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February 26, 2016

Book Notes - Belinda McKeon "Tender"


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.

Belinda McKeon's Tender is a magnificent novel of unrequited love and obsession.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Dark spirits inform the frantic heart at the center of Tender, Belinda McKeon's second novel and a dead-on account of youthful her [Catherine], McKeon has a fully-realized character--a contradictory, willful, thoughtless, self-destructive, manipulative, obsessive, and finally, sympathetic young woman...such youthful sensations as the longing to be known wholly and exclusively by another McKeon remembers and tenderly records."

Stream this playlist at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Belinda McKeon's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Tender:

Tender (Lee Boudreaux Books) is steeped in music. It's set in the late 1990s, and is the story of an intense friendship between two young people living in Dublin – Catherine, who's a college student, and James, who's trying to make it as a photographer – so the music of that time is everywhere in their world, but also in the fabric of the novel. There were songs I heard over and over in my head while I wrote the book, and there were songs which found their way in – as songs overheard, as songs mulled over, as songs actually (usually very badly) sung. The novel takes its title from a few places, not just from the Blur song of that name, but that song coming onto my headphones one day in April 2013, when I was deep into the writing of the book, definitely helped to solidify my thoughts on what the title was going to be. Love's the greatest thing / that we have, after all. Can't argue with that.

1. 'Oh Yeah' by Ash

Ash were a young Northern Irish band who released this song in May 1996; they were three cute, indie-rock boys in Vans and baggy cords, with their guitars slung low and their hair in their eyes, and this song was, for those of us who left school that summer, the soundtrack to our longed-for future lives. Lives, that is, in which we got the boy or girl we wanted, and our days and nights were forever sunbleached and lazy and full of love and sex which had somehow magically become easy and non-awkward. 'Oh Yeah' doesn't actually feature in Tender, but in my mind, it's playing over the opening scene, in which Catherine stretches out on a summer lawn, having snuck away from home to be with James.

2. “Exit Music (For A Film)” by Radiohead

I bought OK Computer with the music store voucher I got for my 18th birthday, and I listened to this song until it felt like the music of my brain. I love the drag of it, the arrogant despair, and most of all, the line we hope that you choke, which I wanted, then, to say to practically every adult in my life and in my parochial rural community. In Tender, Catherine and James are listening to this song at the train station as they prepare to part for the summer, having just met and forged an instantaneous, deep connection; they're sitting close together as they listen, sharing a pair of headphones, and a neighbor from Catherine's hometown, a horrible, nosey old guy, sees them, and Catherine just knows he's going to spread gossip about her. The song was perfect for that moment; two kids against the narrow world. I didn't know until quite recently that this song was written in response to a commission from Baz Luhrman for Romeo & Juliet; it plays over the end credits, but Radiohead didn't want it on the official soundtrack (which I can understand, I guess, although I really like that film). Yorke has said that performing it was the first time a song of his own made his head spin: “something I could turn up really, really loud and not wince at any moment”. Wincing and cringing are, for me, really woven into the fabric of Tender, into the characters' experiences and into my memory of writing it, pushing so far into what it felt like to be them, so I'm drawn to the idea that, with 'Exit Music,' Yorke pushed on through.

3. 'Hedonism' by Skunk Anansie

This song is a shadow-presence in the novel for me; its long, perfect wail at the injustice of not being loved by the person who you love so much that it burns. Though looking at the lyrics – Just because you feel good / doesn't make you right – it could ironically also almost be a song written by the society out of which Catherine and James have come. I always thought it was doesn't make it right, I've just realized. I guess I always thought it was a song about sex which is no-strings for one person and very complicated for the other.

4. 'Live Forever' by Oasis

Given the novel's late-1990s-Ireland setting, there was no getting away from the snarling hoarseness and jaunty guitar chords – that oddly innocent combination – of the Gallagher brothers; this song features briefly in a flashback, in which Catherine remembers her grad dance (the Irish equivalent of the high school prom) while James tells her about the torment of his own; he was moping over a beautiful boy in a rented tux, whose photo he still carries around in his wallet. It's mortifying to admit to nostalgia for an Oasis song, of course, and like most Oasis songs, the lyrics are essentially a stoner's grab-bag of meaninglessness, but there's something about the line Maybe you're the same as me, we'll see things they never see which makes it a good fit for this moment in these characters' lives. It's July, and they're sitting out under the stars, drinking wine that's going right to their heads, trying to tell one another who they are.

5. 'When You're Gone' by The Cranberries

Come on, Dolores O'Riordan and her beautiful moping had to be in here somewhere. I have a vivid memory of dancing (“dancing”) to this song in a nightclub in Carrick-on-Shannon, a small town in the Northwest of Ireland, with the bunch of girls who were the schoolfriends of the boy who'd just become my closest, dearest friend, and who would become the inspiration for James; he was going abroad for the year, and we were all drunk and clomping around in our Docs and our long skirts and shouting these lyrics at the poor bastard. It's not in the novel, but it's part of the hidden soundtrack of the close of section one, as Catherine counts down to James leaving once again for Berlin.

6. 'Shine' by David Gray

On Thursday nights in those years, Irish TV broadcast this brilliant indie music video show called No Disco; it was low-fi, hazy, wistful, and it felt like everyone under thirty in the country was getting stoned in front of it at the same time. The presenter, Donal Dineen, started playing the video for this song, which was by a young British singer-songwriter who had by then been playing pubs and clubs for years, and nobody really knew of him; Dineen was really into this song, and he played it a lot, and very soon Gray was huge in Ireland, touring, selling out big venues; I think his album White Ladder is still the biggest-selling album there's been there. His later song 'This Year's Love', and probably the soundtrack to every Irish break-up in 1998, but 'Shine' is a much subtler, more beautiful song, I think; about two people, trying to make things better between them. The title of Tender's second section, “Moonfoam and Silver”, is taken from its chorus, and there's a scene in which Catherine and James watch the video on No Disco. When the novel came out in Ireland last summer, there was a bit of snootiness about this – David Gray became way too popular to stay cool – but there was no way this song wasn't going to be a big part of my young characters' lives at that time. And in truth, it's still a big part of mine. So thanks to the ever-wonderful Donal Dineen for finding it.

7. 'The Boy with the Arab Strap' by Belle & Sebastian

I wasn't actually aware until looking this song up just now what an arab strap was. It's a device for maintaining an erection (and according to Wikipedia, B&S's Stuart Murdoch didn't know this factoid either). So, um, that's all I'm going to say about the fact that this song is part of the soundtrack to this novel for me.

8. 'Lucky' by Radiohead

This song comes into Catherine's head just as the state of things is beginning to shift seriously between herself and James; her feelings for him are tilting over from friendship into something different, something all-consuming. I first heard this song on a compilation album put together in the mid-90s to raise money for kids affected by the Bosnian War; Brian Eno asked Radiohead to make a song for it, and this is what they came up with. I was obsessed with it; the dark irony of that opening line, “I'm on a roll”, the grim heartbeat of the strumming, and then everything exploding the way it does. Perfectly melodramatic, but also pretty devastating in its own way.

9. 'All I Want Is You' by U2

If you went to a student party in Dublin, you ended up stuck in a room listening to three guys with guitars roar their way through this song. In fact, that's probably still true. There are student parties in Tender, ergo, this song must be floating in the ether in there somewhere. In one of those “you need to have a mini-stroke which will wipe certain super-obvious information from your mind or else you'll never get on with just writing this novel” moments, I somehow completely forgot about the role this song plays in Reality Bites, a film I have been able to recite backwards since the age of 14).

10. 'Islands in the Stream' by Kenny Rogers

Catherine and James also go to a grown-up party – or rather, they gatecrash it – and at grown-up parties in Dublin, it's less a case of three guys with guitars than people actually having party pieces and being expected to sing something beautiful and soulful at a certain point in the night. Catherine and James don't have songs, but James jokingly suggests that they duet on this one. James has all the best ideas; this is such a great song. (And I've just remembered that my friend Gary and I have a plan to sing it next time we find ourselves at the local pub's summer karaoke tournament in Leitrim Village, Ireland.)

11. 'My Lagan Love' (Traditional)

This is one of the songs performed by one of the actual grown-ups at the grown-up party (some of the others include 'The Parting Glass' and 'Hard Times', which always come out at grown-up Dublin parties, usually when the host is trying to give a hint that it's time to go home. It's never time to go home.) 'My Lagan Love' is a song to a very beautiful traditional Irish air; it was collected in Donegal in 1903. The Lagan is the river which flows through Belfast, so it's often associated with that place (as it is by the character who sings it for his Belfast-native boyfriend in the novel), although it's probably about another locality called Lagan.

12. 'Johnny Seoighe' (Traditional)

Catherine thinks she knows the words of this incredibly gorgeous and haunting sean-nós (Irish language) song by heart, and that she can sing it at the grown-up party while she's very drunk. She does not know the words. She is not up to the considerable technical challenge of the song. She does not speak the Irish language. She – well, you can imagine the outcome. This may have happened to someone I, cough, know.

13. 'The Gambler' by Kenny Rogers

What? I love me a bit of Kenny Rogers. His music, that is, not his Trump vote. Catherine is at her grandfather's 80th birthday party, in a pub in rural Ireland, and her parents and a load of other local couples are on the dancefloor, jiving to this. On rural Irish dancefloors, the country music jive is an art form. Catherine's a grunge-meets-Britpop kid, though, so she doesn't exactly have the moves.

14. 'Moon River' from Breakfast at Tiffany's

This song was written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, and it became a calling card for the singer Andy Williams, but the version on Catherine's mind when she's in love with James and is trying to find a song which is “theirs” is the one sung by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Catherine is drawn to the line about the two drifters, off to see the world – but then she realizes that this isn't “their” song either. That there is no song which is “theirs”. But not everybody has to have a song, she tells herself.

15. 'Go West' by The Pet Shop Boys

James and Catherine and their friends go dancing in The George, the legendary Dublin gay bar; this is the song that's playing as they launch themselves onto the dancefloor: “seagull calls, and waves crashing, and the mock-up chords of a tune that had come to meet a smiling bride on her father's arm, and the sound of cymbals, and the sound of the men's chorus, low and even and stern.” And then that first word, hollered like a victory cry: Together.

16. 'Like A Prayer' by Madonna

This is the song that comes on next, that night in The George. It drives everyone crazy with happiness, as it tends to do. I love this song. I have so many memories of going insane on dancefloors to this song. They're not all distant memories, either. I couldn't afford to quote from it, but I hope the lyrics are still ghosting the scene; the idea of something better than prayer, some form of worship so much better than the one we'd been taught. It's not much wonder that the song has been so beloved in Irish gay clubs.

17. 'Sea Creatures' by SOAK

This song isn't in the novel; it's not from the late 1990s. It's a song by an artist who was born in the late 1990s: the young Northern Irish singer-songwriter SOAK (Bridie Monds-Watson). I came across it while I was writing the novel, and I thought it was extraordinary, and tapped into so much of what I was trying to do with my two characters. It's a song about friendship and about cruelty, about heartbreak, about how difficult it can be to live in a place which doesn't love you, and about how hard it is to be a good friend to someone who's going through that. The stars and moon / remind me of you / I don't know what to say / It might make you worse. Christ. Her song 'Blud' is also amazing.

18. 'Somebody That I Used To Know' by Gotye

The final scene in Tender takes place in 2012. This would be Catherine and James's song in that scene, if they had a song.

But not everybody has to have a song.

19. 'Tender' by Blur

Or - hang on: maybe they do.

Belinda McKeon and Tender links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Boston Globe review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Toronto Star review

738am Podcast interview with the author
Hot Press interview with the author
Irish Times profile of the author
Weekend Edition interview with 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)
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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