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September 18, 2015

Book Notes - Steve Toltz "Quicksand"


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.

Steve Toltz's Quicksand is one of the funniest (and most heartfelt) books I have read in years, and its antihero Aldo Benjamin is unforgettable.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Toltz channels a poet's delight in crafting the perfect phrase on every highly quotable page. In his epic lack of employment and sincere lust for life, Aldo Benjamin is quite a memorable character. By turns hilarious and hopeless, Toltz's novel is a tender portrait of a charming and talented loser."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Steve Toltz's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Quicksand:

I have been playing Oscar Peterson's Night Train on a near-continuous loop since March 1992, when I had to write my first university essay – it was still playing around April of this year when I finished the last edits on Quicksand. At first I considered just listing the whole album as the playlist, but there are songs whose lyrics fanned the flames of ideas contained within the novel, and shine a little light on why I wrote about them in the first place.

1. "Just," Radiohead

Quicksand seeks to answer the question: 'Is bad luck self-harm by another name?' and investigates whether one should shoulder the blame for one's own suffering. If there's any single song that asks this question directly it's in the chorus of Just by Radiohead. Throughout my twenties, it often felt like my personal anthem:

You do it to yourself you do

And that's what really hurts is

You do it to yourself just you,

You and no-one else
You do it to yourself

You do it to yourself

As a side note, the video for this song is a perfect short film that echoes themes within my novel: a man lying on the pavement physically paralyzed by some horrific truth, and who winds up paralyzing all who listen to the truth he tells.

2. "My Man," They Might Be Giants

This wouldn't even be in my top 50 TMBG songs but its topic is simply too apt for Quicksand. My protagonist is a paraplegic named Aldo Benjamin, and the novel examines, in some detail, the trials of this particular unfortunate physical state.

They Might Be Giants is the only band on earth that would think to write a song explaining spinal injury, with lyrics such as:

May I direct your attention to the following simile?
You're like the coasts of an ocean
Buried beneath is a submarine cable
Connecting the opposite shores that surround it
When something happens to drag on the floor of the ocean
For instance, an anchor or mooring
The cable can be disrupted, and even be severed
Which halts the transmission across it

The verse concludes with the haunting pronouncement:

There is no way to repair the break.

3. "Asian Rut," Morrissey

There are a lot of fears contained in Quicksand, some of which are reasonable, some are unlikely. I watched Hitchcock's Spellbound as a kid, and the climactic scene in which Gregory Peck uncovers a childhood memory of accidentally killing his brother instilled in me a mortal fear of being impaled on railings. That's why, of all the Smiths and Morrissey songs I could have added to this playlist for their inherent misery value, I'm going for Asian Rut, and mostly for a lyric that addresses this very fear:

Oh, they may just impale you on railings.

Although he is talking specifically about an Asian boy confronting the bullies who murdered his best friend, I have never passed railings without singing that line to myself. At least Morrissey ends on a note relatively positive:

I'm just passing through here
On my way to somewhere civilized
And maybe I'll even arrive
Maybe I'll even arrive.

4. "Le Nougat," Brigitte Fontaine

It's a crime this French absurdist pop singer isn't at least as well known as Bjork. My favorite song of hers tells the tale of a woman who finds an elephant in her shower, an elephant who just wants some nougat. Fine. For some unaccountable reason though, I'm always (nearly) moved to tears when she calls the police, and they tell her to solve her own problems. This is just the kind of institutional indifference that Aldo avoids by having a friend in the police force.

5. "Je Ne Sais Pas Choisir," Emily L'Oizeau

Throughout the novel, Aldo struggles with not just how to live, but whether he should live at all.

The song is in French, so I'll have to badly translate:

When I sleep alone, I think it would be good to share my bed with a boy
When I share my bed with a boy, I tell myself, I'd prefer to sleep alone.

This is my favorite song about indecision, always wanting the opposite to what you have, and then getting what you think you want, and wanting the thing you gave up to have it:

When I'm at an Indian restaurant
and I order Chicken Tikka
I think I should've ordered Lamb Korma
then finally I eat shrimp with raisins
and realize I should've had vegetarian.

Or course, in the song, it can only end one way:

When I want to commit suicide
I think that in the end Life is beautiful
When somebody tells me, God life is beautiful
I would like to jump off a bridge

6. "Fatal Flower Garden," Andrew Bird

In the novel, it is revealed that Aldo is a character that, "comes from a very specific line that passed on very specific fears from generation to generation: fear of unraveling rope bridges, fear of causing an avalanche by sneezing, fear of accidentally procreating with a half sister, fear of being shot in the face by a hunter—"

Before Andrew Bird's current incarnation as whistling multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter, he was in Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire. They recorded three albums. the third and last of which is the excellent and eclectic The Swimming Hour. This song, "Fatal Flower Garden" (where he sounds fairly Jeff Buckley-ish) haunts me for no good reason: school boys are playing ball; ball falls into a flower bed; drunk old gypsy lady with a diamond entices boy into an upstairs room 'where no one can hear his call.'

Being lured by a diamond to his death is just the type of thing that might've happened to Aldo, or the type of random fear that might keep him up at night.

7. "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," Bob Dylan

Quicksand is very much about artists, inspiration the muse, resisting the muse, turning away from and exhausting the muse.

These very things seem to have also been on Bob Dylan's mind when he wrote this song.

Lay down your weary tune, lay down

Lay down the song you strum

And rest yourself 'neath the strength of strings

No voice can hope to hum

8. "Throw Your Arms Around Me," Hunters and Collectors

Teenage Aldo goads his new best friend Liam into throwing a party while his parents are away, and that party grows a little out of control: "people were stamping like horses trapped in a burning barn. Etiquette seemed to dictate putting cigarettes out directly on the coffee table rather than into the burgundy Persian rug. There were guys and girls piggyback jousting, kicking in sideboards, mowing the carpet, trampolining face first into the wrought-iron chandelier, pouring turpentine into the fish tank, pulling insulation out of the walls, and generally taking out their own puberties on the physical structures around them."

In an Australian high school party in 1989, Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel, and AC/DC would be blaring, but at some point, everyone would have their arms over each other's shoulders and would be singing this classic ballad by Australian band, Hunters and Collectors.

9. "I Wan'na be like you (The Monkey Song)," The Jungle Book

In my novel, the seeking of religion is what Aldo, an pathological entrepreneur, turns to in order to make his fortune.
Alright, I'll admit it: this is stolen from my three-year-old's playlist. It's from Disney's 1967 movie, The Jungle Book, and is sung to the boy Mowgli by the Monkey King, who feels he has peaked as a monkey, reached the summit of monkey-experience, and wants to learn to walk, talk, chew like a person, as well as learn the human secret of making fire (Give me the power of man's red flower/So I can be like you).

This mirrors the human experience of chronic dissatisfaction, we who quickly exhaust what it means to be merely human, and so seek the divine…

10. "Is that All There Is?," Peggy Lee

There is no book I will ever write that could not have this song on the playlist.

Steve Toltz and Quicksand links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Financial Times review
Fort Worth Star-Telegram review
Guardian review
Guardian review
Prospect review
Publishers Weekly review
Sydney Morning Herald review

BBC Radio 4 interview with the author
Guardian Books Podcast interview with the author
Guardian profile of the author
Interview magazine interview with the author
Sydney Morning Herald profile of the author
Telegraph profile of the author

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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