February 6, 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.
Clifford Chase's The Tooth Fairy is an impactful memoir inventively told in acute, lyrical, and poignant fragments.
Wayne Koestenbaum wrote of the book:
"I'm wild about The Tooth Fairy, a riveting and deeply moving creation. Clifford Chase transforms sex and grief into exquisitely tuned sentences, whose wit and concision magically neutralize loss. Line after line, he feeds the reader a concentrated opiate of insight, hilarious as stand-up comedy, and as glittering as an imagist poem."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
In The Tooth Fairy I spend a good deal of time recalling music, consoling myself with music, and trying to describe music to myself.
For example, regarding a period of melancholy in early 2001:
"I was drawn to Neil Young not by the specific content of the lyrics (too hetero), but by the overall tone of longing, which I defined as a kind of sadness that had hope."
The gifts of the music fairy are just as important to this book as are those of its eponymous demigod.
This is true not only for Cliff, the protagonist, but also for Clifford, the writer, who relied on music to help him recollect various phases of his life, from college to the present.
To bring forth the 1980s, for instance, I bought a cheap turntable, figuring that needle-in-groove would stimulate memories better than any digital file could.
As the turntable spun, I wrote of my senior year of college: "In listening again now, I pay homage to the sacred blind task of destroying and remaking myself."
Like this post, The Tooth Fairy is composed of one-sentence paragraphs separated by white space, and I wonder if musical references are particularly well suited to this format.
Songs as bulletins from consciousness, requiring no introduction or explanation.
With the white space between each item, I hope to suggest various notions, such as the stuttering nature of memory or, regarding music, maybe the silence required for close listening—
1. Though I don't mention Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend," that's what I'm thinking of when I opine that the singer "sounds like a lonely alley cat … most poignant when slightly out of tune."
This is the second line of the book, and the first of many non sequiturs.
The previous line: "Fat little dog trotting contentedly along the sidewalk, right at his master's side, with a plastic steak in his mouth."
2. After reporting that an editor cut my favorite line from an article I'd written on 1970s pop culture, I quote the song "Edith and the Kingpin":
"Joni Mitchell once wisely observed that disco music 'sounds like typewriters.'"
I rarely explain the import of such comments, leaving the reader free to interpret.
I myself thought I cited the lyric merely as free-association (from the '70s to disco), and only now do I notice the insinuation that my editor's cuts suffered from pedestrian, typewriter-like thinking.
3. Following a quotation from The Magnetic Fields' "Papa Was a Rodeo," I write:
"If a child will adjust to anything, including and especially parental failings … then I, too, played guitar and roped a steer before I learned to stand."
At such moments The Tooth Fairy seeks to rehabilitate perfectly good ideas that have been unjustly ruined by self-help clichés.
4. Does imaginary music count?
I write: "In the dream, I was listening to a Fifth Dimension sort of song that went:
Shagga dagga diddly—
Shagga dagga diddly—
5. Given so much white space on each page, the memoir's occasional longer paragraphs function almost like solid objects.
From a lengthy description of the B-52's "Dance This Mess Around":
"Tinny '60s organ, like some forgotten Morse code. 'Remember,' Cindy breathily confides, 'when you held my hand.' A succession of girl-group fragments. She's stuck in a world of clichés, seeking glamorous wisdom. I feel for Cindy—she's lost her man. The faint toy piano: generic scary-movie ‘insanity.' At last the stock phrases give way to screams: 'Why don't you dance with me? I'm not no limburger!' Comic but also kind of heartbreaking. She's only screaming like I wish I could. Fred chimes in now, the circus ringleader: 'Dance this mess around!' Whipping up the animals, egging on the dream. The guitar insists, and now Kate tells of parties at which she, also a "mess," is danced around in various styles—"shy tuna … camel walk … hippy shake." I, too, knew the hippy shake—it could still be seen at parties in Santa Cruz, circa 1980. I, too, a mess …"
6. In a chapter on my endless struggle to come out, during the early 1980s, I refer to Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" thusly:
"On my turntable, [Jerry Harrison's] keyboard arpeggios: overlapping ripples in a shallow pool."
The reader can decide whether this disparages my sexual confusion as shallow, or allows it the fascinating mystery of overlapping ripples.
7 & 8. Regarding the same struggle, I quote R.E.M.'s "West of the Fields" and The Smiths' "This Charming Man":
"Michael Stipe rasped-crooned, ‘What is dreaming?'
"Morrissey crooned-shrieked, 'Ah!' as if goosed."
In the period at hand I was still very much lost, but this page of The Tooth Fairy grants me a retroactive goose.
Clifford Chase and The Tooth Fairy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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