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March 28, 2014

Book Notes - David Stuart MacLean "The Answer to the Riddle Is Me"

The Answer to the Riddle Is Me

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.

David Stuart MacLean's The Answer to the Riddle Is Me is a harrowing account of amnesia, an insighful and affecting memoir.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"MacLean has written a memoir that combines the evocative power of William Styron's 'Darkness Visible,' the lyric subtlety of Michael Ondaatje's 'Running in the Family,' and the narrative immediacy of a Hollywood action film. He reminds us how we are all always trying to find a version of ourselves that we can live with."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is David Stuart MacLean's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me:


My book The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia takes its title from a lyric in De La Soul's song "Ego Tripping (part two)" from their amazing and perfect 3rd album Buhloone Mind State. It's an album that's remarkable in striking a tone somewhere between humor, sadness, and anger and also includes a song rapped entirely in Japanese. The song is called "Ego Tripping (part two)" even though part one is not on this album. In fact part one doesn't exist in the De La Soul canon. Ultramagnetic MC's have an "Ego Trippin" on their album Critical Beatdown and considering Kool Keith's work with Buhloone Mind State's producer Prince Paul it seems likely that the group is engaging into a dialogue with that song. But to have a part two without a part one on the album itself gets the listener's brain moving to establish what happened before. It's like the first Star Wars calling itself Part IV.

You're starting in the middle.

Catch up.

Everyone around you is having a conversation of which you only know half.

There's a phantom limb of knowledge that you feel present in the work and to which you have no or limited access.

This feeling of being inserted into the middle of something, missing the earlier bits, is a feeling that pervades my book.

De La Soul celebrated their 25th anniversary this year as a group. They still tour, still make great music, and are still always pushing at the edges of what people think rap music can contain. Their first three albums are must haves. They sample far and wide and weirdly in order to construct their beats.

The tone of Buhloone Mind State - humor, sadness, and anger - is something I strive to achieve in my work.

"Chaiyya Chaiyya" - Sukhwinder Singh & Sapana Awasthi from the soundtrack to Dil Se

So there is no better opening to a movie than to 1998's Dil Se. There's dancing on the top of a train as it winds its way through gorgeous scenery. The scene would be eye-popping alone, but to have it scored by this song multiplies awesome by awesome cubed. The song was written by A.R. Rahman, an Indian film composer who has absolutely no equal in the States in terms of popularity. You'd have to duct tape Streisand, Elvis, Aerosmith, Jay Z and N'Sync together to even come close. Spike Lee started his movie Inside Man to this track. So Spike Lee is a fan of the Knicks and Bollywood soundtracks. You kind of can't beat that, right?

My book opens up on a train platform and unfolds from there. I kept thinking about this song as I wrote my book. It was my go to song for dance breaks away from the book. The song is big and epic and chant-able and makes everything better.

"Khaike Paan Banaras Wala" - Kalyanji-Anandji, Kishore Kumar from the Don soundtrack

This is one of the first tracks of Kishore Kumar's that I immediately fell in love with. It's a great song without the translation, but when some of the lyrics are translated you get lines like "with a sweet knife I've been slaughtered," which feels right in relationship to my relationship to the world. I put this song in my playlist because everyone should listen to it. It's an amazing song.

"(star)" – Boredoms

While the beginning of the book is almost serene in its detachment and swallowing up of sensory data, the next several scenes get pretty terrifying. I had a bad reaction to the malarial prophylactic I was taking. The drug when it pools in a person's brain becomes a significant neurotoxin. I woke up on the rain platform with no idea who I was and then my brain fell apart into paranoia and psychosis. One doctor diagnosed me as having acute pleomorphic disorder, which is another way of saying a person is specifically crazy in many different ways. And that sounds like a description of what the Boredoms sounds like. No one does psychic devastation like the Boredoms.

"Spray" – Can / "Stars" – Brian Eno / "Black Tar Frequencies" – Grails / "Doomsdayer's Holiday" – Grails / "State of Non-Return" - Om

These five songs create an arc of the time I was strapped to a bed in an Indian mental hospital and fed anti-psychotics. I hallucinated pretty heavily during that time. Sometimes the hallucinations were fine (god giving me a tour of the cosmos, showing me what the world looking like in four dimensions) and some of the hallucinations were awful (being rejected by god and all of my loved ones for failing to remember). These songs have different psychic frequencies fluctuating in them. Non-narrative ineffable soul stuff. I wanted to put a Spiritualized song here as well, but I couldn't pick one. I love them all too much.

"Rainbow Connection" – The Muppets

Did I mention that in my hallucinations god appeared to me as Jim Henson? Listen to this song now that I've told you that. Doesn't it seem full of eschatological content now?

"Rated 'X'" – Loretta Lynn

Weirdly in my recovery process, I found out that I knew song lyrics better than I knew data from my life. I had been a classic country radio DJ before I went off to India. Playing classic country at a land grant university in southern New Mexico, you end up getting schooled by your listeners. There's no room for that Eagles crap. It was a place where there was a pretty hard line drawn between Marty Robbins and Buck Owens and you had better choose the right one.

"The Image of Me" – Conway Twitty

This song is lovely. It captures the guilt a person can feel in being complicit in another person's life choices. I know that it inhabits an inherently patriarchal point of view (and Twitty's voice is full of bombastic self-serving self-pity), but it also seems right: I made someone feel as bad as I feel and that makes me feel worse.

"A Girl I Used to Know" – George Jones

Sometimes I'll bring in a boombox and play George Jones to my fiction students as examples of unreliable narrators. Jones' songs are full of people who are full of shit. Jones plays with litotes and tone and texture in ways few other artists do and he's able to do that because his voice is so damned gorgeous. His songs are stories and his stories are populated by characters with complicated emotions hiding behind simple words. George Jones could sing bumper stickers and make you cry.

"Kaanta Laga Haye Laga (Samadhi)" – DJ Doll

This song was everywhere in India in 2002-2003. The kind of song when you go to a club you know they're going to play right when everybody is dancing their sweatiest. The video caused a mild scandal because the singer was shown wearing her jeans low enough so her blue spangly thong showed. When interviewed, the young girl made sure to point out that the thong was not her underwear but something sewn into the jeans. It calmed the conservatives a little to know it was only the appearance of the appearance of underwear rather than a real appearance of underwear.

"The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" – The Magnetic Fields

This song shows up in the middle of my book. I visited a woman in Goa who I was romantically interested in. She was so out of my league, it was like we were playing different sports. She had a scooter but didn't know how to drive it. I drove her around town for a weekend and she'd sing this song as she sat squashed up behind me on the scooter seat. And even though we ended up sleeping together (and even then we were up to different things: I thought I was in love, she was doing exercise), it's one of the most mocking things someone has ever done to me. The impossibly long sustained note at the end that Stephin Merritt somehow pulls off here feels like unrequited love, that impossible hope against hope that we can will love towards us.

"What It Takes" – Aerosmith

This is the last good song written by Aerosmith. It's also a great song to memorize when someone breaks your heart. That way you can walk alongside highways in India at night singing it to yourself as cars nearly clip you on their way past.

"I Can't Hold Myself in Line" – John Doe

This song is originally sung by Merle Haggard. But god damn if John Doe doesn't just kill it here. His voice is impossibly lovely and deep and self-hating in this song. It feels like a tiny plane flown through a canyon – something light and new navigating ancient scars. This was one of the songs that I'd force myself to memorize in order to prove that I wasn't losing my mind. I'd do laps around the roof of my apartment building, smoking cigarettes and singing this song.

"(My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers" – Merle Haggard

Did you know that one time George Jones refused to go onstage because the guy who sang before him had too good of a voice to follow? That guy who he wouldn't follow was Merle Haggard. I love how Merle can sing about sadness and it rarely feels self-indulgent. It's goddamn incredible and helpful when you can't take your own sadness seriously. And the line, "The only thing I can count on now is my fingers," is dead pitiful and perfect. It might be an obvious thing to say, but sadness isolates us, individuates us, sticks us into little cubby holes of private pain. Talking about sadness (real honestly – talking about how you feel and not how you wished you felt) does the opposite. It brings people together. Sad songs make pain almost bearable.

"Only When I'm Drunk" – Tha Alkaholiks

This song is gloriously juvenile and clearly made by adults, who are too old for this sort of thing, who should know better . . . but keep doing it anyway. It's hedonistic and has an amazing beat. It has the tracks of real knowledge of partying driven into it. Most songs about parties feel like they were made by people never invited to one, this song sounds like it was recorded inside a red solo cup that somebody ashed in.

"Bottle Let Me Down" – Emmylou Harris

When you use alcohol as a tool that's supposed to achieve a specific effect (numbing and/or avoidance seem to jump to the top of the list as possible candidates) at some point, you get to the end of what alcohol can offer you. It's an unreliable tool to say the least. Those are the moments when everything you've been numbing yourself against comes rushing back in. It's a terrible sensation and you either sober up and deal with your demons or find harsher methods of avoidance.

"1-800-Suicide" – Gravediggaz

Horrorcore rap seemed to last for a second and a half genre-wise (unless you count the ICP and if you do that's less of a musical choice and more of a lifestyle one). Horrorcore lasted long enough to produce the Gravediggaz and that seems worth it. The group is a supergroup with Prince Paul and RZA producing and rhyming alongside Frukwan and Too Poetic. This song is quite remarkable. It's playful and morbid and scary and fun all at the same time. It takes itself seriously while also making a joke out of the whole thing. It's teasing at the edge. Like drinking a bottle of wine and taking a fistful of vicodin and calling everyone you know to convince each of them that you're okay.

"Gone for Good" – The Shins

This is era-appropriate (and state appropriate – New Mexico!) and one of my favorite songs by this band. That "fatal flaw in the logic of love" is just a solid lyric. This is an unsympathetic song. Shit ends. And it doesn't come back.

"Blue Flowers" – Dr. Octagon

I have nothing smart to say about this song. It just seems like it comes from another universe. And when I have that feeling of not fitting in anywhere on the planet, this song makes me feel better, makes the world bigger, weirds my blues away.

"The Platform" – Rayna Gellert

I'm ending this playlist of songs for my book with a song inspired by my book. Rayna and I have been friends since college. We started swapping texts because we'd both drive absurd distances and get bored so we'd text each other bad jokes. We then started to send each other our work. I'd send her stories or essays and she'd send me songs. I sent her the first drafts of my book and she wrote this song. I love this song and I know it's weird to say that. But what I like about it is that the narrative begins and ends on the platform. I think about Duras's book The Lover and how the central image of that book is the author at 15 on a ferry. The author is in her eighties when she writes the book but in some ways she's always been and will always be that 15 year old on that ferry. I think a part of me will always be on that platform in Secunderbad, India. It's a moment dipped in amber and lodged deep in myself. That memory of having no memory has stayed stubbornly undigested.


David Stuart MacLean and The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Bookreporter review
Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
Washington Post review

All Write Already! interview with the author
Art Attack profile of the author
Here and Now interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate 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

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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