November 23, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
James Tate Hill's debut novel Academy Gothic, winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel, is a hilarious and wholly entertaining satire of higher education.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"The dead-on parody of academic jargon and the well-spun plot alone make this mystery worth reading"
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Academy Gothic is a hardboiled mystery crossed with an academic satire set on the crumbling campus of a dying college. This description might not immediately evoke the genre of new wave with its bright synthesizers and lively beats. Then again, the defining characteristic of new wave, at least for me, is the sincere emotion that emerges from a largely synthetic soundscape. Like the 1980s that ushered it into the world, new wave is an odd blend of darkness and wonder, of ego and confusion, of fear and optimism, and if there's a better metaphor for higher education than this incongruous collection of traits I haven't encountered it. Year after year, overworked faculty teach growing numbers of students, those students listen anxiously for the secrets of happiness and/or employability, and somewhere far away college administrators negotiate with politicians and boards of trustees, a summit between Cold War leaders, making deals to keep the academy alive for one more semester.
1. "Lies, Lies, Lies," The Thompson Twins. You can't have a murder mystery—or a college annually ranked worst value in America—without a generous helping of deception. Notes one disenchanted student of Parshall College, the fictional school where Academy Gothic is set, "The brochures showed these rolling hills and this student throwing a Frisbee to his professor. They ought to show a toilet with the last three years of my life floating in the bowl."
2. "Masquerade," Berlin. The first of two Berlin tracks on the playlist because Terri Nunn would have made a terrific femme fatale, "Masquerade" is the obvious choice in a novel where intentions are rarely what they seem on the surface. Not unlike Parshall College itself, many of the school's faculty routinely misrepresent themselves—sometimes on their CVs, sometimes with an actual disguise.
3. "The Passenger," Siouxsie and the Banshees. Speaking of femme fatales, Siouxsie Sue is one part Barbara Stanwyck, one part Lauren Bacall, and one part Catwoman. It should go without saying that there's nothing wrong with Iggy Pop's original version, but the mischief and drama Siouxsie Sue brings to anything she sings make her cover a more fitting choice for this playlist. Tate Cowlishaw, the visually impaired business instructor who serves as the novel's amateur detective, cannot drive and spends a fair amount of time in the passenger seats of other people's cars—when he isn't too prideful to refuse the offer of a ride.
4. "Games Without Frontiers," Peter Gabriel. The lyrics of this song seem to comment on the absurdity of war and inhumanity, but any number of lines—dressing up in costumes, playing silly games, whistling tunes we're kissing baboons in the jungle—could just as easily speak to the inscrutable Beckett play that is college assessment and accreditation.
5. "Der Kommissar," After the Fire. With apologies to Falco fans, I've always preferred the English-language cover that was a hit on American radio. I might have once looked up what a Kommissar is, and I could certainly look it up right now, but sometimes in the Internet age it feels comforting not to know such things. My assumption is that a kommissar is some sort of ruler in a totalitarian state, and the ersatz kommissar of Academy Gothic would be Jefferson Totten, the liaison from the accreditation board whose campus visit in the wake of Dean Simkins's death throws the faculty for a giant, panic-inducing loop. Totten's cavalier regard for assessment—"My granddaddy always said you can't put pounds on the pig by weighing it"—only adds to the mystery of how Simkins kept the faltering school open for so many years.
6. "Never Say Never," Romeo Void. This song's infamous refrain, "I might like you better if we slept together," captures perfectly the relationship between Tate Cowlishaw and his married colleague, the bitter poet Mollie DuFrange. And if it wasn't yet clear that this playlist was going to be dominated by powerful female voices—as the genre of hardboiled noir is dominated by female characters, regardless of the detective's gender—six minutes with the voice of Romeo Void's Debora Iyall always lets you know who's in charge.
7. "The Killing Moon," Echo and the Bunnymen. As heavily as Academy Gothic was influenced by noir masters like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Ross Macdonald, it's also a comedy. Let's reestablish a shadowy, sinister mood with this track from the band who also straddled tones, going dark as easily as they could go cheerful with, say, "Lips Like Sugar."
8. "Walking in L.A.," Missing Persons. As noted, Tate Cowlishaw prefers to walk whenever he has a choice, sometimes even when he doesn't. Nobody walks in L.A.," the song tells us, and North Carolina isn't much different. Even so, stubborn Cowlishaw would sooner navigate the 405 on foot before letting a bus driver know he can't see where he is. Bonus: L.A. is the noir capital of literature, from Chandler's half-fictionalized version of the city through contemporary authors like James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, and Steph Cha.
9. "Policy of Truth," Depeche Mode. The first time I heard this song, I assumed it was from the mid-80s. Industrial as the beat is, the synthesizer would have been at home on a Yaz or Erasure album, the two bands, which, incidentally, founding Depeche Mode member Vince Clarke went on to form. I'll dedicate this number to writing instructor Carly Worth, the nervous blonde who has plenty to be nervous about, from the black car that seems to be following her to the questionable provenance of her education—"Should have hidden it, shouldn't you?"
10. "You Don't Know," Berlin. Two-thirds into the novel seems like a good time for this song's refrain of "you don't know, you don't know, you don't know anymore." Two-thirds into the playlist is a good time to revisit the magnificent voice of Terri Nunn. If Siouxsie Sue is our Stanwyck or Bacall, Terri Nunn is our Kim Novak, fresh-faced innocence obscuring the danger just long enough to get you in some serious trouble.
11. "Love My Way," Psychedelic Furs. The synthesizer of this song could pass for the creaking door in an old horror movie, and Richard Butler's vocals suggest a man sinking deeper into his own despair. And so this track belongs to Duncan Musgrove, the five-times-married, four-times-divorced professor of the course once called Biology; in the current curriculum it's listed as "Scientific Skills." When Cowlishaw and Carly Worth find him breaking into Simkins's office the day after the dean's body is discovered, we glimpse a man at the end of a rope that's been fraying for years.
12. "Regret," New Order. A murder mystery's unwritten rules include having a body in the first few pages, and an unwritten rule of new wave playlists is that New Order must be included. "Regret" feels like the best choice for its undercurrent of nostalgia. There's no shortage of nostalgia in higher education, among humanities departments in particular, and Parshall College longs for the salad days when it was only below average, before it crumbled inexorably into pure mediocrity.
13. "Believed You Were Lucky," ‘Til Tuesday. This isn't one of the new wavier numbers from Aimee Mann's early band, but the melancholy tone and lyrics about the losers of the world who feel unworthy of love and acceptance speaks so eloquently to the faculty of Parshall College, a Falstaff's army of half-hearted academics who would rather be elsewhere. With red-rimmed eyes, I dedicate this to assistant interim dean Londell Bakker, the aspiring stand-up comedian whose fate might be the cruelest of that of any character in the novel.
14. "Only the Lonely," The Motels. The life of a detective is often a lonely one. Tate Cowlishaw lives in a run-down motel, his only companion the obligatory cat. Can a lonely life be a fulfilling one? I'm not sure Academy Gothic will answer that question for anyone, but the inimitable voice of Martha Davis, in this song or any other, always feels like a yes.
James Tate Hill and Academy Gothic links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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