June 6, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Katie Chase's Man & Wife, one of the year's finest short story collections, is filled with acute and haunting depictions of suburban life.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"There's a healthy dose of Margaret Atwood's dystopian feminism throughout, and Ms. Chase has an imagination worth watching."
One of my aims with the stories in Man & Wife was to remix and riff on some lingering impressions of my childhood. Music was always a part of it. My mom blasted Belinda Carlisle and The Beatles while she cleaned; my dad rang in the weekend with Bob Marley and The Smiths. The pages of Man & Wife thrum with the acoustic musings of a self-proclaimed guru, the "part metal, part rap" of a teenager's mix tape, the smooth jazz, soul, and R&B records put on at grown-ups' parties. Characters drive to music, roller skate to music, roll up the rugs to dance to music; they hum through the woods, drunkenly break into song on the street, cheer on the football team. The only song mentioned by name is Michael Jackson's "Thriller": naturally, it's Halloween.
As a fiction writer who's never really played an instrument, I connect with music most often through mood, beat, and lyrics. It's almost impossible to listen to much other than instrumentals when I write, because I can't help but sing along and seat dance. For the purpose of getting down to business, I return often to the piano solos of Dustin O'Halloran, who I found through the delicious mash-up of present and past that is the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. The same sensibility that leads me to admire such a film likely shows also in my short fiction.
Fair warning: as this collection is lady heavy, so too is this playlist inspired by it.
Beyoncé – "Diva"
The girls and women in my stories are grappling with expectations, the roles they're being made to take on, and the possibilities for redefining them. Who better to fill me with the glow of female power and warm me up for a session of writing than the Queen? In "Diva," I see Beyoncé embracing all the connotations of the term, contextualizing them in a man's world, and flaunting them. I cannot hear this song and not bounce, a little.
Lorde – "The Love Club"
Lorde's debut EP and her full-length, Pure Heroin, are full of edgy teenage anthems, and any number of them could stand in for the voices on the cusp of womanhood strung through the book. This one reverberates with the wanting to be part of a clique; the wanting to not be part of a clique; the violent tensions, internal and external, of just wanting to be loved and accepted. The girls in "Refugees," "Bloodfeud," "Creation Story," and "The Hut" all struggle with some version of this conflict.
Nicki Minaj – "Beez in the Trap"
Not only is this the theme song for my cat, Beezus—and keeping her from obstructing my keyboard or the use of my hands upon it is an integral part of my writing routine—but it's expressive of a defiance many of my characters would relate to. Nicki may have her own ideas, but for me, "the trap" calls again to mind the idea of expectations. You don't find yourself caught inside without having fallen for its lures. The chorus has the incantatory quality of a cheer, and I certainly imagine that the cheer squad my most confrontational character, Izzy, belongs to in "Bloodfeud" has in their repertoire a hip hop routine or two.
Sonic Youth – "Little Trouble Girl"
Good girls abound in my stories: good girls burying shame for their desires, their fears; good girls fighting their deeper urges to rebel. In "Refugees," a daughter can't quite bring herself to speak truth to her mother. In "Pater Noster," middle child Lynette alludes to tensions with her father. On the night before her wedding, young bride Mary Ellen of the titular story hatches a plan to escape. In this dreamy, stripped-down song, I love the haunting blend of a sixties-style backup vocal with a lead closer to spoken word that brings together two of my favorite Kims (Gordon and Deal). This song was a single when I was learning how to drive.
Beach House – "Wedding Bell"
For a collection called Man & Wife, the book has not terribly much to do with life within a marriage, happy or not, but does include two wedding days. Foreboding and hypnotic, this song has something of the mood I try to capture in my stories, as they swing back and forth from the "literary" to the "speculative." Beach House is one of the few bands I can listen to while writing.
Lykke Li – "I Know Places"
Lykke Li's voice is nearly childlike, knowing and far from naïve. This song exudes a plaintive yearning, one that may have more to do with a desire for safety and escape than with desire for a specific other person. The young narrator of "Refugees" develops an infatuation with a man who knows the more volatile world outside her camp filled with families fleeing foreclosed homes. In "Every Good Marriage Begins in Tears," Bakyt falls for a girl he hardly knows in a confusion of lust and longing for not only comfort, but a sense of control in a life caught between adolescence and adulthood.
Nina Simone – "I Put a Spell on You"
Simone's is my favorite version of the sexiest song I know about unrequited love in denial. (Having come of age in the nineties, I can't help but also hear, underlying Simone's formidable power, Marilyn Manson's echo—if not more menacing, then certainly more theatric in its threatening of violence.) Many of my characters feel a consuming love that may be preventing them from grasping a larger truth, from Izzy in "Bloodfeud" for her father and brother, to Bakyt in "Every Good Marriage" for his unwitting bride. In "Old Maid," the story's narrator accepts the role of neighborhood spinster and casts herself as a kind of Baba Yaga. Soon, an old lover appears on the scene, as though conjured.
The Raincoats – "No One's Little Girl"
I could have tried harder not to include two songs whose titles include the phrase "little girl," but why fight what seems right? This post-punk girl group is another band who found me in my teenagehood; this song another that has stayed with me since. There is something about the strange percussions, unrelenting strings, and unpolished vocals that seems a little feral, their looping as insistent as their momentum seems in danger of throwing it all off-course. I think of my character Sophie alone in the "The Hut" and its woods. I think of resistance, and of the rhythms that carry along a short story.
Arcade Fire – "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)"
For the extent that these stories have to do with the concept of home and its hold, it was perhaps inevitable that I would make a stop at Arcade Fire's album The Suburbs. In "Sprawl II," Régine Chassagne gives voice to resignation and hope against a chugging pulse and cheerful synth line. This song reminds me of how aimless driving could seem the only freedom to be found in a grid of sameness. I imagine that Beth and Daniel of "Creation Story" experienced this, while Sophie in her lakeside cottage found it harder to be freed. The characters of "Refugees," forced to leave behind middle-class comforts, find themselves within a sprawl of shanties and tents that makes a happier setting for my protagonist's circle of friends. (A runner-up selection has Chassagne again on lead: "In the Backseat," off Funeral, would have emphasized the relief in relinquishing the literal and metaphorical driver's seat.)
Eminem, Royce da 5'9", Big Sean, Danny Brown, DeJ Loaf, and Trick-Trick – "Detroit vs. Everybody"
Now that I'm done writing and attempting to bring vulnerability to the page, it's time to feel tough again, with an Eminem-led outro. My home city, the center to my own suburban sprawl, provides the inspiration for the events in "Creation Story." During my eighties childhood, the Devil's Night "tradition" of setting homes and other structures aflame was going strong. It's since been reined in and rebranded Angel's Night. Over the years, proposals for how to "save the city" have included "right-sizing": forcing/encouraging residents to relocate to denser areas that could be better served on a damaged budget and demolishing what remains over large swathes of land, planting in place of defunct factories fields of crops. This song is Eminem's (and other Detroit rappers') consummate expression of the Detroit attitude, conflicted and resilient.
Katie Chase and Man & Wife links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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