February 10, 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.
Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy, a perfectly paced work of literary horror disguised as science fiction.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Using evocative descriptions of the biologist's outer and inner worlds, masterful psychological insight, and intellectual observations both profound and disturbing—calling Lovecraft to mind and Borges—Vandermeer unfolds a tale as satisfying as it is richly imagined. "
My new novels, the Southern Reach trilogy—Annihilation (Feb.), Authority (May), and Acceptance (Sept.) –are set in wilderness areas, small towns, and the spaces between places, like corridors, parking lots, and highways. They chronicle the exploration of the mysterious Area X by expeditions sent in by a secret government agency called the Southern Reach. Located on a remote coastline punctuated by an abandoned lighthouse, Area X is surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable border—except for a single entry point. The expeditions often end badly; people do not come back or they come back fundamentally changed. The three books cover thirty years in the attempt to understand Area X, both from within Area X and from the Southern Reach. (The Southern Reach, over time, has become somewhat dysfunctional and is itself in need of some exploration.)
Because I always listen to music while writing and the Southern Reach represents a huge change from the busy urban settings of my last novels, I added some new bands while rediscovering the allure of old favorites. Sometimes, pushing forward through difficult emotional scenes, I'd just say the hell with it and play all three of We Are Wolves' great albums back-to-back, loud. Other times, I'd binge on the perfect heartbreak and beauty of Black Heart Procession or the great storytelling of Murder by Death or Eleni Karaindrou. My master track list, "Awesome," included (among some 80 bands) The Black Keys, Broadcast, The Dears, Fear of Music (criminally underrated), Jeffrey Luck Lucas, The Kills, The National, Radiohead, Sea Wolf, and Steve Kilbey & Martin Kennedy. This music was on continual rotation—some songs more than others. For example, Black Heart Procession's "It's a Crime I Never Told You About the Diamonds in Your Eyes" is one of my all-time favorites. Everything The Tindersticks ever recorded also played nonstop. If I needed a break from all of that dark beauty, I'd put on almost anything from another new favorite, Portugal. The Man, and just dance around the living room.
But there were a few specific albums that I listened to while writing the novels…
Linda Thompson—It Won't Be Long Now
I'm a big fan of the original Linda Thompson/Richard Thompson collaborations, and have loyally followed their solo careers. This new album has a compelling rhythm to it that I found bracing and yet soothing while writing scenes from the point of view of an isolated lighthouse keeper. It's an album that's sparsely populated, but with incisive portraits hidden in the lyrics. When I read over the rough drafts of those lighthouse scenes, though, I found I had to rewrite to flense some influence that was a bit too British folk for my setting.
Justin Sullivan—Navigating by the Stars
Capturing the seasons of the sea and of unspoiled coastal wilderness areas is actually a key part of making not just the setting but the characters come alive in Annihilation, Acceptance, and part of Authority. Sullivan's album is steeped in those rhythms. Often, you feel as if Sullivan, lead singer for New Model Army, is singing from a small boat in the middle of the ocean. Something in the progressions of the songs helped me establish the right rhythm in the sections of the novels.
Mogwai—Soundtrack for The Returned
I encountered Mogwai for the first time while writing the third book, Acceptance, and in particular their soundtrack for the wonderful (and creepy) French TV series The Returned. This is highly atmospheric music that worked as the perfect overlay for some of the more surreal scenes in Area X, in part because The Returned isn't at all like the Southern Reach novels but there's a kinship in the way it prizes exploring the emotional resonance of an uncanny situation.
Unrelenting, prophetic, visionary, dark, genius-level music that propels you forward with brutal splendor. I came out of listening to this CD drained and reeling. It played almost continuously while I worked on the second novel, Authority, in which the main character comes into the Southern Reach as the new director, only to find it holds secrets as devastating as those hidden in Area X. To have this album pulsing like the heart of some great, unknown beast while writing helped to remind me of the strangeness hiding behind the mundane—the track "Apostate" is a secret tide coursing restlessly beneath the foundation of the Southern Reach HQ.
Three Mile Pilot—Another Desert, Another Sea
Their most recent album, The Inevitable Past is the Future Forgotten, is great. But Another Desert, Another Sea is the one I turned to while finishing up the series. There's something about its simultaneously rough and sophisticated textures—its boldness and its subtlety, its ability to rock out and then whisper—that encompasses everything I love about music. The album takes you somewhere you've never been before, but doesn't disappear up its own ass in the process; there's great emotion and humanity here. Tunes like "Year of No Light" are rollicking and catchy, with a great chorus, while others, like "Kill the Racehorse," create an uncompromising yet sophisticated wall of sound with the lyrics shouted into the storm.
Much of this music documents a measure of the beautiful strangeness of our world and juxtaposes against that backdrop the lives of people who are flawed, sometimes struggling, but always trying. Most of them just want to do the right thing, even if they keep doing the wrong thing. Some of this is momentous and stirring and desperate. Much of it is also by turns mysterious, absurd, funny, or wonderfully creepy. Hopefully the novels are too.
Jeff VanderMeer and Annihilation links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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