September 23, 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.
In his inventive and fabulist debut novel Fat Man and Little Boy Mike Meginnis lends a surprisingly human dimension to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II.
Matt Bell wrote of the book:
"Mike Meginnis is my favorite kind of writer—extraordinarily inventive, formally curious, profoundly moving—and his Fat Man and Little Boy is a debut of impressive ambition, a reinvention of the historical novel, an existential thriller powered by the booming engines of history, the atom, the human heart."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I am the kind of person who likes to be unhappy, so I wrote a novel called Fat Man and Little Boy. The book's premise is that after the titular nuclear bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were reincarnated as people: a fat man, a little boy. They believe that they are brothers. They have to navigate the ruins of Japan and then they have to live with what they are and what they have been.
Some of these songs I listened to while I wrote Fat Man and Little Boy—others I've discovered since. They are all beautiful to me and they are mostly very sad. When I make a mix CD, I try to also make an argument. Most of the time the argument is that I love the recipient, or at least like him or her a lot. In this case, it will be have to be about the bombs and our relationship to them.
"How It Ends" by DeVotchKa
It is simultaneously true and thoroughly misleading to say that the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in August of 1945. Though a fair number of people were generally aware that such things as atomic bombs would someday exist, the Manhattan Project was remarkably successful in maintaining secrecy. This is to say that most Americans did not explicitly consent to the first bomb, and furthermore that none of us today have a choice: we were sullied and are still sullied by what was done in our name.
"All You Need is Hate" by The Delgados
I don't mean this in some loose, abstract, or spiritual sense; we are not, so far as I know, metaphysically dirty. The bombs were the logical, predictable conclusion of our war policy in Japan and at home: by allowing the internment camps and the massive firebombings that destroyed so much of Japan, by actively participating in the cultivation of intense racism and bloodlust each day, the American body politic endorsed genocidal attacks on Japan.
I love this song because it acknowledges the pleasures to be found in hatred. There are few things more exhilarating. You can judge the people of the '40s when you give up hate-reading comments sections at blogs you don't like.
"Tin Man" by Future Islands
The fact of the bombing of Hiroshima exerted (and continues to exert) intense emotional pressure on Americans to retroactively approve what was done on our behalf. Either it was justified or we are party to a terrifying slaughter. But this complicity, the way we make our hearts hard against the suffering of others, is a self-renewing cause for guilt; by continuing to persuade ourselves that what was done was just or at worst necessary, we continually endorse the hateful structures and ideas that allowed us to use the bombs (and will someday allow us to do so again).
This song's climax ("I am the Tin Man!") evokes for me the desperation not to feel that makes us still complicit even now.
"This Blackest Purse" by Why?
This song may be the truest expression of shame that I know. "Mom am I failing or worse? / Mom am I failing or worse?" It would be so cathartic to call my mother up and ask the same.
I have long believed that shame is at best a third-rate emotion, not worthy of your time or mine. And yet I find people who live without shame—even those who are generous, kind, and open-hearted—to be monstrous. Fat Man and Little Boy is a meditation on shame. What use is it? How does it prevent us from growing? How can it help us? What would we become without it?
"What People Are Made Of" by Modest Mouse
The phrase "body politic" is interesting to me because nothing shames us more than our bodies. I don't mean to be flippant when I say that the bombing of Hiroshima might have felt to many Americans like a first nocturnal emission: here was this terrible thing that we did in the night, in our sleep, and which we did not know we could do. Of course, single human bodies can't make nukes; we mostly make babies. But the national body's a terror.
As individuals, we "ain't made of nothing but water and shit," which is nice, because that makes us mostly harmless. But our collective body is made of housing policies, zoning ordinances, banks, research labs, factories, and munitions.
"All Fires" by Swan Lake
Whatever the horrors and shortcomings of our bodies, it is probably necessary to make a limited peace with ourselves. Spencer Krug's lyrics are threaded with reflections on this struggle: "I've said it before, / and I'll say it again, / all fires have to burn alive. . . . All fires have to burn alive, / to live." But it is bittersweet to resign oneself to burning. We do not want to be fire.
"The Body Breaks" by Devendra Banhart
But we may not have a choice.
What breaks my heart about the bombs, apart from the obvious, is that somebody named them. They never asked for that, any more than I asked to be a man. They could have been innocents. Instead, we imagined them, however fleetingly, as people.
"Hotcha Girls" by Ugly Casanova
We are ashamed of the American body because we use it so poorly. We use it so poorly because it is (at least in matters of war and peace) a man's body. As of yet, the world has produced surprisingly few people who know what a man's body is for. Most of us believe it is a weapon. That's why Superman's body is the best weapon of them all: it is also the best man. Likewise, it's not a coincidence that the bombs were gendered as male.
Because it hurts to be such an ugly, disgusting creature—a weapon, a man—we look to women for solace. But our gaze itself is weaponized, another means of exploitation. "Hotcha girls at the Palisades, / dime store keets, / pretty birds, / pretty mouths / . . . We left our teeth marks on the barrel of the gun."
"Execution" by David Thomas Broughton
On which subject, this song has always fascinated me. First, for its hypnotic weaving and layering of simple, folksy elements into an increasingly alien haze of sound, and second, for how much subtext Broughton finds in the repetition of these four sentences: "I wouldn't take her to an execution, / I wouldn't take her to a live sex show, / I wouldn't piss or shit on her would I? / Because I love her so." The implication being that this all of these things are the speaker's natural tendencies. (Because he is a man?) The implication being that the speaker would do these things to a woman whom he loved a little less.
If we were not so ashamed of our bodies, would we feel such constant urges to subject other bodies to horrors? Would we need to bring them low?
"You Don't Have to Be Afraid" by Kaki King
When I am about to finish the first draft of a book—when I think I am within about ten thousand words—what I generally do is I hole up with my computer and a pair of headphones and I listen to one or two sad songs on a loop until the book is done. I do this because I'm so excited about what I am making. I do it because I am so sad the book will soon be finished. When I hit this point with Fat Man and Little Boy, "You Don't Have to Be Afraid" was the song I chose. It hurts in the best way.
"Among the Sef" by Colin Stetson
Fat Man and Little Boy enters its fiftieth printing. I am swimming in the riches in my vault. Proud John, my manservant, brings a major Hollywood director to said vault's diving board. The director asks if he can do a cannonball. "Suit yourself," I say. We cavort in my treasure. He pitches me a movie adaptation: John Goodman is Fat Man, of course. Little Boy will be a skinny unknown. He offers me a fortune, but I've already got one on account of I am a moderately successful novelist. "You can do it, Paul," I say, "on one condition. Colin Stetson gets to do the score."
"With just his weirdo sax?"
"Shit yes with just his weirdo sax."
“Diamonds Are Forever” by Chaka Khan
Then I will celebrate by listening to this, which has nothing to do with my book, but is very possibly my favorite version of my favorite song in the world.
Mike Meginnis and Fat Man and Little Boy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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