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December 1, 2014

Book Notes - Dolan Morgan "That's When the Knives Come Down"

That's When the Knives Come Down

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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Dolan Morgan's That's When the Knives Come Down is a marvelously dark and absurd debut story collection.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Morgan debuts his refreshing talent in a collection of 12 short stories that are as bizarre as they are brilliant."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Dolan Morgan's Book Notes music playlist for his short fiction collection That's When the Knives Come Down:


Scenario

The night is bleak, your situation desperate. A dark wood spreads out in every direction, no path in sight, your pack nearly empty. No food, no water. Dull pain lurches from one part of your chest to another. Too much movement, not enough sleep. Energy wanes, anxiety quickens. How long have you been running? Too long. Caked in mud, sunburnt and scraped all over by bramble, but finally safe, here in this dark, empty place.

Right?

You try to remember what safety is supposed to mean. That you're alone, finally? That nothing can touch you? You remember your little bedroom, a tiny nook where you could hide away and dream, about anything at all, and the way the smell of sauteed onions from another room on a late afternoon could mingle so perfectly with your solitude, the passage of time, and then from the underbrush, you hear a rustling. Or was it nothing? Just a forest critter, you think, a bird, a mouse.

It's more than a rustling, though. A shaking. A rumbling. Building. Boiling. Something falls, snaps, breaks. Then: a cavalcade of sound and motion and heat and the trees part like so much cloth and now, my God, it's here before you, no no no, this thing, this monster, this book. Yes, That's When the Knives Come Down, the short story collection, has hunted you across vast plains, tracked you through this wood, and ambushed you here in the dark.

The book stands before you, ready to pounce, pages flapping, blurbs screaming. "Devilishly clever," it bellows, and there's nowhere to run, no little bedroom to dream in, no nook and no aroma on a late afternoon. In an instant, it's on you, and you're reading, and you're reading, good lord, page after page after page, you're reading, and you're dead.

Sound familiar? It's an all too common scenario. Probably you've lost someone to just such a fate. Did you know that more people die from That's When the Knives Come Down every year than from shark attacks or lightning strikes combined? It's true, whether you know it or not. In fact, truth has no need of us, but just goes on despite our protests. How many times have you wailed in vain against an immovable truth? Too many to count, I'm sure. Don't let the chance of death by That's When the Knives Come Down become one more truth you rebuff with stubbornness, that useless inertia. Stubbornness only invites the inevitable, as truth's own inertia outweighs anything a tiny human life can muster. So just stop it. Rather, prepare for the fact of this threat, and meet it head on. When you are alone in the wood, which you will be, as you already have been and must be again, the book will come, and it will attack you, so be ready. Be prepared. Be armed. With music. With rhythm and harmony. Yes, when the book stands before you, ready to pounce, pages flapping, blurbs screaming...


PLAY THESE SONGS TO DESTROY THE TWELVE STORIES IN THAT'S WHEN THE KNIVES COME DOWN


#THE PHYSICAL FIGHT

That's When the Knives Come Down

"Infestation" vs Steve Reich's "New York Counterpoint"

Right from the outset, it's going to be a tough fight. That's When the Knives Come Down makes its first weapon choice: "Infestation," a story about the persistence of memory, the futility of choice, and the shared experience of absence. The story tries to kill you by manipulating your sense of agency and ability to effect change. Think of it as a freeze ray.

The book will shoot this story early to immobilize you, to hold you still in your thoughts, rendering your motionless body an easier and more malleable target upon which to deliver further punishment. What you've done collides with what you can do and nothing is left – because all possibility drags behind it the weight of what came before.

Luckily, minimalist composer Steve Reich has the perfect defense: 1985's three-movement work for clarinet and tape, "New York Counterpoint." The very form of the piece deflects the story's energy: a live clarinetist plays over a pre-recorded tape, an impossible dance between memory (the tape recording) and action (clarinetist). Whereas in "Infestation," the past trespasses into the present to distort it, here the clarinetist invites the past and then reshapes it with her tune. Power is restored. We do despite what we've done.

Likewise, the song makes grand use of repetition (its player fingering the same notes again and again and again), and where "Infestation" might say to this, "See, change is impossible and your actions are useless," the song allows even these repetitions to shift slightly, invoking the idea that futility itself is a form of progress when afforded enough time, that stillness is imbued with an imperceptible motion, that to freeze is to move.

Yes, when That's When the Knives Come Down brandishes its bleating first story to freeze you, step into the blow with Steve Reich's "New York Counterpoint," and you will retain a full range of motion – a freedom which you'll definitely need when the book makes its impending second strike.

"Euclid's Postulates" vs Radiohead's "Everything in its Right Place"

You're confident now, swinging your arms and showing off your skills. Watch out book, you say, I'm a person and I'm dangerous, I have elaborate plans and theory-based methods, so stand down. Yes: you can move, a body with gambits and foresight, BUT you've also inflamed That's When the Knives Come Down, and it's ready for you.

From within its rage-shaken pages, the book unsheathes "Euclid's Postulates," a story to demoralize and defame you. You have a system of reason?, the book asks. Well, this is a story of inevitability, of systems flying apart, of things breaking as a matter of course.

Yet it is also about the perverse pleasure found in willfully invoking these breakdowns. That's When the Knives Come Down wields this story so that you will not only lose but also take orgasmic pleasure in the fact of your failure, smiling and even laughing because finally everything is gone, the fight is over (not only this one but all of them). There is great ecstasy in giving in: you start smoking again, you break some diet, or dial that number, enter that room, even that person, and are filled with fear and disgust, but nevertheless you have the sense that you've returned not just to a cigarette, or a habit, but to yourself, just where you always knew you could be found. A forgotten brightness fills your chest, and oh god how you missed it, this letting it all go and sinking and goodbye and thank you thank you – but wait wait wait: through the noise and the light, you can still deploy Radiohead's "Everything in its Right Place," the perfect antidote to "Euclid's Postulates."

In fact, the song is tucked away in the back of your mouth, like a spy's cyanide capsule, and you clasp down on the tune to release it, letting it pour from your mouth and every hole in your face, pushing the story and the book back.

The song's origins alone fend off the cynicism of "Euclid's Postulates." Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke famously suffered a mental breakdown (not unlike your own, here, now, at the hands of this book) before recording Kid A, the album on which "Everything in its Right Place" appears. The record confounded early critics for its departure from the winning sound of previous hits. Even the band's longtime producer, Nigel Godrich, wondered why Yorke would abandon what had always worked so well, but time inevitably demoralizes and defames you, systems fly apart, things break as a matter of course, and still the record opens with a song titled "Everything in its Right Place," as if ignoring or defying the music's complete departure from all that came before. It's a song wherein hardly anything is in its ‘right' place, when judged by the past, and so we're reminded that nothing is in its right place, not in this song or record or fight or even anywhere, and so it is and so it is and so it is.

Anyway, you win! (For now, if you accept this kind of bullshit, this absurd notion that there can be a difference between the right place and the wrong...which you do, thank god, if only to make it through the next moment.)

"Interior Design" vs Astor Piazzolla's "Primavera Portena"

Whew, close one. You've narrowly escaped death twice now. The wood is silent save for your exasperated breathing. That's When the Knives Come Down fumes quietly, looking you over. No longer will the book try merely to freeze or wear you down, but rather engage you directly and attempt to obliterate you. That's When the Knives Come Down pulls "Interior Design" from its satchel and you know immediately the danger.

A point of reference: in 1993's classic first-person-shooter, DOOM (oft heralded as one of the greatest games of all time, detailing one man's journey across Mars and through Hell, with shotguns and chainsaws), there is one particular weapon of great infamy: the BFG 9000.

This massive machine triggers a kind of large-scale Death Event. For example, if enacted in a room full of bullpigs and imps, a bizarre green flash appears first at the end of the gun's enormous barrel, with a riotous cracking sound, and then repeats upon (or even within) all the demons in the area, wresting apart every particle that defines their living selves. When aimed and fired, "Interior Design" works much the same way: it severs the connections between every molecule inside your body's working parts.

This isn't a metaphor but a fact. "Interior Design" is a terrible space gun and it's aimed at your chest.

The trick is to let the book fire the weapon (yes, you must) while simultaneously pressing play on Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla's masterful tango, "Primavera Portena." This song is gorgeous, yes, and violent, yes, but that's beside the point. Rather, "Interior Design" will not be able to divorce one part of you from another as intended because, at the moment the song begins, all the things inside of you will cling to each other blindly and begin to dance. The process is imperceptible to your senses, but most of what matters in the world happens at a scale beyond human perception, especially dancing.

Like the accordion that carries the song's melody, the particles of your body indeed stretch to capacity, dangerously so, but their grip never loosens, and at a moment of tonal climax, the accordion snaps closed to release a violent blast, as does your body. Then: silence. Dazed, That's When the Knives Come Down stares in disbelief at its own matte cover, now visibly tarnished.

Yes: not only have you escaped oblivion, but you've quite unexpectedly drawn first blood. You're not just living, but winning.

"Plunge Headlong into the Abyss with Guns Blazing and Legs Tangled" vs Sleater-Kinney's "What's Mine is Yours"

You've injured the book, but the damage is only superficial. Such injuries cannot stop That's When the Knives Come Down from thunderously revealing its next weapon: the story "Plunge Headlong into the Abyss with Guns Blazing and Legs Tangled." A horrendous work! this story is just a large, steel drill. There's nothing else to it. No words. No narrative. Just a drill.

And then it starts to spin. Slow at first, its engine rumbling, then fast, too fast to understand, and now here comes That's When the Knives Come Down, waving the drill and driving it toward your body. You look at your chest and know both exactly where this "abyss" is meant to go and whose tangled legs will be shoved through it.

Luckily, you've got Sleater-Kinney's "What's Mine is Yours" queued up on your mp3 player. Many factors make this song ripe for a fight – its sandpaper guitars, bulking rhythm and shrieking voices – but we need only the title. "What's Mine is Yours" might easily grant you your own terrible drill to fend off your foe's, by making "mine" become "yours," but instead the song does you one better. You have nothing, no real weapon to speak of that can rival this drill (now bearing down on you, getting closer to your sternum, so close you can feel the breeze of its spin on your skin) and that lack of a weapon, that nothing, is exactly what's "yours." And so the song gives your nothing to That's When the Knives Come Down, and it too is left without a weapon, with nothing, just at the moment it would have punctured your lungs.

The book looks embarrassed now, as the sound of the drill drops away. Where there should be a gnarled mass of bone and blood, the book instead sees its hand pressed gently to your chest, as if in a loving caress. "Sit down honey," the song sings to you both, "let's kill some time." For a moment, nothing matters, everything feels right. Both of you breathe quietly into the forest air. And with that, the book turns red and runs off into the night. You hear it running, quieter and quieter, until there's not a sound at all. That's it, you think? That's all you got? You look around, confused.

And when you make your way back home, retracing your steps through the wood and across the land, you want desperately to relax, for it all to be over, but no such luck: the battle has barely even started. You return home to find both a torrent of official-looking envelopes spilling from your mailbox and that your phone has been ringing without pause. "Kid," the book says when you timidly answer, "I'll see you in court."


#THE CIVIL FIGHT

That's When the Knives Come Down

"Kiss My Annulus" vs Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"

That's When the Knives Come Down denies legal counsel, chooses instead to represent itself, and now parades its superficial injuries before the court. You can hardly believe what you're watching unfold. The book rapidly gains the jury's sympathies, turning them against you, a lackluster defendant. You are accused of grievously harming the joyful prospects of this poor work of literature.

The wound in question is just a scratch, but That's When the Knives Come Down hams it up, playing on the jury's emotions, and paints the blemish as a deathblow. Who will buy me, the book asks, with a blemish like this on the cover? I'm barely even returnable, this is murder.

Chief among the book's legal strategies seems to be the use of "Kiss My Annulus," a story of interchanging voices and conspiracy. Employing it as some kind of proto-Meisner technique, the book can switch on a dime from one-liners to gut wrenching testimony, sucker-punching the jury with emotional fireworks. This case will ruin you, financially and professionally. That's When the Knives Come Down uses the story to give the judge and jury whatever narrative they need to believe, adjusting and squirming to meet their every emotional shift.

Your lawyer sits slackjawed and gobsmacked, totally useless in the face of this justice monster. You're on your own to turn this thing around, and you're up against a formidable, shape-shifting legal dancer. That's why your closing argument will consist entirely of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."

The song is direct, its message clear. Jackson declares his innocence and, by proxy, yours. Its power is well-known – one of the best selling singles in history, even the songwriter could not escape its power: Jackson is said to have not even noticed his car bursting into flames while listening to a cut of the track on the freeway. In this way, you will destroy "Kiss My Annulus," that slippery story and its many voices, through sheer entertainment and infectious pop.


And what of the book's claim that its surface level wounds will hurt sales? Bunk. "Billie Jean" famously opens with a 29 second introduction, which at the time was the longest intro ever created, and producer Quincy Jones wanted this "first impression" slashed from the final version. Jackson refused to let it go, and even this ‘blemish' couldn't hurt the track's sales – because the song was that good. That's When the Knives Come Down will have only itself to blame for its failures, "Billie Jean" says, and the jury nods, the jury agrees, yes, yes, and you are safe, you are free.


"There are Places in New York City that Do Not Exist" vs The Protomen's "The Hounds"

If That's When the Knives Come Down can't beat you in the US court system, then it will destroy you in the court of public opinion. Recovering from its legal fiasco, the book will unfurl the story "There Are Places in New York City that Do Not Exist," a story of fictions masquerading as facts, of rumors becoming ghosts, of absurd exaggerations, yes, but also of their very real consequences. Used correctly, "There Are Places in New York City that Do Not Exist" is not just a story about lies, but a story of lies about you specifically.


And the lies are not good, absolutely not. Using its contacts in the media, That's When the Knives Come Down spreads this story like invasive vineworks, reaching into the pages of popular magazines and websites, social media outlets and circles of discourse, always pedaling the notion that you (yes, you) are not worth a damn, that you've committed terrible acts, that you are to be reviled and dismissed.

What this story has to say about you, what it asks others believe about you, will embarrass and humiliate not just you, but anyone who has ever known you. The claims are unrepeatable, and for this very fact are repeated again and again. That they aren't true hardly matters, as the story specializes in making real what isn't there.

You'll be especially irked and undone by the fact that the story's assertions about your character are not only fallacious, but are in fact at a polar remove from what you believe and how you try to comport yourself. There is little more frustrating in this world than to have action interpreted in opposition to intention. To take a step forward and be rejected for your choice to move backward, this is the root of a special kind of hopelessness wherein personal agency is abundant but ultimately useless. You can do whatever you want, yet that hardly means a thing, this story says, and not just to you or itself, but to everyone.

Good news, though: you've got "The Hounds" by The Protomen, the perfect song with which to respond in this situation. Yes, this is a tune where truth masquerades as fiction, where honesty veils itself in spectacle. But, some bad news, too: as the song starts to play, you realize quickly that it does not refute or deny the allegations made against you, but instead corroborates and confirms them.

What? How is this an effective weapon in the court of public opinion?

Frankly, it's not, and that's the point. By conceding the terrible claims against your character, by forfeiting your chance to reclaim your dignity, you send a much clearer message: that you don't give a shit about your reputation anymore, that the battle is just you against this book and no one else.

At the press conference, as you admit to every injustice leveled against you, ignore the cameras and keep your eyes locked on those of That's When the Knives Come Down. Everything beyond your shared gaze drops away. For the first time in your life you feel the full weight of your body, unfettered by persona or character, and you can see the book knows what you know, knows the undeniable truth beneath all this grandstanding: that you're either going to rip every page from its spine or die trying.

"Anatomy of the Monster" vs The Dillinger Escape Plan's "43% burnt"

Sensing danger, That's When the Knives Come Down will seek to protect itself as it prepares its next, more potent and insidious move. As a shield, the book will use "Anatomy of the Monster," a story about walls, misdirection, illusion, and – most importantly – consumerism.

Many animals have developed outer layers to protect themselves, ranging from hair to shells to spikes to chunks of fat. In this same way, That's When the Knives Come Down uses "Anatomy of the Monster" to develop a line of sneaky merchandise in which to ensconce itself and hide from you.

Totes, t-shirts, bumper stickers, hats, headbands, Kindle Singles, pins, buttons, postcards and commemorative stamps, combined with interviews, industry essays, panel positions, podcast appearances and promotional stunts, establish a kind of commercial buffer around the book. It's thick and confusing and hard to absorb. This is the cloaking strategy provided by the story "Anatomy of the Monster," and it's working. You can't see That's Where the Knives Come Down anywhere, just all this consumer crap.

Worse, it acts as a kind of quicksand. As you reach into the mass of merch to search around for the real book, you find it hard to extricate yourself. The more you struggle, the more you buy, and you find that you're losing both money and precious oxygen. At this rate, it's going to prove very hard to rip every page from the book's spine, but all too easy to die trying.

"43% Burnt" by Morris Plains, New Jersey mathcore band, The Dillinger Escape Plan, is your match in the dark. This song sets "Anatomy of the Monster"'s camouflage method ablaze. The music's impressive pace and intensity burns the merchandise and combusts the promotional material, cutting a smoky hole through the thicket of product. You're able to remain unharmed and escape due to the absurd precision of the mathcore band's guitar work and drumming. So too, though, does That's When the Knives Come Down emerge unscathed. Still, with exactly 43% of the crap destroyed, you finally have a clear line of sight straight to the book. Now is your chance. Yes.

All sense of relief and success is brushed aside, however, when you see what the book is preparing for you.


#THE SPIRITUAL FIGHT

That's When the Knives Come Down

"Tuning Forks" vs Kate Bush's "There Goes a Tenner"

Through the ashen remains of so much bonus material, you see That's When the Knives Come Down rigging up a story you'd hoped to avoid: "Tuning Forks." You were counting on getting in the kill shot before this could happen, but that hand was never in the cards.

"Tuning Forks" is a dangerous weapon. The book has aimed, fired, and hit you with it, too. The full weight of its power knocks you to your knees. Is this it? Pain rears through your muscles. The damage is done.

Here's how it works: this story helps you to question your belief in what makes you you. Are you your body? Your actions? What about the part of your body you hate and don't want? What about the things you've done and wish you hadn't? Are you all of them, some of them, none of them? Look at yourself, sprawled out on the ground thinking about it. In fact, you should have a pretty good vantage point to see yourself. Why? Because this story finds the part of you that actually is you, and squeezes it out of your useless body.

Now, "you" are floating there above your physical shell like some kind of fart that no one wants.

But what's that? Your physical self gets up? On its own? Without you?

Yes, while you hover around uselessly, your body ambles around on its own without your direction. You float above and watch as your legs propel your torso, as your arms lift up a set of speakers and aim them at That's When the Knives Come Down. You watch your hands press play on a little stereo. Who does this body think it is? It's nothing without you, you think, blowing around in the breeze, helpless and looking at your feet as they dance to Kate Bush's "There Goes a Tenner".

Great, you think, this song will really show That's When the Knives Come Down. Kate Bush, the wild mind, that untamed voice, yes, nothing can stop her. This book is in trouble, you think, and something in you loosens. Oh? You're already gliding in the wind, but suddenly you feel even lighter. You see that the speakers are aimed not at the book, but at you, and you hear your body say to That's When the Knives Come Down, "Are you kidding? Fuck my soul and fuck you," just as "There Goes a Tenner" hits the chorus and whatever's left of your formless self disappears. You don't even know you're gone. You don't even know you're nothing.


#THE BIOLOGICAL FIGHT

That's When the Knives Come Down

"How to Have Sex on Other Planets" vs Hall and Oates' "Maneater"

You (in physical form) stand between your speakers and face That's When the Knives Come Down. The bullshit cloud of nothing purporting to be your "self" is gone, and the spiritual battle is over.

While you catch your breath, the book has already launched its next attack. That's When the Knives Come Down slides up next to you and slips a needle into your thigh, injecting the story "How to Have Sex on Other Planets" right into your bloodstream.

If you're not quick, things will get ugly fast. "How to Have Sex on Other Planets" concerns a continuum wherein death and life slide in and around each other fluidly. You know, the usual. There are very few places where a clear line is drawn between life and death. A reasonable example might be gametes, or sex cells, which are pivotal in producing new life. And that's exactly why "How to Have Sex on Other Planets" is barrelling through veins to meet your gametes.

Here's how it will go down: the story will sort of rewrite the code in your gametes so that instead of helping to engender life, the cells instead make space. Not death, but pure space. Just emptiness. Every time you sleep with someone, or even masturbate, you'll get a little emptier. Until there's nothing left of you. If that already sounds like your life, just imagine it getting a lot worse. And imagine that feeling manifesting itself physically, where the emptiness is not just a notion, but a thing. In other words, "How to Have Sex on Other Planets" turns your sexual energy into a flesh-eating disease. It's only a matter of time before your desire eats you whole. You may have felt this to be true already, yet disease is often just the amplification of our own nascent traits. You will become yourself to the point of annihilation.

Obviously, you're going to need to swallow some Hall and Oates. Any song will do,

but "Maneater" is the obvious choice. This song functions in the same way as a lot of other cures: by fooling the infectious element into thinking its work is complete. Essentially, when ingested, the song bleats out its chorus, "She's a maneater," and confuses the emptiness: "I'm already here?" it thinks, "This person is already being consumed? I guess my job is done," and it heads off to hide away, totally satisfied. As long as this song plays inside of you, the emptiness can be kept at bay. That is, you can be kept at bay, from yourself. Turn it on, and turn it up. You're safe, for now.

"Cells" vs "Division Street" by Ravens & Chimes

You have to know by now that That's When the Knives Come Down anticipated this contingency. Of course it saw Hall and Oates coming from a mile away.

Yes, you can take your daily injections of "Maneater," every day, for years on end, feeling safe at last from yourself and the type of person you were afraid you could someday become. Stability and security and friendship and comfort abound. You have this routine, and this pattern on which to rely, and you are free from worry. You laugh, you love. You are happy.

But That's When the Knives Come Down has always been in it for the long con.

Like so many diseases, the one you've held off for so long will gain resistance to your treatments. Our best medicines foster the worst infections. MRSA, GISA gain traction in the hospitable by virtue of our hard work and ingenuity. And the very thing you've counted on as an affirmation of your ever-increasing safety shall be your undoing: time. With every passing day, you've felt more comfortable and self-assured, and time's ongoing passage will continue to support your belief that things are getting better – while it quietly contributes to a machinery that will prove just the opposite.

In fact, it is the very act of trying to better yourself day in and day out that so deftly creates the weapon with which this book will strike you next: the short story, "Cells." This piece concerns the way in which good intentions form the foundation of our worst choices. And by routinely taking your medicine, you help to strengthen "Cells" so that it can undermine and undo you.

Have you ever built a magnificent Jenga tower? Tall and impressive? Block after block, stacked one atop the other, it grows in glory and wonder, defying belief. You have a system and it's working, you think. But you know what happens to a Jenga tower. With a little time and commitment, it's always the same. And just like that, your routine shall fail you. Your comfort will leave you. Friends and loved ones will disappear. Not by force, but casually and through coincidence. Don't act like you don't already know this. It won't be sudden like a collapsing Jenga tower, but it will be just as final: the people in your life, and the things you count on to define it, will be gone. It has happened before and must again. Without them, and the lattice work they drew over your life, you can finally face that empty core which has been waiting to reveal itself, stronger and sharper and more self-assured than ever before. You are not the friends you've had, "Cells" insists, and you are not the routine that has comforted you, no, but instead you are the feeling that's left behind without them. Whatever you feel then, "Cells" says, that's you – that's the real you. That moment alone.

It is this version of you that That's When the Knives Come Down hopes to draw out and finally kill.

Luckily, the band Ravens & Chimes has just the track to counter this attack. The song "Division Street," off their sophomore record, Holiday Life, can deflect "Cells" The lyrics of "Division Street" at first merely bolster the story's gambit: "All my friends are gone / Don't know what happened / Don't know where they went. / In the crowds they came, / And covered over all the things we are," it sings. Yes, just as "Cells" planned it, whoever we really are, the songs says, has been lost in the trappings of our homes and friends and traditions. But the chorus goes on: "And they took our names, / And told us we were never here at all." And it is this final line that undercuts the book's attempt to strike you. The notion that there is something truer than the tiny elements and routines that make up your days is fallacious and romantic. There is nothing else. Only accoutrement. When time strips it all away, there is nothing there. Not you, not anything. That's When the Knives Come Down will swing its story sword and hit only air. You are not there and never were, thank god. And so you are safe.


#THE FINAL FIGHT

That's When the Knives Come Down

"Investment Banking in Reverse" vs Akron/Family's "Don't Be Afraid, You're Already Dead"

That's When the Knives Come Down will be humbled by its mistake. It plotted a years-long offensive, only to whiff at the critical moment. This does not mean it will give up in trying to end you. It will only change tactics. To truly finish this pattern of parry and return, one of you is going to have to die. It's either you or this book. If you want to come out on top, you're going to have to cleverly handle the story collection's next two attacks. These are its final moves, and they are its most devastating.

First, That's When the Knives Come Down is a quick learner. Having established that you do not actually exist beyond the collection of things and people that surround you, it will endeavor to gain control of these possessions and routines and acquaintances. Doing so will prove surprisingly simple. The story "Investment Banking in Reverse" serves as its blueprint for the plan. It is a story about the power of the loan and debt industry. Like so many people, it is likely that you have incurred some kind of debt. If not financial, then emotional.

That's When the Knives Come Down will negotiate with the company overseeing your largest debts, will buy your account for pennies on the dollar and use this as leverage to gain control over your life. The work you do will be in service of the book. The things you own will become a kind of collateral. What you do and have will become blurry. Do you really wake at this hour, make this commute, and work this job, at the expense of so many other pursuits, by dint of your own agency? Or do you do it for the book? Wanting it to be one way over the other won't make it so.

And these things, you will wonder: are they (by virtue of being in my home and within reach) mine? Or (since the book has the potential to reclaim it all through the channels of law and litigation) is none of this really mine at all? Through shrewd business measures and immaculately written fine-print, the book will make it all too clear who is in control.

Interest rates will rise and your day will become more regimented. Penalties will be leveled and your objects and possessions will be moved beyond your reach. Resisting only makes it worse. Not working and not paying the interest – this only tightens the financial grip with which the book holds and molds you. You are nothing if not these things and these choices, but these things and choices are not yours. The book, finally, has power over you. Its paperwork and directives incite your movements and your decisions. Its mergers and inter-office politics guide your actions more than your own inner feelings. If you feel sad about it all one day, your loans aren't going to disappear. But if That's When the Knives Come Down (CEO of the loan company) feels sad one day, its decisions just might make your debts grow even bigger, your choices even starker. What you want and what you feel has almost nothing to do with it anymore.

This all sounds pretty dire. And in a way it is. But not in the manner the book has intended.

Rather, when you've returned from work one afternoon, gently put on Akron/Family's "Don't be Afraid, You're Already Dead." Sit back in your armchair and relax. This song can undermine the predatory lending schemes of That's When the Knives Come Down in one fell swoop.

The book's plan was a good one, we can give it that. You, as a person and a being, are nothing more than the possessions and actions that make up your daily life; to wrest control of these items and decisions from you seems like a surefire victory for the story collection. Yet it overlooks a simple fact: you didn't have control to give in the first place.

"Don't be afraid," the song sings, "you're already dead." And that's exactly the point: you don't need to be afraid of That's When the Knives Come Done controlling your life – because you were never in control in the first place.

This is no new development. It doesn't matter if the book has the paperwork to your life or not. It doesn't change a thing. At best, you are a thing that happens to yourself, and that's true no matter who gets paid.

As That's When the Knives Come Down has invested a great deal of time and money and energy into something that is essentially moot and basically useless, it looks like you come out on top in this round. You didn't have to lift a finger. I mean, you do have to concede that you ultimately retain no agency and exert no control over the outcome or circumstances of your life in order to justify the scenario in which you "win," but so it goes. So, yeah, you win.

"Nuee Ardente" vs Josh Ritter's "Temptation of Adam"

The book has one more story to throw down in this fight. "Nuee Arente," the last story in the book, details a large scale natural disaster. The protagonist is far removed from the action, but there is ample evidence that the world at large has been destroyed. And it is this story that the book will use as the frame for its final move.

"Nuee Ardente" is a kind of nuclear weapon or Death Star. It ends everything. After it, there is nothing. The premise of the attack is simple: if That's When the Knives Come Down cannot control the specific things that define you (and if it is difficult to decide where those things begin and end in relation to the rest of the world and all of its objects and circumstances), then That's When the Knives Come Down will simply eliminate all things, everywhere and all at once. It's a last ditch effort to be the winner of this fight. Unable to hammer into the wall the nail that is you, the book will blow up the whole house instead. It's inefficient but should do the job. There's no need for semantics or mixed metaphors: if everything is gone, so are you. There is an elegance and simplicity to this overwrought plan which cannot be denied.

So, how on earth can you deflect this all encompassing attack? Like so many bombs before it, especially those aimed at an irrevocable end, "Nuee Ardente" has a timer, slowly ticking away, one second at a time. You may hope to diffuse it, but this is impossible. You might hope to reset the clock to last longer, but it is unchangeable. The seconds tick on without your consent and there will be no interference. This bomb is going off and everything is going to end, your life included. You cannot even see how much time is left, but instead must be satisfied with the fact that time is limited and finite, however much there is.

You will not be cutting the green wires or the red. No, instead, take out Josh Ritter's "The Temptation of Adam," a song about two people passing the time in a missile silo. It's a pleasant song, and I hope you like it. You will listen to it as the clock moves forward toward the unstoppable explosion.

Between now and when the clock finally stops, you can endeavor to enjoy yourself, to become entwined with people and things and places before they disappear. You can find your little bedroom, a tiny nook in which to hide away and dream, about anything at all, and you can come to know the way the smell of sauteed onions from another room on a late afternoon can mingle so perfectly with your solitude, the passage of time. If you are both prudent and lucky, it is possible for the end result to at least be confusing, if still final. You are going to blow up, and you are going to explode, along with everything else when the book's bomb finally goes off, sometime between now and eternity, but it is possible that someone could wonder if you still won anyhow. It is possible to wonder that. This curiosity would be wrong, of course – you aren't going to win, you're going to lose (you had to have known this from the beginning, right?) – but it is still possible to leave room for doubt. Maybe you lived, and maybe you liked it, they will say. Yes, maybe.


Dolan Morgan and That's When the Knives Come Down links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Publishers Weekly review

Almost Live at Mellow Pages interview with the author
Electric Literature interview with the author
Vol. 1 Brooklyn 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

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists

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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