November 1, 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.
Ben Tanzer's Orphans is impressive, a futuristic dystopian novel both literary and contemporary.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Patently satirical, Orphans is about the reality of responsibility and the limitations imposed on us in adulthood by a capitalist society. Tanzer's setting and scenario owe much to George Orwell and Philip K. Dick, territory that sf fans might enjoy revisiting."
I once read this interview with James Cameron where he said that one of the cool things about science fiction is that there is no known pop culture, you're in some other world, a future, or maybe parallel one, and you're creating something that doesn't exist, except for in your own head.
Orphans is science fiction, though the core of the story is focused on themes I like to explore regardless of whether I'm talking clones and Mars - family, friendship, communication, or lack there of, violence, confusion, and how we cope with these things. It's about the nature of work as well, and how work, or the expectations around work, can warp us, as individuals, and in relation to our families.
And it is about being replaced, in our beds, our homes, at work, and in a society that just barely needs us. This world is a future world, and not one that is unrecognizable to us, such as Avatar is, but is still off in the future, not so far from now, but far enough.
There is little recognizable pop culture then, which from a Book Notes perspective, means there are only a handful of songs that provide a soundtrack for the story. Still, there are songs, there are always songs, because I didn't avoid pop culture completely, I just asked myself what might survive into the future. The Big Lebowski seemed like a given, as did the Ramones, and The Lion King.
I also didn't avoid music when I was writing and I never do. I listen to music while I write early drafts, while I think about edits, and when I run, which might may or may not count as writing, though I am definitely untangling, expanding, and deconstructing whatever stories I'm working on, and working through, with each step and each mile, and those songs provide a different kind of soundtrack, the ever-changing soundtrack for the project I'm working on, whether those songs literally make it into the work or not.
So, with all that said, some Book Notes.
"Blietzkrieg Bop" - Ramones
There is a moment in Orphans where there is the realization that work is looming, and separation is coming fast, but all of what that means can still be held at bay by the family at the center of the story, if only briefly. So at first there is food and drink and cheer, and then the family decides to dance, pogoing with every bit of joy and connectivity they still have available to them. It is wondrous and sweaty and I can't imagine a better choice than "Blietzkrieg Bop" for that.
"Hakuna Matata/The Circle of Life" - Elton John/Tim Rice
This is partially a parent thing I'm sure, or maybe it's just me, but these songs have carved out a special place in the pop culture vernacular. If you want to justify shrugging off your responsibilities, you just reference "Hakuna Matata," and everyone gets it. Or if you need to make the point to someone, children maybe, possibly other adults, that people, or in the case of Orphans, things die, only to be replaced, and that this is how it is, because they are part of something larger than themselves, then "Circle of Life" is your jam. Everyone's apparently.
"Orphans" - Beck
With my earlier books, and how pretentious does that sound, I tended at some point during the writing process to fixate on a song that would accompany me in terms of lyrics or mood, but in the case of Orphans, I fixated on this title, and the idea that we are all orphaned eventually, by family, work, or community, and that in this story, it's not just eventual, but a day-to-day reality. I then looked to see if there were any songs named Orphans whose lyrics and tone matched the mood and aesthetic I was aiming for. I came across the song "Orphans" by Beck, and lyrics like these, "Think I'm stranded but I don't know where - got this diamond I don't know how to shine - In the sun where the dark winds wail - And these children leave their rulers behind," which resonated with me, and continued to resonate with me as I played the song on repeat for days at a time as I honed the language, structure, and vibe of the book.
"Dog Days Are Over" - Florence + The Machine
This song has nothing to do with the book per se outside of timing. Someone, somewhere, handed me a code for me to obtain the song as a free download. I rarely take advantage of these opportunities, but there I was in this hotel room in Atlanta and I was taken with the graphics that accompanied the card, and I downloaded the song, then played it for the rest of the night as I wrote. When I write, I like songs with energy, that change pace, and sneak up on me, which is much like the music I like to listen to when I run. And this song really worked for me. It also tapped into something that I tend to tap into when I'm writing, writing-related slights and past rejections of my work, because these things power me to go forward, as I try to prove editors, reviewers, strangers, whoever, wrong. Which doesn't exactly make me Michael Jordan, but it helps.
Cancer 4 Cure - El-P and R.A.P Music - Killer Mike
I just love El-P and Cancer 4 Cure came out while I was working on Orphans, so listening to it was a given. On the other hand, I didn't know Killer Mike until I read that El-P had produced R.A.P. Music. Sonically and aurally R.A.P Music is killer all on its own, but then there are lines like, "It's a book I read, books I read. Cause I'm addicted to literature," and as I listened to it again and again, I began to wonder if maybe there wasn't just a little magic at play. Which is cheesy I know, but magic helps sometimes, and I will take it wherever I can get it.
Bon Iver - Bon Iver and 21 - Adele
Let me be clear, I have no idea when I started listening to Bon Iver or why. Nor do I have a beard, many flannel shirts, or live in Brooklyn. Sorry. And yes I know he's from Wisconsin. Further, I didn't even know what I was listening to when I first heard this CD, or what it is about, love, if I had to guess, but Bon Iver did get stuck in my head, and it was great to write to, simple, and sparse, and full of mood, sometimes soaring, other times, haunting, all things I want to capture in my own writing. 21 is another story, my kids became obsessed with it, and Adele, her singing, and just the idea of her, and so like Bon Iver, she became part of the soundtrack from that time period in my life, and when I'm at work on the same thing for months at a time, I listen to the same songs over and over, and in this case, I cry a little, though please don't tell anyone that.
Sigh No More -Mumford & Sons and I and Love and You - Avett Brothers
I turn on the Grammys and there is Bob Dylan with two scruffy sets of dudes on either side of him. I do not know these scruffy dudes, but I learn later that they are Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers. I decide I need to get one of their CDs and I buy Sigh No More, caught as I am in the Cave or maybe the Lion songs they sing. It falls into the rotation, as did Bon Iver and Adele, it's current, and addictive, and they speak to love and pain, and that's what I want to write about. Meanwhile, my co-worker Bridget hates that I have bought Sigh No More, all of their songs sound alike she says, and if it is the Grammys that prompted me to buy the CD in the first place, she continues, why can't I just go and buy something by the Avett Brothers who are so fucking superior? Which I do, I and Love and You, and there is more love, and more confusion, though joy as well, and I like joy, because we may suffer, and struggle, and the characters in Orphans certainly do, but joy is still a possibility, always, and so why not try to find some wherever, and whenever, we can?
Ben Tanzer and Orphans links:
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for for 99 Problems
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for for Lucky Man
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for for Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine
TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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