September 14, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
The stories in Bryan Hurt's short story collection Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France are refreshingly diverse, yet always fantastic and filled with dark humor.
Alissa Nutting wrote of the book:
"The breadth of this collection is a phenomenal celebration, and catalog of possibility, for the infinite versatility of short-form writing. Hurt's fabulist imagination, wickedly dry humor, and core emotional truths challenge, dazzle, and ignite."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
"The Beast of Marriage" // "Last Living Rose," PJ Harvey
"Goddamn Europeans!" I feel like this is something that Thomas Day, the subject of this story, would have said to himself, and probably did say. If it weren't for that goddamn European Rousseau and his Continental philosophy, Day wouldn't have gotten into the mess that he got himself into. Of course Day's experiment made him a monster; what he did to those girls was inexcusable. When I read this story out loud I like to watch the audience's reaction to it change. At first they laugh but then realize that what they've been laughing at is essentially child abuse and torture. Harvey's song is all about tonal shifts: beauty, ugliness, menacing, and yearning. And somehow Harvey is able navigate all of these emotions in under three minutes and often captures all of them all at once, especially in those final "Ah ah ah ah's." How does she do it? I don't know. But she's the genius and her voice is always precise.
"Honeymoon" // "My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille," Beirut
To be clear this story doesn't have anything to do with prostitutes or Marseille. The French island I had in mind for this story was Île de Ré where my wife and I spent some nights of our own honeymoon, not that we have much in common with the honeymooners besides that (okay my wife had an allergic reaction to the medicine she was on for an ear infection and I got sick with the flu and then a sinus infection, but besides that we have nothing else in common). I chose this song for its beachy, old world Frenchiness but also because of the way Condon uses repetition. There are only three distinct lyrics but each time Condon repeats them he seems to add something. I also like the temporal slipperiness of the song, the way the lyrics alternate between past and present. I don't know if I was able to achieve quite the same effects with the repetition of the "Laurents" or the U-turn chronology in my story but it was something that I had in mind. I also think that the third Laurent would have listened to this song while he drove home from his night shift at the hospital, windows down, cigarette between his lips, moon in the waves in his eyes, thinking about when he believed her then, oh.
"The Bilingual School" // "Sex and Dying in High Society," X
I've never been as literate in Southern California punk as I'd like to be but I once saw John Doe give a talk at the old Venice jail (the onetime headquarters of 826LA). Just down the street is the French-English school that sparked this story. I thought how scary it must be for the rich helicopter parents who send their kids there. All they want is the best for their children—they want them to be educated, cultured, speak French—and they end up turning them into these foreign speaking doppelgangers, their children but also people who say things they don't recognize or understand. But then it must have been the same for the parents' parents back when their kids were listening to Black Flag, Bad Religion, and X, and look how they turned out. I probably should have gone with "Cyrano de Berger's Back" in order to continue the French theme, but I like this song better.
"My Other Car Drives Itself" // "Roadrunner," The Modern Lovers
What do Google cars listen to when they drive themselves? The best ever song about driving, I hope.
"Spooky Action at a Distance" // "You Were Cool," The Mountain Goats
This one is a true story insofar as there was a girl in school named Margaret who I had the chance to be nice to but who I was mean to instead. As I get older the things I regret most in my life are these failures of basic kindness, the moments where I was mean or small or scared or too much of a sheep to stand up and do the right thing. If I had a time machine like the guys in this story this is what I'd go back and change first. I'd say I'm sorry and then I'd tell my younger self that being decent is more important than being cool (which p.s. you're never going to be). I like this song because Darnielle dispenses with all of the fictional bullshit. "These are the same four chords / I use most of the time / when I've got something on my mind." It's an apology and a celebration and a little bit of a threat. "People were mean to you / but I always thought you were cool… I hope the people who did you wrong / have trouble sleeping at night." I do. I hope they all do.
"Some Zombies" // "Creep," Amanda Palmer
If you've only ever read one story of mine chances are good that you've read this one. I wrote it when I was young and it's been zombie-like in its tenacity, popping up when I least expect it, refusing to die. I like it, too, insofar as I can say I like any of my stories. I'm pleased with how it turned out. But it's also hard to recognize myself as the person who wrote it. I'm older now; I'm a better writer, I hope. This must be something like how Radiohead feels about "Creep," why they distance themselves from it. But like any good work of art it's taken on a life of its own, hence Amanda Palmer's awesome cover version. Plus isn't that what zombies kind of are? Cover versions of human beings. Same music, different song.
"Vicissitudes, CA" // "Never Learn How Not to Love," the Beach Boys
Not a very good Beach Boys song in my opinion but it's the one mentioned in this story. It was co-penned by Charles Manson who shares a forename with the story's antagonist (who also shares a forename with Charles Guiteau, the presidential assassin and inspiration for this story collection's title—Guiteau, it's said, shot Garfield because the president wouldn't appoint him ambassador to France). The song is also apt because Brandon, the ethnomusicologist hero of this story, is never going to learn.
"Panic Attack" // "Titus Andronicus," Titus Andronicus
My favorite song about giving up. But what I really like about is that after Stickles "throw[s] [his] guitar down on the floor" he picks it back up and writes a song about it. The rejection letter in this story was sent to me by a magazine where I really wanted to publish my work. The editors had always been nice to me and encouraging but after they rejected me for the thousandth time I said fuck it, I quit. And then I wrote a story about it. I think every artist knows this feeling, and it's a shitty feeling. But I think it can be a pretty productive one too. Once we give up on our pretensions, our egos, our past accomplishments, our small bag of tricks then maybe we can begin making something good. Or maybe that's just another story I like to tell myself.
"Heavens" // "Up in Heaven Now," the Clash, "Heaven," the Talking Heads, "Heaven and Hell," William Onyeabar, "Heaven is a Truck," Pavement, the entire Heaven album by The Walkmen, and every other song that may or may not be on my iTunes that has been or will be written about heaven
Do you know how songs about heaven there are? Let me tell you: a lot. The list above doesn't even begin to cover it. Even if heaven sucks and it's totally boring and all you do is strum a harp and run into your ex-wife's better husband, there's going to be a pretty good soundtrack. At least for a little slice of eternity.
"Moonless" // "I Am a God (feat. God)," Kanye West
This is a story about a guy who makes miniature stars and planets and people in his basement. But the truth is he's lonely and alone and cries at night, probably like God (but not Kanye).
"All of the Arctic Explorers" // "Fuck this Place," Frightened Rabbit
"And I'm here because / Everyone else has come just to be seen / Oh, I don't know these buildings / I think I'm lost." This is pretty much the story of every arctic expedition which ends inevitably in the title of this song. But I also chose it because Frightened Rabbit is a good band for cold weather. If John Franklin had an iPod this is what he would have listened to.
"The Last Word" // "An Argument with Myself," Jens Lekman
I once saw Jens Lekman perform at a swimming pool in Los Angeles and this is one of the songs he played. I don't know if I wrote this story about a couple having an argument before or after I went to the show, but the album cover for this song's single has a picture of a palm tree on it and there's a significant palm tree in the story so I think I owe Lekman the credit.
"Contract" // "We Suck Young Blood," Radiohead
A fairytale about corporate CEOs, both story and song.
"Rose" // "The Boy in the Bubble," Paul Simon
Boy in the Bubble meet Girl in the Box.
"The Sadness of Tycho Brahe's Moose" // "What Would I Want? Sky?," Animal Collective
Poor Tycho Brahe. Even my fictional story cannot begin to approximate the fantastically sad life he lived: kidnapped by his uncle, nose cut off in a sword fight over a math equation, beloved moose killed drunkenly falling down a flight of stairs after drinking too much beer in celebration of winning a moose race. Brahe was either murdered by Kepler or died of a burst bladder, sixteenth-century etiquette being that he couldn't excuse himself from a king's table even though he really needed to pee. All he wanted in his life was some order to it. He couldn't find it here on earth so he turned his attention to the heavens. What did he want? What would anyone want if they lived a life like that? Sky.
"The Fourth Man" // "Alan Bean," Hefner
In 2001 the British indie rockers Hefner released their final album Dead Media, in which they stopped being a mopey guitar band and turned into a mopey electronic one: same band but now with bloops and bleeps. I loved the new sound and listened to the album more than any other when I was a college freshman. My favorite song was "Alan Bean," the story of an astronaut chasing approval and immortality through his art: "Everyone will forget soon / The fourth man on the moon / But I've got it in my mind / I'd like to paint your eyes / But I've got to paint the sky / Going to be a painter all my life." I became sort of obsessed with Alan Bean, both the song and the person, the astronaut and the painter. His paintings are these always wonderful, often absurd, impressionist depictions of astronauts on the moon (astronauts playing football, astronauts leaping into a high five, astronauts reenacting Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam"); they're all completely earnest, without a trace of irony. I carried my obsession into graduate school where I had the chance to interview Alan Bean on the phone. I wanted to talk to him about ambition, obsession, and most of all what he thought about the song. It turns out that he didn't think too much about it; as I recall he wasn't much of a fan. For a long time I held onto the interview, unsure of what to do with it. I thought it would be material for an essay but, in truth, I wasn't a very good interviewer and whenever I looked back at it I felt disappointed and embarrassed. Alan Bean wasn't the person I expected him to be, which means he wasn't the sad character in the song. He was happy and confident and proud of all that he'd accomplished, and rightfully so. I'd mistaken the character for the man. A year or two after the interview I ended up writing this story. I took from the interview, the song, and Bean's autobiography for children, My Life as an Astronaut. Even though I did a lot of research I don't think I got any closer to capturing the real person than Hefner's Darren Hayman did. But I think this is one of the more powerful things about fiction. When pursuing the real we can get a little lost and arrive at a different truth instead.
"Good with Words" // "Psycho Killer," The Talking Heads
The song has no real connection to the story except that this is my son's favorite song and the story is about him. He calls it the "Fa Fa" song instead of "Psycho Killer" and we encourage that because he's two. He knows most of the words, even the French ones.
Bryan Hurt and Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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