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February 10, 2016

Book Notes - Tony Tulathimutte "Private Citizens"

Tony Tulathimutte

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.

Tony Tulathimutte's novel Private Citizens is an impressive debut, a brilliant satire that brings the San Francisco of 2007 (and its recently graduated Millennials) vividly to life.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Witty, unsparing, and unsettlingly precise, Tulathimutte empathizes with his subjects even as he (brilliantly) skewers them. A satirical portrait of privilege and disappointment with striking emotional depth."

Stream this playlist at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Tony Tulathimutte's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Private Citizens:

My novel Private Citizens is about four recent college grads living in the Bay Area circa 2007. It's awkward to look back over an interval of five to ten years, too recent for nostalgia and too distant for novelty, so that everything considered fashionable then now tends to give off an fusty stench of co-opted uncool—MySpace, American Apparel, Burning Man, feather earrings.

But the Bay Area is an interesting corner case. Gay marriage was briefly legalized there for a fleeting summer in 2004; Google Maps launched in 2005, Facebook opened to the public in 2006, Twitter and the iPhone came out the next year, AirBnB the next, Uber the next—all from the Bay Area, and patronized mostly by Silicon Valley insiders. Which is to say that, as a petri dish of progressivism and high-end technology, San Francisco is always five to ten years ahead.

So take my fingerless glove in yours and let us journey into the regrettably hip, uncomfortably recent past of our future.

"Hustler" by Simian Mobile Disco

Although the song itself was pretty ubiquitous, I'm more interested in the original video, which, though arguably creepy and probably NSFW, provides a useful cross section of a certain fashion template embraced by my vicious protagonist, Linda. You bet there are MySpace bangs. And harem pants. There are gold necklaces and off-the-shoulder tops. There is a dirndl. There's that headband that goes around the forehead. All that's missing are the gold lamé leggings.

The male counterpart is basically just a red plaid shirt, hoodie, beard, Chuck Taylors, and Wayfarers. No one makes music videos about that.

"Shadows" by Midnight Juggernauts

When I was kickboxing my publisher over the cover for my book, I made a long list of don'ts: no bikes, burritos, beards, skinny jeans, Golden Gate Bridge, or any other obvious token of young-people-in-San-Francisco. After vetoing two covers, they asked me to be more specific, so I thought about the albums people were listening to back then and realized that a lot of their covers had bright neon colors over a black background—M.I.A.'s Kala, Deerhoof's Friend Opportunity, The Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, Justice's , Radiohead's In Rainbows, Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna. (I suspect that this aesthetic comes by figurative association with EDM and rave shows—dark rooms full of strobes and lasers.) The cover of Midnight Juggernauts' Dystopia (also released in 2007) is uncannily close to my book cover, and while I doubt this was intentional, it's not entirely accidental either.

"Jailbreak" by Thin Lizzy

Some advice. When people pick karaoke songs, especially for performance in front of a crowd, they often picture themselves belting the hook. But you need to think the whole song through, or you might just end up forgetting that the bridge of "Jailbreak," for example, is a full minute-long guitar solo which leaves you nothing to do but perform moronic stage antics. A character in my book forgets this important lesson to his lasting regret. Other risky songs include "War Pigs," "Erotic City," "Flashing Lights." Same goes for songs with fast guest rappers—if you're not prepared to rap, then just don't—and songs with no breathers. I once saw a girl literally pass out while doing "Tik Tok" because Ke$ha sings nonstop through the whole thing.

"Emily" by Joanna Newsom

One of the most recurring, least useful debates of the aughts was this supposed war between sincerity and irony, innocent wonder vs. world-weary snark. It was a tension that replicated itself across mediums—McSweeney's vs. N+1, The Believer vs. VICE, Michel Gondry vs. Gaspar Noe, Joanna Newsom vs. Julian Casablancas, David Foster Wallace vs. himself, San Francisco vs. New York. And it was felt keenly by recent college grads like my characters, anxious to be self-sufficient and mature, and equally anxious to have fun. (This perhaps was why nostalgia became such a dominant aesthetic sensibility, being equally available to both sides.)

So when one of the nastier characters in my book refers to Joanna Newsom's first album as "Eine Kleine Vagina," this is a bit of posturing, a performance of hipster contempt that Newsom came in for quite often. But in Ys, released in late 2006, Newsom bridges the gap decisively, singing doggerel about meteorites and meadowlarks over sophisticated orchestral arrangements; in thus she is earnest in content and maturely disciplined (+ arguably ironic) in form.

"The Hollows" by Why?

While the prevailing winds of indie lyricism were blowing toward stylized fantasy (Animal Collective, The Arcade Fire, The Flaming Lips, Of Montreal), Yoni Wolf was writing one album after another of autobiographical, self-loathing, often deeply off-putting lyrical realism that many of my characters would find familiar. Wolf is also another Bay Area native, and I occasionally saw him haunting San Francisco right around when my book takes place. (I think it was him. The mustache-curly-undercut was as common then as the manbun is now.)

"Bine" by Autechre

In one scene, two characters, Cory and Linda, try to nonaggressively disperse a large crowd of people, so I thought about what the least pleasant music to hear at high volume would be, and of course it's Autechre—Cory describes it as sounding "like a shattering chain of transformer explosions." Inorganic, punishingly arrhythmic, it sounds like a thousand error messages going off at once.

"Tell Me When to Go" by E-40

Hyphy, both as a genre and as a word that people actually said aloud, came up and hit its zenith in the 2000s, and one thing I love about it is how insistent its practitioners are on defining and deploying its slang. It's part of the Bay Area's broader tendency to proclaim its own countercultural uniqueness and exceptionalism against other cities, and to export it aggressively, right down to the vocab—"I'm from the Bay where we hyphy and go dumb / from the soil where them other rappers be getting their lingo from."

The bridge of his marquee single contains a full minute-long call-and-response glossary, making it a good hyphy primer before moving on to Too $hort, Mistah Fab (who does an incredible take on the Ghostbusters theme), Keak da Sneak, Mac Dre, The Federation, et al.

"DVNO" by Justice

You could not get away from † in 2007. It was dispersed in the air in chem trails and house parties and Urban Outfitters. And if it wasn't this album then it'd be one of the dozens of tracks they remixed—Simian, Mystery Jets, MGMT, etc. I find it very generationally fitting that before Justice went into music, they were graphic designers, and their talents lay in remixing and curating ("We are not great musicians. We are not great producers. We are not great songwriters"). A staple of Richie Panic and Jefrodisiac's Frisco Disco night at the Arrow Bar, back when any of those words meant anything.

"Young Folks" by Peter, Bjorn, and John

A song I'm not in love with but which still relates to my book, or its setting anyway. The jukebox at my favorite dive bar seemed to play this song every night, usually in close succession with "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Smoking used to be allowed in that bar, but I've heard a rumor that smoking was banned after Mark Zuckerberg rolled up one night and someone in Team Zuck took pictures, naturally uploading them to Facebook; someone narced and smoking was banned ever since.

"I Do What I Want When I Want" by Xiu Xiu

Still one of my favorite Bay Area bands, and one whose sense of humor often goes overlooked beneath their lucid-nightmare soundscaping. Its members were also delightful Bay Area gadflies; the other day I was browsing through old party photos, and not only did I stumble across a photo of Jamie Stewart wearing only a comforter, it seems he also borrowed my camera and took a genital selfie from a gruesomely unflattering angle.

"Democracy" by Leonard Cohen

No spoiler—in the book's final scene, a character is playing unnamed Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez records. I'm not sure why I left them deliberately vague; possibly because I wanted the readers project their own favorites onto the ending. (Everyone has a clear favorite Leonard Cohen song.) Nevertheless, "Democracy" is definitely the one I had in my mind and on my playlist. Though it's not explicitly addressed, the novel ends just before the massive financial implosion of 2008, one of the regularly scheduled crises of unfettered capitalism, when the abuse of the virtual hemorrhaged into the actual: "It's coming from the feel / that this ain't exactly real / or it's real, but it ain't exactly there."

The Baez song I had in mind, a retrospective hymn to complement Cohen's forward-facing ode, is "Here's to You": "The last and final moment is yours / That agony is your triumph."

Tony Tulathimutte and Private Citizens links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Ploughshares interview with the author
Tin House interview with the author
VICE essays by 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

Online "Best of 2015" Book Lists

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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