August 13, 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.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's linked collection of short stories Brief Encounters with the Enemy vividly captures the spirit of modern America, and is one of the finest fiction debuts I have read in years.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"[A]n arresting fiction debut that chronicles modern, nameless cities crumbling in the shadows of war… With insightful humor and a keen eye for offbeat details, Sayrafiezadeh, entertaining and political without being heavy-handed, is a force to be reckoned with."
I use music to write the way one might use an amphetamine. It stimulates me, galvanizes me, an artificial supplement that provides quick energy so I can continue on with that sedentary and obsessive activity I have chosen for a living. The problem, however, is that while the song must have sufficient tempo and rhythm to spur me forward, the words in the headphones cannot interfere with my words on the page. It's far too easy to become distracted and confused when you're trying to rewrite a sentence for the one hundredth time. Rap music, therefore, is out of the question. So is country. So is Bob Dylan. And while jazz is my favorite genre, I have no use for wordless music—perhaps because writing is already lonely enough. No, what is needed to invigorate me are the voices of mildly aggressive young white men that I have listened to a million times before, otherwise known as classic rock. Some might say overplayed, outdated, occasionally vapid classic rock. A dozen songs specifically. The same dozen songs, with barely any variation, c. 1970s. Below are four of them. This is how I was able to write my collection of short stories.
1.) "Don't Stop Believin'" Journey
It was a shock for me to discover in high school that Journey was not considered a great rock band. In fact, it was disparaged by many of my classmates. Taste, though, divided generally along class lines. While the affluent students abhorred Journey, the working class ones appeared to be admirers. I was poor but dreamed of wealth, so I ignored my innate attraction and disparaged too, hoping that my conformity would bring me into the fold—it did not. (It's been liberating in later years to indulge in all the music that others have considered déclassé.) The lyrics of "Don't Stop Believin'," which no doubt worked on an unconscious level while I wrote my stories, describe a small-town girl and a city boy meeting up for one night. But the details of this story are not what matter. What matters is the mood, and the mood fits perfectly with the aspiration of my book, beginning with those mournful opening chords of the piano and continuing on with Steve Perry's perspective on love and yearning. Then there's the exciting crescendo which hints at the possibility, and unpredictability, of success. "Some will win. Some will lose. Some are born to sing the blues." Almost every character in my book has some idea about how to make it in the world, whether it be join the military or steal from Walmart. The word "boulevard" is used in the song, and that's a good urban word. I moved to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn at the age of seven and had never heard the word boulevard before, because there is no such thing as a boulevard in New York City. But near my apartment in Pittsburgh was a street called Boulevard of the Allies, and it always frightened me—just the name alone. There's a story in my collection where soldiers are returning home from war and they are driven down a boulevard in front of an adoring crowd.
2.) "The River" Bruce Springsteen
Something about alienation. Something about love. Something about dead-end jobs. Variations on a theme that never gets old from the oeuvre of Bruce Springsteen. His sense of what it means to be American might be close to my sense. Or more importantly, close to that of my characters' in their post-industrial city. "Or is it something worse that sends me down to the river, though I know the river is dry." Pittsburgh has three rivers—Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio—and they're what made Pittsburgh the powerhouse that it was during the steel years. The characters in my collection are constantly referring to an unnamed river, or driving over an unnamed river, or fishing in an unnamed river where the factories are either opening up or closing down. Speaking of water, Springsteen mentions Johnstown, PA in passing—"I got a job working construction for a Johnstown company"—and of all the events that haunts Pittsburgh and its environs, the Johnstown Flood of 1889 is certainly the greatest. It's an act of nature that's most likely the result of the incompetence and indifference of the wealthy members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club who simultaneously raised the level of their lake while failing to properly maintain their dam. But whatever the reason, one morning a heavy rain burst the dam and two thousand working class people were killed.
3.) "When the Music's Over" The Doors
Jim Morrison was one of the first men I was ever conscious of finding sexy. My eighth-grade female classmates found him sexy too, and since he had long, dark, uncombed hair I thought there might be some hope for me after all. This particular song, however, frightened me as a child, because midway through the live version Morrison screams at the audience for talking during his performance. Listening to it now it seems almost comical, but as an eighth grader it was shocking to hear someone break the fourth wall. The first six minutes or so of this sixteen-minute song are perfect for my writing, because it's hyper and uncontrolled. Morrison's voice—the lyrics here are immaterial—along with the hundred-mile an hour guitar and drums helped me compose the violent scenes in my stories. But then the song begins to slow way down until it's boring and almost completely quiet, which is when the audience members start chatting distractedly. And then I become distracted too. So I'm always having to stop writing and skip over this problematic interlude. But of course every writer is looking for any reason to stop writing.
4.) "Till it Shines" Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
Slower and softer than the aforementioned songs, but still insistent enough its rhythm to keep me going. It opens with a reference about losing one's inhibition and solitude, which is a good motto for a writer, and a good motto for most of the characters in my book who are struggling against various versions of inhibition and solitude. I've always assumed the protagonist in the song is speaking to a woman, asking her for assistance in forging a different kind of life. "Storm the walls around this prison. Leave the inmates free the guards. Deal me up another future from some brand-new deck of cards." But I really have no idea what this song is about. What exactly is being shined? Seger deals strictly in metaphor, which is fine by me, because I'm able to use his message to infuse whatever it is I'm writing about. On a related note, I first discovered Seger when I was about ten years old and "Turn the Page" came on the radio late one night. It was the saddest song I'd ever heard and I was probably too young to be listening. It deromanticized the life of the artist in brutal fashion, in this case the singer on the road who plays to a mildly hostile audience after having driven sixteen hours. Moreover, it was a song about a singer singing about being a singer. Seger was dealing in layers, which was revolutionary to me. I can't listen to "Turn the Page" as an adult, but its cautionary tale lives in the back of my mind.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Brief Encounters with the Enemy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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