July 21, 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.
Profound, poignant, dark, and complex, The Antiquarian is one of the year's finest novels.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"Delightfully macabre. . . . A novel in which storytelling can prove redemptive, but it can also kill. . . . The Antiquarian is steeped in alienation, shame, mourning and disgust. It is intelligently conceived and well executed. Rather than serve up a tantalizing mystery with a tidy resolution, this book does the opposite, demolishing the 'facts' and assumptions amassed along the way. It has hundreds of intricate pieces. Once you finish reading, you may feel compelled to take it apart, figure out how it works and begin again."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The story I tell in The Antiquarian takes place mostly in a city shaped like two intersecting spirals. At its center is a psychiatric hospital: a bleak atmosphere, a sad and rarified psych ward that seems as crazy as the people it houses, where patients, doctors, and ghosts are indistinguishable. When I was trying to visualize it in my mind, I often thought of German expressionist movies, and I started watching them again after many years. Of course, most are silent films. I wondered what would happen if I watched them while listening to old songs that had come to mind since I had started writing the novel, songs I felt were connected to my characters and the spaces they inhabited.
These are some of those songs:
Charlie Parker, "Lover Man" – The Antiquarian is not a horror story, but a novel about madness and literature (one might confuse madness and horror because each produces the other, so when one is present the other is not too far). The best novella I've read about madness and its connection to the creative process is El perseguidor (The Pursuer) by the Argentinean master Julio Cortázar. Its protagonist, an American sax player named Johnny Carter, is a barely disguised Charlie Parker, whose most disturbing psychotic incident comes when he is recording a song called "Amorous." He starts perceiving time in a twofold manner: time in the world and time in the music, the latter growing and elongating inside the former, pushing its limits. Johnny Carter´s "Amorous" is Charlie Parker's "Lover Man." Parker recorded many versions, at least two of them legendary: one for Dial, and one for Verve with his own quintet. The second recording is perfect but the first one—the one Cortázar had in mind, although clearly flawed—is much better: a visionary going after something, with an instrument that is not enough for him. Both for Parker and for Carter the sessions concluded in panic attacks: fear of their own mental instability, of having gone too far. While writing The Antiquarian, I often listened to both versions as a reminder of the difference between good craft and great art, but also as a reminder of the proximity between madness and horror.
Unknown Peruvian musicians, "Pastora", "Negro de Lachaqui" – Andean violin music is the most awkwardly happy way of expressing melancholy that I have ever heard. It might have to do with the fact that violins arrived to the Andean region in the hands of conquistadors and murderous hacienda owners: the gift of new music from the hand that will very likely kill you. Part of The Antiquarian is set in a place evocative of the Peruvian highlands during a time of political violence. Although that aspect of the novel has not been brought up by American critics so far, the novel alludes to the war that the Shining Path—a Maoist guerrilla—launched against the Peruvian state in the 1980s. I felt naturally compelled to listen to Andean music and found two beautiful and intriguing songs, "Pastora" and "Negro de Lachaqui," both included in the seventh volume of the Smithsonian´s "Traditional Music of Peru." Listen to them here.
Paavoharju, "Italialaisella Laivalla" – Considering I am not a religious person and the members of Paavoharju are ascetic Christians, it just may be a good thing that I don´t understand a word they say. But "Italialaisella Laivalla" sounds like the saddest little melody even if you do not know what is going on. The emotion it produces, then, is purely atmospheric. I'm always seduced by art that has the capability of communicating at a level that is well beyond pure referentiality, beyond literal or metaphorical meaning, and even beyond suggestion: art that opens wounds in your body or in your mind and waits to see what comes from inside you.
Shugo Tokumaru, "Parachute" – The first time I heard Shugo Tokumaru's "Parachute" I knew there was too much happiness in the music itself for it to be true. So I looked for an English version of the original Japanese lyrics and found out I was right. The song is infused with beautifully pitch-black humor and it is almost perverse. It sounds, though, like a childlike tune. Perversity and childishness were the characteristics I was building in the personality of Sofia, one of the most darkly enjoyable characters of The Antiquarian. Tokumaru helped me with that almost as much as the next song, "The King of Carrot Flowers."
Neutral Milk Hotel, "The King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1" – A different take on childhood and perversity with a loving touch and suicidal tendencies, Jeff Mangum's song sounded to me like a conversation over coffee between two of my characters. Daniel and Sofia, the siblings, are often associated throughout the novel with childhood, but there are only two or three brief passages in which Sofia is still an actual child (Daniel is at least 18 years old in last of these episodes). The rest is a perverted prolongation of childhood into adulthood. The crimes themselves are aberrant reiterations of childhood games.
Tom Waits, "Alice" – I don't think I need to say a lot about this one and how it connects with the others. What's great about Tom Waits's song is that, somehow, Alice is the adult whereas the singer is the child longing for her. That is a nice way of vindicating the original Alice, robbed of her innocence by Lewis Carroll (remember the pictures?) and then forced to remain a child forever thanks to the book.
Daniel Johnston, "Devil's Town" – Ghost towns only exist is bad movies, great fictions, and postwar countries, and I am interested in all three. But what drew me towards Daniel Johnston was Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary on Johnston's bipolar disorder and satanic obsession, and the relation between that and his unending creativity. I don't remember exactly what the phrase is that my protagonist, Daniel (see the connection in the name?) says to the narrator of The Antiquarian, something like: "Mental illnesses make you speak, but they turn language into a ritual… I'm going to tell you lots of stories today." All that came from my own obsession with Daniel Johnston and songs like this one.
Gustavo Faverón Patriau and The Antiquarian links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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