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September 5, 2013

Book Notes - Ben Dolnick "At the Bottom of Everything"

At the Bottom of Everything

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.

Ben Dolnick's novel At the Bottom of Everything is a fascinating exploration of the powers of friendship and guilt.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In this coming-of-age-at-least-twice novel, Dolnick's insights into life’s bleaker spells are wise and entertaining, making for an invigorating and transcendent reminder of how haunting old friendships can be."

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


In his own words, here is Ben Dolnick's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, At the Bottom of Everything:


At the Bottom of Everything — my new novel about a man losing his mind and disappearing in India — was the first thing since college that I wrote while listening to music. For a long time the idea of music-while-writing had seemed to me either distracting (if you became too aware of it) or pointless (if you became not at all aware of it). Besides, it was hard to picture Philip Roth and Alice Munro with headphones clamped over their ears.

But at some point very early in the writing of this book, for reasons I don't entirely understand, I decided that music would be not just helpful but vital. I don't know if there's a single page that I wrote in silence.

So, constructing a playlist to accompany the book feels quite natural. Some of these are songs I actually listened to while writing; others are related more indirectly.


"At the Bottom of Everything," Bright Eyes

Let me say, first of all, that I do unashamedly love Bright Eyes. (Or actually, I love them slightly ashamedly. This is I think a necessary penance once you get to be thirty.) I never intended to name a book after one of their songs, though. What happened was: for months I couldn't think of a title. There's an important scene toward the end of the book that takes place in a cave, at the bottom of a pit, and I was sitting there one day playing with various phrases related to that — in the pit, at the very bottom, down at the bottom… — when "At the Bottom of Everything" leapt to mind. I only remembered that it was a Bright Eyes song a few seconds later.

I was happy to discover, when I went to re-listen to it, that it actually seemed related to what I was after. Particularly toward the end, when he sings about plunging into a cavern with only a flashlight, and then starts scream-talking (very Conor Oberst-ishly) about how "way down there, when we get to the very bottom of everything, we'll see it, oh my god, we'll see it, we'll see it, we'll see it…" Exactly.


"Crackling Fire" (whole album)

This is what I actually listened to while writing the scene in the cave. It's part of a series of Sounds of Nature albums, and it's meant, I imagine, to comfort homesick Norwegians who finds themselves in places (on board a ship?) where they're unable to light their customary fires. There isn't a fire in the cave, of course, but this is for some reason how I like to picture it sounding down there. My favorite "songs" on the album are "Thoughtful Wood Burning in Cottage Fireplace" (which has a nice, slow, popcorn-popping kind of rhythm) and "Spiritual Outdoor Campfire" (which actually sounds quite crackly and terrifying).


"Streets of Where I'm From," Old 97's

At the beginning of the book the narrator has just had his heart broken, and this is one of my favorite songs about romantic misery — particularly the twenty-something variety. The tone is actually fairly jaunty, but I love the line: "It's not funny like on TV and it's not smart like it is in books."


"Oh No," Girl Talk

One thing I wanted to do in this book, which I'd never really done before, was to weave together a bunch of different elements — letters, book excerpts, conversations — without much explanatory context. It's hard to think of a better anthem for aspiring collagists than this, particularly the bit at 2:20 when the guitar part from "Jane Says" comes in under "Teach Me How to Dougie."


"Crazy Mary," Pearl Jam

Some of the book deals with middle and high school, when the two main characters are first getting to know each other. It's very nearly impossible for me to think about those years without hearing a Pearl Jam soundtrack in my head (with some unfortunate interludes by the Counting Crows and Hootie and the Blowfish). This is one of the songs I listened to over and over in my room, on a little yellow boombox, convinced that music couldn't possibly get more profound. I'm also pretty sure that this song taught me the word "loitering."


"How to Disappear Completely," Radiohead

A lot of post-OK Computer Radiohead music is basically what I picture a mental breakdown sounding like. This song — like all of Kid A — is very beautiful, don't get me wrong, but there's just this bleakness and strangeness and depressiveness that I find both scary and compelling. It sounds to me like a perfect soundtrack for lying in bed while wearing dirty clothes and staring at the ceiling.


"Baba Hanuman," Krishna Das

Some of the book takes place in India, among a New Age-ish crowd with whom one of the characters has fallen in, and this is one of the songs I'd sometimes use to put myself in an appropriately prayer-beads kind of mood. I actually ended up really liking it as music. (Not least, perhaps, because Krishna Das sometimes sounds uncannily like Eddie Vedder). The part around 3:10 when the drums come in makes me feel like becoming a spiritual disciple myself.


"Pancho & Lefty," Townes Van Zandt

The book is, among other things, a sad story about two friends, and in my mind the pinnacle of the sad-stories-about-two-friends genre is this song. As a general rule, I hate songs that tell stories, but this story seems to me as powerful and subtle as anything by Hemingway. Imagining poor Lefty cold and guilty in Cleveland makes my heart hurt.


Ben Dolnick and At the Bottom of Everything links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

The Daily Beast review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review

Kirkus profile of the author
The L Magazine interview wit the author
New York Times essays 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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