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May 31, 2016

Book Notes - Claudia Casper "The Mercy Journals"

The Mercy Journals

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Claudia Casper's The Mercy Journals is an innovatively told novel set in a dystopia of the near future.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Posing profound questions about compassion, values, and our capacity for life-saving change, Claudia Casper performs a remarkably incisive and sensitive variation on the dystopian theme in this suspenseful and provocative tale of sacrifice and survival."

In her own words, here is Claudia Casper's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Mercy Journals:

Songs always inhabit my novels. Very little tells you as much about a character in as short a space as their taste in music juxtaposed with their life circumstances, especially if their taste is somewhat idiosyncratic, or out of left field. Music is one of the wild places we let our emotions really run free, so what songs a character loves reveals in shorthand miles and miles of their inner life. Of course people also adopt music as badges of status and persona too, but it is the songs that fling the gates of our heart open that interest me. Confession: In my adolescence that song was 'Time of the Season' by the Zombies. Hearing that song fills me to this day with surrendering yearning, a sense of danger, and my then-virgin's excitement about imminent sex and possession.

"Send in the Clowns" – by Stephen Sondheim

This smoky, melancholic song walked into my mind like a slightly shabby character in a rumpled tweed coat, not old, but the time of his youth long past. My idea of comedic relief in this rather intense novel is a chorus of singing worms who try to seduce my hero, Allen (Mercy) Quincy, who is suffering from PTSD retriggered by a relationship with a woman called Ruby, over to the other side of the grave. When he drinks after twenty years of sobriety, Quincy hallucinates the worms and they always appear in full party mode, like a Brazilian Samba group, or a Macarena chorus line, calling to him: 'C'mon over, the water's warm!' At the point in the novel when "Send in the Clowns" is sung, the worms are appearing for the last time and so the tone changes. The spokesworm clears his throat and steps into a spotlight in top hat and tails, with a silver-tipped cane; the rest of the chorus is dressed as various iterations of clown, rainbow wigs, Groucho glasses etc. The spokesworm sings "Send in the Clowns," only it's Send in the Worms. After the last line, 'Well maybe next year,' the spokesworm steps out of the spotlight with a wistful hopefulness, only temporarily defeated in his seduction of our hero, taking the rest of the chorus with him.

We tried to get the rights to publish the lyrics of the song but were denied, so I rewrote the passage using paraphrase and description. It's a wonderful song, expressive of the bittersweet, world-weary irony of missed opportunity that no human avoids in a lifetime. I should add that at my Vancouver book launch (literary book launches can be somewhat dry affairs), while Jamie Mauro played piano and sang "Send in the Clowns," I dressed up as a worm and mimed "Send in the Worms."

"Mack the Knife," by Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and "Take This Waltz" by Leonard Cohen

The music of cabaret is a kind of dream stage, smoky, dark and red, with tables and people drinking and chatting and watching performances that are subversive and slightly unpredictable, risky as well as risqué. The subtext to cabaret's camp, ironic humour is that life is a short ride, and the emotion evoked an amused, melancholy detachment. The worms in their zeal to demonstrate to Allen Quincy that the other side of the grave is where the real party is, nonetheless have and aura of wistful sadness that the dance is brief and the cards are stacked.

"White Wedding" – Billy Idol

In the early days of writing The Mercy Journals, to the embarrassment of my sons, I put up a flash card on the bulletin board above my desk that read: 'Write like a Billy Idol bassline,' and somewhat paradoxically below: 'Walk softly, carry a big stick.' These words were a beacon to help me land on the quality of narrative I wanted - a direct, clear, raw passion - simple, but with a huge, raw emotional payoff – like "White Wedding" and "Rebel Yell." Idol's vocals deliver a satisfying punch to the solar plexus at the songs' climax. I wanted to achieve a Shakespearean quality of big movement below the surface of the story, elements that develop powerfully without ever being explicitly articulated. For a novel that begins after a die-off caused by climate change when human civilization is fumbling to a new beginning, with a global government, new laws and a main character, Allen Quincy, an ex-soldier who's numbed himself to survive severe PTSD by keeping his life as banal and routine as possible until a dancer wearing red high heels walks into his life – the lines: 'It's a nice day to START AGAIN!' were pitch perfect.

The unleashing of desire in "Rebel Yell," the burn it up, tear it down rage (more in the music than the lyrics for sure – Johnny Rotten did after all call Idol the Perry Como of Punk) fits Ruby, the dancer, ('Last night a little dancer came dancin' to my door') who has a predatory aspect to her, a lasered-in intensity. Her prey is not getting away.

When I was writing the love scenes between Ruby and Allen, Golden Earring's "Radar Love" also hit my inner soundtrack with its driving, straightforward, compelling rhythm. The Youtube video, however, is quite funny in that you could not get a less enthusiastic crowd; everyone is so deadpan and disconnected, not even one toe taps (is it a Dutch thing?)

"Fado" – Amalia Rodrigues

The wondrous character Ruby, the slightly feral embodiment of Kali, goddess of destruction and creation, walks into Allen Quincy's tamped down life and resurrects him follicle by follicle, at first sexually, but given that sex is also a form of communication, also with her bravery, her ability to accompany his destroyedness, and her ferocious appetites, which pull him back to life. During her performance in a university theatre in Seattle in the year 2047, she sings a Fado song in the dark, a spotlight slowly coming up on her, accompanied in the shadows by a lone guitarist. Fado is an old Portuguese singing tradition that embodies the expression of 'saudades', translated as longing – the quintessence of the pain of bonding with another person, which we have to do to survive after our first wail out of the birth canal, and then inevitably losing the people we are bonded to to death or heartbreak. Fado singers still wander from bar to bar in Lisbon, singing for their supper and/or drinks. Ruby also lives close to the edge, surviving through her performances. Amalia Rodriguez, the magnificent singer who popularized Fado from the 50s to the 70s and who was known as the femme fadista, embodies the form. Her singing expresses a female rawness and an almost Platonic ideal of yearning. The inevitable loss in living becomes more bearable in the embrace of her deep, warm, soaring voice.

"In for the Kill (Skream Remix Let's Get Ravey)" - La Roux

Eleanor Jackson's powerful vocals from La Roux's "In for the Kill" give me goose bumps in this remix by SKREAM, which is purer and crisper than the original. The lyrics: 'I'm going in for the kill, I'm doing it for a thrill' capture Ruby's predatory side and her wild, unstructured, direct approach to satisfying her appetites after the loss of so much in this post-climate change world. Jackson's vocals are unmediated and clear, without the trills and coy memes so often imposed on female vocalists. Still thrills me.

Come As You Are – Nirvana

God this song. I sing along every time. The pain-infused, dark, haunting vocals of Cobain – there can be no better musical expression of my character, Allen Quincy, who at the opening of this novel sits alone in his kitchenette, an empty bottle of whiskey and his old service Beretta M9 on the counter in front of him, trying to hold suicide off as PTSD tears his mind apart. Later, when he is trying to win Ruby back by showing up at her dressing room, rather than spouting apologies he stands simply before her door and sings Come as You Are. (I would have loved to have the lyrics in the novel, but publishing rights are impossible to get.) Quincy decides to stop singing at the lyrics, 'And I swear I don't have a gun,' thinking, amusingly, they might give his ladylove the wrong idea. Memory is a major theme throughout, and late at night, battling the text, I would often play this song full volume and let it fill my jittery mind. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are irreplaceable in this universe.

Claudia Casper and The Mercy Journals links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Publishers Weekly review
Quill and Quire review
Shelf Awareness review
Vancouver Sun review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author interview with the author
Vancouver Sun interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Largehearted Boy's 2016 Fundraiser

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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