December 16, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Haunting, inventive, and crisply told, Noy Holland's Bird is one of the year's finest debut novels.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Holland crafts a deceptive narrative, one that on the surface appears to chronicle the dreariness of domesticity, yet ultimately transforms itself into a densely layered tale of lust and ache, filled with touches of the bizarre. A fascinating novel."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I love that with a book and more often with music, a memory sometimes coalesces, a moment when we are allowed to be inside time and instantly beyond it. Sometimes we recognize the moment and understand that it's emblematic—if not a distillation of what we've lived so far, at least a distillation of what we're living now. Right now. Right then. As in: I read that book in Paris when I was in love with so-and-so, so that your life and the book, or your life and the song—not in event but in feeling—lift away from the mundane and converge. They become one another. Speak one another.
This is a helpless sort of reverence. It rattles us back into life.
The book is forever embedded in the memory, then, and the memory in the book. In the song.
"Comes a Time" is for me an orange Volkswagen outside New Orleans—it's dusk and the sun smears garishly across the Atchafalaya. The windows are down and we roll them up, my mother and I, to listen, and I'm there, I am completely surgingly present, and the past is present and the future, too, because I know that I will lose her, it won't be long now, it's already happening, and already I am years ahead of myself and I've already made the picture. I am in the car and beyond it. I am seeing myself looking back at myself and back at my poor mother, and the song is on, and the song is me saying goodbye. And since Bird is partly a book about wanting to speak to our mothers, living or dead, the book is me saying hello. Hello again. And "Comes a Time" is playing. And Neil and I make contact.
It doesn't happen all the time but it happens. When I look at certain Rothko paintings, I think he painted them for me. I feel myself in the paint, in the watery lure. I lose my bearings, my coastline, any willfulness; I give in.
Book and reader and song and listener and painting and viewer—doesn't it feel to you as though everything's flung into a vast galactic and cellular drift like stardust or free radicals, looking for something else like it, looking to close the void?
The songs I'm offering up on my playlist for Bird are songs that for me close the void. They're not songs I listened to while I wrote the novel because listen and write? I can't do it. Music can act like a prayer or a drug before work, but I have to turn it off to go on. It takes too much brute will to listen to music and at once to the murmur of sentences, once they become audible, too. "A writer lives in a spooky clamorous silence--" I share Joy Williams' conviction here.
The clamor is the clamor of the book at hand, unruly—and even for this, we have to wait. It's a messy, messy business, waiting for a voice, waiting for a shape to take hold. You need ardor and faith and patience and luck. God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life is the lyric from Neutral Milk Hotel, the second part of "Two-Headed Boy" and here I hear an uncanny reverb off the boy in Bird, Bird's boy, who, feigning sickness, describes the sensation like this: "My head feels like two heads, actually, and the first head is really small."
Two-headed boy, she is all you could need
She will feed you tomatoes and radio wire
And retire to sheets safe and clean
But don't hate her when she gets up to leave
I read the she in this lyric as mother, as lover, as love and its insufficiency; when she leaves, loneliness returns. It returns differently, colored by the song or the vision, the moment we broke through the mundane.
I like to think that Bird inhabits the murk of dream, the watery exacting neediness and neededness of being left alone with a baby, a raw, seeping, animal state, exalted and degrading. Bird is half-awake, plagued by dreams. You cry out in your sleep is the Joy Division lyric, from "Love Will Tear Us Apart," another resonant and generative song for me, particularly given that the song was released in the era of Bird's young life in New York. Joy Division, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore—CBGB days—days you could find a jukebox, and maybe songs from these bands were on it.
You cry out in your sleep
All my failings exposed
And there's a taste in my mouth
As desperation takes hold
Love love will tear us apart again
This last lyric appears in Bird.
The only other song on my playlist that is more or less from that time is Dylan's "Mama, You've Been on My Mind," another love song, lyrics of loss and a longing that persists, as Bird's longing for Mickey persists, though she knows she'll never see him again.
When you wake up in the mornin', baby, look inside your mirror. You know I won't be next to you, you know I won't be near. I'd just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear As someone who has had you on his mind.
In some ways Bird is a road book, or at least there is a road book embedded in Bird, and like "Comes a Time," Dylan's song spoke most plainly to me on the interstate. Different interstate, different car, the early morning shadows thrown long and blue across the sagebrush desert. From this song, loosely, the scene in Bird emerged, when she is sitting in the wreck of Mickey's car, she has driven for days to find him, and Mickey walks down the street already mouthing the words, "Go home."
I would like to talk to the men of Neutral Milk Hotel if only to say simply: I hear you. You speak to me. I see the rightness of the image for In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the faces of boys in the sea, beseeching, and the one boy rises up to reach toward a woman, who, moon-faced, is turned away and reaching elsewhere. I think "Two-Headed Boy" and "Oh, Comely" and Bird speak in different ways to ways we miss one another, ways we love and are loved and are forgotten and hurt.
I'd like to speak to Vashti Bunyan, for the pure breathy beauty of her voice, and to the great Joni Mitchell, whose album Blue—especially "River" I wish I had a river so long/I would teach my feet to fly and "A Case of You" you are in my blood like holy wine/you taste so bitter and so sweet and—it is hard to know where to stop with Joni—also "Woodstock" we are stardust/we are golden/and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden—her songs have been with me hauntingly for years. I'd like to say hello to Will Oldham and Johnny Cash, too—too late—knowing I'll keep returning to the gravelly, ethereal soundtrack of "Then I See a Darkness," the dreadful imposition that black(s) in the mind. The song makes its way from darkness to light. It insists on resilience, which is the insistence I hope readers read into Bird, how Bird reaches for the passing sweetness of the world, the intoxicating, unreasonable want to light it up forever and never go to sleep.
Noy Holland and Bird links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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