August 29, 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.
Gabriel Roth's The Unknowns is a remarkable and assured debut novel, poignant and funny, and one of the most enjoyable books I have read all year.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"If only all social misfits were as stealthily charming as Eric Muller, the nerdy narrator of Gabriel Roth's sparkling debut novel. Mr. Roth's remarkably funny, tender book is much more than one code-writing kid's success story. As its title indicates, 'The Unknowns' is about how Eric grows up trying to fathom those things he doesn't naturally understand. Mr. Roth writes in a gently self-mocking, utterly disarming style that gives 'The Unknowns' an unusual type of tension."
My novel, The Unknowns, is about a bunch of things—like many contemporary novels, it can be described by reciting a list of themes that mixes the abstract and grandiose with the intensely specific, along the lines of "Yeah, it's about cryptography and emotional paralysis and the steroid-tainted 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa." (That's just an example; The Unknowns isn't about that stuff.) But mostly it's about a guy who's too self-conscious to function properly. He wants to be liked, as one does, and he's preoccupied with the impression he makes on other people.
What this has to do with the exercise of making a list of songs and displaying them publicly should be obvious.
Loving music is bound up with displaying one's taste and knowledge for the admiration of others. And yet this culture of ostentatious musical connoisseurship—let's call it High Fidelity culture—is in crisis. File-sharing and streaming have dismantled the idea of the record collection; the anti-rockist turn in criticism has flipped the valence of the old music-snob canon.
I am square in the center of the cohort that has been wrong-footed by these changes. I had really excellent taste in 1993: I was perhaps the first person on my college campus to reclaim the Beach Boys, for instance, and I bought Slanted and Enchanted on vinyl the week of its release. What's most embarrassing about that boast is not its boastfulness but its total failure as a boast: Pavement, the reunion-tour choice of every hoodie-wearing stroller dad! The Beach Boys, whose rich harmonies and lush orchestrations inspired the lilting soundtracks for the past decade's Target commercials!
Eric Muller, the protagonist of The Unknowns, tries to impress people in various ways, but never by displaying his musical taste or erudition. I decided early that Eric wouldn't be preoccupied with music as I am—one of several steps I took to give him an independent existence. (It worked; he wound up very different from me.) So these songs are mine, not his. They won't impress anyone, but that's for the best, because they're great songs and we should get out of their way.
Missy Elliott, "Bring The Pain"
The Unknowns begins with a party in a San Francisco apartment in 2002. I went to a lot of parties in San Francisco apartments in 2002, and this was the best song ever played at any of them. A girl I knew took issue with a line from Method Man's verse: "He should bump uglies with her even if she does have her monthly." That's the kind of thing people said at parties in San Francisco apartments in 2002, if you were wondering.
Massive Attack, "Teardrop"
The party scene is followed, in the book, by an ecstasy-fueled hookup. It has been a long time since I've had an ecstasy-fueled hookup, but I assume that people who have them still listen to late-'90s trip-hop, because it's hard to believe anyone has come up with anything more suitable. The scratchy-record noise on this track, and on every other beats-and-samples track made between 1996 and 2001, is the digital world's version of imperialist nostalgia: a culture's grief for something it is about to destroy.
The Modern Lovers, "Girlfriend"
Three non-consecutive chapters of The Unknowns take place when our protagonist is in high school, wishing he had a girlfriend. When I myself was in high school, I had a subscription to Rolling Stone. The 8/27/87 issue contained a list of the 100 greatest albums of the past 20 years. I couldn't afford to buy them, so every Saturday I would walk to the public library and check out five albums, the maximum you could check out at one time, and bring them home and copy them onto blank cassettes. (The young people of today wouldn't believe how hard we had to work to commit copyright infringement.)
Modern Lovers was at number 52 on the Rolling Stone list. It has the famous song about Pablo Picasso, and the one about driving past the Stop 'n' Shop while listening to the radio, but the one that meant something to me as a fifteen-year-old boy who spent his Saturdays going to the library to borrow albums he'd read about in a magazine was the one about wishing you had a girlfriend.
Ulrich Schnauss, "Knuddelmaus"
The "music to write to" problem is a hard one. You want it to be: ambient, so it won't distract you; instrumental, so the lyrics don't leak into your brain's language-generating glands; moderately uptempo, to keep your pulse rate at a sustainably energetic level; repetitive, to aid in the acquisition of a semi-trance state; cheerful or soothing, to provide a buffer against despair. It has to be pretty good, too, because bad art is discouraging. I tried a lot of different records while writing the first half of The Unknowns, and then I discovered the first two albums by the German producer Ulrich Schnauss, Far Away Trains Passing By and A Strangely Isolated Place, and hey, problem solved. Sometimes when I wanted a bit of variety I'd put them on shuffle but mostly I listened to them in order.
Four Tet, "Unspoken"
I used to spend a lot of time depressed. I came out of it, thanks to psychoanalysis, and now I don't get depressed any more. The turning point was one evening when I sat in my car on Linda Street in the Mission, around the corner from my apartment, listening to this song and crying. After that I didn't get depressed any more.
But by then I'd spent fifteen years accreting a personality around these periodic bouts of depression, and once the depression was gone I was at a loss for how to behave. It was as if I had just emerged from an egg, moist and trembling, in the body of a man in his late 20s. All of my responses seemed improperly calibrated; for about a year I had to rethink every interaction from scratch. That year is where the voice of The Unknowns came from.
Dirty Projectors, "Temecula Sunrise"
I had already put the phrase "new-construction home" into the book when this record came out, with its cheery opening announcement, "I live in a new-construction home." It's so awkward and jargony; it's a new-construction phrase. Novels need those chewy sticking-out bits of language to break up the smoothed-out "literary" writing. It takes balls to put it in the first line of a song, though—it's not the kind of thing you're supposed to put in a song lyric.
Santigold, "L.E.S. Artistes"
There was a time when it looked like The Unknowns wouldn't be published. I was in my 30s, and not even my early 30s, and I'd basically staked everything on this book I was writing (NB: do not do this), and it had come to nothing.
So I had a lot of terrifying practical stuff to figure out, but I also had to figure out how to feel about this thing I'd written. It took a while, but I figured it out: I had written the best book I was capable of writing, and I loved it and felt proud of it, and that pride helped balance out the fact that it was a catastrophe and it had ruined my life. This song felt very urgent to me at the time.
Japandroids, "I Quit Girls"
The first Japandroids album was totally thrilling and comfortable to me: 24-year-olds writing melodic indie-rock songs about yearning and heartbreak under layers of noisy guitar; yo, that's my jam! I listened to their records a lot while I did the last round of revisions. I remember one evening, when "I Quit Girls" was on in my headphones, and I finally got some traction on the last couple pages, and I felt like I was driving the last few miles of a long journey on an empty freeway late at night. I doubt that really happened, though. Writing doesn't give you big romantic moments like that.
Gabriel Roth and The Unknowns links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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