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August 15, 2013

Book Notes - Janice Deal "The Decline of Pigeons"

The Decline of Pigeons

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.

Janice Deal's short story collection The Decline of Pigeonsis filled with acutely told tales of loss, and is a mesmerizing book from the first page through its last.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In her debut collection, Deal portrays characters struck by varying measures of loss and isolation and charts their struggles to understand and accept their predicaments....Throughout these nine striking stories, Deal deftly explores the moments during which her characters' lives shift or unravel."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Janice Deal's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, The Decline of Pigeons:

My collection of nine short stories, The Decline of Pigeons, explores the way people cope -- or try to -- when confronted with loss. The stories are constructed around characters who are marginalized and disenfranchised, such as Glenn, a repo man desperate to stay connected to his son, or Orna, whose own body has become a prison. Some, but not all, of the characters learn to transcend loss. They all try. In creating a playlist for The Decline of Pigeons, I've attempted to capture the passions, internal struggles, and essence of these lonely people.

Johnny Cash, "Hurt"

This brilliant cover of the Trent Reznor song, one of Johnny Cash's final hits before his death, is sometimes considered his epitaph and demonstrates what Cash could do arguably better than anyone else: make a song his own. His stark interpretation explores regret and the loss of youth and potential. (The companion video, shot by Mark Romanek in Tennessee shortly before Cash's death, takes a warts-and-all-approach: the singer, in failing health at the time, is frail and somber -- a sharp contrast to the archival glimpses of a young, tough Cash sewn seamlessly into the video.) At the end of our lives, we are faced with what we have done and who we have become; the lines, I will let you down/I will make you hurt, could come from "Aurora"'s Atwater, a man battling demons from his past even as he tries to reclaim his best self.

Radiohead, "Creep"

Originally released in the UK in 1992, "Creep" was initially dismissed as too depressing, and gained little traction. But it became a hit when rereleased the following year. According to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, "Creep" tells the story of an inebriated man who follows a woman to whom he is attracted. Ultimately, he lacks the confidence to face her - and feels he subconsciously is her. Loneliness, disenfranchisement, and yearning to connect are all part of the human condition. The song brings to mind "Nature"'s Nikki and Feldon, a young married woman and a disabled police officer who experience a fragile, ultimately doomed relationship.

Rolling Stones, "Wild Horses"
("Six Foot")

The story goes that "Wild Horses," released on the Stones' 1971 Sticky Fingers album, was originally written by Keith Richards for his son Marlon: an expression of the regret Richards felt when he had to leave his family to tour. Mick Jagger rewrote the lyrics, basing the rewrite on his crumbling relationship with Marianne Faithful and retaining only the line, wild horses couldn't drag me away, from the original concept. That's the line that sticks with me, though. Aching and nuanced, the lyric and song capture the fiercely rooted loyalty that parents can feel for their children: the way that "Six Foot"'s Jools will do anything -- anything -- to ensure her small daughter's well-being and happiness, even if it means compromising her integrity.

Patti Smith, "About a Boy"
("Sailor Lake")

"About a Boy" appeared on Patti Smith's album Gone Again, a deeply personal work that came in the wake of the deaths of Smith's husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith; her brother Todd; and her close friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Minimalist and haunting, the song, with its muscular guitar and urgent, ethereal lyrics, explores endings. People leave us. How do those left behind make sense of where their loved ones have gone? The down-to-earth teacher from "Sailor Lake," Bev, probably wouldn't express herself exactly this way, but I imagine Smith's poetic lyrics might resonate with her as she grapples with trying to reach a beloved husband already one step into another world.

Bjork, "Desired Constellation"
("The Decline of Pigeons in the Natural World")

Bjork's voice has been described as shrill, and, conversely, as celestial and almost childlike. In "Desired Constellation," she covers all these bases in a song that explores the nuances of guilt and missed opportunity. Koan-like repetition of the phrase How am I going to make it right? lends an obsessive intensity: can repeated rolls of the die in fact alter what's set in the stars? Can we change what seems to be fixed outcome? In "The Decline of Pigeons in the Natural World," Gayle, a single woman longing for a family of her own, ultimately recognizes her true nature; perhaps she, too, longs for just one more roll of the dice.

Peter Gabriel, "My Body is a Cage"

I first heard Peter Gabriel's interpretation of this Arcade Fire song in concert, where Gabriel and The New Blood Orchestra perfectly captured the song's moody crescendos. Gabriel himself admitted that he initially had no idea what Arcade Fire's Win Butler was getting at with the lyrics, though he eventually came to imagine The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (the true story of a man who suffers a stroke and becomes almost completely paralyzed). During the Peter Gabriel concert, arresting blood cell visuals depicted on a giant screen as the song was performed had me thinking about the fragility of the human body: how when our bodies are damaged, our spirits have to figure out how to make their way in a compromised vessel. I played "My Body Is a Cage" as I revised "Phoenix" and got more deeply into the head of burn-victim Orna. The song raises a compelling question that resonates with the story: at what point does one's body become a prison?

Leonard Cohen, "The Darkness"
("Darkness Can Fall Without Warning")

Sly, upbeat classical guitar belies the baldly dark lyrics of Leonard Cohen's song "The Darkness," which detail loss of hope, a connection to someone poisonous, and the inability to enjoy what once brought pleasure. No song better describes for me how it feels to be mired in the muck of depression, and how our choice of companions can radically inform our worldview. I imagine Audrey from "Darkness Can Fall Without Warning," still reeling from a miscarriage, walking the streets of Paris and listening to this song in her head -- trying (and failing) to escape from the pain she's brought with her from the States, and which her current companion can only exacerbate.

Alice in Chains, "Rooster"
("Repo Man")

The "Rooster" character in this song is based on Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell's father, whose nickname was "Rooster" and who served two combat tours in Vietnam. Though my characters haven't been to Nam, the song's tone and themes – wartime, survival, an innate toughness, and tenacity – resonated with me when writing the characters of Glenn and Revere in "Repo Man." The men, who cross paths years after meeting in prison, both stubbornly cast themselves as survivors in the drama of everyday life, even when their choices point to other, darker outcomes.

Willie Nelson, "The Maker"

Daniel Lanois acted as producer on Willie Nelson's 1998 album, Teatro, and contributed his song "The Maker" to the mix. Sung by Nelson with backup by Emmylou Harris, the song is hopeful and transcendent. It limns the process through which the singer endures hardship – deep water black, and cold as the night - and emerges on the other side . . . no longer a stranger. When deciding the story order for The Decline of Pigeons, I wanted the collection to end on a transcendent note, and so chose "Dinosaurs," the most hopeful of my stories, to close the book. Elizabeth and her mother-in-law might not become best friends, but they have experienced a very real connection and are no longer strangers to one another at the end of the story. "The Maker," an apt companion to "Dinosaurs," seems an appropriate way to close this playlist.

Janice Deal and The Decline of Pigeons links:

the author's website

Booklist review
The Los Angeles Review review

Chicago Tribune profile of the author
TNBBC's the Next Best Book Blog essay by the author
Two Kinds of People essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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