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July 5, 2016

Book Notes - Jade Sharma "Problems"


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.

Jade Sharma's Problems is one of the year's strongest debut novels, a powerful book that deals with addiction and gender politics through the eyes of its unforgettable and vividly drawn protagonist.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The novel is written so well that the relentless and destructive rhythm of heroin abuse seems calming, metaphysical, and occasionally even funny. Sharma's descriptions are vivid and sage . . . lulling readers into a similarly opiate state to which they will readily succumb and from which, like the protagonist, it will take some time to recover. An absorbing novel carried by a seemingly hopeless protagonist you will want to befriend and save."

In her own words, here is Jade Sharma's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Problems:

Music has always been essential to my life. It's served me through the roughest time of my life and has been the background music when I feel like I'm on top of the world. When I'm actually writing I tend to stay away from music with lyrics as it can inhibit my writing process. I listen to stuff without words or Billie Holiday that's good for background music. Just need to to register something is playing but not enough to have moments of actual reflection or contemplation like, "What am I doing with my life?" or "Who cares what I'm writing?" But in later stages of writing music can be good. And music like when I'm walking around with headphones or on the subway helps me bring my character alive: What would my character think of this song? What would she feel? Music is a very emotional cathartic experience for me. Sometimes a certain song at a certain moment will bring tears to my eyes out of sheer beauty. Music makes us better human beings. If I could be anything in the world it would be a singer. I didn't read as a kid so instead I wrote lyrics and called it poetry and then did spoken word and then read some shit and embraced the craft of writing. The main difference between being a singer and a writer is the money but writers do spend as much time on yachts cracking champagne.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy "A Minor Place" (AKA Will Oldham AKA Palace Bros)

This is the first song I heard by Will Oldham and it sounded familiar and without pretense. When you hear something true you feel it. In the song he talks about being in his minor place when he can't be found and "the job that does him harm." This spoke to me about the sadness of the banalities of everyday life. Like it reminded me of that feeling of standing on an empty platform early in the morning or coming home to an empty apartment.

For me this theme corresponds with the beginning of Problems that begins with lines: "Somewhere along the way there stopped being new days. Time progressed for sure. Through the night the rain taped off. Around dawn there was the sound of cars rumbling and then zooming off. Sounds folding back into the world. Light years away from the living room where I lay around hardly living."

Mood-wise this song and this passage both express this numbness of the external world while they are emotionally in a lot of turmoil, to be mildly. To feel this constant sense of despair and feeling like it's Groundhog Day. I know that sounds like a symptom for Depression and then it's like cuts to some woman running in slow motion in a park with a golden retriever and then they list a bunch of symptoms (rectal bleeding? What?). Maya, my character, could have depression but that doesn't make the feelings less real. Or Will Oldham's whom I don't know at all.

But the song ends with hope as Will Oldham sings in his world-weary voice, "I thank the world/it will anoint me/if I show how I hold it." For Maya's downward spiral she remains tough and her humor is a way for her to find a way to hold the world.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs "Maps"/We Five "You Were on My Mind"

Both of these songs have female vocalists with have repetitive lyrics.

We first think of Ogden, the professor she's having an affair with, it's an obsessional way. "I saw the dullness of his eyes, as if he had spent a lifetime staring at the color grey. " She constantly imagines her hand as his as she touches herself. This coincides with the obsessional/love lyrics of the We Five song "And you were always on my mind." (Also, it's my song with my man so I kinda wanted to work it in.) But Maya's feelings grow more intense. In "Maps" the lyrics illustrate an one sided obsession: "Wait..they don't love you like I love you." She feels Ogden's feelings are waning. Throughout the novel Maya has insecurities about men preferring white women: "The world wanted young white women." With Ogden she talks about his ex's were all young white women so when they have a fight she is filled anger that he doesn't have the same feelings for her.

Biggie "Big Poppa"

One of the jokes Maya makes about her relationship about Ogden is that he must "the father-size hole" inside her as she lacked a father figure. But Ogden's nurturing skills aren't up to par as when he leaves her on a sofa without throwing covers on her or taking her to bed. She bursts into tears and says: "I wanted a father figure, not an actual replacement for my actual father who actually neglected me. This isn't Freudian. It is retarded."

Lil Wayne "Sky is The Limit"

Maya walks the streets of New York City like "the city is her bitch." Part of Maya's downward spiral is like a snake: ridding herself of the mundane life she's grown accustomed to and finding her independence. She makes her own decisions. But as her creator that's part of the fun and not fun of writing her. You go down the dark alleys you normally wouldn't. Maya's out there at all hours As Lil Wayne articulates, "lookin' for divine and a little intervention." Maya is looking for a sense of meaning or beauty or at least not being bored. And as runs around the city she is all about getting hers. Like Lil Wayne, "Don't worry about mine, I'm gonna grind till I get it." There's fearlessness she develops. And a momentum like she tears it up and is all over the place as Lil Wayne says, "She switches subjects quicker than switching lanes."

Dillinger "Cocaine in My Brain"

The struggles of writing a character with a drug addiction is having to live with that kind of darkness in your creative world and beyond that it is a hard subject be/c realistic drug addiction becomes repetitive. To show repetition without actually becoming repetitive is the task. I wanted Maya to be as smart as me so she was leading the story. So for Maya how would she deal with the repetition? This song Dillinger's "Cocaine in my brain" Is a reggae song (Yeah, there's other reggae aside from Bob Marley. When you say reggae people assume Bob Marley) so the up-tempo with the lyrics creates this hypnotic quality. It captures the repetition: ‘cause I've got cocaine runnin' around my brain/cocaine runnin' around my brain, yeah.' As Maya writes, "I've seen it all before. Haven't you, haven't you seen it all before?"

Mike Doughty "Train To Chicago"

Mike Doughty is my go-to musician like I just fill the rest of my shuffle with his music. The appeal of his music is that it's upbeat, it's fun, and is like a soundtrack to the city. This song in particular fits with my novel. There's parts of my novel where Maya is running around the city on the subway, in cabs, and walking around. The song is about being on a train, half wasted. The lyrics "And in my dreams, we're careening drunk/down the streets of my hometown/the man in the moon is on Benzedrine/and everybody's spinning round" captures that euphoric feeling of being alone in an altered state. For Maya when she's alone and is drifting in haze she thinks, "I don't care. Pick at the label. Let the water up my nose. When I'm king. Read all I want."

Bob Dylan "Not Dark Yet"

This is one of the songs that evokes a very visceral mood for me. It's that time when you're a kid and you're playing and your friends are starting to have to go home for dinner and it's like playtime is over. Maya never expresses a fear of dying or caring that much what others think of her but she constantly over-shares that is like the line in the song, "Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb." So it's like she's so will to expose herself but unwilling to let the world in. As the Dylan song goes, "my sense of humanity is going down the drain." So for me one of the poignant moments of the book is towards the end she asks an ex-lover, "What if it's too late for me?" And for whose someone who doesn't get a fuck about anything except destroying herself, getting hers, and not needing anyone to have this one moment. I feel like that's what gives her hope because if she does care if it's too late then maybe she will try. As Dylan sings, "Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain." Either what doesn't kill us makes us stronger or what doesn't kill us maims us and leaves us disfigured forever. Like either or.

Steve Earle "Pilgrim"

I could have picked 10 Steve Earle songs. Earle sings, "I'm just a pilgrim on this road" which where I think is spiritually where I wanted Maya to end up: letting go of anger, narcissism, and dysfunction. And this song also spoke for her pride and toughness, "Ain't no need to cry for me, boys/Somewhere down the road you'll understand." If I did my job as a writer that's all I can hope for is that you understand Maya.

Honorable Mentions: Joanna Newsom (I wrote a passage but it was 5 pages long and was super confusing), Josh Ritter ("Snow Is Gone"/"Nightmares"), Sam Cooke ("Change Is Gonna Come"), Buddy Holly ("That'll Be The Day")

Jade Sharma and Problems links:

the author's website

The Fanzine review
Kirkus review
NewPages review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review

Fusion interview with the author
The Influence profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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