August 1, 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.
Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is an assured and engaging modern comedy of manners, easily one of the year's strongest fiction debuts.
Harper's wrote of the book:
""A funny and surprisingly sympathetic examination of the romantic sociopathy of youthful litterateurs… Waldman captures smart-enough literary party patter so well… that many of her readers may find themselves squirming in hot-faced recognition… Placed throughout the novel, however, are callbacks to the social literature of the nineteenth century—to George Eliot’s work in particular...."
It's probably embarrassing to admit just how much I had hoped that Largehearted Boy would ask me to create a playlist for my novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. That's not because I'm especially musical or have such well-developed taste in music (I'm not, and I don't). It's not even because writing my book brought on what felt like a second adolescence, though that is true. After years of being a buttoned-up NPR listener who mostly put on albums in the background for dinner parties, while I was working my novel I became, once again, a person who regularly turned the stereo—uh, I mean, computer—to full volume.
The reason I'm so glad to do a playlist is that one of the things I tried to do in my novel is something that songs generally do better than books. I wanted to capture the feel and mood of a familiar kind of relationship and breakup, the way so many of the best songs do. My book is a love story, but it is not about an epic love that spans continents, nor is it a moving saga of love so great that not even disease or war, or a penchant for time travel, could keep the lovers apart. Nathaniel P. is about the kind of typical and yet intensely experienced relationship that most of us go through at one point or another, and which is no less meaningful to us for being non-epic.
The songs I have chosen are not all about relationships explicitly, but they evoke, at least for me, a mood that corresponds to some aspect of seeing someone. Some of them are songs that come up in the book, but several are just ones that I played a lot in the time I was working on the novel.
"Clean Sheets” by The Descendents
This is a song I liked a lot in high school. The lyrics were profound in a way that spoke to my 16-year-old self: These sheets are dirty and so are you. In my book, this song plays at a bar when my protagonist, Nate, is on his first date with Hannah. The song served a dramatic purpose—Hannah liked the song when she was younger and it inspires her to talk about her adolescence. But I also wanted to get at something about first dates: that if they are going well, they are often a bit nostalgic. Getting to know someone means that you're tempted to share your past self with this new brand-new person. It's different from hanging out with someone you already know, someone with whom, for better or for worse, you're too consumed by the present you share to think much about the past.
"Speed Trials” by Elliot Smith
In the book, when Nate comes over to Hannah's place after their second date, she puts on Smith's Either/Or. I love this album. It also strikes me as just right for late-night, second-date music, if things are going well. The lyrics may be dark, but the overall effect is moody and ambient and intense, expressive of the kind of longing and attraction that has built up toward the end of a really good and really long second date.
"Crucify,” by Tori Amos
Early in the novel, Nate reflects back on a girl from his high school named Michelle Goldstein who had a crush on him, a crush he nearly reciprocated at moments. The book recounts a night when she and Nate sat for outside of their high school auditorium and talked for hours. Michelle tells Nate about the music she likes: "moody singer/songwriters with socially progressive lyrics.” Although I don't name names, what I had mind was Tori Amos ("Me and a Gun” was pretty socially progressive) and Tracy Chapman. (This scene takes place in the early 1990s.) Later in the book, Nate is thinking to himself and refers to various things he enjoys even though he finds them "philosophically objectionable.” He lists "consumer goods from China, jet travel, Tori Amos.” It is never explained why Nate, who is not exactly Mr. Sensitive, likes Tori Amos, but the way I imagined it is that Nate, who is clueless about music, learned about Amos from Michelle that night and then, being a kind of dorky high school boy, eager for a music recommendation, went out and bought the album. Over the years, he probably realized that it was sort of an uncool taste, especially for a guy. But I think it says something about him that he secretly likes this song—and about his concern with other people's opinions, that he feels embarrassed about liking it.
"Fade into You,” Mazzy Star
After their first few dates, Nate and Hannah spend a few weeks in what is kind of a delicious reverie of talking and drinking and sex. This song is not in the book, but I think it reflects the mood of that time pretty well, although initially I wondered whether it was a shade too sad. But I think that's actually good. Even when a new relationship is going well in that kind of fizzy, intense way, there is a tiny hidden kernel of sadness that lurks underneath. We know it won't last. Even in the best scenario, if the couple stays together happily, that initial phase will end, morph something else, something more routine and less intense. It may offer other compensations, but it won't be the same.
"Turning of the Tide” by Richard Thompson
I love this song because it so effectively evokes a wild, sexy mood—decadent and yet intense: "How many boys, how many one night stands, how many lips, how many hands have held you like I'm holding you tonight? Too many nights staying up late, too much powder and too much paint.” It's like a black-and-white photo of a table strewn with empty bottles and lipstick-stained glasses and half-full ashtrays; it's not a great emblem for how to live, but you can't deny it has a certain romance. This song isn't in my novel either, but its name does suggest what is going to happen, in terms of Nate and Hannah's relationship.
"Half a Person” by The Smiths
This was a favorite song of mine in high school. (The line about being "sixteen, clumsy and shy” resonated particularly.) As far as the novel goes, I imagined this song playing in the background at a party that Nate goes to, sans Hannah (the fact that he goes without her is indicative of a shift in their dynamic). I used to have Nate mentally register the lyrics as he moved through the party, but I eventually cut the reference. Still, it strikes me as the right kind of song to be playing at that party—a party of thirtysomethings a bit nostalgic about their high school and college years.
"Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley
I've been dreading this moment. "Half a Person,” as much as I like the song, might have been in part a procrastination maneuver on my part. Now I have no choice but to switch moods completely. Eventually, things become seriously fraught for Nate and Hannah. And what better song to convey heartache than this one? Like the producers of so many T.V. shows and movies in recent years, I think there is no song quite as good as Buckley's version of this one for getting at the utter desolation (and yet slight sweetness) of heartache. (The sweetness comes just from the intensity; I think a part of all of us is a little bit drawn to intensity.) I particularly like the line, "All I ever learned from love was how to shoot someone who outdrew you.” I almost used that as my book's epigraph, along with the George Eliot quote that I did use. I think the line gets so nicely at the emotional brutality that characterizes a relationship gone bad.
"Someone Like You” by Adele
If 'Hallelujah” was embarrassing for its predictable-ness, this one is far worse. I suspect that Adele is not considered cool, at least not anymore. I suspect this in part because my five-year-old nephew knows all the lyrics to 'Rumor Has It,” and you've got to figure that when a singer hits it big with the under-six set, she probably starts to lose points with the hip and knowing. And the truth is I can't bear to listen to "Someone Like You” anymore. It's the only song on this playlist that I hate a little bit—but the reason I hate it is not the fault of the song. I played it way too much during one period of revising my novel. It was a particularly intense period. My husband was out of town for a few weeks; I had a looming deadline. Without him around to keep me grounded in the real world, I basically lived inside the novel. I'd make a big pot of oatmeal each morning and eat it throughout the day. I rarely left the apartment. It was actually very fun as well as productive, but I don't think I could live that way indefinitely without becoming truly insane—actually losing sight of the difference between fact and fiction and thinking Nate and Hannah and friends were real. During that period, I was revising the part of the book when Nate and Hannah's relationship is deteriorating so badly that it leads to a very emotional breakup letter.
"Divorce Song” by Liz Phair
What book about relationships today could manage not to include a Liz Phair reference? Not mine. In the last chapter of my novel, a female character plays an unnamed Liz Phair song on her guitar. This is very appealing to Nate, this woman on the guitar, singing Liz Phair. I intend that to be realistic—I think even the image is sexy to the reader—but at the same it is supposed to be a bit ironic. As the reader by this point in the book knows, Nate embodies some of the very male tendencies that Phair decries in her music. And yet he… well, who among us really sees our own behavior that clearly?
"A Promising Flee” by Bird Courage
Do you know this song? This group? I know nothing about them. I heard the singer/songwriter playing his guitar and singing at the Metropolitan Avenue stop of the G Train in Williamsburg. I thought he was so good that I bought the album on the spot, and I wanted to give him and his band a shout out, although for all I know everybody but me already knows and loves them. To me the song is in keeping with the feel of Brooklyn, which is the setting of my book, so it seemed a good one to close out the playlist.
Adelle Waldman and The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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