May 9, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Benjamin Wood's The Ecliptic is a mesmerizing novel of art, love, and creativity.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"With its architectural structure, dramatic pacing, enthralling plot, and lush landscapes, Wood's novel features beautifully written, meticulously perceived observations about art and artists."
There was a period, about halfway through the writing of The Ecliptic, when I required a fairly major operation on my large intestine—I'll spare you the exhilarating details of the procedure. I mention this only because it was significant to the novel itself. For a start, it afforded me the opportunity to leave the half-written document in a drawer for nearly four months, which isn't usually the sort of thing one gets the chance to try out on a whim so close to a submission deadline.
Two weeks of this time were spent in hospital, where I did nothing but watch bad television and try my best not to leak too much. The rest of my recuperation was spent at home, where my unfinished manuscript sat waiting for me—we were both on hiatus, and neither of us were getting any fatter. Until I was strong enough to sit upright in a chair, I didn't read a word of the draft in progress. I was too gut-sore and sleepy to read much of anything, in fact. All I did was listen to music.
My post-op recovery routine involved a lot of walking. The aim was to increase my yardage every day. I started with small targets—from one side of the street to the other—and raised it by increments, until I was walking full circuits of the block, then taking long excursions into town, along the river and back again. (It strikes me now that I was living out some some bad metaphor for novel writing: slow, painful, early strides that gained momentum through sheer willpower.) On these walks, I would pull on my headphones and think about The Ecliptic, where it was going, what I wanted it to say. The songs I listened to became part of the novel's fabric. They gave me clearer sight of the story I was trying to tell and they helped me shape the voice of my narrator, Elspeth Conroy. When I hear them now, I cannot separate the music from that time of recovery and invention, or extract Elspeth's life from the music.
'Ruth Marie' – Mark Kozelek
This might just be the best song he ever wrote—I say this in past tense, as he seems to have given up on writing songs in favour of recording long, tuneless anecdotes about bottled water and his cats. At his best, though, Kozelek's voice is heartsick, earnest, and utterly consoling. It was all I wanted to listen to in the early stage of my recuperation. 'Ruth Marie', told from the perspective of an old woman with dementia, is his most crafted and devastating song. 'The evenings fall, they'll drag me out the hall / Up to my bunk and drug me 'til I'm numb / But pass the haze, I see your pretty face / Remember me when I'm gone.'
'Gunshot Glitter' – Jeff Buckley
Oh, the beating heart that underscores this demo track, made by the tapping of Jeff's finger on the mic—it brings you so close to his fractured consciousness at the time he was recording. The Ecliptic is a novel that tries to define what artistic integrity really means; the time that Jeff Buckley spent in a rundown house in Memphis making these four-track demos, hiding out from his record company, was its guiding inspiration. I only wish they'd let me write the script for the long-rumoured film about his life.
'Something to Believe In' – King Creosote
Kenny Anderson's songs are so subtle and rich, and the sound of Scotland pervades their instrumentation. This is the opening song he composed for the soundtrack to Virginia Heath's brilliant documentary From Scotland with Love, built from archive footage of the country's industrial past. It has a special affiliation with the life of Elspeth Conroy, and it captures such a profound sense of loss, of stifled aspiration. I cry every time I listen to it.
'Dramamine' – Sun Kil Moon
Yes, more Kozelek. His cover records are some of his best work, particularly What's Next to the Moon, his melodic reworking of AC/DC songs. This track is from Tiny Cities, his album of Modest Mouse renditions. I already love the original recording, but Kozelek lends it a unique sensitivity and sorrow. If you read The Ecliptic, you'll understand why the lines 'You're killing the better part of me / I can't keep focussed on anything' resonate with me, and why I worked Dramamine into a key scene of the novel.
'Seasons (Waiting on You)' – Future Islands
You might have noticed that I prefer downbeat music. I tend to find upbeat songs fairly meaningless, unless I'm running laps in a park or benching weights, which only happens in my dreams. So an up-tempo track has to have a vein of melancholy running through it to get me interested. This one does. It reminds me of mid-career Springsteen. (Future Islands have now been ruined for me by my brother, who told me they sound like Jack Black doing karaoke. Painfully true.)
'Hounds of Love' – Kate Bush
Kate Bush is just exceptional—an artist whose integrity had a shaping influence my approach to building Elspeth's character. I listened to the Hounds of Love album over and over towards the end of my recovery. The title track is so uplifting: 'Take my shoes of and throw them in the lake / and I'll be two steps on the water.' Those ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh hound noises in the production should not work at all—as a concept, they're preposterous—but she makes them vital to the song, the most elevating part of it. She's a genius.
Benjamin Wood and The Ecliptic links:
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
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