February 7, 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.
Gina Frangello's novel is both ambitious and accomplished in its storytelling, a masterfully told tale of one woman's life.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"A stunning novel—Frangello's broken characters live in a world of terror and redemption, of magnificent sadness and beauty."
A Life in Men is an episodic novel that spans thirteen years, and eight countries besides the United States. At the core of the novel is a lifelong friendship that goes off the rails during one twenty-four hour period, during a trip to Greece in the late 1980s…this is day that the novel repeatedly comes back to and circles around, from varying perspectives, obsessively. Mary, one of the two friends involved, is a young woman with cystic fibrosis, a life shortening illness, who is frantically attempting to cram what should be a lifetime of experiences into a few scant years of adulthood, and consequently lives fast and hard, perpetually in motion both physically and psychologically. But Greece, and her girlhood friend, Nix, is the one thing she can't seem to outrun, and that continually haunts her: what happened that day to make things fall apart? Nix—an absent presence in the novel but for the recurring Greece chapters—represents many things to Mary as she forges on alone; she's an inspiration and muse, but also a demon, a reminder of the volatility and tenuousness of life.
The short "Greece chapters" of the novel—there are six—are called "Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been?" after the Oates story, and if these fragments had a soundtrack, Tori Amos would have to write it. Her intensity and mixture of desire and anger perfectly captures the complicated knot between Mary and Nix. Some of the songs I can never listen to again without thinking of Mary and Nix, are "Me and a Gun," from Amos' first solo album, which would maybe be Nix's anthem for the entire novel, as well as "Some Kind of Fairy Tale," which captures the mood of a bond gone awry on the road. Also "iieee," maybe my favorite Amos song, and "Caught a Lite Sneeze," both of which have interesting, subversive allusions to female friendships and sexuality.
The novel moves on to London in 1990. The location—a real building called "Arthog House" in Battersea, which was commonly called "Lower Chelsea" when I lived there during the same time period—is a kind of traveler's haven, one step above a squat. At the time I lived there, I was one of only two women in a house of eleven men from all over the globe, most of whom were laborers at nearby construction sites, and/or small time drug dealers. Mary's experience is much the same, though the men she encounters in the house are, as they were in my experience, far more nurturing and generous than their "type" of drifters and petty criminals might suggest. Arthog House, and the men who lived there, never fail to make me think of The Eagles' "Desperado." In fact, all of my London life—and Mary's—might be set to The Eagles, as the pub where both she and I worked, The Latchmere, played them almost continually in 1990.
A Life in Men—and Mary—then moves on to Kenya. Living with her South African boyfriend, a professional gymnast turned trapeze artist turned safari leader, Mary has been roaming the world. She is twenty-three, which was the average life expectancy for people with cystic fibrosis at that time, and she has come to Kenya partly expecting to die there, but finds herself perplexingly still thriving, until she realizes that she's going to have to stop just following a man around and find her own adult life. When I think of Mary in Kenya, I always think of the song "Maybe Tomorrow" by Stereophonics, which evokes someone whose hunger for exploration keeps them from finding their way home. I also think of "Wish You Were Here," both the original by Pink Floyd, one of Mary's lover's favorite bands (though I don't know that this is mentioned in the book), and the newer song of that name, by Incubus, which reminds me of Mary's longing for Nix as she explores an exotic world now lost to her friend.
Of course, Mary's eventual return "home," to Ohio, doesn't yield the romantic results of "finding herself" that she hopes. In a dead end adjunct teaching job, having an affair with her married boss, a letter from her biological father, who lives in Mexico, rekindles her love of travel and quest for a wider life. The international hit song, "La Flaca," by Jarabe de Palo, the title character of which is a sexy, skinny woman who basically drinks, dances, smokes, and teases the singer's desires, makes me think of Mary during this period of her life, both because of the Latin origin of the band and because the wildness of the woman in the song represents Mary's yearnings for a life less-grounded, and a kind of freedom her illness doesn't entirely permit.
After a brush with death, Mary ends up falling head over heels in love and marrying quickly, out of a certain desperation to experience the next stage of adult life: starting a family. But over the course of three trips she makes to the Canary Islands with her husband—over three consecutive years—she sees her dreams of finding the brand of meaning and permanence family would offer unraveling. After some relatively carefree years, both health wise and in terms of laying her demons over Nix to rest, Mary comes face to face with both things in the Canary Islands. The song "Kid Fears" by the Indigo Girls, really speaks, I think, to her state of mind, while meanwhile her husband, who loves her with a hoplessly-over-his-head ferocity, makes me think of the wildly intense remake of U2's "Love is Blindness" by Jack White.
The late 1990s bring Mary in some ways full-circle to a life of movement and abandonment. Unable to bear a child and entering a more serious progression of her disease, she begins seeking refuge with her half-brother, a gay painter who lives in Amsterdam, and whose struggles with bipolar have forced a certain turbulent disorder onto his existence. Ironically, Mary proves a stabilizing force for her brother, whose life begins to take off both romantically and professionally once she becomes more present in it, whereas Mary herself begins to unravel. Two great anthems of impulsive romance or infidelity, I think of Beth Orton's "Stolen Car" and Ani DiFranco's "Shy" as driving forces behind Mary's life in Amsterdam. Mary rekindles a very old relationship there with a man capable of understanding and withstanding her darker impulses, and the final section of her story, in 2001, finds her and this man adrift and increasingly unmoored, traveling across Morocco. With an increasing sense of doom—and yet, having finally found a kind of intimacy and connection that had previously eluded her—Mary and her sometimes-lover, sometimes-partner-in-crime, make me think of emotionally urgent, melancholy songs like Aimee Mann's "High on Sunday 51" (which might be her talking to him) and "Drop" by the Red House Painters (which might be him talking to her).
The very final section of the novel—an epilogue of sorts—returns to Nix, but through an entirely new lens. Grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, on the day of 9/11 when no flights were permitted back into United States airspace, Nix's former lover, Hasnain, finds himself trapped in a small town surrounded by strangers, reliving both the epic love and loss he experienced with Nix. Hasnain, who was one of the great surprises of my writing life in that I never saw him coming and then fell madly in love with him, always makes me think of the heartbreaking Colin Hay song "Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You," whereas Nix herself returns full circle to Tori Amos with the devastating 9/11 ballad "I Can't See New York."
Gina Frangello and A Life in Men links:
All Write Already! interview with the author
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Kirkus profile of the author
Largehearted Book Notes essay by the author for Slut Lullabyes
Other People interview with the author
The Rumpus contributions by the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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