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February 27, 2014

Book Notes - Charles Finch "The Last Enchantments"

The Last Enchantments

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.

Charles Finch's novel The Last Enchantments is a beautifully written coming of age story centered on a young literature student at Oxford.

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Charles Finch's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Last Enchantments:

I have a close friend who sometimes says the Goo Goo Dolls are the soundtrack to his life. When he wants to get out of a conversation at a party and one of us is nearby, he'll start talking about them loudly, usually culminating his filibuster with the signature phrase “You wouldn't believe it, but the Dolls still put on a hell of a show.”

I'm telling you this to give you the rough level of my engagement with cool music. We live in the age of the internet, which means we live in an age of minute cultural specialization, which means we live in an age of pretentious shitheads. Which means that I, like everyone else, am a pretentious shithead about the kinds of art that I care about as art.

Music isn't one of those. Like any sane person I love music beyond articulate expression, but I'm a generalist. My favorite band is the Beatles. In fact I have a dream of writing a novel in short chapters, with every chapter corresponding to a song by the Beatles, covering the full published catalogue. And there would be lots of thoughts about the Beatles in there, mixed into some kind of conventional novel. I can envision a book like that doing well with the baby boomers, who are now the people with all the cash to buy books, and still buy them in hardcover at full price in stores, which is so admirable and retrograde that I could weep for their vaporous childhood memories of summer barbecues and I Dream of Jeannie, or whatever. Anyway, I like the Beatles. I like the National and Steely Dan. I like the Strokes. I don't know anything about Haim. I really like The Who. The Dolls still put on a hell of a show.

This leaves me free to operate in a pleasant state of reverse pretension: if you think it's laughable that I don't know some Pitchfork band, I don't care, and in fact I actually think Pitchfork is laughable – not Pitchfork individually, which can be great, but the whole venture of Pitchfork as a means to create assortative tiers of coolness.

I only have one justification for this philistinism, which I wouldn't excuse if someone said it about another kind of art. (I never read fiction! so many people tell me with delighted pride, when I say I'm a novelist). It's that I find pop music so incredibly emotional, whether it's stupid or terrific, that trying to assess it as art or non-art seems wrongheaded to me. I can be immersed in a short story and then analyze it, after the fact, for its flaws of engineering or vision. I can't do that for pop music. I'm glad some people can.

The songs that follow mostly appear in my novel about students at Oxford, The Last Enchantments, and all of them are ranged around the year in which it's set, 2005. That's eight years ago now, and time has had the funny effect of making some of them hard to listen to for me, because I loved them so much at a specific and memorable moment in my life.

Isn't that the point of music? For me it is, anyway. I don't really challenge myself to like difficult music, the way I might difficult painting or poetry. And yet, paradoxically, that lack of discernment strengthens my connection to pop music – in its sheer emotion, it's probably the way I most directly live through art, because I engage with it only on that limbic level. Nobody's judgment can stop me from caring about a pop song.

As this embarrassing list proves.

"Littlest Things," Lily Allen
This is a mockney trifle about the memories of the happy early days of a relationship. It's not up to much, just a gentle piano line and a nice vocal. I listened to it a ton while I was living in England. I love it.

"So We Are There," Bloc Party
I have one friend who does care passionately about music, Matt, and when I was editing The Last Enchantments Matt came up with a playlist of great songs from 2005 and before, which he thought would fit the spirit of what I was working on. So I discovered this song last year, but it's gained some backdated membership to this time period in my brain. Terrific song.

"Still Be Around," Uncle Tupelo
I don't even know how I found this song, and I've never listened to very much of Sun Kil Moon or Wilco, but somehow this became one of those songs for me – wistful, understated, just perfect. I should probably check out these guys' other music.

"Angels," Robbie Williams
If you stay until closing time at any British pub or nightclub, you'll get to see groups of terrifying lads (as they're called) screaming the chorus of this song together, even though it's the wussiest song in the world. Who knows with the English.

"Underneath Your Clothes," Shakira
Yeesh, I know. Not great. But it's in the book during a crucial sex scene (partly for laughs) and I remember liking it when it came out. Shakira actually has a special place in my hear twice over, because her (ludicrous) song "Waka Waka" was the anthem of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which I spent in Cape Town with a bunch of close friends, including the Goo Goo Dolls fan. I was convinced that it had to be called World Cup World Cup, but it's not – "Waka Waka." And actually it's nowhere near as good as "Wavin' Flag," by K'Naan, which was the official song of that World Cup.

"Maps," The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
This is just a great song. Boy.

"Sugar We're Going Down," Fall Out Boy
I actually think this is a perfect pop song. Are these guys respected? If I had to have two songs to score the upbeat sections of my book they would be this and "The Middle" by Jimmy Eats World.

"Mr. Brightside," The Killers
When I was in England (and possibly still?) this was the song that would tilt all the dance parties – in Oxford they're called bops – toward the dancing end of the night. It would be about 11:18, and when the guitar riff of "Mr. Brightside" started, everyone would scream and rush to the dance floor.

"Back for Good," Take That
This is another, to me, perfect pop song, with the bonus that its music video is so comically overwrought that Tommy Wiseau could have directed it. It's the most important song in the book, for all kinds of reasons. I'm now sick of it because I've had so much emotion invested in it for so long, but if a year passes without my hearing it and it comes on a random radio station, I know I'll feel heartsick and happy at the same time. I just need to work my way back around to forgetting how much I love it. That's pop music for you, I think. What a gift it is.

Charles Finch and The Last Enchantments links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's Tumblr

Denver Post review
Kirkus review
USA Today review

Huffington Post piece by the author
Lemonade25 interview with the author
My Bookish ways interview with the author
One Little Library 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

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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
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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