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May 13, 2016

Book Notes - M. Thomas Gammarino "King of the Worlds"

King of the Worlds

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.

M. Thomas Gammarino's novel King of the Worlds is as clever as it is fun.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser wrote of the book:

"If Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams had a baby, it would look a lot like 'King of the Worlds.' With its tongue-in-cheek humor and intelligent allusions, this is the kind of fiction that playfully reassembles tropes and rejects all labels. It's a dark riot."

In his own words, here is M. Thomas Gammarino's Book Notes music playlist for his novel King of the Worlds:

Though King of the Worlds is in part an alternate history of the 1990s, it's also something of a tribute to that non-alternate, paradigm-shifting decade I did most of my growing up in. If I'm nostalgic for a time, it's that one, what with its grunge music, profitable mega-bookstores, and all-around pre-Internet quaintness. It didn't hurt that I was younger then and as far as I knew immortal. The protagonist of King of the Worlds, fallen-from-grace actor Dylan Greenyears, isn't a thinly-veiled version of me exactly, but he too is looking back on those halcyon days from a couple of decades hence (not to mention, in his case, 2001 light years away), and like some latter-day Gatsby, he's determined to recapture their glory. So in imagining a soundtrack for this inherently filmic novel, it's no wonder that I should have initially come up with a long list of nineties tunes. Then I remembered that there's actually a good bit of non-nineties music in the novel already, so I took a second crack at it. Here's what I came up with:

1. Vangelis, "Heaven and Hell"

In the alternate universe of King of the Worlds, Carl Sagan's television series Cosmos, which aired in 1980, so moved the American public that NASA immediately began getting sixty percent of the federal budget (in our actual universe NASA gets less than half a percent). This spacey synth-gasm, you may remember, was that show's theme.

2. Radiohead "Black Star"

Owing to NASA's new, steroidal budget, Americans were settling exoplanets by the middle-nineties and giving them names drawn from pop culture, such as Tarantino, Alanis, Infinite Jest, Trainspotting, and, naturally enough, Radiohead. 1997's OK Computer is, to my mind, the band's masterpiece, but this song from 1995's The Bends is an uncanny fit for the entropic love story at the center of the novel.

3. Pearl Jam, "Black"

Dylan Greenyears' path to superstardom begins with him belting out this song in the shower. He especially likes to let loose toward the end: "I know someday you'll have a beautiful life / I know you'll be a star / in somebody else's sky / But why, why, why can't it be, can't it be mine?"

4. Jesus Christ Superstar, "Gethsemane"

Dylan's dad encourages him to try out for the school musical, which happens to be Jesus Christ Superstar that year. Next thing Dylan knows he's playing God, a motif that may or may not recur in various ways throughout the novel. And the line "Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain" may or may not foreshadow the main subplot.

5. Astor Piazzolla, "Libertango"

Dylan's first appearance in a film is as an extra in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, which (IMHO) ranks among the best time-travel films ever made. Composer Paul Buckmaster's demented tango gets its hooks in you right from the opening credits, and I'm pretty sure it was inspired by this Piazzolla classic.

6. Air, Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Speaking of science fiction films, George Melies' 1902 Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon) was the undisputed first. For over a century the film was a silent one. Then in 2012 the French duo Air released their sublime soundtrack, which I'm unabashedly stealing since the film, based in part on HG Wells' The First Men In the Moon, was one of my inspirations (along with Joanna Russ' feminist utopia, Whileaway, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan") in creating "the Grotto," a patriarchal pleasure dome inside of Earth's moon.

7. "Flying Theme" from ET, John Williams (Death-Metal Remix)

John Williams' theme still brings me pretty close to tears. I hate to rob it of its virginity like this, but if you read the novel, you'll understand why I really do have to.

8. Celine Dion, "My Heart Will Go On" (Nausea Remix)

Being as Dylan has spent two decades licking his wounds after losing the lead in Titanic, I like to imagine the first vocal line repeated—"Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you"—over and over, with a flanger and added emphasis on the lower notes (i.e. "my" and "see") to give the phrase a lurching, nauseating quality. I feel sick just thinking about it.

9. "I've Been High," REM

Dylan, too, has been literally and figuratively high: "I've been high / I've climbed so high / The light, sometimes it washes over me." Lovely song.

10. Chase Holfeder, "Every Breath You Take"

Chris Holfeder transposes major-key songs to minor keys. In this case, the medium finally suits the message since, in the words of Wendy, Dylan's Mormon-fundamentalist superfan, "Lots of people think it's a love song—they play it at weddings and such—and then they're shocked when they learn it's about a stalker. But I've always found that to be a false dichotomy, don't you think? If you really love somebody, why wouldn't you obsess over them?"

11. Type O Negative, "Be My Druidess" and/or "My Girlfriend's Girlfriend"

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I'll just let these two speak for themselves.

12. Frank Sinatra, "Last Night When We Were Young"

Cabs on Dylan's adopted homeworld of New Taiwan are driven by "androcabbies," who can shapeshift into anyone on command. Frank Sinatra makes an appearance this way, and he sings more than one standard, though it's this particular torch song that best captures the elegiac tonalities of the novel: "Where is that star that shone so bright / Ages ago last night?" Those last four words were my working title for a time.

13. Nine Inch Nails, "Starfuckers, Inc." and/or "Closer"

Starfucker was my working title for a while too. I ended up retaining it as the name for part III. It has an obvious meaning in the context of the novel, but it works on multiple levels. And anyone who reads the novel will see that "Closer" makes a nice fit for some of the more animalistic scenes in Ascension Forest, a.k.a. Alobaz'ñashahilmukdan'nabai (“the garden that rapes you").

14. John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme"

Speaking of Ascension, John Coltrane pushed music so far in his too-short life that one could be forgiven for thinking that the subsequent history of jazz consists mostly of footnotes to his work. Many consider A Love Supreme to be his masterpiece. I'm not ready to throw in with any single album, but this is the one that appears in the novel, and it's true I find his "musical narration" on "Psalm" particularly haunting. Listen to it sometime while reading his prayer from the liner notes alongside; the man's speaking English through a universal translator.

15. Dido, "White Flag"

I think this may be the song that plays during the closing credits. The refrain—"I will go down with this ship"—is just irresistible since it articulates with the main storyline in ways both ironic and on-the-nose.

16. The Bad Plus, "Pound for Pound"

This trio may well be my favorite musical discovery of the last few years, and "Pound for Pound" is a testament to how much power and dynamism these guys can wring out of three instruments and a bare-bones arrangement. In fact I'm quite sure The Bad Plus could work wonders on every tune in this list (see, for instance, what they've done with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," and "Karma Police"). Whaddaya say, guys?

M. Thomas Gammarino and King of the Worlds links:

Entropy review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Big in Japan

also at Largehearted Boy:

Largehearted Boy's 2016 Fundraiser

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