January 22, 2015
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.
Robert Repino's debut novel Mort(e) is an impressive work of speculative fiction, daring and enormously entertaining.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"With sly references to Orwell’s Animal Farm, debut novelist Repino puts a nicely modern post-apocalyptic overlay on the fable of animals taking over the world . . . an engrossing morality tale with unexpected depths."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My science fiction novel tells the story of a war between humans and animals. The instigator of the war is the queen of a colony of intelligent ants, who is determined to wipe out the humans and remake the world in her image. The centerpiece of her plan is a specially designed hormone that transforms the surface animals into intelligent, bipedal killing machines who turn on their masters. In the midst of this insanity, a housecat named Sebastian adopts the name Mort(e) and joins the war effort. But foremost on his mind is the fate of a friend from before the conflict began, a dog named Sheba whom he assumes has been killed. Years after the war is won, Mort(e) receives a mysterious message from the dwindling human resistance claiming that Sheba is alive. Thus he begins a search that will lead him to the heart of the ant colony, where he will discover the true purpose of the war and the fate of all of the earth's creatures.
What follows are the songs I would consider the soundtrack for the book. Some inspired me while I wrote. Some articulate the themes better than my prose could. And some just fit with a particular scene or character.
Edwyn Collins: "A Girl Like You"
While still a pet confined to his master's house, Sebastian first spots Sheba through a window, a moment every bit as jarring as the drastic transformation that awaits him later in the story. To him, Sheba is "mysterious and exotic…a creature from another world." Later, they draw closer, though still separated by the glass. Sheba tries to lick him, but they have to settle for simply staring at one another for now. Any time I read or watch some kind of unorthodox love story, I think of the one-hit wonder by Collins. I can imagine the song playing while Sebastian stupidly gapes at the incomprehensible site of this creature before him. And that line that everyone remembers—"You made me acknowledge the devil in me"—hints at the way Sebastian will become so single-minded in his pursuit of Sheba that he will abandon all other loyalties, and even, at one point, any sense of morality.
Beres Hammond: "They Gonna Talk"
When Sebastian and Sheba finally have the opportunity to meet without interference, they begin a strange affair in which the two animals cuddle in the cold basement while their masters are off doing their human things. For Sebastian, who never had a friend until now, finding Sheba is part of his realization that he is more of a prisoner of this house than a member of the master's family. I've imagined myself dancing to Hammond's song if I ever married a woman whom my family did not approve, so I thought it was appropriate here for this interspecies relationship. I love the smiling way Hammond asks, "Why not let it be/and stop worrying about it?"
Sam Cooke: "A Change Is Gonna Come"
The animals refer to their transformation simply as the "Change," so I admit that this selection is a bit on the nose. In earlier drafts of the book, I imagined the animals co-opting some of the twentieth century songs of freedom and struggle, reinterpreting the lyrics to suit their present condition. A common sentiment expressed in Mort(e) is that the animals now have the opportunity to finally avenge the countless generations that came before them, who would never be able to speak for themselves. Thus, I think it's perfect when Cooke drags out that line, "It's been a long, a long time coming." I think that line, even more than the title, serves as a reminder and a warning to those who have stood in the way.
Everything But the Girl: "Missing"
This is the second of three songs from around 1995—the year I turned 17, not surprisingly. "Missing" conveys a lot of self-inflicted angst, a message that resonated with me even after the millionth time I heard it on the radio that year.
Back to the novel: after Sheba is lost in the chaos of the war, Sebastian (now Mort(e)) is haunted by what he could have done to save her. And like the "Missing" song in 1995, the memory is rattling around in his head every day.
Stevie Wonder: "Superstition"
Although this track falls under the category of songs that I listened to while writing, the lyrics make it a soundtrack for the character of Culdesac, the bobcat who has sworn his life to the Queen's cause. Shortly after recruiting Sebastian to join the elite Red Sphinx, Culdesac gives him a speech about what he considers to be the ultimate the folly of humans: their tendency to believe that they are the center of the universe, that they have dominion over other species, that a creator made them him in his image. As Stevie sings, "When you believe in things that you don't understand/Then you suffer/Superstition ain't the way." Regardless of the lyrics, the beat makes this a song that would play while Culdesac swaggers into a room or drives a Humvee with his elbow propped on the open window.
Mort(e) channels his anger into becoming a better soldier in the struggle against humanity, and the energy of Tupac's "Untouchable" fits with the montage sequence in chapter four, in which Mort(e), among other things, charges into a pitched battle, hunts humans in the forest, and tosses a sniper from a rooftop. "Each murder was revenge for his loss," the narrator of the novel states. "Every human who pleaded for mercy, every man or woman who whispered a prayer to the old man in the sky, had to pay for Sheba." For the purposes of this playlist, Tupac's line "Ya'll remember me" is probably the most relevant, given that the animals consider it an honor to find and kill humans whom they knew before the war.
Claude DeBussy: "Clair de lune"
One of my favorites scenes in the book involves members of the Red Sphinx gathering secretly to drink a "greenish-brown" liquor made from the "active ingredient in catnip." They reminisce, share regrets, exchange jokes, reveal gossip. In the background, "light piano music" plays, making a "tinkling sound" that "was pleasing to the feline ear." I always thought of the music in that scene as DeBussy's classic work. Later, when I read the poem that inspired the movement, which explores sadness and beauty and hope, I became more convinced that this song had to be the one playing on the Red Sphinx's stereo.
Peter Gabriel: "Digging in the Dirt"
It has taken a few years, but I have now fashioned my Peter Gabriel Pandora station into a work of art, and it's always a thrill when this song comes up. I mean, he screams "Shut your mouth/I know what you are!" at one point! I included this song because it explores the way that the past can have a stranglehold on the present, a theme that comes up with all of the characters in my book. Several of the chapters are simply titled "The Story of Culdescac," "The Story of Sebastian and Sheba," etc. In doing so, I intended to show how the trauma of the Change made these characters who they are, even when they tell themselves that they remain the masters of their fate.
Hozier: "Take Me to Church"
This is a new song, so I can't say that it inspired the writing process. However, it took only one listen to declare it the unofficial anthem of Mort(e). Late in the book, our hero discovers that he is the prophesied messiah who will destroy the Queen—at least, that's what the humans' sacred scriptures claim. As a rational being trained to reject human superstition, Mort(e) dismisses the prophecy for the primitive nonsense it is. Hozier's song reflects Mort(e)'s sheer disgust at the idea of being a chosen one: "Take me to church/I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/ I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife/Offer me that deathless death/Good God, let me give you my life." For Hozier, like Mort(e), only the people we love are worthy of worship, not the silent gods who speak through high priests and magic books.
mewithoutYou: "Torches Together"
Mort(e) takes place in the ruins of Philadelphia, so I needed to get one of my favorite local bands on this playlist. "Torches" makes me think of the battle sequence near the end of the book, not just because of its fast pace (and screaming), but because of the vulnerability and self-doubt it conveys: "Strum the guitar if you're afraid/And I'm afraid and everyone's afraid and everyone knows it/But we don't have to be afraid anymore." The warriors are not superheroes. Instead, they have been forced into this conflict, and have to tell themselves that they are brave enough to see it through.
Sinead O'Connor: "Thank You for Hearing Me"
I don't want to give away too much about why this song works for the end of the novel. I'll just say that in the closing pages, the characters sit on a beach and contemplate what they've been through, and what they owe each other. The simplicity of O'Connor's song captures the moment, showing equal gratitude for the good times and the bad.
Belle and Sebastian: "My Wandering Days Are Over"
The third mid-nineties song on the list. And I'm not entirely sure what it's about. I just think of it as the song that would play during the closing credits. I interpret the lyrics to mean that the wandering days are actually just beginning—that the real wandering starts when the familiar world of one's youth is unmercifully stripped away, and we are left with only our wits and our determination to keep moving forward in the dark. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.
Robert Repino and Mort(e) links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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