand and beautiful mot juste as a writer such as, say, Javier Marias, does, I stridently and obsessively bore down horizontally along the surface crust of the language, picking up whatever words and phrases were within reach and chucking them out in a fury. Instead of advancing an argument, or deepening the feelings undertaken by the chosen sentences, the troll language spun out of me sideways, perpetually and hysterically in a way that I found impossible to ignore. Just like this goddamn Tato Skins song.
Travis Nichols and The More You Ignore Me links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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