January 17, 2014
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.
Rachel Cantor's debut novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario is the rare book that manages to be smart, funny, and engaging, and is easily one of the year's most entertaining books.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"By layering the ridiculous inventions of her mind with the ridiculous facts of the world, Cantor creates a novel about being incredulous and certain at the same time, about listening without judgment, about acting on faith … A dystopian satire; a story about storytelling, believing and listening — A Highly Unlikely Scenario is ultimately a history of our own strange world."
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World concerns Leonard, complaints guy for a national Pythagorean pizza chain. In Leonard's world, Whigs, Heraclitans, and other ideologues seek converts through proprietary fast-food chains; Catharites and armed followers of the thirteenth-century scientist and friar Roger Bacon engage in bitter battle to claim the untranslatable Voynich manuscript; and all are vaguely under threat by a neo-Maoist movement that's trying to radicalize the middle classes. Into this world arrives Isaac the Blind, a thirteenth-century rabbi known for his magical powers: for reasons the novel makes clear, he needs Leonard's help saving the world. Leonard's journey takes him from his White Room, where he relieves Clients-in-Pain with Neetsa Pizza coupons, to the fortress of the Latter-Day Baconians, to thirteenth-century Rome. He saves the world three times (and counting) with the help of Marco Polo, a warrior-librarian named Sally, Leonard's cartoon-drawing nephew Felix, and a magical aleph.
Part One: The White Room
"Revolution 1" by the Beatles (via Phish)
My protagonist Leonard might hum "Revolution 1" (from the Beatles' White Album) in his White Room after quarreling with his sister Carol about how the world might be changed. He feels small pieces of the world can be repaired through compassionate listening, which is what he does as a pizza complaints guy; he doesn't believe in the necessity of destruction. Carol, who does, in fact, "go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao," has a more radical view. The Beatles don't seem to be on Spotify, so this is the least objectionable cover, from Phish.
"The Sea is Gone" by Dadawa
I don't know where I came across this CD (Yellow Children) by the Chinese singer/songwriter Dadawa, but I find it haunting. I like to think Marco Polo thinks of this tune in his "temporary dungeon habitat" as he pines for the Princess Kokachin, and considers that the sea, for him, is, for the moment anyway, gone.
The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind by Osvaldo Golijov
Isaac the Blind's name comes up fairly early in the book, though Leonard doesn't actually meet him for a while. Isaac was a medieval Jewish rabbi (c. 1165–1235) who may or may not have written the seminal Kabbalistic text The Bahir (Illumination); he was known to read people's souls and he got agitated when he thought people shared mystical secrets too liberally. It turns out that Isaac pulls lots of narrative strings in the book. This piece is the first movement (agitato) in a rather long piece written for Isaac. I chose this movement because it contains strains of the High Holiday melody "Avinu Malkenu," and in the final third of the book my heroes fight the clock in order to save the world before Rosh Hashanah. Osvaldo Golijov is an Argentinean composer born of Jewish immigrant parents; this work is for string quartet and klezmer clarinet.
"Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1" by The Flaming Lips
If Leonard's seven-year-old nephew Felix listened to music instead of absorbing himself in cartoon drawing, fairy tales, and Aramaic tomes, this would be his favorite song. He likes tales of good vanquishing bad; in this song, moreover, Yoshimi hopes to defeat the robots with the help of awesome karate kicks, which happen to be Felix's specialty! (Runner-up for Felix's favorite song: "Pt. 2" because it starts with sounds that make Felix think of farts.)
Part Two: The Brazen Head
"Holy Sepulchre Church Psalms: Psalm 3" by the Holy Sepulchre Church Franciscan Monks
Roger Bacon, who figures prominently in Part Two, was a thirteenth-century scholar, scientist, occultist, and philosopher who became a Franciscan monk in midlife, possibly to secure a teaching job (it didn't work out that way). He might have sung this Franciscan chant from the Jerusalem Psalter with his brothers. While he was doing so, however, I imagine he was thinking about the unreadable Voynich Manuscript and wishing he were singing "Such sphinxes as these obey no one but their master" instead. "Sphinxes" is a vocal octet about the Voynich composed by Stephen Gorbos. Not on Spotify for some reason, the piece features "Tuvan throat singing, belting and pop techniques, yodeling, [and] Inuit throat singing ..." The Tuvan throat singers in particular would please Marco Polo.
"Water Music in D: Hornpipe No. 12" by Handel
When the fast food chains begin tussling on the University Walking Grounds, dueling musicians arrive to egg on their representatives with "morale-boosting melodies." Included among these is Whig fanfare, of which Handel's Water Music, composed by Handel to serenade Whig sympathizer George I during a boating party, is probably the most famous example.
"The Internationale" by Various Artists
This rendition of "The Internationale" (from the mysteriously titled CD Music for Ceremonial Events) is in Chinese. It's a bit less tinny than the phonograph version Leonard and Sally hear in the distance when they come across neo-Maoists brawling with Dadaists, Luddites, and suchlike in the Business District.
Part Three: The Sizzling Aleph
"Mari Stanko" by Oni Wytars Ensemble
Part Three sees Leonard and Sally transported to thirteenth-century Rome where, like it or not, they must pass as pilgrims and where they encounter pilgrims from many fabulous nations. This lovely piece is from the CD On the Way to Bethlehem: Music of the Medieval Pilgrim, which includes songs sung by pilgrims from lots of lands; I'm happy to assume that pilgrims to Bethlehem sang the same songs as pilgrims to Rome!
"A Loop in Time" by Wally Brill
A song from the CD Covenant, which blends traditional cantorial music with, well, other stuff. Remarkably, this piece touches on both time travel and the divine promise Isaac the Blind wishes to protect. From the CD notes: "The remarkable Samuel Malavsky sings ‘Ve-al Avodekho Ha-Nevi'im' in which the covenant between God and man is confirmed … and yes, a guy in a bar in Tel Aviv really did describe how Jews from the future …" Look for that guy in a bar at about the five-minute mark.
"A La Una Nasi Yo" by Voice of the Turtle
This traditional Sephardic song is for the thirteenth-century mystic Abraham Abulafia, who plays a large role in the third part of the book. He was from Spain, but lived before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, so he wasn't part of that diaspora. He did travel about, however, appearing in Rome just before Rosh Hashana in 1280. (Specifically, he's preparing to visit the pope with a mind to convert him, which as you might expect would create all manner of cosmic chaos.) This song, from Under Aegean Moons: Music of the Spanish Jews of Rhodes and Salonika, has what could even be mystical lyrics: "At one, I was born; at two, I grew up; at three, I fell in love; at four, I wed" (and so on). It's also one of the most beautiful songs I know.
"Borchenu Awinu" by Shlomo Carlebach
This beautiful song is from Shlomo Carlebach Live – Let There Be Peace. The words are simple: "Bless us, our Father, in the light of Your face we are one." They speak, in Isaac's Hebrew idiom, to the universal mystical message of oneness. When I wonder about Isaac's meddling in history, I remember this message and forgive him all.
"When You Say Nothing At All" by Alison Krauss
I wanted to close with a love song for Leonard and Sally. Their love is destined, of course, and they fall in love quickly, and almost without words—lucky them!
Rachel Cantor and A Highly Unlikely Scenario links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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