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March 21, 2014

Book Notes - Jeremy P. Bushnell "The Weirdness"

The Weirdness

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.

Jeremy Bushnell's The Weirdness is an entertaining debut novel, one of the funniest books I have read all year.

Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:

"The Weirdness manages to soar beyond the potentially familiar tropes of urban fantasy with a strong sense of style and character… Bushnell’s debut novel is a clever, darkly satiric tale of the devil, literary Brooklyn and the human penchant for underachievement."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Jeremy P. Bushnell's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Weirdness:

When I was writing The Weirdness, I kept giving myself permission to write about stuff that felt crucial to my own lived experience, rather than writing about stuff that fit some predetermined notion of what "belonged" in a literary novel. And for me, a lot of what feels crucial to my own lived experience is music—music of all sorts, ranging from mainstream pop (the characters are listening to "New York’s Hit Music Station" Z100 at a climactic moment in the novel) to music that is weird and noncommercial and difficult (if you read another novel this year that features a guy who helps to record a Norwegian power electronics band, well, I want to know about it).

So there’s a wide variety of music feeding into this novel, and I think it helped me to manifest an interestingly varied cast of characters. Towards that end, I decided to group my playlist by character—giving each character in the novel a track that I think they would enjoy or find meaning in.

Neutral Milk Hotel – "King of Carrot Flowers (Part I)" and "King of Carrot Flowers (Part II & III)"

Billy Ridgeway is the protagonist of The Weirdness, and since the book opens with him, I want to give him a great opening track. "King of Carrot Flowers (Part One)" especially suits him: although it’s a song which has its share of horror in it ("your Mom would stick a fork right into Daddy’s shoulder") I think of its central images as being primarily ones of childhood wonderment. And that’s kind of Billy’s deal: he’s described as having been a boy who was kind of dreamy and delicate and interior and inquisitive and kind of interior-oriented, the kind of kid who it’s easy to imagine inhabiting Mangum’s song. Of course, when you’re a dreamy, interior kid, you’re kind of endearing, but by the time you grow into a dreamy, inquisitive adult you might be having some problems: maybe you can’t finish the projects you start; maybe your romantic partner is calling you out for not being "present;" maybe you haven’t bought an album since In The Aeroplane Over The Sea because you’re having trouble making rent because you forgot to get a decent job. This is basically Billy’s predicament when the book opens. 

As Largehearted Boy readers very likely remember, "King of Carrot Flowers (Part One)" leads directly into "King of Carrot Flowers (Parts Two and Three)," in which Mangum notoriously bewilders a nation of agnostic-leaning hipsters by intoning "I love you Jesus Christ" with what unmistakably pure sincerity. Billy starts the book as an agnostic, and I’d stop short of saying the book shows him undergoing a religious conversion, but Billy very quickly gets concerned with the question of whether God does or does not exist, and whether he’s going to be able to find salvation or something akin to it. So I’m going to say that all three parts of the song suit Billy pretty well.

Julianna Barwick – "Cloudbank"

Denver Norton is Billy’s girlfriend, kinda, sorta. At the start of the book they’re struggling. (She’s the one who accuses him, accurately, of not being "present" in their relationship.) But outside of her relationship with Billy, she’s an experimental filmmaker, making films that look for beauty in the everyday: in the first chapter we see her film Varieties of Water, which is twenty-five minutes of footage of "river foam, swirling drains, trash floating in city gutters, lake surfaces." The end result, as Billy sees it, is beautiful. When I think about finding beauty in the secular, I think of someone like Julianna Barwick—I’m on record as saying that when I start my "secular humanist megachurch" I’m going to hire Barwick to debut a new piece every Sunday, and if I could get a new Denver Norton film every Sunday too I’d consider it a very fine pairing indeed. Let’s give Denver "Cloudbank" because of all the Barwick tracks this is probably the one that has a title that could best double as the title of a Denver Norton short.

Sunn O)))-"Hell-O)))-Ween"

Jørgen Storløkken is Billy’s roommate, and he enjoys a career as a moderately successful electronic music producer. I say "moderately" because he’s involved in the more difficult side of electronic music: he’s not exactly a guy who’s going to be producing like EDM-inflected Black Eyed Peas tracks. No. He’s the guy who is flying out to Norway to work on "spectral electronic dirge music," to borrow Richard Nash’s memorable phrase. Early in the book, we see him walking around the apartment listening to drone metal, and so I’m going to stick him with "Hell-O)))-Ween," from Sunn O)))’s fantastic album White 2, basically the purest drone metal track from the purest drone metal band. I gotta be careful here, ‘cause when you use a value judgment like "purest" in the same sentence with a genre like "drone metal" you’re inevitably going to stir up some feelings, but I’m pretty sure I can defend this judgment. Bring it on, drone nerds.

The Minutemen-"Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing"

Anil Mallick is Billy’s best friend, and it’s easy to think of a song to give to him, because he’s the only character in the book who gets an honest-to-god real-world band named in association with him. That band—the only band explicitly namechecked in the whole book—is the Minutemen. Anil and Billy go on a roadtrip, and they listen to a Minutemen album over and over and over again; Anil’s car only has a cassette player and this album is the only cassette they have. The book doesn’t say which Minutemen album it is, but the one I had in mind was Double Nickels on the Dime. I basically want you to picture Billy and Anil bellowing "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" out the window as they drive across Ohio. "So dig this big crux!"

Zola Jesus-"I Can’t Stand"

The Ghoul—his real name is Charles—rounds out Billy’s friend group. He’s basically a goth: the book describes him like this: "Put a pair of fingerless gloves on him and he could be somebody who died of consumption in a garret somewhere near the end of the eighteenth century." But that’s not totally fair. Of all Billy’s friends, the Ghoul is really the only one whose any good at using the Internet; he’s the only one who’s on Twitter, for instance. So although he’s a goth he’s not just spinning old Bauhaus LPs (or not exclusively at least). You could envision him as a person listening to a lot of dark contemporary fare like Zola Jesus, The Knife, Crystal Castles, Xiu Xiu, that sort of thing.

Adele-"Waiting For You"

I should probably at some point mention that this book also has magic and shit in it. Enter Timothy Ollard: who is the book’s major antagonist and is also, well, a warlock. He’s trying to destroy the world. This is because he’s not just a warlock, but he’s also a depressive nihilist—he basically has lost his ability to get joy out of anything. He hangs out in a Starbucks all day as a way to remind him that everything in the world is totally detestable. I’m pretty sure he hates all music, but we do see him listening to a broken version of in-store Starbucks radio—he listens to a soul song sung by a white British person, and at the end of the song it starts again. I didn’t want to say that the song is by Adele—because in a couple of years Starbucks will probably be playing a different soul song, sung by a different white British person—but for the record, it’s totally Adele. "Waiting For You" is probably the one that works most ominously in the context.

Kanye West-"I Am A God (feat. God)"

Finally, let’s not forget that this book has the Devil in it; he shows up in Billy’s apartment one morning, early in the book, with a laptop computer and a bouquet of tempting offers. It’s sort of hard to imagine what kind of music Lucifer would listen to, because he’s not human. He’s a timeless adversarial force so he’s not really capable of experiencing emotions in the same way that you or I might. But in my conception, he does feel love: he loves human beings. He’s attracted to their flaws, by their stubbornness, by their audacity and contradictions and perversity. And so it’s pretty easy for imagine him being completely and utterly delighted by Kanye West’s recent output, Yeezus especially. My Lucifer is going to listen to "I Am A God (feat. God)" and he’s going to start cackling with laughter, but ultimately he’s going to come away feeling a deep and abiding affection for the man. Hands down.

Hail Satan.

Jeremy P. Bushnell and The Weirdness links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at the author's website)
excerpt from the book (at Longform)

Harvard Crimson review
LitReactor review
Publishers Weekly review

The Quietus 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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