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June 10, 2015

Book Notes - Tod Wodicka "The Household Spirit"

The Household Spirit

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tod Wodicka's The Household Spirit is an engaging and moving novel about the unlikely friendship of two eccentrics.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Wodicka's fluid, expressive prose—dotted with quotable observations often as odd as his players—serves well his weaving of such a convincing, unexpected story from eccentricity, pain, and need. . . . Strange and rich and precisely pitched"

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Tod Wodicka's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Household Spirit:

The Household Spirit is a novel about the intertwining paralyses of Howie Jeffries and Emily Phane. Howie is 50, lives a fugue-like existence, likes to fish, dreams of sailing away by himself on a boat. Emily is twenty-five, irreverent, possibly half insane. She suffers from extreme sleep paralysis attacks: shortly after falling asleep she wakes up, cannot move, and feels as if she's being buried alive inside her own body. Then come the 'evil presences'. Howie and Emily live next door to each other, the only two neighbors on a stretch of rural upstate New York road. For twenty five years neither of them has ever spoken to the other. Neither likes music.

I like music. In fact, I wrote the entire novel with very loud, totally incongruous music playing. It's the only way I can work. Blasting, say, Dinosaur Jr, is like having an old friend – not J Mascis - hold my hand as I write. I'm a nervous person. Music keeps me steady.

I'm from the last generation of music nerds to labor intensively over cassette tape mixes without a sense of nostalgia or irony. The cassette tape is now an object the way a urban homesteader beard is an object, or a rotary dial landline phone is an object. It works, it's an arguably awesome thing, but it doesn't need to exist. But back in 1993, the cassette mix was an object the way a boat is an object. It was the only way to float on water. They were really special.

This chapter-by-chapter soundtrack to The Household Spirit was done with the same obsessive seriousness as a cassette mix I'd make for a girl I wanted to woo (with Slowdive).

Part One: The Creep

chapter one – LABRADFORD 'Pico'

Chapter one opens with the reclusive Howie Jeffries, alone, at night. Labradford made music that was always alone, at night. 'Pico' sounds like Morricone and some Germans from the 70s doing the soundtrack to something that takes place in the night sky above a deep forest. The night sky is filled with cold, sad satellites. And that singing: those are Howie's memories painlessly amassing around him. He's staring out the window. He sees Emily Phane, his twenty-five year old neighbor, out in the woods, doing weird stuff with plants.

chapter two/three – FRANK SINATRA 'The September of my Years'

Music for a montage of Howie's life thus far. For a sentimental and painful backwards glance. This was released the year Sinatra turned 50. Howie has also just turned 50. That's pretty much all they have in common.

chapter four – PINK FLOYD 'Comfortably Numb'

'Hello, is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone home?' – "Comfortably Numb"

This is the soundtrack to Howie finally being somewhat coaxed out of himself. Emily calls him on the telephone after over twenty years of silence. She's in Boston. He's the only person who might be able to save her grandfather. He doesn't actually answer the phone, but he does do something that surprises them both.

Part Two: Emily, without Eyelids

chapter five – MERCURY REV 'Chasing a Bee'

'Meanwhile, next door, Emily was losing her mind.'

Enter Emily Phane. She's surrounded herself with plants, shut herself in, and she's trying not to fall asleep. If she falls asleep she will be attacked. She's woozy and spinning. This song, 'Chasing a Bee', is the sound of that – epic melancholy pastoral madness. It's my favorite song. The bit where it blows up in the middle still gives me shivers. I remember getting this album for Christmas in 1991. I was fourteen and I'd never heard anything like it: that combination of earthquake guitars and… flutes? I couldn't get enough of this. I'd just discovered bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive and Ride, and that was my sound, the first one that had ever made total sense to me, but Mercury Rev were something else: far stranger, and, like me, from upstate New York. These sounds fit the world outside my window. The first two Mercury Rev albums, Yerself Is Steam (1991) and Boces (1993) are among my most beloved albums. This is when David Baker was the singer. I've not much interest in them after that, though I've enjoyed some of their music, but they became a different band.

chapter six – LANGLEY SCHOOLS MUSIC PROJECT 'Rhiannon' (Fleetwood Mac cover)

This is Emily's school days chapter. Her participation in a children's production of 'Free To Be… You and Me' features alongside a discussion of underage blowjobs and a sleepover that descends into existential horror. I've substituted a a Free To Be.. track for Canadian elementary school kids in 1976 singing a powerfully inappropriate Fleetwood Mac song. I can think of nothing more perfect. '…who will be her lover…' They totally get it. Plus: wood blocks!

chapter seven – STARS OF THE LID 'Fucked Up (3:57 AM)'

'It was a concentrated wrongness. It couldn't be explained or described and only made sense from a tongue-tied corner of Emily's consciousness.'

The soundtrack to Emily's childhood night terrors. This is the hum where Emily's trapped, between dreaming and waking.

I think my iTunes has it that I listen to Stars of the Lid more than anything else. For many years they were the only thing that would help me fall asleep.

chapter eight – SONIC YOUTH 'The Sprawl'

'Harriet was a buzzy, cool, evil little hummingbird of a thing.'

And this is Harriet Jeffries' anthem. Harriet out standing on her car, painting gas stations and Wal-Marts and Taco Bells, having shit thrown at her by people she hopes despise her as much as she despises them. Kim Gordon's fuck yous are my favorite fuck yous in recorded music. I love it when her voice rides the weather of Sonic Youth's music. Sometimes she's in conflict with it, sometimes she's one with it, but when she's perfectly riding it, like here: watch out! So cool.

chapter nine – BURIAL 'Rough Sleeper'

'It was ticklish, almost too much, and it turned her on: the thousands of other windows out there, switching on, off, all night long. She'd call Peppy when it snowed.'

Emily has left Route 29 and Queens Falls for the first time. She's living in Boston, and she's overwhelmed, and she's up all night, moving through the city. Burial makes music designed for listening to at night, on headphones, in a city. I love his post-Untrue tracks, their ugly splicing, false starts, reboots. It's like they become too emotional for him, too beautiful, and he pulls the plug mid-track, starts on a new thought, follows that a bit, and waits until that gets too much too. Nobody does crackle like he does. This is Emily during this period: shining bright but also scared of herself, and those around her. In the UK a rough sleeper is someone who is homeless, or sleeping outside, though I like that the title is appropriate to Emily for different reasons…

chapter ten – DEAN BLUNT 'The Narcissist (feat. Inga Copeland)'

'For dinner, they got drunk.'

The love song of Ethan Caldwell and Emily Phane. Kind of. Actually, the lyrics of this song have nothing to do with Ethan and Emily, but the feeling sure does. Wrong, disconnected, but sexy as hell. This is my favorite duet. The woozy, Julee Cruise sample is so right. Dean Blunt is one of the more singular singers around.

chapter eleven – BELL WITCH 'Rows (of Endless Waves)'

'It starts with a tearing. Not like paper, more like sleep is ripping itself in two, and with it, Emily's head.'

…AND THE BOTTOM HAS FALLEN OUT! This is the chapter where Emily's nocturnal horrors are finally revealed. Her lifelong sleep paralysis attacks. The start of this song feels like the start of one of her attacks. Bell Witch are a funeral/death doom metal band from Seattle. I especially love this song because it isn't afraid to veer into some decidedly Red House Painters-like territory. He can sure sing/chant pretty when he's not trying to sing like a muppet monster.

chapter twelve – JOANNA NEWSOM 'Go Long'

This song always stops me cold. It's so gorgeous, moving, evolving. It's totally bald and present and yet mysterious, like something from Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or Veedon Fleece. I've always seen it as a troubled relationship song, and it feels right for this chapter, but I imagine a gender reversal: Ethan singing this to Emily, who is unknowable to herself and to him… and about to do something drastic.

chapter thirteen – RACHEL'S 'Honeysuckle Suite (Sugar Maple – Elm – Sweetgum)'

This chapter has a lot of trees. ('Trees were Emily's least favorite plant.') And the harpsichord or whatever is being played here nicely follows from the Joanna Newsom harp and fits the character of Winnie, an old woman with frizzy hair who sort of takes over the chapter, taking Emily on a ride into the mountains. In 1999 I was working as a banquet waiter at the Sagamore resort on Lake George and used to listen to this Rachel's album while driving my scooter through the mountains. Then the police stopped me and I moved to Europe.

chapter fourteen – COIL 'Broccoli'

‘Wise words from the departing
Eat your greens, especially broccoli
Remember to say "thank you" for the things you haven't had
By working the soil we cultivate the sky
We embrace vegetable kingdom
The death of your father, the death of your mother
Is something you prepare for
All your life
All their life’

This chapter is a doozy, and there is no stranger, scarier song about the death of a parent than Coil's 'Broccoli.' The stuff about embracing the vegetable kingdom makes it seem like it was written specifically for Emily. For those who don't know: COIL are probably one of the most extraordinary, magical groups of the last thirty years. Both John Balance and Sleazy are dead now but they always seemed to be transmitting from the beyond anyway.

Part Three: The Community

chapter fifteen – DIRE STRAITS 'Money For Nothing'

…and we're back with Howie!

For a novel about two people who don't have any sense or need for music, music plays a sneaky and fundamental role. It's all over the book. But I needed to be careful. There are too many novels by fellow music nerds that just can't help themselves, and it's embarrassing, and you can always tell when it's happening: the namedrop of some obscure or awesome band or song that the author wants you to know she knows about. I wanted to avoid that at all costs. And… I might have overcompensated, actually, and filled the novel with music I actively hate. But I needed to use music that these people would actually come in contact with. Thus, my two most hated songs of all time figure prominently in The Household Spirit. 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and Maroon 5's 'This Love'. In the case of Maroon 5, I gave myself this challenge: incorporate 'This Love' into one of the novel's most emotional and important scenes. That happens in this chapter. But no way I could put Maroon 5 on a playlist, it'd be like seasoning a cake with flakes of dried shit, so here you go: DIRE STRAITS!

They're actually mentioned in this chapter too. Howie and his ex-wife's husband, Drew, in a car, and that comes on. Drew likes it. Howie does not:

'Music was the opposite of fish. Music made Howie uneasy in the same way that people in Wal-Marts and parades made Howie uneasy. Dire Straits was an affront to the idea of a lake, of ripples and the occasional small, white splash. Howie respected Drew but couldn't understand why Dire Straits existed.'

I always kind of imagined them listening to 'Sultans of Swing,' not 'Money for Nothing,' but I've been having complex feelings about 'Money for Nothing' lately so thought I'd include it instead. It's more interesting, with that unredeemable 'little faggot' line - how ugly and violent it sounds – along with that angelic MTV 80s prog opening and undeniable riff, and the fact that this is also from chapter fifteen:

'Howie was paralyzed. It was like going to sleep in Montana and waking up in MTV.'

I want my MTV! It all connects.

chapter sixteen – RICHARD YOUNGS 'Soon It Will Be Fire'

Spoiler alert: there's a fire in this chapter.

(Otherwise, I just wanted an excuse to include one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard.)

chapter seventeen/eighteen/nineteen – RADIOHEAD 'How to Disappear Completely'

Howie and Emily, together at last. These three chapters, with them stumbling around each other, both of them trying disappear, Emily seeing through walls, pretending that none of this is happening, that she's not there…

chapter twenty – GRATEFUL DEAD 'Morning Dew (Live)'

In a way, this is the central chapter of the novel. It's easily the longest, maybe three times as long as the others; and it's the chapter where Emily and Howie's narratives become fully entwined. They are a 'they' now. They're jamming together. So what better than an epic take on a song about the last two people on earth after a nuclear holocaust? It's both earthy and cosmic, something the Dead did wonderfully when they were on.

chapter twenty-one – DEF LEPPARD 'Hysteria'

The love song of Howie and Rho. Their first date.

This chapter is full of music, from Rho talking about how her ex-husband Darren will probably die arm drumming to Def Leppard, to her trying to romance Howie with Pachelbel's Canon, which she first heard on a compilation of music to help babies become smarter. Howie tries his best to understand music:

'Howie thought: Music is how people pretend that time is human. Music is a way of moving through time unharmed. Music is not a fish, it's a boat. This made perfect sense; then it did not.'

Re-listening to Def Leppard for the first time in over twenty five years, I was struck by how strange they are. The Hysteria album, which was all over MTV when I was all over MTV, really sounds like a dumbass Pink Floyd. The huge, bombastic production. It's pretty great, actually. I find this song extraordinarily moving. This would have been the music Rho grew up with.

True story: a year or so ago I was in a gay bar in Albany, New York, and was shocked that most of the music they were playing was un-ironic 80s hard rock. Poison, Lita Ford, White Snake, White Lion, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard.

chapter twenty-two – DAVID LYNCH 'She Rise Up'

This is a strange, emotional, elegiac song for a strange, emotional, elegiac chapter. It's Emily rising up. It's Howie realizing that he needs to let her go. ('She's taken nothing from me / Just given / She came with me / I was all she had, for a while”) But it's also David Lynch singing in robot voice. I cannot stress how important David Lynch singing in a robot voice has been to the happiness of my household. Crazy Clown Time is a masterpiece, by the way, in its own way it's as good as any of his films. One of my favorite albums of the last ten years. “And I know all I can do is watch her leave / She rise up / Rising …”

chapter twenty-three – PASTOR T.L. BARRETT & THE YOUTH FOR CHRIST CHOIR 'Like A Ship'

I can't hear this song without nodding along. This is the chapter when Howie finally learns how to nod his head. His daughter is impressed. Things seem to be improving.

chapter-twenty-four – LED ZEPPELIN 'Kashmir'

The nodding in the last song just got serious: now it's impossible not to nod.

True story: I didn't like or understand Led Zeppelin until quite late in my musical life. It was 1996 and I was home from university. I was stoned, slow motion stoned, and another friend, also stoned, picked me up in his car to go for a drive into the mountains. This was something we did. He put on 'Kashmir,' and it was huge and it was night time, the windows all down and I don't think I'd ever heard anything like it. This was Led Zeppelin? I'm still stoned and in that car in the mountains every time I hear this song. The endless buildup and action movie anticipation. It sounded like Tricky, I remember thinking, those drums, strings, that's how I was able to contextualize it! It was like a Tricky song, but far more mythic.

Anyway, this is what I had in mind for this last chapter. Emily and Howie in a car, driving into the mountain on a mission that is, like Kashmir, both totally ridiculous and deadly serious; both stupid and soulful and stoned out of their minds. (Though they're not on drugs.) I wanted this chapter to build and build, but never quite release. Or release in a very different way than you might expect it to.

epilogue: Emily & The Household Spirit

PLUSH – 'More You Becomes You'

PLUSH – 'I Didn't Know (I Was Asleep)'

COIL – 'The Dreamer Is Still Asleep'

The first two Plush songs, which work as a suite, are the soundtrack to the epilogue. Avoiding spoilers, they're where we find Emily at the end of the novel. They're her songs.

(Plush's More You Becomes You LP is an overlooked masterpiece. Easily one of the best albums of the 90s.)

The last song, COIL's "The Dreamer is Still Asleep," is the soundtrack to the final three pages of the novel, which are the three best pages of writing I've ever done. For me, the whole novel lives or dies in those pages. Or lives again and again and again. THE END!

Tod Wodicka and The Household Spirit links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Sunday Times review
Independent review
Publishers Weekly review

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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