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October 16, 2013

Book Notes - Justin Kramon "The Preservationist"

The Preservationist

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.

Justin Kramon follows up his impressive debut, the coming-of-age novel Finny, with the masterfully told and thoroughly modern literary thriller The Preservationist.

Bookreporter wrote of the book:

"This is not just a compelling suspense novel. It's also a genuine exploration of three damaged characters...Dark, unsettling, and perceptive, The Preservationist is a vivid exploration of different conceptions of love -- both true and truly twisted."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes.


In his own words, here is Justin Kramon's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Preservationist:

People talk about reading novels as an escape, but sometimes I wonder about that. If we really wanted to escape, why would we read so many books about murder and thwarted romance and wars and illness and the sundry downers and buzz kills of life? Are we sadists? Or masochists? Most of my favorite books -- as with many of my favorite people -- are sad or dark or creepy. Sometimes all of the above, which makes for an interesting medicine cabinet. What kind of whacko am I to actually enjoy drudging through serotonin’s mucky low tide?

I have the sense, though, that I'm not alone in this attraction to darkness. I'm thinking of the famous first line of Anna Karenina, about how all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family has a different argument at Passover. Or something like that. The point is, I think Tolstoy is saying something about stories as well as families here, telling us that happiness is boring in a novel, or at least incomplete. When I think about the love stories that have moved me most in literature, they're generally not so much about love as the difficulties of love, the separations, the disappointments, the fighting, the shittiness. That's the part we can really grab onto, the part that drives the plot. In fact, it seems like the love part is less interesting to us than the pain part. Which is insane. What's our deal?

The same is true of music. Sad people don't tend to own large collections of holiday jingles; they tend to like sad music. (I fessed up to this in my previous Book Notes piece.) My sense is that we often look for art to take us not to a joyful place, but to a dark place, because there's comfort in that, in seeing our own reflections in someone else's work. And maybe there's a comfort in the distance, too, in being removed enough to study the things that scare us and sadden us and plague us, possibly to find humor in them, without actually having to live them.

I wrote my new novel at the end of a year in which I'd sat by the bedsides of a couple of people who died. That year appeared on the surface to be one in which I would have enjoyed reading light parlor comedies. But I found myself reading mostly thrillers, and pretty dark ones. They seemed to be the only kind of book I could get into. Which is why I started writing one. My playlist reflects some of the places I went to as I was working on it.

"All I Need," Radiohead

Like all great lyrics, the words Thom Yorke sings on "All I Need" leave room for the listener. I took the song to be about obsession, and particularly the contradictions of obsession. The song doubles back on itself again and again, talking about feeling overlooked by the love interest, then acknowledging "I only stick with you/Because there are no others," and finally ending on the refrain, "It's all wrong, it's all right..." In the music, there's a driving emotion behind this confusion, and I loved that, how an illogical and contradictory worldview could build and build, until it becomes a kind of passion or perhaps mania. And even though the feeling is nearly impossible to explain, because it makes no sense, it's no less real. That was a dynamic I wanted to capture in my novel, where two men are obsessed with the same woman, for reasons related to their own dark pasts, though each man feels his obsession as love, and allows it to drive him toward a dangerous place.

"Donna Lee," Clifford Brown, from The Beginning and the End

Artists want their work to stand on its own, I think, but sometimes the context can deepen the experience of a work of art. With that in mind, Clifford Brown's The Beginning and the End is, to me, both a thrilling and morbid album. It features the first two recordings of the great jazz trumpeter, followed by three tracks recorded on the night of his death. (He was killed in an auto accident.) I remember listening over and over to these last tracks in high school, unable to process the fact that the man who was making music that was so epically alive would be forever silent within hours of this performance. It said something to me about the strangeness and chanciness of life. At the end of the recording, Clifford Brown says to the cheering audience, "You make me feel so..." and he searches for the word, then comes up with, "wonderful." Knowing what would follow, it's piercing to listen to this. And some of this questioning found its way into my character, Julia, who is also a trumpet player, and who is reeling from a traumatic event that has changed the course of her life. The simplicity of death is incomprehensible to her, and the violence that threatens her in the novel has a way of bringing her closer to subjects she wants most to avoid.

"Planes Like Vultures," Le Loup

I'm always looking for music that can set a tone for writing a certain section of a book. This song is in some ways like a prayer, in its calling upon higher powers, its awe at the world, its use of repetition to break through to something deeper or larger or purer. At the same time, it's cynical. The supporting refrain is "Oh this world was made for ending," and there's a menacing quality (as well as ecstatic and revelatory qualities) to the layering of the music. In the end, the song is both ironic and earnest, and this was a tone I learned a lot from. One of the main characters in my book, Sam, is a true eccentric, and I wanted to find a way to go deep in his world and give real weight to his feelings, while also allowing the reader to glimpse some of the gaps and murky areas in his life philosophy. I wanted to be both totally with him and seeing him from afar at once. "Planes Like Vultures" offered a tone that I felt I could learn from. In fact, I liked the song so much that I asked the band if they'd let me use it for the book trailer, which you can see here.

"Single Petal of a Rose," composed by Duke Ellington, performed by Marcus Roberts

In writing, you're so often coming at emotion from the side. To hit it straight on feels crass, or clumsy, so books have to wriggle their way toward meaning. I've always admired certain writers who are able to approach complicated feelings directly, without being cheap or maudlin; it seems brave and risky to me. In a perhaps similar way, I have a soft spot for Duke Ellington's sentimental compositions, how unafraid he is to go for it. Marcus Roberts, known for his technical virtuosity, performs "Single Petal of a Rose" on solo piano, and I'm most impressed by his statement (and restatements) of the theme, the thoughtfulness he can infuse into four notes. To me, it's a reminder of the value of simplicity, of what an artist can do with very little. And in my novel, whatever tricks I was up to in a given section, I tried to keep in mind that this emotional core was always what I was striving after. But at the same time, Sam in my novel is a sentimentalist at heart, and perhaps there are some dangers in that, too.

"Our Hell," Emily Haines and The Soft Skeleton

Each of the characters in my novel is living in a separate set of problems, and they each feel isolated by these difficulties. But they're also not complainers, for the most part, and the way that they shoulder their private burdens, while trying to carry on a life, is moving to me. The central lyric of this song, "Our hell is a good life," captures this downplaying beautifully for me.

The other lyrics, which are a bit elliptical, seem to point toward a disillusionment or resignation, but there's a warm glow to the song. If you read people's interpretations of the lyrics, they range from ideas about modern "luxury problems" to a bad break-up to losing a friend. And I love that the song has room for all that. I love the fact that you can bring your sense of the world to the music, but also use the music to help shape that sense. It's a conversation. It's a song that brings me back again and again to the idea that creating art is a hopeful act, and that when a work of art touches you, even and especially when it's about something sad or dark, there's a way in which it's also saying, You're not alone.


Justin Kramon and The Preservationist links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Kirkus review
Mystery Scene review

CMash Reads interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Finny
Laurie's Thoughts and Reviews interview with 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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