July 28, 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.
Matthew Gavin's Preparing the Ghost is a marvelously told book-length essay, one that skillfully melds fact, myth, and fiction about the giant squid and its first photographer. One of the year's finest nonfiction books.
The Wall Street Journal wrote of the book:
"'Preparing the Ghost' delights in a banquet of unusual facts and fantasts...Mr. Frank marshals irresistible information—the evolution of calamari as a popular dish, the uses of ambergris—along with pressing philosophical queries and excerpts from scholars. These elements coalesce to give this book a charming dynamism. "
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
"Octopus" by Syd Barrett
The book should kick off with this delirious and ominously cheery descent into madness, or myth, or the deep sea. The audience should be armed with foam rubber tentacles that they bought from the souvenir stand in spite of the inflated price. (You can get them much cheaper at the Dollar Store). They should be waving them in the air, on their feet, sipping gin martinis infused with sepia, as Moses Harvey goes for his fateful morning constitution in 1874 St. John's Newfoundland, at the end of which he encounters an intact (though dead) specimen of the giant squid. I realize this song is an obvious choice—like Springsteen's "Born to Run" playing over a scene of a guy going jogging in a factory town—but still.
"Mating Scars" by Giant Squid
In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus, godfather of binomial nomenclature, published the first edition of his masterwork, Systema Naturae, which set about classifying and naming all things in nature. The first edition included, amazingly, the Kraken, under the moniker Sepia microcosmos. (This was about 120 years before the Danish zoologist and spectacularly-named Johannes Japetus Smith Steenstrup dared make a similar assertion, and lent the mythological Kraken the language of science, claiming it existed and was a cephalopod). Linnaeus' entry was removed by the time the second edition went to press, and Linnaeus was mercilessly ridiculed by his colleagues as gullible for having included it in the first place, for being seduced by "the mere fabrications of a distorted mind." The giant squid, having been given its brief and small entry into reality in 1735, once again retreated to the realm of myth. I imagine Linnaeus, depressed over this, holing up in his bedroom, listening to this song on repeat, getting pissed on the precursor to Svedka, and threatening to slit his wrists with the stinger of the Plesiobatis daviesi.
"Underwater Moonlight" by The Soft Boys
A giant squid lays her eggs—sometimes up to 50,000 at a time!—in a string that resembles a pearl necklace, torn, bouncing along the sea-floor on her legs until she finds an object that she deems suitable on which to pile the mass of embryos, a process which often results in thousands of acres of sea-floor to be covered with the sheen of her jellied eggs, until such an object, like a big pink shell, is found. This song would play over such a scene, evoking a cheesiness that eventually edges toward profundity.
"Prince of the World" by Carla Bozulich
Aristotle and Pliny and Ælian and Strabo and Melville, all, in their writings, believed that the Mediterranean waters were occupied by enormous, immeasurable cephalopods ("the most wonderful phenomenon of the secret seas," Melville wrote), claims which spawned the "squid-as-fad" concept in places like Paris, where, for a time, squid hats were in fashion and squid parties were the favored after-hours choice of the high society. Such parties seem to me so firmly entrenched in a desperate, but luxurious (and luxuriously off-yellow-lit) past, glimpsed through, say, a six-story window from street-level. Everyone behind the pane has a drink in hand, and is plucking some hors d'oeuvre from a passing platter, and they all seem to be whirling, finite, and they have silk tentacles in their faces, beaks on their heads, and something appears to be burning on the horizon, and there are no stars, and this song is playing, and down the cobblestone alley, a bell is marking time.
"I'm So Green," by CAN
Moses Harvey's nose is bleeding, and it's morning, and he's walking toward that beach where he'll see the squid. He swears he sees ducks in the air speaking in tongues to ducks on the earth, and he stumbles downhill over the rocks and feels a cold pins-and-needles rain, and his heart begins to speed, and he is frightened, and he is at the shore, finally at the shore, and he smells it before he knows what it is he is smelling, and he puts his hand to his mouth to catch the blood, but lets some of it fall to the beach to mix with the rain and the sea. The world goes green at its edges—psychedelic and slightly Germanic, and Harvey swears he tastes Aegean okra in his mouth, though his mouth is empty of food, and he's never had Aegean okra besides.
"Poor Born," by Dead Moon
A fascinating connection exists between the obsessions of clergymen and the giant squid. Not only were Newfoundland Reverends Moses Harvey and M. Gabriel (not to mention Olaus Magnus, coiner of the term kraken, and 16th century Archbishop of Uppsala) obsessed with the animal, but so was Norwegian Protestant Bishop Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, who, 200 years after Magnus' death, stole the late Swede's thunder and claimed that he himself "invented" the Kraken, and claimed that it was the "size of a floating island" with horns "as long as a ship's mast." As Magnus was born in 1490, and Pierre Denys de Montfort, considered the first scientist to engage the giant squid, began his inquiries only in 1783, it can be said that the mythological giant squid belonged to the church for nearly 300 years before science began to interrogate. This is the song I imagine playing as Science rightfully forces its way into the conversation.
"An Image of You," by The Chatham Singers
This is the song I imagine playing as the ecclesiastics lick their wounds, regroup, and try to make another tired pitch associating the giant squid with the Devil.
"Is It Forever," by Ornette Coleman
With the carcass of the giant squid firmly tied down on a flatbed, Moses Harvey rides up front with the stagecoach driver. A myth is busy dying, becoming real. They pass St. John's Newfoundland's immigrants breaking down their tables, storing their wares and services, believing this passing stagecoach to be some indecipherable omen over which they would pray, or mass hallucination, or a chariot of the Devil, or caravan of God. The land over which they pass used to belong to the now-extinct Beothuk culture, and the alto sax, and tenor sax, and oboe, and clarinet, and bassoon and French horn are all plaintive, and the questions rhetorical, at best.
"Something" by The Willowz.
As Moses Harvey and his hired hands wedge the carcass of the giant squid through the front door of his rowhouse and into his bathroom, where they spread it out over the tub's curtain rod so its full size could be displayed for the forthcoming and fateful photograph, this is the song. Frenzied, celebratory, exasperated. Spent in an energized sort of way. On the curtain rod, the squid droops and releases a drop of seawater to the floor, then another, like a metronome. One man thinks he sees it move, as if hiccupping, and runs for the bathroom door as the others look at him red-cheeked and puzzled. Sarah Harvey pours everyone a round of whiskey. Flashbulbs and power chords begin their exploding.
"Mal de Mer," by Rupa and the April Fishes
The giant squid is now real. Oddly enough, though Harvey's photograph proved its existence, the giant squid continued (and continues) to straddle that border between myth and reality. A full 150 years after Linnaeus cited the beast, and a full decade after Harvey photographed it, Henry Lee, occasional naturalist of the Brighton Aquarium, possibly knew that he was chained to an archaic, sad argument when he dismissed, in Sea Fables Explained, the giant squid as "a boorish exaggeration, a legend of ignorance, superstition, and wonder." Soon after the photo was taken, Harvey's voice strangely abandoned him, and he remained mute until his death. He gave no more sermons. He ate his breakfasts and his suppers. He continued writing his own articles under his various pennames. He was "Delta," and he was "Locomotive," and he was "Nemo." He published them. He wrote about geography, the flora and fauna of Newfoundland. He wrote about the fishing industry, and religion, and railways, and hydroelectric systems. He kissed his wife goodnight and good morning. He picked up his kids, and his pen. He got ink on his hands. The world went seasick. This song played. And he wrote about squid.
Matthew Gavin Frank and Preparing the Ghost links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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