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January 17, 2014

Book Notes - Christopher Merkner "The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic"

The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

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.

The stories in Christopher Merkner's new collection The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic wonderfully mix the surreal and absurd with the everyday, and are incredibly fun.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"The true beauty of these tales lies in their delicate endings, which manage to both tie up loose ends and leave everything hanging, so that they are simultaneously satisfying and mysterious. Such complexity makes great reading for lovers of short fiction, and for all who wish to witness a new master at work."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Christopher Merkner's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

I don't find organized sound—voices, songs, discernible noises of any kind—terribly helpful or interesting. When I am not writing and otherwise living, I will listen to the music others play, and it usually makes me feel ways that are good, weird, cool, (I love listening to my kids talk and sing) but these feelings don't help me very much in any sort of functional way. They just mess me up. Like most people, I like being messed up every so often, so this is basically the role of music in my life and writing.

The crises in the stories of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic are crises of privilege and luxury, decidedly white-glove suburbanized traumas and woes, and I hope this will be reflected in the music I've selected. The artists that I have heard most in my life are artists who seem to work pretty comfortably in the apocalypses of privilege, god bless them, and I think and hope that one will find in my musical mash-up here a little bit of the fun and irony and sadness I intend in Scandamerican Domestic.

"Annie's Song," John Denver
Two decades plus ago my roommate at St Olaf College helped me understand many things about this world I have still not forgotten, and not the least of these things was that some people like to bicker about which is the most important thing in songs: lyrics or music. He helped me understand that this was a meaningless quibble: lyrics have always been and will always be subordinate to the music they serve. I have no idea if this is correct, but I know that while I have no idea what John Denver is singing about, ever, because I cannot believe anyone or anything in this world can be as direct and earnest as his lyrics, I really, really like the way this song's sounds make me feel. The feelings he stirs are feelings that cannot be felt by people in fiction—or, it turns out, in "reality"—for very long.

"Black," Pearl Jam
I'm interested in the relationship between authentic anger and the popularizing of "authentic anger," which seemed to be so well engineered in the 1990s. Look at the cover to this album (Ten 1990) – all these very angry dudes with their hands held up together. Amazing. I think most of the men in my stories live with great conviction about the importance of anger in their lives, especially the popularized, engineered variety.

"Calgary," Bon Iver
Bon Iver has captured the sound of masculinity that most interests me (and most characterizes the voice of my male protagonists in Scandamerican Domestic) – bewitched, effete, needlessly and pointlessly desperate, willfully confused.

"The One I Love," David Gray
I find this song—as I do with much of David Gray—an absurd and winsome endorsement of bellowing/belting. It's a silly song, I think, with all that nutty tinkling in the background and weird synthetic symphonic chimes behind his guitar, and then his guttural bellows laying over the top – I think stories like the collection's opening story ("Of pigs and children") and its closing story ("Last Cottage") are stories that really reach back and let out, rip out, with silly orchestral pathos undercutting the powerful, lusty bellows.

"Father and Son," Cat Stevens
The long, melodramatic pauses and the lurching, nearly lurid strumming of this man's existential study in family is a really perfect enunciation of the writing I most enjoy: Lydia Davis, Miranda July, Gary Lutz, Susan Steinberg. For Scandamerica, anyway, it's really just the right sound for the two "When our Son…" stories.

Something synthetic from Stephen Hill's Hearts of Space
I think there's a point in the book—or, you know, there is for me—where things become just weirder than functionally weird—and this is the territory owned by "The Cook at Swedish Castle," "Please Keep Something out of Fountains," and "Tomtens." This is just non-functional weirdness, and I think these stories deliberate in some ambient magic in the late-night existence-affirming noises of Stephen Hill.

"Misguided Angel," Cowboy Junkies
I am really drawn to the tenuous, slightly uncomfortable balance of the sibling voices in this song. Margo Timmins' voice is barely pretty, scratching the top of her range, it seems, and her brother's is a little bit worse, but that tenuous, barely acceptable sound reminds me of the overall sound of Scandamerican Domestic.

"Human Behavior," Bjork
Bjork pulls one back from the edge, because she so comfortably inhabits its difficult terrain. You just sort of want to stand there in awe to look at her there. I think of the story "O Sweet One in the Bluff" in much the same way, a plucky and psychedelic breaking through several planes of theory and realism.

"Tonight and the Rest of My Life," Nina Gordon
I offer no apology for this mainstream treat, because the damn thing just kept playing against my life in the grocery store during the years my wife and I were bringing our first child into his first year or two of life. The store was open twenty four hours, and I found myself there at all hours, gathering something or other for the screaming spectacle at home, and this song's dire, plaintive appeal just kept pursuing me – the rest of my life, she sings, the rest of my life – and that's when "Check the Baby," "Scandamerican Domestic," and "Scandamerican Pastoral" arrived. These are mostly pieces about really incredibly fortunate and privileged people feeling importantly about themselves and their privileges.

"Fade into You," Mazzy Star
Is hypnotic the wrong word for this song? It's the wrong word for my writing, I think, but this is truly the hymn that best engenders the absurd, idle confusion so troubling the people of Scandamerican Domestic.

"On Your Shore," Enya
The final story of the collection is one I like, and I don't really think there's music to accompany it, not for me, anyway. I wrote it in my basement in my first home in Denver, and the basement was unfinished and dark, and I remember writing with a drive and force and a deadline, and I remember getting it back from Brock Clarke at The Cincinnati Review within a week or so of having sent it to him, and he had some suggestions for how to make it stronger, and I remember taking it right back down to the basement and hammering on his suggestions until the story began to more smoothly operate. It was a beautiful process on a really horribly sad story – and, oh, Enya, sing anything to it.

Christopher Merkner and The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic links:

the author's website

Detroit Metro Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

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

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

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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