July 27, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sophie McManus's The Unfortunates is a brilliant debut novel, a social satire cunningly rendered.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"A modern day Edith Wharton . . . Just often enough some unknown writer darts from the forest of little magazines to publish a novel that blows away the gathering shades of cultural despair . . . Her first novel, 'The Unfortunates,' merges Old World elegance and modern irony in a brilliant social satire of life among the 1 percent of the 1 percent . . . almost every sentence here has been worked, through a decade of composition and revision, into a jeweled strand of dry wit."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
How I envy writers who can listen to music while they work. The music sinking into the art—sublime commensalism! At the least, music eases the drudgery and loneliness of such a solitary pursuit. But I am too vulnerable to suggestion. Even with the volume low, my young sentences are conscripted to battle lyric after lyric for the brain’s puny gray hillock that puts order to language. This hillock, which I have just looked up—distractible as I am—is called Wernicke’s area. It rests slightly above and behind my left ear. The lyrics always win it. Writers who can type one string of words while hearing another must have superior Wernicke’s areas, probably also superior Broca’s areas. Hell, probably their entire Brodmann area 22 glows like an electric eel. Like an electric eel writing a particularly banging bit of prose while listening to a great album.
So, the music here is what I listened to when I needed a break from drafting The Unfortunates. I spent years writing from the mind of a character who is punctilious, aloof, inflexible. The plot was tricky, too, as intricate and tight as the guts of a clock. These songs are the opposite: playful, loose, outlandish, frank, droll, unabashed.
1. Le Tigre "Deceptacon"
Sad to say, I grew up almost totally unaware of punk rock, from which this galvanic, addictive rally-cry of a song descends. How is that possible? I went to an all-girls school and the internet didn’t exist yet, is how. Also, I was a cautious and incurious kid. Also, for us, in New York City, the mind-blowing innovation was hip hop.
2. Nina Simone "Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter"
Someone has disappointed Simone. Here she sings her withering assessment to that someone. This song is a masterpiece of steely, vanquishing energy. It builds and ebbs and builds. Oh, the burns. You think you’re slick but you could stand a lot of greasing/the things you do ain’t never really pleasing. Are you jilted? Are you over it? Do you need some courage? Are you on the rise-up-out? Here’s the song for you.
3. The Modern Lovers "Pablo Picasso"
One morning, in the early days of writing The Unfortunates, I dreamed Picasso challenged me to a duel. He slapped me in the face with his brown leather glove, which I found both shocking and hilarious. Later that morning, I went to see an available apartment in Brooklyn. I was buzzed in and looked up the dark communal stairwell. Picasso looked down at me, looming as he was at the top of the stairs, from a larger than life, framed black-and-white photograph. I lived in that building for the next seven years. The Modern Lovers’ song is unhurried, laconic, genuinely funny, and reminds the listener that girls could not resist Picasso’s stare. I was one of those girls, for every day, as I ascended the stairs, I felt he was challenging me, rudely, to rise to my task, to write the thing better than he/I thought I could. In the photo, his look is patronizing, and also has the force of life.
4. Modest Mouse "Bukowski"
The Modern Lovers’ song suggests, probably incorrectly, that Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, because his greatness nullified any possible assholery. Modest Mouse’s "Bukowski" also ponders the artist-asshole connection: Yeah, I know he’s a pretty good read…but God, who’d want to be such an asshole?...God who’d want to be such a control freak? These lines buoyed my writer-spirits to no end. To write a novel is to be a control freak. It’s your universe. You made it up. That’s the gig. And: sometimes you must protect the work. Be the asshole, when you must.
5. Yeah Yeahs Yeahs "Rich"
Sex and money and power and yelling and an icy-hot, fierce authority. Many of the subjects I was writing about are in this song, but in a totally different attitude and key. When I began The Unfortunates I was a sheepish, non-confrontational person. This song reminds me how to feel otherwise, as did writing the book.
6. The Kinks "All of My Friends Were There"
The early years of writing, I drank a lot of wine. Not while writing, a practice I am amazed anyone can pull off, but evenings after. It was a lot of fun and a bit depressing. This song captures the expansive pleasure, that real-false-real nostalgia for the self and for the future that comes with the drink, in the perfect, gorgeously lilting sound of the song. And then, in the lyrics, its limits. It’s also about folly and ego and ambition. Not true ambition, but that early, fool ambition to be the person that other people are paying attention to.
7. Ennio Morricone "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"
I drank a lot but I also ran a lot. In wintery Vermont, at a writer’s residency, I ran on a wooded, snow-banked dirt road that wound through a pig farm. If you’ve ever been near a pig farm you know they stink for miles and that for the entirety of this song I ran with my hands over my nose and mouth.
8. Bob Dylan "Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright"
Another snowy residency. Wyoming in winter, like living on the moon. I ran over an icy bridge; the snow was blue for a hundred undulating miles. I ran past cows and horses. Sometimes the residency’s fat-faced gray cat ran with me, plunging into the snow up to her shoulder sockets and springing out again. The lyrics to this song seem simple but are not. They are certainly about leaving someone, about moving on.
9. Girltalk "Play your Part" (Parts1&2)
Girltalk mashes up samples of rap and top-forty pop and riffs from classic rock. It’s infectious Mad Libbing, good for jumping around. It might be a slick trick, might be brilliant, I’m not sure, but these (often mysoginistic, sometimes beautiful) songs fill me with total exuberance.
10. Sufjan Stevens "All the Trees of the Field will Clap their Hands"
Hope, fear, beauty, to be alone, to think about dying. I wrote most of The Unfortunates near a winter sea at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where I listened to this endlessly. Trees remind us how we are here, alive, and also of how the world existed without us before and soon enough will again. How your or my being here is unusual, and the more regular state of things is for the trees to stand without our noticing, without our being here to notice.
11. Arvo Pärt "Tabula Rasa"
The one piece of music I did indeed write to. Only for a few days, at the very end, when I was so tired of revising I needed to wedge something between myself and the familiarity of my sentences. It’s mesmeric and repetitive with variation and courses along in the way writing can, when inspired.
Sophie McManus and The Unfortunates links:
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
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