May 13, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Shya Scanlon's The Guild of Saint Cooper is a clever and skillfully told dystopian novel, one that blends Twin Peaks with the post-modern American northwest.
Jonathan Evison wrote of the book:
"Just when I thought I'd had my fill of dystopian novels, along comes the The Guild of Saint Cooper; a playful, imaginative, and wildly unpredictable ride through alternate Seattle. Scanlon delights in turning history on its ear in this daring and thoughtful high wire act of a novel."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
1: "Sax and Violins", by Talking Heads
The setting for much of The Guild of Saint Cooper is a city that's largely been evacuated, and the resulting landscape is pregnant is absence, with nostalgia and ghosts. There is cataclysm on the horizon, but most people are so resigned and inured to its danger they sleepily go about their routines. It's not denial, per se. More like procrastination. It's the way you feel when you wake up in the morning after hosting an enormous house party and wander around the place, sizing up the damage. Maybe you light up a half-smoked joint to make the cleaning process half-bearable, and replay the night's high and low points as you hazily plod around from room to room. This brings to mind the music from the opening sequence of one of my favorite films: Wim Wenders's loose, baggy monster Until The End of The World, which literally begins with the end of a party, the main character Claire Tourneur climbing out of a bed and fumbling for the exit as a music video for "Sax and Violins" plays on TVs that seem to be sort of scattered around the apartment (the cheapness of the objects themselves by '91 nearly equal to the cheapness of the images inside). The Guild of Saint Cooper doesn't begin with a literal party, but now that I think about it, a stolen television does feature significantly in the first couple of chapters, causing me just now to realize that my debt to Wenders' film may be greater than I'm willing to admit. For this reason, my attorney has advised me to move on to the next song.
2: "A Real Indication", by Thought Gang, from the soundtrack of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
When the book begins, the narrator Blake is nearly a shut-in. At a construction site whose activity he's been tracking from his bedroom window, he has an encounter that sets the book's action in motion—he'll meet members of the titular Guild and its enigmatic leader who calls himself The Editor—but the real turning point for him is before that, before he knows where his decision to leave the house will take him. The turning point is, of course, the fact that he made the decision to leave. This song, written by Lynch and his musical collaborator Badalamenti (who lent his voice to the track), is close to what I imagine Blake's feelings to be as he makes his way out into the world. It begins, "So I'm going down this street, and I'm trying not to smile," and that's Blake in this scene: a little paranoid, but giddy from nerves and vibing on his strange newfound energy. In Fire Walk With Me, the song accompanies a scene in which Laura Palmer is mischievously/darkly manipulating her boy toy Bobby Briggs, melting his accusations into a goofy, cowed expression of infatuation. Many Twin Peaks fans didn't like seeing Laura Palmer's dark side in the film, but I never imagined it any other way, so for me it was affirming. It ascribed to her more agency than were permitted by the show's ubiquitous photos and memories of her—she was a willing actor, ultimately, in her own demise, which makes it a more powerful tragedy. Blake, too, is a willful agent, and though he's manipulated by people along the way, it's important to me that he appear complicit in that, conscious of being led.
3-4: "New York State of Mind", Billy Joel/ "N.Y. State of Mind", Nas
In a funhouse-weird distortion of the old "you-don't-miss-your-water" adage, the place where Blake's own Seattle irreality catches up with him takes place not in Seattle—not in his un-chosen home, but in his chosen one: New York. Like most fans of the song, I suppose (though I must say that, stupid as I am, I only just now had that thought), I was singing "New York State of Mind" long before I'd ever been to New York. I was feeling all world-weary and wistful about busing down the Hudson long before I'd been in "touch with the rhythm and blues" to begin with. I've still never read The Daily News. I was sad listening to this song before I'd ever had anything to be truly sad about. It's odd that this ballad to NY is so full of nostalgia, and it's odd that the spirit of nostalgia is so elastic and transferable. People speak of joy being contagious, but there's no nostalgic equivalent, in my experience, to that rage others' joy can just as easily induce. Though Blake is intimidated by his new home, he also has the impression that the city is putting on a show for him, that it gathers all its freaks and misfits together to throw them in his path. And so he walks around in a state of hyper-vigilance, and trying to feel tougher than he is, like he's carrying out a dare. (True for everyone who moves to New York, in a sense.) I picture him listening to Nas while walking around, protecting himself from the actual sounds of the city while simultaneously mainlining its essence—a perspective on the city that has no room for nostalgia which, along with sleep, is another cousin of death. It's a pose, but one successful enough to convince himself, if only long enough to get into trouble.
5: "Ya Got Trouble", Music Man (Meredith Willson)
America has a long history with gurus, beginning with the religious fervor of the Puritans as they spread west in the early 19th century, breaking from their congregations yet remaining stridently orthodox in what came to be referred to as the "Burnt-over District" due to the observation that preachers of all different (and often new) denominations had burned (converted) through all the fuel (believers). It was a time that gave rise to Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventists, and utopian societies like the Oneida Community. If we think of these early congregational movements as small businesses, I think it's fair to say they were building an economy with faith as its primary commodity. So it makes sense that once the industrial revolution enabled mass-production of machined goods in the later half of the century, such people could move on to greener pastures and morph into what we know of as the common door-to-door salesman. At any rate, I see the guru as the ultimate salesman, in that the very pitch he uses, when successful, becomes conflated with the product he's selling, which is, in it's basic form: optimism, hope, joy, courage, self-confidence, etc. In other words, I think there's a very straight line connecting Joseph Smith (Mormonism) to Jim Jones (Peoples Temple) to Werner Erhard (est) to Tony Robbins (Fortune 500), all of who are separated only by degree of madness and business acumen. There are a couple of guru figures in Guild, but in only one scene do I really let one of them hold forth and work his magic. It's the beginning of a weekend retreat during which people will be learning a "technology" they'll be able to use to—what else?—take control of their lives. There are a quite a number of salesmen in our literature, but hip-hop has almost cornered the market in song (selling drugs either literally or as a metaphor), which is why I chose this song from Music Man—it's all about the pitch, creating a need (where there isn't one) and then providing a solution. And it's done with such conviction and brio that you really don't blame the people of River City for totally buying in.
6: "String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10: 1", Claude Debussy
Spoiler alert: there are aliens in Guild's final third. They're referred to as the "Lights" because, well, they're floating pinpricks of light. But the advantage of having such seemingly innocuous aliens (despite what they actually do, which I won't spoil), is that the wondrousness of the alien spectacle isn't overwhelmed by fear—at least not at first. You get to experience the existential shock of implication while in the midst of something like delight. I imagine that a close encounter of the third kind would, as in the movie alluded to by the phrase I just used, be an overwhelming, nearly vertigo-inducing experience, filled with equal parts joy, fear, fulfillment, dread, anxiety, and awe. In other words: it would be a magnified version of listening to Debussy's string quartets. When I first encountered Debussy's string quartets, they felt so alien that it was difficult for me to classify them as "classical music." Of course, their composer is not from the classical period, and that's perhaps technically why… But that's less interesting to me than what the listening experience afforded me. Unlike the music I was accustomed to (by definition), these string quartets were entirely unpredictable. I had no idea, from note to note, what the next would be. There is pattern of course, and it wasn't long before I was whistling along, but the power of those first few listens was that of destabilizing novelty. One of the primary questions posed by Guild is: what kind of stories matter when things are falling apart? The book frustrates its characters' desire to tell familiar stories, comfortable stories, predictable stories, and this frustration is at the heart of what I'd call dystopia. Not the fire and brimstone of apocalypse, or the dehumanizing mind control of totalitarian government—both forms it can assume, of course—but the (terrifying, awe-inspiring) defamiliarization of form itself.
7: "[Nothing but] Flowers", Talking Heads
I know, I know. Talking Heads are waaaay overrepresented in this short list. But from "Psycho Killer" to "Life During Wartime", Talking Heads were masters at creating super catchy songs filled with troubling messages from the future now. The world is ending (or has ended), seemed to be a common theme, so why not dance? The best of them manage to let/force you to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time—F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of intelligence—which in a song like "[Nothing but] Flowers" means you're rooting for the end of civilization you're simultaneously bemoaning. To build on the version of dystopia I describe above, Guild's structure doubles back on itself, and rather than entirely suspend the reader's disbelief, I'm aiming for something more like Fitzgerald's definition of intelligence: I want the reader to sympathize with the challenges (personal, social) Blake faces, to fault him for his role in them, and to simultaneously look at the book as authorial play and investigation. A lot of David Byrne's lyrics put you in this position, there's a deep element of irony running through it, but it's a productive irony, I believe. The lyric, "And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention," has particular resonance for Guild. Many dystopias are set after/in a sudden end-of-man scenario—disease, or nuclear war, or zombies—but I'm more interested in the slow burn. I'm more interested in the idea of a thousand-year apocalypse than a ten-year, or ten-day, or ten minute, because I find the cognitive dissonance between observation and action fascinating, and the characters I find myself writing about suffer that dissonance in one way or another. It's one of the principle characteristics of my generation, and we'll be remembered for it. Of course, as H.G. Wells's time traveler learns, if you travel far enough into the future, there won't be anyone to remember anything at all. Happy thought!
Shya Scanlon and The Guild of Saint Cooper links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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