July 26, 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.
Lauren Beukes's novel The Shining Girls is a wildly inventive literary thriller that features a time traveling serial killer.
NPR Books wrote of the book:
"A triumph ... [T]he smart and spunky Kirby Mizrachi is as exciting to follow as any in recent genre fiction ... [E]ach chapter in which [Harper] appears holds a reader's attention, especially the sharply described murder scenes - some of which read as much like starkly rendered battlefield deaths out of Homer as forensic reconstructions of terrible crimes ... This book means business."
When I started writing a novel about a time-travelling serial killer who skips across the decades of Chicago from the Great Depression to the Red Scare and the punk scene of the early 90s, I didn't realize just how much research would have to go into trying to set the tone of an era.
I read books, listened to oral histories, dug through newspaper archives, watched old footage on YouTube, interviewed historians and cops and sports reporters and visited the locations I was writing about.
But to make it seem like you really, really, know what you're talking about, to root a story absolutely in its time, to make it credible? That's all about the pop culture. The fashion, the theatre, the movies, the advertising, and, especially, the music.
This is a mix of music I listened to that resonated with particular moments, or music of the time.
"Somebody from Somewhere" – Janet Gaynor
Early in the book, Harper, a violent drifter in 1931, finds the key to a mysterious house; a boarded-up wreck from the outside that belies its lavish interior, with a bottle of Canadian Club whisky and a suitcase full of cash all laid out and waiting for him. The sweet, melancholy Gershwin showtune is playing on the gramophone. It's a foreshadowing of what he'll find upstairs; a list of women's names – his shining girls – who he will be compelled to hunt across time. The lyrics are particularly chilling in the context of the story, which riffs off predestination and obsession: "Somebody from somewhere, for nobody but me."
"Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" – Skip James
This moody blues song gets right to the resigned heart of the Great Depression, men moving town to town. Harper has drifted around a lot after the war, picking sour cherries in Rapid City, driving rivets on the Triborough Bridge, washing up in a Hooverville shantytown in Chicago.
"Torched Song" - Claudia Brucken (featuring The Real Tuesday Weld)
The novel is about twin obsessions. Harper, the killer, feels compelled to stalk the shining girls through time, but Kirby, who survives his attack in 1993, is equally obsessed with finding the man who did this to her and stopping him, even though it's derailing her entire life. They're carrying the torch for each other in a very brutal way. But Brucken's haunting song echoes the story in a more conventional way too – the love unfolding between Kirby and her sidekick/mentor, Dan, if only she'd let it.
"Pistol Packing Momma" – Al Dexter
Jump to 1943 and Zora Ellis Jordan, a lone African American working on making Landing Ship Tanks for the war, is laying off for the day at the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company. The speakers mounted on the poles in the yard play Judy Garland and Bing Crosby in heavy rotation, but it's the Al Dexter ballad that speaks to exactly how she's feeling, full of spark, but weary. And of course, Kirby, fifty years from now is not prepared to lay her metaphorical pistol down. She's going to find the man who did this, no matter what.
"Get It While You Can" – Janis Joplin
Harper takes personal mementos from the women he kills; anachronistic clues to link his murders through time. In 1972, he takes a cassette tape from Margot, activist and proto-music pirate, who recorded Janis Joplin's Pearl off a record player in the headquarters of Jane, a compassionate underground abortion group run out of an apartment in Hyde Park. The website of Jane's history actually specifically name-checks Joplin, but I had to do a lot of digging to make sure that cassette recorders were actually in use then.
I asked music journalist Jim deRogatis, who gave me the inside scoop on the Sun-Times and sent me a copy of his really rather excellent book Milk It: Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90s. He said it seemed reasonable, but it was only when I found ads for the first cassette recorders that verified the technology was starting to become mainstream that I was satisfied that it was okay to include it.
"All Hail Me" – Veruca Salt (1994)
Like the clues Harper leaves on the bodies, this one's a little anachronistic. It came out a year after the book ends in 1993 (because I specifically wanted to avoid the Internet and cell phones and Reddit jumping on board to solve the mystery of a time-travelling serial killer in two days flat), but I reckon the grrl anthem from Chicago's alt rock scene would have been very much up Kirby's street.
"A Sunday Kind of Love" – Ella Fitzgerald
Alice Templeton has never recovered from the shock of love-at-first-sight with the intense stranger with the limp at the State Fair in 1940. She's sick of short-lived affairs, all she wants is a love to last past Saturday night. She's spent the last ten years daydreaming musical movie scenes of the moment he'll come back to sweep her off her feet. But when he does, it's not love he has in mind.
"All That She Wants (Is Another Baby)" – Ace of Bass (1993)
This was one of the anthems of my last year of high school in Johannesburg, South Africa. Even though I thought the song was cheesy as hell, it's got that ear-worm magic. When I was looking at the pop songs biologist Mysha Pathan would have been rocking out to on her headphones in her lab when Harper comes for her, it felt like a way of spreading the infection to my readers' brains.
"Splitting the Atom" – Massive Attack
Like Amon Tobin, Massive Attack is perfect writing music for me – dark and lush and interesting without being distracting. This particular song has all kinds of resonant lyrics: the incandescent light at doors, the needle sticks, as on Harper's gramophone, all the talk of particles, and that perfect line: "We killed the time and I love you dear".
"Qu'est-ce Que c'est" – Mad Rad
This is a song my friend Katherine Fitzpatrick put on in the car when she was driving me around on my research trip to Chicago in 2012. She laughed at my reaction at how appropriate the lyrics were. The pretty moodiness breaks into rap; ‘I want her, I need her, she burns so brightly in my eyes… I'm a psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est… run away."
"And He Slayed Her" – Liz Phair
Murder ballads about girls are a dime a dozen, but I love Liz Phair's "And He Slayed Her," a vigilante justice song that also questions what kind of man would do this. And hey, Phair is another stalwart of the 90s Chicago alternative scene.
"Private Lawns" - Angus & Julia Stone
I love this sultry reworking of Doris Day's brash Windy City, even though it's not technically about Chicago, or only comparatively. But the lyrics about "private lawns and public parks" feels like a poignant observation of the absurdity of modern life, which is a major theme in the novel. How much the world has changed; how many things have stayed the same, the loops and snarls of history.
Lauren Beukes and The Shining Girls links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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