August 28, 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.
Allison Lynn's The Exiles is an exquisitely told domestic drama about the high cost of living, a novel both captivating and compassionate.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Lynn's narrative, which depicts the raw emotional impact of deceit and the helplessness of being unable to foretell the future or forestall the inevitable, contains moments that introduce wit and humor to a bleak situation that becomes bleaker by the moment."
Coming up with a playlist for my first novel, Now You See It (2004), would have been easy. I wrote that book with Flaming Lips, Luna, Oasis, and the Stone Roses in the background. This was during the dot-com bubble, when people were handing me a lot of money to do nothing (one over-flush startup paid me a full-time wage simply to be available IN CASE work came through). As a result, I was able to spend weeks and months at a time immersed in the ebb and flow of my own manuscript and its background music. My writing fell into a rhythm that mimicked the sound.
By the time I started The Exiles, the bubble had burst and I was being paid the bare minimum to do grunt work around the clock. My life had lost its flow and was in a constant state of fracture (though the book itself, I hope, has rhythm). This pressure — the crush of multiple day jobs, financial precariousness, impending personal doom — informs the plot of The Exiles itself. So please excuse the disjointed song list below. Life in the 2000s is wiggy, is all I can say. Hopefully my playlist and novel reflect that. I should also mention that I know nothing about music. My version of a love ballad is a new episode of "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me."
Cat Power – "New York"
The Exiles is a New York book, but it's not your typical New York book. It takes place in Rhode Island, for starters. Also, it's got no Brooklyn. No Central Park. No hipster chefs. No obvious Jews (except for its author). But the two characters at its center 100% New Yorkers. Even if they're stranded in New England for the bulk of the narrative. Call it a New York book thrown through a fun-house mirror. Which is pretty much how I'd describe what Cat Power does with Sinatra's oldie.
The National – "So Far Around the Bend"
My characters end up moving to Rhode Island because they've failed in NYC. They're low on cash, middling on the corporate ladder, toting their kid around in a second-hand stroller. Still, the move comes as a shock to most of their social circle, who believe, as the lyrics of this tune repeat ad nauseum:
There is no leaving New York.
Ramblin' Jack Elliott - "Arthritis Blues"
As I wrote The Exiles, I often found myself humming this tune. That may have been an act of self-preservation. There's some deep dark medical stuff in my novel, and humming Elliott's hilariously jaunty, disease-inspired riff may be what kept me from throwing myself out a window. Sure, this is a song about arthritis, but it's also the kind of cartilage-damage anthem that makes you want to get up and dance — assuming your knees are still pre-arthritic.
To boot, Rambling Jack wouldn't be a bad poster boy for my book. Today Jack's a cowboy singer who influenced Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, but he started off as a Jew from Brooklyn. IE: You never know what life's going to hold. You may not be able to completely shed your past, but you can go a long way toward outsprinting it.
Spoon - "Trouble Comes Running"
Though (for my characters, at least) you better sprint fast, because that past is chasing right behind.
Weird Al Yankovic and Kate Winslet – "I Need a Nap"
Midway through writing The Exiles, I had a baby. Today, that kid is five and listens mostly to Johnny Cash. But he went through a pre-Cash stage in which our apartment throbbed with kids' music. While I was writing the later drafts, Sandra Boynton's Dogtrain album was on constant replay. I was several years into the novel at this point and feeling delirious about the writing process. Yet every time the track titled "I Need A Nap" came on, it gave me a significant boost. Written by Boynton, it's sung as a duet by Weird Al Yankovic and Kate Winslet. Weird Al! I know!
What I'm trying to say is this: If you're ever feeling hopeless about your prospects as an artist, listening to Weird Al can go a long way. I mean, if he managed to make a career for himself, it should be cake for the rest of us.
My male protagonist, Nate, would have listened to Weezer in the ‘90s — not because he liked Weezer (he'd rather have been listening to a baseball game), but because it's what he thought he should have been listening to. If Nate were real, I'd have known him back then. Well, I probably wouldn't have talked to him, but I'd have seen him in the corner of parties and been all, "Hey, another guy who probably claims to love Weezer!" The Weezer guys were always hanging out on the balcony. The Pavement dudes never made it past the entryway. One foot out the door. You never know when something better might come along.
Sleater Kinney – "Modern Girl"
Emily is Nate other half in the book: his committed partner, mother of his child, a former creative type, suddenly and unexpectedly a stay-at-home mom. She's done her best to be a modern woman and ends up merely unsatisfied. You can sum up Emily's state of mind with this "Modern Girl" lyric:
I took my money
And bought a donut
The hole's the size of
The entire world.
If the sky's the limit when it comes to Modern Girldom, why does Emily have so little? Why have the women she knows aimed so low? These are the kinds of thoughts that drive her to pop pills. Unfortunately, she's popping the wrong pills — beta blockers, and low-dose at that.
Schoenberg gets a mention in The Exiles. I originally put him in because I'd heard there was such a thing as "atonal music" and thought this was funny. Atonal music! Should I remind you that I know nothing about music?
But then I actually listened to Schoenberg. Holy cow. There's an inherent tension to the atonality in his work; I found my heart racing while listening, as if in fear that the pieces were going to take me over a cliff. That's not a bad sort of inertia to emulate when writing a novel (not the going-over-cliff part, but the unpredictable tension). If my first book evokes the rhythmic trance of Luna, then my hope is that this second novel gives readers the humpy suspense of Schoenberg.
Jakob Dylan – "Reboot the Mission"
The Exiles is a book about fathers and sons (also: women and careers, houses and homes, the economic divide, a guy in a coma). Jakob Dylan is the son of a famous real-life musician, Bob Dylan. Nate is the son of a famous fictional architect, George Bedecker. But unlike Nate, who flees the shadow of his well-known dad, Jacob has gone directly into his father's field. Moth to flame! Moth to flame! For Jakob, though, it's worked out alright.
Speaking of father's and sons, Bob Dylan has been known to call himself "The Son of Ramblin' Jack," due to the depth of Jack's influence on him. That makes Jakob Dylan the hypothetical "Grandson of Ramblin' Jack," who, as mentioned above, hung over me as I wrote this book. So "Reboot the Mission" feels like a somehow fitting end for this list. Plus, Nate could have learned something from Jakob, for sure. Like: you can run but you can't hide. Or maybe how to play guitar.
Allison Lynn and The Exiles links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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