July 20, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Winner of the 2014 Hudson Prize, Matthew Cheney's short story collection Blood is diverse, dark, and entertaining.
Locus wrote of the book:
"Like Rhys Hughes and Don Webb, Steven Millhauser and Donald Barthelme, Matthew Cheney is a citizen of those strange lands 'beyond the fields we know,' who brings back fever-dream reportage wrapped up in packages both bloody and colorful."
The stories in Blood were written over a period of roughly fifteen years, and I discovered when I set one story beside another that certain ideas and images had recurred without my being aware of them. The most surprising for me was the prevalence of music and audio equipment, particularly record players. It makes sense, though. Not only do I love all sorts of different types of music, but recorded sound seems like magic to me, and old records are some of the most wonderful objects in the world.
(Recently, I discovered that in 1914 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a concert violinist named Forest Cheney founded the Cheney Talking Machine Company and, for a few years at least, built and sold elegant phonographs. I don't think I am directly related to Forest Cheney, but it thrills me to know that there were Cheney phonographs out there.)
My stories mix and match various styles, genres, subjects, and tones. Perhaps they can be united not only by the pages of a book, but by the flows and twists of mood that music allows. Here, then, are some songs for the stories, and some stories for the songs…
"Love Is Stronger Than Death" – The The
This song (and, really, the entire album it's from, Dusk) makes a nice general theme song for the collection. I bought Dusk when it was released in 1993, and I remember a sticker on the CD shrinkwrap that declared the album to be "songs for the lost, lonely, and lustful". (I don't know if that's an accurate memory, but those three words have stuck with me.) The words fit the album, and would also make a good motto for Blood: Stories.
"Wicked Little Doll" – David Byrne
This song is so on the nose for the first story, "How to Play with Dolls", that I'm surprised I didn't have it in mind when I was writing. But I didn't. I was sitting in a hotel restaurant in Nairobi during a writers' conference, and I needed a very short story to read at an event that evening, and I had nothing, so I just started writing, without thought to music or anything other than getting one word to follow another. Still, "Wicked Little Doll" is a fine opening for the book: strange, energetic, a bit menacing, yet at heart not entirely wicked…
"Powderfinger" – Cowboy Junkies
The title story of the book, "Blood", was written with this recording of this song in mind. The story was partly inspired by my father, who owned a gun shop and had a tendency toward paranoia. He loved the Cowboy Junkies. We both did. People sometimes ask why I chose to write "Blood" from a female point of view. I talk about the need for one character to be outside the various sorts of masculinity in the story, I say it's just how I heard the voice, I come up with all sorts of explanations, a different one each time. The truth is far more prosaic: When I first started thinking of the story, Margo Timmins' voice, singing "Powderfinger", got into my head and wouldn't leave.
"Lift Him Up, That's All" – Washington Phillips
There are no sounds quite like those of Washington Phillips. He didn't record a lot, and musicologists have argued for decades about what his instruments were (probably fretless zithers, likely made or at least customized by Phillips himself). The mystery of the sounds and the man himself fit the mysteries of "Revelation", a story that might be a sort of post-apocalypse tale or might be a delusion, a story that never seeks to answer the questions it raises, but to convey some mysterious feeling, a feeling both unsettling and perhaps, momentarily at least, beautiful.
"And She Was" – Talking Heads
Here is a song about levitation, and it fits the oldest story in the book, "Getting a Date for Amelia", which is not about levitation, per se, but rather the beauty of escaping when you've been born to the wrong family. Amelia's brother, Joe, tells the story, and by the end he seems to understand that Amelia needed to get as far away as possible from their mother, who never seemed to find a way to see Amelia as anything but a repulsive burden. And Amelia does escape. It's not realistic, what Joe suspects happened to her, and he knows that, but Joe's the one who's right, not their mother, who doesn't believe in magic or flying away, and thus is forever stuck to the ground. What happened to Amelia? Nobody knows for sure. But I can tell you this: it's good she got away. "Joining the world of missing persons, and she was / Missing enough to feel all right, and she was…"
"Spiegel im Spiegel" – Angele Dubeau & La Pieta (composer: Arvo Pärt)
Here is perhaps the most melancholy song I've ever heard. It fits perhaps the saddest story I've written, "The Lake". I did not set out to write a sad story when I began it – I set out to write a Ray Bradbury story as if it were written by a young James Joyce. I thought it would be eerie and whimsical and end with an epiphany. But I wrote it after experiencing the death of a student at the boarding school where I worked and after getting to know her family and being amazed at their strength and resilience. I wondered what I would have done if I had been in their place. I didn't think I would be as strong as they were. That feeling infected the story. Though it ends with a theft of phrases from Joyce's "The Dead", I'm not sure it ends with an epiphany. But then, I'm not sure death always provides epiphany, especially the death of children.
"Lonesome Road Blues" – Sam Collins
This song is central to the story "Lonesome Road". It's one of my favorite songs, and I listened to it almost daily for at least a year after I heard it on a compilation album of old blues. I sought out everything Sam Collins had recorded (not quite two dozen songs). While all his recordings are interesting, and "My Road is Rough and Rocky" is almost as magnificent as "Lonesome Road Blues", and makes an appearance in a later story, but there's just nothing like this track in all the blues I know. (Some of Blind Willie McTell comes close, and is perfect in its own way; similarly, Henry Thomas; others, too, but not quite the same.) What is it about Collins's voice and casual guitar playing, his apparent improvisation of the song (which melds various blues songs into one) – what is it that so enchants? If I could answer that, I wouldn't have to keep listening. It's the sort of song that inspires ghost stories, and that is what "Lonesome Road" is, a story that asks: Is it the song the that's ghostly … or are we?
"Gold Dust" – Tori Amos
Lots of musicians have influenced the shape and style of my stories, and Tori Amos is toward the top of that list. Her catchy, surprising, often ethereal music is matched with lyrics that somehow feel like they make sense even when the words are almost as opaque as Gertrude Stein at her most abstract. I suspect that one of the attractions of Tori Amos's music is that it allows each listener to summon their own meaning for the mysteries. "Gold Dust" is, for me at least, a touching, maybe even heartbreaking, study of memory. It goes along with my story "Prague", a story that many readers tell me seems incomprehensible, but which has always seemed quite clear to me: It's told from the point of view of a woman suffering dementia at the end of her life and trying to put some pieces of memory together. In the end, she has lost all sorts of context and associations, but she knows that her son loves her, and really, that is enough. "How did it go so fast / you'll say / as we are looking back / and then we'll understand / we held gold dust / in our hands…" I'm old enough now to know the truth in those words.
"The Great Below" – Nine Inch Nails
I expect I had this song in mind when I wrote the story "In Exile". I don't remember, but it makes sense, given some of the lyrics – for instance, what in the song is "tired faith all worn and thin" gets personified in a character named Faith at the end of the story. Though I don't remember much about the writing of "In Exile", I know I wrote it around the time I was directing a production of Beckett's play Endgame (a few of the children in the story have Beckettesque names: Blin, Pin & Pem). We ended Endgame with this song and a two-minute fade of the lights from day to night. Such a slow, strange end certainly fits "In Exile", a story about a woman who has lost everything she ever cared about, and yet is writing letters to the husband and child and lover she has lost, as if saying, "I can still feel you even so far away." And she can, even as, by the time she tells this tale, she is ready to take her place in the Great Below.
"We Suck Young Blood" – Radiohead
I don't want to say too much about "How Far to Englishman's Bay", because it's a horror story and, as such, the less said the better. (Horror stories should not be explicated, but experienced.) The story will not explain itself, because the protagonist cannot explain what happens to him, but if you are itching for some sort of explanation, I'd suggest listening to "We Suck Young Blood" while reading and then thinking about how it all makes you feel.
"Deuteronomy 2:10" – The Mountain Goats
This might be the loneliest song ever written. It is a song about extinction and told from the point of view of animals who are the last of their kind: the last Tasmanian wolf, the last dodo, the last golden toad. It's the song I've chosen to accompany "The Last Elegy", a story not about extinction, but about the loss of friends – friends you might not have understood, but whom you loved, and loved well, in your own way, and for whom you might be the last witness. In that sense, I suppose, "The Last Elegy" is about extinction: not the extinction of a species, but the loss of the people who mattered most in your life. What is it like to be the last person left alive with certain memories of events that were once remembered by many? How should you live when you are the last?
"The Desperate Kingdom Of Love" – PJ Harvey
A very short song for a very short story: "The Voice". The lyrics of the song aren't an exact fit for the story, but PJ Harvey's voice is. Is hers the voice of the protagonist, or of the voice he hears? Either, or perhaps both.
"Whistle Down The Wind" – Tom Waits
I'm not all I thought I'd be/ I've always stayed around sums up the life of the protagonist of "Thin", Charles. I expect he would have liked this song. It's easy to get stuck in rural America, easy to feel like your life is a trap ("If I stay here I'll rust/ I'm stuck like a shipwreck out here in the dust"). For Charles, both his body and his life are a trap. He makes the best of it all, but he's a dog tied to a wagon of rain.
"For Shame of Doing Wrong" – Richard Thompson
If you've ever seen Richard Thompson in concert, you know he has not just an astounding mastery of the guitar, but also a marvelous stage presence: friendly, funny, warm. And yet his songs are full of darkness, death, suffering, betrayal… I love that about him. "For Shame of Doing Wrong" is hardly his bleakest or most coruscating song, but it isn't very happy either. In any case, it's beautiful, particularly in the rendition on the Chrono Show album, and it fits the story "The New Practical Physics" in many ways. I'm not sure which of the characters it best fits; maybe all of them. Certainly, the utterly flawed couple at the center of the story, Ben and Miguel, are familiar with fear and shame; indeed, fear and shame are tearing their relationship apart. Since writing the story, I've often wondered if Ben and Miguel will stay together. They end the story okay, so I think there's hope for them. But I'm not sure. They may finally have to part, and spend their days cursed with the ache that this song evokes.
"Wallflower" – Peter Gabriel
At various times in "Mrs. Kafka", either the doctor, who is the narrator, or Mrs. Kafka, who is his patient, could be the one to say, as Peter Gabriel does, "You may disappear, you're not forgotten here/ And I will say to you, I will do what I can do…" The question of who in an asylum is insane is one that has been explored in plenty of literature (Chekhov's "Ward 6" comes to mind), but it's quite clear in this story that Mrs. Kafka is nuts. She also seems to know more than anybody else about what the future holds. Which may be why she's nuts.
"Clutch" – Mason Jennings
The question in the chorus of this song – "What was so rough, was it the freedom that freaked us out?" – is one I come back to a lot as I get older. Also: "What's the moment in your life that you just would not trade/ If you had a time machine would you go back there today?" The Ronald Reagan of "Where's the Rest of Me" is a man haunted by his desires and choices. He sacrificed perhaps the only true love of his life for safety, fame, and wealth. It destroyed him. The story ends with that one moment he would not trade. He should have lived in a dream.
"Garden of Simple" – Ani DiFranco
If I wanted to give you a song to encapsulate the feeling of the story "Expositions", I'd give you a song I loved on the old Dr. Demento show, "Existential Blues" by Tom "T-Bone" Stankus. The hyperactive surrealism of that song, making any settled reality impossible, is very much in line with "Expositions", a story that tries to see if you can have a story without a settled reality. However, that song is much too manic for what "Expositions" ends up being, and so I've chosen a different song about a different sort of dream. Ani DiFranco sings, "And the big plan is just to keep spinning/ Cuz the big bang is only just beginning/ And sometimes it's all that we can do just to hang on," which is true of the characters in "Expositions" just as much as it's true for us, the readers who toil under the delusion that our reality is more settled than that of the story.
"Rambling Man" – Laura Marling
"It's hard to accept yourself as someone you don't desire," is the secret theme of the story "The Art of Comedy", a story about rambling people. I don't know if, in their ramblings, they find a version of themselves they do desire, but I know that they find some happiness here and there, some love now and then, some success in amidst all their failures. There's a sense of triumph, or at least self-possession, at the end of this song, and while "The Art of Comedy" doesn't end with triumph, it does end with self-possession, and the final notes of the song are appropriate for the final sentences of the story.
"I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" – Bascom Lamar Lunsford
I'll be honest: When I began "Walk in the Light While There Is Light", I had no idea where it was going. I was listening to this song over and over again and just typing out images that occurred to me as I listened. Eventually, some of those images coalesced into a story. Interestingly, the song is in many ways more surreal than my story, and the story's pretty surreal. Sam Collins makes an appearance here, too, this time not with "Lonesome Road Blues" but with "My Road Is Rough and Rocky". A Charley Patton song is in the story as well, a bit of "Mississippi Boweavil". But it's the bizarre beauty of "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" that is the unsung core of "Walk in the Light…" rather than any of the songs explicitly referenced. One of the attractions to me of old recorded music is the way it preserves what Greil Marcus (adapting Kenneth Rexroth) famously dubbed the "old weird America". I like the old weird everything. The past is not just another country, it's another reality, which is why even the most straightforward old music has a tinge of the strange to it. And the truly weird old music makes Kafka and Magritte seem ordinary.
"Cowtown" – They Might Be Giants
I think of "The Art of Comedy", "Walk in the Light While There Is Light", and "A Map of the Everywhere" as a kind of loose trilogy. All three are basically surrealist in their inclinations, and all three tell a tale of love and struggle. In the first two stories, the love is lost, but "A Map of the Everywhere" is a happy story in the end, hopeful even, and "hope" is not a word usually associated with my endings. Thus, to accompany it, we need a song that's both weird (even gonzo) and yet full of energy and optimism. Who better to turn to for such a song than They Might Be Giants? They've seldom recorded a song as peppy, fun, and bonkers as "Cowtown", and that's really saying something for a band that is pretty much the human embodiment of bonkers.
"I See a Darkness" – Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Whatever joy and hopefulness "A Map of the Everywhere" left you with will be extinguished with "Lacuna", one of the most nihilistic stories I've ever written. (I could only do so because I wrote it at a fairly happy time in my life.) Now and then I've thought that a good summary of my writing might be a line from the young Bob Dylan: And if my thought-dreams could be seen/ They'd probably put my head in a guillotine. Bonnie "Prince" Billy's "I See a Darkness" charts similar territory, but does so as an affecting paean to homosocial friendship. I love the ache in the song. It's more hopeful in the end than "Lacuna", because the narrator of the song still has hope of being saved, while the narrator of "Lacuna" has no hope left in love, in writing, in life. That raises a question: Why read or write such a story? I don't know. Really, I don't. I just know that it was a story I needed to write, and a few readers have told me it is one they needed to read. Sometimes, it's healing to look into the abyss and let it look into us. Sometimes, we need to see a darkness.
"The Island Unknown Part 1" – Eck Robertson & Family
The song in my story "The Island Unknown" is not quite Eck Robertson & Family's "Island Unknown" — the words are a little different, and I would bet the tune is a bit off. But that's because of the turtles. Everything in the story is the fault of the turtles.
"Hallo Spaceboy" – David Bowie
Here's some exit music, something to listen to while you remember the stories you've read, and while you forget them. Moon dust will cover you.
Matthew Cheney and Blood links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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