September 6, 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.
Dan Beachy-Quick's debut novel An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky captivates and amazes with its lyrical language and adroit exploration of themes of memory and storytelling.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"A marvelous novel, by turns lyrical, realistic, dreamlike, and philosophical but always intelligent and gorgeously written."
I don't know what it says about how I imagine the world of this novel, but when first asked to put together a set of music fitting to it, I drew a complete blank. Well, a blank except for two things: one that doesn't exist and one that does. In many ways, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky is an homage, almost a kind of personal anthology, of other books I've most loved. Scenes and characters and language from vastly different texts secretly abide in its pages. One of the foremost among those—and one of the reasons I wanted to work on a novel in the first place—is Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The music playing throughout my novel, the music that exists without a note ever being heard, is Vinteuil's Sonata, whose "little phrase" so haunts Swann and the narrator: the "unheard melody" to the agony of their loves. The music that does exist, in counterpoint to Vinteiul's sonata for piano and violin, is Bach's Cello Suites. Something of Daniel's mind feels similar to that music, which makes of loneliness its own beautiful accompaniment.
In some sense, I realized I wanted to obscure time in the novel, and the trouble with creating a playlist is that it risks pinpointing in time something I so much want to remain ambiguous. But then, I realize, the music I love most plays with time in the very same way: a voice that sounds as if singing from the century previous, filled with the pain and joy of experiences the singer by herself could never contain. And so, here follows some songs that have that quality—not a soundtrack to the book, but an atmosphere around it.
"Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra," Bach
Simply enough, I don't know of any other piece of music that so astonishes me with delicacy. There is a moment when the two violins play one against the other that makes me think the greatest art is there to give us as quietly as it can the fragility of something that can be offered in no other way. What love there is between Daniel and Lydia must be fragile in this way, or what in them makes them capable of love, is fragile so.
"Romeo and Juliet," Prokofiev
I can imagine Olin playing this ballet when he invites Daniel and Lydia over to dinner, a kind of musical insinuation that perhaps they're destined to be more than mere friends. Of course, within the beauty of "The Young Juliet" we hear those darker themes that promise difficulty in the midst of light. That double-vision is something the novel strives after and is afflicted by—that nothing can be simply as it is.
"Ramblin' Man," Hank Williams
I find this song one of the most haunting, even terrifying I know. In it there is a sense that there is nowhere one can dwell, that nothing is stable, and even when life feels just fine, there is in the very air a sound calling some of us away, and if we hear it, we do as in the song, we "hurry straight home and pack."
"I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone," Elvis
I'm a sucker for any song that might actually make me cry into my beer. This early Elvis song is one of them, though more playful than most. What I love in it isn't simply the lonely playfulness of the title, but the way in which the song enacts its awakening to the fact of being left, of being alone, and so, as such blues do, it works to replace pain with wit.
"Elvis Presley Blues," Gillian Welch
Her voice, the emotion and mind of it, feels carved from a century previous, even as she writes so beautifully about not too distant American history and culture. Her song about Elvis is one of my very favorites, a celebration and a lament all at the same time, and one that—as I hope the novel does in relation to its own characters—thinks through the trouble of a given life with melancholy always broken apart by vivid realization of beauty, of joy.
"Tallulah," Allo Darling
I've only recently discovered this band, and this song in particular, which is so astonishingly detailed in its lyrics, so filled with images idiosyncratic to the emotion they represent, that it feels like a novel itself. It's heartbreaking in the best of ways, for the singer seems to realize her heartache as she sings about it, a method of escape that puts one deeper in the difficulty. When she sings, almost a chorus but not a chorus, "I'm wondering if I've already heard all the songs that'll mean something," I just think to myself, "Oh no, I wonder that, too."
"Famous Blue Raincoat," Leonard Cohen
So curiously a song in the guise of a letter—and the way in which it's about text, about memory, and how the chorus comes in with such gentle breaking ("And I see you there with a rose in your teeth / one more thin gypsy thief / oh I see Jane's awake / She send her regards") to the story being told, this tale of how one man broke apart, so it seems, his friend's marriage . . . Well, it's a song that never ceases to amaze me by showing what complex emotions can reside within a simplest melody. It has everything: irony, sorrow, anger, forgiveness, redemption (of sorts).
"You Don't' Have to Say You Love Me," Dusty Springfield
I feel slightly embarrassed to admit how deeply I love this song. The sheer measure of its pathos kills me. It revels in some emotion we're told to flee—neediness. I love that it gives voice to what we typically want to hide away, and I think the characters in the novel, Daniel and Lydia especially, would recognize in themselves, even if neither could admit to it. Also, so directly, I can't turn away from the quality of Dusty Springfield's voice—it's so drenched in the emotion it sings about, the song feels like an enactment of its subject (just as a poem must strive to be).
"Streets of Baltimore," Graham Parsons/Emmylou Harris
I'm very given to songs that record a moment of realization: "I soon learned she loved those bright lights more than she loved me." Like a good story, you listen as the singer awakens to his situation, an irony of almost classical quality, for we hear the instant at which he learns what we've known all along—the falsity of his belief in the love he shares, that does nothing to remedy still feeling that love.
"Tonight, I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," The Flatlanders
As with Hank William's great "Ramblin' Man," The Flatlanders give us a song that shows us a man just at that point in which the world he'd been in has revealed itself as illusory. "Tonight I think I'm gonna go downtown. / Tonight I think I'm gonna look around / For something I couldn't see / When this world was more real to me. / Yeah tonight I think I'm gonna go downtown." I can't help but feel the desolation of a some life—the very reality if it—in tatters, and the result is this wandering, this seeking of that which will cause more harm, as if harm is the proof of what's real, so that what's lost can be put away. But of course, it never works. As Proust said, "The only paradise we have is the one we've lost."
"Bought and Sold," Neko Case
A song sung to all that's missing, "lost love," so as to bring back what in it what can be brought back, even if that something is only a deeper sense of its absence. Such necessary but futile work is also my novel's song—an elegy to keep present all that's gone missing, to keep loss alive, not as presence, but as awareness, the bittersweet salvages where absence is also the place where one abides.
Dan Beachy-Quick and An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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