February 25, 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.
Matt Burriesci's Nonprofit, winner of the AWP Prize for the Novel, is a smart and funny debut.
Charles Yu wrote of the book:
"The prose in Nonprofit is cut with a sharp tool from stone, words and sentences fitting together just right, with nothing seeming to be wasted or out of place. The dry, bleak wit, unrelenting and consistently funny, reminds me more than a little of Helen DeWitt. [T]he writer has the amazing ability to generate and sustain forward narrative velocity almost completely from the twin engines of dim hope and awful dread this sense of rolling forward toward disaster....[T]he novel never loses its nuanced, dark and funny tone, all of which is tempered by a small kernel of warmth, love, and buried optimism at the core of the story."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I can't actually write or revise while music is playing (I'm an ARTIST! I REQUIRE COMPLETE SILENCE FOR MY GENIUS!), but I always create a playlist for projects I'm working on. Often I pick songs for the playlist before I know why I picked them, and then I listen to them whenever I'm thinking about the book–– when I'm in the car, or getting groceries, or just walking around. Then when I'm revising, I go back and whittle the playlist down to the songs that turned out to be the most meaningful. There were 34 songs on the original playlist, but these are the 13 that made the revision playlist.
I don't know if other writers do this, but I always imagine what it would be like as a movie, so of course there are "soundtrack" songs. But other songs on the playlist capture the particulars of a scene (the actual events that transpire), or the feeling I want to convey (the tone, or the emotions I want to create in the reader, or the mental state of a particular character), or just the things I was thinking about when I was writing.
"E-Pro" by Beck
I ripped off the opening scene of Nonprofit from the open to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep: our hero, a man of modest means, is introduced into the bizarre world of the wealthy, where he clearly does not fit in (and he's far less capable than Philip Marlowe). He's been summoned to meet with the nonprofit's biggest donor, a strange woman named Alice Cavanaugh Williams. He's made to wait in a strange white room for an obscene amount of time, where he's attended to by various domestic servants. Finally the donor emerges, acknowledges his presence, and our hero is immediately dismissed without any further discussion. In the "movie version" in my mind, I imagine him standing outside the home in the doorway, immediately after being dismissed, trying to figure out what the hell just happened, and this song blares as the title credits roll. It starts so dissonant and loud, so it's a jarring juxtaposition to the fancy pants mansion, and the song contains these words, "Don't forget to pickup what you sow/talkin' trash to the garbage around you." I had some real contempt for some of the antagonists, who aren't really evil so much as they are indifferent.
"I'm Dancing in the Show Tonight" by Ween
A lot of Nonprofit is about "assuming the position," often in absurd circumstances, and this song cracks me up. The song is about a little girl getting ready to dance in a recital. The song is told from the little girl's perspective, but it's performed by a clearly inebriated man. For me, this song sums up the absurdity I was trying to capture in the book. The main character is put in these bizarre situations, but he's got to constantly behave as if nothing is strange. "Are my lemons tied? / is my hair in place? / have I got a cute expression on my face? / Are my shoes all shined? / I'll try to keep in line / When I'm dancin' in the show tonight."
"Enjoy the Silence" by Nada Surf
This is another soundtrack song. It's an alt-rock cover of the Depeche Mode song. The "second plot" of Nonprofit involves the main character's struggle to conceive a child with his wife, and I imagined this song playing after the very last scene in the book. This song took on a whole new meaning for me once I was a dad.
"Here Comes Your Man" by Vitamin String Quartet
I'm a huge Pixies fan, and this song really helped me find the tone of the book. The biggest problem I have when writing a book is finding the voice, the tone––the sound of it. For me if I can figure out how the book is told, and the voice of the narrator, then usually most everything else will fall into place. I usually can't figure that out, and so the books fall apart. I'll start with a plot idea, but then the book becomes a labored, forced mess where people are just exchanging information and doing things to each other. There's no feeling to any of it, which I guess is the result of a lack of style. I found the style for Nonprofit after listening to the Vitamin String Quartet cover of "Here Comes Your Man." I imagined being at a fancy-pants benefit with this song playing (this version actually sounds perfectly appropriate for such an affair), but then I imagined a completely inappropriate Pixies song playing, like "Gouge Away" or "Something Against You," and I thought about a sea of horrified wrinkled WASPs. I imagined a man describing such a scene if he's standing outside his body, as if someone else was narrating his life as it unfolded, and I found the way to tell the story.
"As We Go Up, We Go Down" by Guided by Voices
Something I thought about a lot when I was writing Nonprofit was the issue of social class, specifically how one class is becoming increasingly distant from the rest of society, sort of ‘pulling away' from everyone else. The aristocracy is beginning to inhabit a reality that is actually different from the reality everyone else knows––it has different laws, different institutions, and different problems. This is one of GBV's catchier ditties. Like most of their stuff, I have no idea what it's actually about, so I pretend it's about that notion: that sometimes getting ahead is actually falling behind.
"‘Til I can Gain Control Again" by This Mortal Coil
When the book came out, I was surprised that a lot of people commented on how sad it was, but I guess I did listen to this song a lot when I was writing it. It's basically the saddest song ever. Another cover (Willie Nelson did the original), but there's something really desperate in this version–– like the singer is pleading for their husband/wife/partner to just be patient while the singer gets it together, but you're pretty sure it's not gonna work out. There's a lot of that in the book–– the main character is just trying to hold on to what he's got for dear life, and he's about an inch a way from losing everything.
"Ride Into The Sun" by Lou Reed
A lot of the book is about the city of Washington, DC, which can be a very harsh place to live. People keep explaining how cities work to the hero, how "this town" is different from all other towns. There's a snobby pride about living in DC, and yet there's also a stubborn nostalgia for a better city that existed sometime in the past. Nobody can identify what changed, but everybody knows it wasn't good. I prefer this version to the Velvet Underground version, which was recorded in their weird stint with the alternate vocalist. It's cynical but strangely optimistic at the same time. "Oh, the city….where everything seems so…dirty/ but if you're tired and you're filled with self pity / remember that you're just one more / person who's there."
"Good Times, Bad Times" by Led Zeppelin
Mostly for the opening verse, "In the days of my youth / I was told what it means to be a man…" The main character in the book has this problem where his balls are literally shrinking, so he has a crisis as a man–- it's not just that he can't conceive a child, but also that he can't provide for his family, or be what society expects him to be "as a man." But he does try to do all those things as best he can.
"Fight Test" by Flaming Lips
Along with the stuff about 'being a man' in the book, I thought a lot about courage, and what it is, and why it's important. I'm an anxious, neurotic person, so I guess this theme is on my mind a lot. The main character starts off as a bit of a coward, but then is pushed so far that he has to confront his cowardice, and remedy the defect in his character.
"Cause I'm a man, not a boy / and there are things you can't avoid / you have to face them / when you're not prepared to face them."
"Van Helsing Boombox" by Man Man
This is a great song from a freaky band. To me, it speaks to the structure of the book, which is basically Vonnegut's "Man in Hole" story shape. I have no idea why this song is called "Van Helsing Boom Box," because it doesn't appear to have anything to do with vampires or boom boxes. Whatever––it's Man Man. Don't go looking for rational explanations. But it does have to do with the book, because things go from bad to worse for our hero. "Only time will tell if I'll allow / the scenery around me to eat me alive…"
"Commissioning a Symphony in C" by Cake
The main storyline of the book is about a guy who tries to save an arts organization from collapsing into bankruptcy. This song cracks me up because I think it's very true of the arts– that oftentimes a work of great art is produced with the patronage of awful people with bizarre motivations. "With money you squeezed from the peasants / to your nephew you can give it as a present…"
"Sweet Child of Mine" by Luna
GNR gets Luna-fied! I always though this song was about Axl Rose's girlfriend, but then I found out it was about his kid and suddenly it became the sweetest song I'd ever heard. So this song has a lot of secret heart to it, and it hits you in the gut when you least expect it. I thought that was a neat trick to steal from Axl Rose.
"Don't Ya Rile ‘Em" by Frank Black
I love the Pixies, but I really think some of Frank Black's solo stuff is even better, especially this tune. There's a moment in the book where the main character really loses his marbles, and throughout, he's really at risk of going off the deep end–– this song echoed that feeling for me as I was writing it. "I've been working my way back to sane / It's coming back to me again / old navigational ways…"
Matt Burriesci and Nonprofit links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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