April 20, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jeffrey Rotter's novel The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering is darkly comic and poignant throughout, and one of the finest dystopian works I have read in years.
Open Letters Monthly wrote of the book:
"The extent to which the Van Zandts rekindle any kind of hope – or embody it – is one of the many fascinating strands running through Rotter's book as we follow Rowan's adventures in a life he never imagined for himself. The result is a novel that stands out even in the grotesquely overcrowded current field of dystopian fiction."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
After he commits the bizarre crime that fractures his family, Rowan, the hapless hero of The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering, flees the ruins of Cape Canaveral. After many detours, some of the worst jobs I could imagine, and a shameful detox in the presence of mountain goats, he reaches the high Chilean desert. Every road trip gets the mix tape it deserves, and Rowan's is absurd and grim. The music on this list isn't mentioned in the book, but it comprises part of the Downcast Lo-Energy Playlist that got me pumped down each morning before the typing began.
Fete des belles eaux: VI. L'eau: Messiaen wrote this for a then-futuristic instrument called the ondes martenot. It's a rippling, hopeful piece composed to accompany dancing waters and fireworks on the Seine during the 1937 Paris Exposition. Albert Speer's German pavilion loomed nearby, a Nazi eagle perched on the roof ready to snatch away that hope. Messiaen would be captured by the Nazis some three years later. In prison, he composed and performed Quatuor Pour la Fin Du Temps, my favorite jam when the world ends. The Only Words isn't really post-apocalytic; the Van Zandt's world is the result of slow degradation following a hard swing toward libertarian rule. It's Florida. But I'm less disturbed by apocalypse than I am by the continued slide.
"Children Crying," The Congos: I prefer my reggae biblical. And this Lee Perry production is like Moses ran the Burning Bush through an Echoplex while Aaron played dub bass. I would never compare Rowan's journey to find the last intact telescope on earth to the Israelites halting trek through the wilderness, but the horror of struggling to reach something that may not exist—that was what I was going for.
"Weak Brain, Narrow Mind," Willie Dixon: The lyrics read like a father's instructions to his child: "You know the strong overpower the weak/And the smart overpower the strong." So why does Dixon sing it with so much world-weariness? Could it be the kind of wishful thinking we parents pass off as a life lesson? Rowan is one of the few who understands how the cosmos works, and he hopes that knowledge will bring his daughter a better life, so he addresses The Only Words to her. This song reminds me of Stanley Elkin's comment about powerlessness being the engine of contemporary comedy. The Van Zandts are the butt of this joke, and they don't understand why it's so funny.
"Treatment Bound," the Replacements: I first heard this song when I was working at a formalwear shop in Columbia, South Carolina. It was a high school job, and we were often enlisted to model in bridal fairs at the mall. We'd hit the ice-sculpture champagne fountain hard, pass out in the dressing room, and then hit Orange Julius to rehydrate. The dope'n'mope routine of late adolescence has probably not changed since the Bronze Age, and I don't expect it will abate in the distant future. Rowan spends his adolescence and early twenties on the lam, trying to escape a drug habit and his loneliness; little does he know, he's actually running toward something beautiful.
"Everything Merges With the Night," Brian Eno: Rowan has a moment of rapture when, upon reaching a high-altitude observatory under clear skies, he feels as if he's floating among the stars. I had a similar experience during a night hike at the Grand Canyon. I was eight, and we'd walked out onto a narrow promontory. The Milky Way was in my ears, my hair. The earth collapsed to the size of my Chuck Taylors, but I didn't fall. Society in The Only Words fails because it turns its back on the stars (and on science in general). What a lonesome place that would be.
"The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs," John Cage: I remember fleeing a job as a county fair security guard in New Mexico. I left in the middle of the night and drove north. By the time I reached the Colorado border, I was having the usual road hallucinations (descending space ark, bright face comets that streak across the headlamps.) I have no idea what this song is about, or if it is about. (Something to do with James Joyce.) But in this version Robert Wyatt wrings so much creepy absurdity from the lyrics that it feels like the most thrilling road-trip hallucination.
"Nothin'," Townes Van Zandt: TVZ is one of the ghosts that haunts this book. "Nothin'" provided the title: "Sorrow and solitude/These are the precious things/And the only words that are worth remembering." (See also: Lucinda Williams's heart-shredding cover.) It was actually months into writing before I noticed another connection between the song and my story. The Only Words is about the relationship between brothers—one too strong, the other too weak—both fleeing the world. Van Zandt sings:
As brothers our troubles are
Locked in each others arms
And you better pray
They never find you
'Cause your back ain't strong enough
For burdens doublefold
They'd crush you down
Down into nothin'
Jeffrey Rotter and The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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