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March 25, 2015

Book Notes - John Renehan "The Valley"

The Valley

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.

John Renehan's novel The Valley is a propulsive debut, a smart mystery set among Army forces in Afghanistan.

Foreign Policy wrote of the book:

"Renehan has a fine eye for the etiquette of the Army, as delicate and complex as the rural aristocracy depicted in Jane Austen's novels."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is John Renehan's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Valley:


When I was a kid I played piano, and then drums and the whole family of percussion instruments. As a teenager I fell in love with the "mallet keyboards" – vibraphone, marimba, etc. Something about the layout of the keyboard being the same as the piano so you could make the same music, except you hit the keys instead of pressing them, which I liked. (That probably makes me sound like an angry person. I'm not an angry person.) It seemed like this acrobatic accomplishment, two or four mallets in your hands at once, limbs flying across this six-foot-long keyboard like some crazed maestro, full of all your boyish self-serious intensity and concentration. For my college audition I didn't know what you were supposed to play and didn't know any of the standard orchestral literature, so I transcribed the middle movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and the entirety of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, on vibraphone. It must have been the weirdest audition the professor had ever seen, this gangly self-taught kid with bad four-mallet technique coming in with this mad-scientist selection of pieces. I squeaked by and was a music major for a of couple years and had ridiculous ideas about writing film scores or leading some modern revival of Romantic composers until I realized that I didn't have the ear to compose music. I quit and decided to compose words instead, and a mere 22 years later I actually finished a novel.

So I guess music, or musical failure, is sort of responsible for The Valley. And I guess I still think of myself as "a musician," even though with kids and jobs and the rest of it I almost never play anymore and haven't done a proper gig in about ten years. My oldest and dearest friends are all musicians, so in my head I'm sort of grandfathered in. In any event, I'm sure all this is why music had such a prominent role in the book's plot.

'Friar Park,' 'Village Dance,' 'Sandhya Raga' – Ravi Shankar

I discovered Shankar, the world-ambassador of Indian classical music, during a slow period of our Iraq deployment when my unit was back living on the Forward Operating Base ("fob"), so I've always associated his music with the surreal life of those sprawling patchwork cities we built in the desert. There's a scene where Black, the book's protagonist, walks through the back alleys and shanty world of the FOB at night, catching glimpses of the little deployment worlds people have made for themselves. There's always someone in the Army who's got Vietnam on the brain and rigs up his "hootch" (whatever makeshift little living space you sleep in) with tapestries and incense and all that. Shankar is the kind of thing you'd hear coming from one of those hootches. To me, something about his music just captures that odd parallel nightworld of the FOBs, especially some of his other more atmospheric and cross-genre pieces like "Chappaqua," "Vaishna Janato," or "Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram." I listened to Shankar endlessly while writing Part One of the book, before Black leaves the FOB for the Nuristan mountains.

Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider, Live in Marciac, Jazz a Vienne, Largo

There's no Brad Mehldau music in the book, but if there's a single musician or type of music I associate with the story the most, he's it. I recognize that probably makes me sound crazy, hearing a jazz pianist behind a mountain-war-mystery story, but there it is. I listened to his music more than any other while writing the second half of the book.

I'm one of those people who only works with music playing, whether I'm writing or at my day job. This probably isn't good for my mildly obsessive nature. When I'm tired especially, I'll find myself writing a scene listening to a particular track and then putting it on loop, over and over, trying to keep that feeling or inspiration it gave me until my head hurts and I have to stop and walk away. On the other hand I can't imagine what the process of writing would look like – especially all the "think work" when you're not actually sitting in front of the computer – without everything music brings to it. I'll get whole scenes or characters or plotlines from the feeling a piece of music gives me. So I guess I'm stuck with music.

The plot of The Valley is driven by Black's steadily building obsession. At the outset he can't believe he got stuck with this trivial, undignified assignment and has no intention of doing anything more than the bare minimum. As he comes to realize that there is more to the outpost than meets the eye, that nearly everyone there is lying to him or playing him somehow, he becomes fixated, bit-by-bit, on discovering what the hell is going on. He's come to the outpost with a giant chip on his shoulder, fed up with the Army that has wronged him and has told him he's a disgrace, and now all that is redirected at the soldiers and sergeants in this lonely place who won't deal with him straight. It all fuels his obsession. It's a last-straw moment for him personally, and it just makes him mad – literally maddens him.

I got turned on to Brad Mehldau by a professional sax-player friend who noticed I'd been listening to some other jazz pianists who had some tracks with really strong ostinato motifs (Josh Nelson's Discoveries album; Jason Lindner's "Information Kiss" and "Meditation on Two Chords," or his amazing Ab Aeterno collaboration with bassist Omer Avital). He sent me to listen to Mehldau, who is just a master at constructing these long, intense solos, frequently over ostinato sequences. The motif repeats over and over, and the solo just builds and builds. Tracks like "Old West" or "Highway Rider" from his sprawling jazz-symphonic Highway Rider album, "Teardrop" from Jazz a Vienne, or "Lilac Wine" from Live in Marciac. Something about the dynamics of that, the motif circling around and around while the intensity builds, was exactly the kind of long structure and experience I was trying to build for the reader through the second half of The Valley, as Black's own obsession builds on itself and his thoughts become more circular and fixated and the danger to him increases, until he hits the stress wall and experiences a kind of psychological break, and more or less loses it for a little bit.

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis – Ralph Vaughan Williams

There's an old classical music anecdote in which a famous British conductor disparages Vaughan Williams' music, to which a Vaughan Williams supporter says, Well, what about the Tallis fantasia? Surely that's a worthy work? To which the critic replies something to the effect of: True; it's just a pity he didn't include a theme by Thomas Tallis in all his works. Yuk yuk.

Well, fine. He is not Beethoven, but he is something. I heard this short, amazing piece for the first time on a classical radio station in college and have been mildly obsessed with it ever since. Black hasn't heard a lot of classical music before, and as the violinmaker-slash-soldier who gives him a copy tells him, there's no other symphonic piece like it; it's its own type. Like a good fantasia it is not bound by strict form, though it's not without structure. It's a musical picture above all – the sort of thing people call "ethereal" because they don't know what else to call it. Black listens to it as the convoy carrying him to the Valley climbs into the looming mountain range beneath brooding thunderheads. He sees deep orange otherworldly sunsets over dark hilltop horizons and black seas. It seemed like the perfect representation of the dark ocean of Black's own troubled thoughts at that moment.


'Kashmir' – Led Zeppelin

The soldiers taking Black to the Valley play 'Kashmir' at top volume in their Humvee, beating back anxiety as the convoy climbs through a treacherous stretch of pitch-black mountain "road" barely wide enough to contain the big military vehicles. The part of Afghanistan where the story takes place abuts Pakistan and the Kashmir region, so I more or less had to pick this song for that scene. In addition to classical music, Black is also weirdly unaware of most popular music (for reasons that aren't really explained in this book), and when the soldiers play the track they're flabbergasted that he doesn't recognize it. But he likes it.

'Xanadu' – Rush, Exit . . . Stage Left (live)

You weren't allowed to be a drum nerd in the '80s without going through a period when you believed that the Canadian art-rock trio Rush was the best band in history and Neil Peart was the best drummer who ever held sticks. I did my time. I admit it.

Rush's take on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's opium-fueled poem "Kubla Khan," reimagined as a tragic tale of an adventurer who gets more than he bargains for when he sets out to find Coleridge's mythical paradise, is straight prog-rock awesomeness: all wind chimes and gongs and complex instrumental mastery and intellectual bombast. I didn't go looking for a way to incorporate their music into the story; it just sort of fell into my lap by accident – opium poppies are grown in the Valley, for one thing – and I was happy to go with it, happy that my old friends would get a kick out that. (There's something of an underground cottage industry among fans in the creative arts of sneaking Rush references into otherwise mainstream entertainments. Greatest single victory: in a foldout magazine advertisement introducing the iTunes Store to the world in 2003, the screenshot of the iTunes interface shows not the Beatles, Stones, Elvis, U2, Ella, Frank, or Louis Armstrong . . . but a Rush album from 1976. High-five, dorks.)

There's a scene in the book where Black is interviewing a young, nervous soldier as part of his investigation, and the kid has "Xanadu" playing on a tinny boom box in his little deployment hovel. Black thinks it's awful, just unlistenable (which is a pretty common reaction to the genre), even though he figures out it's another little clue to what's going on in the Valley. When I wrote that scene I figured if Rush themselves ever somehow came across it they'd get that it was a tribute – they poke a lot of fun at themselves these days – but of course I was secretly terrified that they'd see it and wouldn't get it, and I'd be some tragic, aging superfan that the band hates.

'Xanadu' – Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra

I loved the movie Boogie Nights. There was so much to it. Paul Thomas Anderson could turn on a dime from laughing at these people in one moment, mocking their tacky lives and ridiculous porn dreams, to sucker-punching you with their wrenching desperation in the next. One of my favorite aspects of the film was the way the movie used '70s period music not just to "dress the set" but to create these great ironies and juxtapositions within the scene. ELO's exuberant "Livin' Thing" was fantastic carrying the final scene of the film (the Raging Bull homage with Mark Wahlberg in front of the mirror), which is this tragicomic, just pathetic tableau, into the closing credits. Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" was even better in the outrageous set-piece at drug dealer Rahad Jackson's '70s-spectacular suburban castle, this gaudy power ballad providing the soundtrack to one of the most unbearably, hilariously tense scenes in film.

I didn't have any of this in mind when I wrote the chapter in which Black confronts Brydon, the platoon's tormented outsider, but I realized afterwards that I was going for something like the same effect in putting Olivia Newton-John behind this really unhappy scene. (Trying to avoid spoilers here.) It was another obvious choice since Coleridge's Xanadu was already a key theme in the plot, but I enjoyed the way the music here is just tormenting Black. He's beset by all these clues throughout his time at the outpost – mysterious graffiti written for his benefit, a book of Coleridge poems, bizarre notes in an old high school yearbook, music with oddly significant lyrics. So many voices are talking to him; it's as though the Valley itself, the evil within it, is speaking. In the Brydon scene this bright disco-pop confection almost serves as the tragic chorus speaking from the side of the stage, and it is almost mocking him as he flees, even as the music itself is dropping another clue on the reader. I liked how that fell together.

'Angels We Have Heard on High' – Sixpence None the Richer

This was one of those instances where a particular track directly influenced a particular scene. Without saying too much more, this is Private Corelli's tune. There's no way to tell from the text, but this is the version of the Christmas song he's thinking of, that he is singing to himself when he's all alone. (Again, spoilers.) In my head it's the soundtrack to that moment of the book, where the narrative cuts from Corelli to the tumultuous events occurring at the outpost right then. I recognize that anyone who's read the book will think I'm certifiable for saying this, but when the wounded, concussed Black stumbles across the outpost grounds, more or less unable to hear what's happening anyway, and looks up to see everything coming down around him, Leigh Nash's gentle voice is what I hear over that scene. (In fact, the guitar work in the song was also the source for some of the particular "atmospherics" described in that scene). Several of the characters, American and Afghan, see deeply religious implications in everything that's happening in the Valley. There's an irony and clash of meanings in that cacophonous chapter that I was attracted to.


John Renehan and The Valley links:

the author's website

Foreign Policy review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Providence Journal review
Wall Street Journal review

Bookselling This Week interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015- ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012-2014) (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

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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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