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January 31, 2014

Book Notes - Jason Porter "Why Are You So Sad?"

Why Are You So Sad?

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.

Jason Porter's novel Why Are You So Sad? is a wry and funny debut that smartly explores modern office ennui.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"The book toggles deftly between its narrator's bummer of a worldview and his riotous, biting snark, peppered throughout with dashes of surprisingly transcendent philosophies. Porter's is a smart, compact debut."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Jason Porter's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Why Are You So Sad?:

"I Can't Sleep at All" - Garry Higgins

The novel begins with Raymond, the narrator, in bed, troubled, anxious, and unable to sleep because he is plagued by an alarming thesis: That we are all clinically depressed. All of us. Perhaps at the level of global pandemic. I know, sounds like a real fun book. And it's meant to be funny too.

This song is about not being able to sleep. It's from one of these amazing forgotten albums which has been resurrected thanks to cool people with enviable record collections. This isn't the best song on that album, Red Hash, but it fits here thematically. Like Raymond, Gary Higgins can't sleep and he is feeling woe.

"I'll Never Smile Again" - The Ink Spots

There is no shortage of songs about sadness. However a large percentage are to do with either separation from a loved one, or the love never being returned in the first place. I tried to avoid these songs for this playlist. But this one snuck in because it just sounds so great. It's the Ink Spots. They always sound good. And there is a break in the middle where one of the Ink Spots kind of narrates the lyrics, and I am often a sucker for that. It also has a warmth to it that I don't find very often in music made today. It's probably just me getting old. Whatever the case it has a sad golden glow, and it is about never being able to smile again.

"My Women, My Guitars" - Cody Chesnutt

Raymond, the protagonist, doesn't necessarily have the same problems as Mr. Chesnutt -- women, guitars, and an erection -- but both are unified in a sense that their breakdown is on the way. I also love this record, The Headphone Masterpiece. And I'm not sure what Cody's relationship is to his emotional health, but his songs feel like they come from a unique sense of inner solitude. That could also be me projecting.

"Right Track Now" - Roky Erickson

An envelope addressed to Raymond in his own handwriting is one of a few clunky plot devices I employed in the novel. In this song Roky Erickson, who has a tragic and complicated history with his own mental health, sings about writing a letter to share the news that he is on the right track now. Which fits nicely with the novel. Plus he's a national treasure. There was a great documentary made about him not so long ago called You're Gonna Miss Me. It is well worth watching. And I saw him play a couple of times in the last few years, and he was amazing. His voice has changed, as they all have to, but it was in some ways better. Even more haunting.

"The End of The World" - Skeeter Davis

Okay, here is another song that doesn't fit perfectly, because again it's about unrequited love. But it's an awesome song. And Skeeter Davis is an awesome name. And it shares that sentiment, with such passion, that haunts Ray, the specific feeling of disbelief that all those people out there don't seem to acknowledge that this is clearly the end of the world. I mean, how can they not see that?

"Flowers" - Camper Van Beethoven

A flower provides a moment for the narrator to get philosophical. It's a lasting note that I hope helps tie some of the book's loose ends together. In the story the flower is discovered in the middle of a trashy traffic median. And here in this song there are many lovely contrasts between flowers and disparate imagery. I was also overjoyed to discover Camper Van Beethoven with their songs "Where The Hell Is Bill" and "Take The Skinheads Bowling" when I was about thirteen. And you can never quite shake the musical loves of your adolescence.

"I Am Produced" - Guided By Voices

There is a scene in the novel where Ray is trapped in his boss's office, listening to that awful man reveal awful details of his awful life, an act which ultimately tips Ray's cart, out of which tumbles a brief rant on the futility of the human project in its current form. The rant finishes on the ugly thought of all the poorly crafted products we cram into our landfills. I feel like this song captures a similar sense of how Capitalism can often leave us feeling flattened and empty, and while I went on for 220 pages, Sir Robert Pollard achieves this in only sixty five seconds.

"Sauerkraut Is Bully" - George P. Watson

After a pivotal day at the office, our hero prolongs a dreaded meeting with his wife by stopping off in his favorite German restaurant for sausage and beer. He's buying time and he loves the place because it's ripe with all of his favorite somber moods. He mentions specifically loving the smell of animal joints melting into sauerkraut. Now I've probably gotten you hungry. Besides being a tribute to sauerkraut, this song, from 1902, also includes one of my most favorite things a song can have in it: yodeling. And it's available for free through the amazing UCSB Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.

"Have Another Drink" - The Kinks

If you are going to make a stop for some sausage and sauerkraut, you are going to want to have a beer. And what if that beer makes you feel a little better? Well, you might want another drink. And who better to have a drink with than the Kinks, especially if you don't want to remove yourself completely from your wallowing? This song begins with four queries that would definitely resonate with Raymond: "Has everybody got problems? Are you stuck in a dead end job? Frustrated and dissatisfied? Are you on the edge of suicide?"

"Come Sunday" - Eric Dolphy

Sometimes I like to imagine we live in an alternate version of the United States in which Duke Ellington is celebrated on our currency. I can't spend too much time there, because it is so far from the current version we reside in, but I also don't want to completely give up on the idea because I know in my heart it would be the right thing to do. Among Ellington's genius was the ability to squeeze out all of the beauty present along the more somber reaches of the musical spectrum. I chose this composition, from his Black, Brown and Beige suite, because it comes from a place of pain and trial, and also because I love this version played by Eric Dolphy, who ups the tragedy by playing perhaps the saddest instrument, the bass clarinet.

"We Will All Go Together When We Go" - Tom Lehrer

I would love to be as funny as Tom Lehrer is while singing about life's bleaker topics. And I will certainly try. I just won't do it as well, nor from a piano. Here he celebrates the possibility of the end of humanity, in this case due to a nuclear holocaust. The upside of this calamity, he points out, is that if we all die at once nobody will have to grieve, because nobody will be left behind. Like my book, it's even funnier than it sounds.

"It's a Sad and Beautiful World" - Sparklehorse

I agree with that statement. I was also hoping for sad and beautiful in the novel. I think sad is beautiful. And this song lives up to that sentiment. The music Mark Linkous created was haunted and beautiful, and the arc of his life was sad and downward. And it makes me sad to think about it.

"Beanbag Chair" - Yo La Tengo

This song qualifies on two counts. It begins: "I've spent my life trying to understand/ Just how my life lead to where I am/ But it leaves a bitter taste/ And it feels like such a waste." That's not far off from Raymond's mindset. Also, there is a scene where he has to wait for a meeting with his boss. And because he works at a global home furnishing and lifestyle company his only option for seating in the waiting room is one of the new beanbags the company is pushing that season. Sinking into a beanbag does not aid somebody who already experiences a profound sense of sinking. It makes it worse.

"Way To Blue" - Nick Drake

No playlist dedicated to a species wide sadness pandemic would be complete without a song from Nick Drake. I think we can all agree on that. You could probably throw darts at his catalogue and any selection would appropriately match the mood, but this one seemed fitting, because part of the dilemma in the novel is how much we see and how much we choose to see it that way. It's never entirely clear whether Raymond is revealing that the world is in fact blue or if he is instead showing us a way to make it blue.

"I Started A Joke" - The Bee Gees

This is it. This is the whole book in one song. Laughing when we should be crying and crying when we should be laughing. That's the novel in a nutshell. The main difference is my book doesn't have those distinctive Gibb harmonies. Maybe my next one will. It probably won't. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't try. Anyway, I don't even want to tell you the lyrics. You may already know them. If not, the song is on YouTube, and they still sell records and compact discs. But okay, I'll tell you the general idea of it. He starts a joke that starts the whole world crying. That's just the start. It gets sadder and stranger. He looks at the skies and he falls out of bed and he dies and it starts the whole world laughing. There. Now you know. I suggest playing it on repeat while reading my book.

Jason Porter and Why Are You So Sad? links:

the author's website

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)
weekly music release lists

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