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April 15, 2014

Book Notes - Alena Graedon "The Word Exchange"

The Word Exchange

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.

Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange is a wildly imaginative and ambitious debut novel about the future intersection of language and technology.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Alena Graedon's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Word Exchange:


In The Word Exchange, I try to evoke that elusive, lucid moment when we start to notice that something's been lost. It begins with a dim awareness. Something that should be there, that we view as natural and immutable, is gone. A childhood memory. A word we thought we knew. A very deep love. A parent we view as a constant who suddenly disappears.

In my own life, music is one of those stays that drifted away without my notice. When I was young, it was so close to the locus of my identity that they couldn't be separated. But at some point, things changed. What happened, I think, is that I slowly started letting the devices in my life decide what I should listen to, and in the process, I became sort of estranged from something that had once been central to me. (Part of the pleasure of putting together this playlist has been in reconnecting with a kind of creativity I'd nearly forgotten.)

A lot of good has come from our new culture of not owning things. But when everything is free, and we let machines choose our music for us, some of the thrill of discovery is lost. We also lose what can come not from buying a record, but owning it in a deeper sense—integrating it into our consciousnesses.

The Word Exchange takes place a few years in the future, at a time when bound books have become more obscure than records are now, and our dependence on devices has increased. That gave me a chance to imagine what might happen if we yielded even more to machines—not just decisions about what to listen to or read or wear or eat, but about how to behave, even what to think and say.

These are all songs that have seeped into the book in various ways, or that capture something essential about it.


Don Giovanni — Act II, Scene 5, Finale

Bart, one of the novel's narrators, explains early on that beginnings and endings can be problematic. In some ways, they get inverted in the book, so starting this list with a finale seemed to make a kind of sense. Doug, the disappeared father at the center of the story, is a man who appreciates drama and pathos, and he used to sing this piece to entertain his wife, Vera, before they separated.

Creedence Clearwater Revival — Suzie Q

Vera is a sort of Suzie Q—very easy to fall in love with. Doug still loves her on the day he disappears, more than a year after she's left him. And she has her own style of drama and glamour. She's the kind of woman who went to Woodstock as a teenager, and ended up singing this song with Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Jefferson Airplane — White Rabbit

Doug's disappearance is discovered by his daughter, Anana, who narrates the novel along with Bart. She's alerted to her father's absence by a code word Doug seems to have left behind: Alice. Shortly before he vanished, he told Anana that if anything were to happen to him, he wanted to use this name to communicate. He also gave her a vile of pills, which she eventually takes, like the Alice in this song. Anana's search for her father soon becomes Alice-like in other ways. As she tries to piece together clues in a world that's not quite the one she thought she knew, less and less makes sense. In fact, as in Alice's looking-glass world, even words and language start losing meaning.

Fela Kuti — Mr. Grammarticologylisationalism Is the Boss

Bart claims that listening to records was how he survived high school. But he also got by thanks to a friend who loved music as much as he did, and who introduced him to things he'd never heard, including Fela Kuti. This song explores the ways language and colonialism intertwine, asking who has ownership over a language, and what it means to be master of it. Those are also questions at the center of The Word Exchange.

The Grateful Dead — Friend of the Devil

Anana's ex-boyfriend, Max, is a big fan of The Dead. He likes live recordings that last at least 20 minutes. Not everyone does, though, so this is much shorter. But it's still pretty relevant to Max; he's befriended some shady characters.

The Avengers — Paint It Black

The first time Bart visits Anana's apartment, he discovers a side of her that he didn't know existed, and that she's lost track of in some ways. He's really surprised by her music collection, and that they seem to share a lot of affinities. This is a song she listened to over and over in high school, at a time when she was realizing that she wanted to be an artist. She especially liked playing it while she was painting, for probably obvious reasons.

Sylvie Vartan — M'amuser

Anana's best friend, Coco, is also an artist. Their studios are side by side, and because their shared wall doesn't go all the way to the ceiling, they can hear each other while they work. When the novel starts, Anana's heart is broken—Max has just moved out. And Coco, whose mother is French, sings her this song from the other side of the wall to bring her spirits up.

Arvo Pärt — Spiegel im Spiegel

This piece is pivotal to the book. Anana hears it when she's very sick, in the throes of a virus known as word flu. She's using a device that gives her fleeting access to someone else's memories, and this song is one of his. But hearing it triggers her own reminiscences—her mother listened to it many times when Anana was child. And that unlocks the door to other past experiences, some of which are her own, and some that she thinks may be the machine's inventions.

Donny Hathaway — A Song for You

One of the memories Anana has while using the device is from very early in her relationship with Max, and a trip they took together. One afternoon, when Anana returned to their hotel room, Max, not knowing she was there, was singing this song in the shower. Overhearing him helps convince her he's really in love, and makes her fall in love with him more deeply.

The Bulgarian Voices Angelite — Dve Pesni Ot Tchepinsko

This song is from one of the records that Bart listened to in his disaffected youth. (It's a record that I also listened to throughout high school and college. It was a gift from my coworker, Pete, at the incredible used book and record store where I used to work.) Unlike me, Bart knows lots of languages, and part of what appeals to him about this song is that he doesn't understand the words, only the feelings they engender, and not even all of those.

Neil Young — My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)

Bart can sometimes seem craven and insecure, but his soul is rock and roll. That's partly why he responds so strongly to anachronisms, like books, and music from before he was born. Neil Young is probably closest to his heart. The energy and temerity and aberrance that the music of this era evokes can sometimes seem as obsolete as the songs. But Bart is a covert optimist, and he believes that if we keep listening, they're still there.

Stravinsky: Rite of Spring Part II, The Sacrifice

This piece arrives at a climactic scene in the book. It serves as a sort of sound armor for Dr. Thwaite, a character who believes that his conversations are being recorded, and who tries to drown them out with music. And as the title suggests, he also offers himself up as a sacrifice in some ways.

John Cage — 4'33”

There comes a time in the book when silence intrudes. Silence is a complicated thing in the novel: for some people, it's an omen of death—a symptom that marks a fatal case of word flu. But it can also be part of a course of therapy for survival. In either case, it's very significant. This piece is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

The Only Ones — Another Girl, Another Planet

Late in the book, Bart becomes very concerned that something has happened to Anana, and he goes looking for her. His anxiety makes it hard for him to sleep, but he finally manages to drift off while listening to this song.


Alena Graedon and The Word Exchange links:

the author's Facebook page

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Slate review
Toronto Star review

The Center for Fiction interview with the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author
Word and Film 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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