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August 9, 2016

Book Notes - Scott Stambach "The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko"

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

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.

Scott Stambach's impressive debut novel The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is smart, moving and humorous.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Stambach’s surprising, empathetic novel takes on heavy themes of illness, suffering, religion, patience, and purpose, with a balanced mix of humor and heart."

In his own words, here is Scott Stambach's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko:

This thing you're about to read? The first thing you should know is that it may have been the most fun I've had all year.

It all began with the phone-a-friend option. As soon as I was invited to contribute this playlist, I texted my friends who'd already read the book and asked if any songs came up for them throughout the story. I expected a slow, reluctant trickle of ideas. But what really happened is that my phone blew up with a whitewater rush of songs, all of which could've been culled together to create the world's best and most annoyingly long soundtrack.

And so I was forced to whittle it down (which, incidentally, was where the real fun began). This monumental task turned into late nights like John Cusack movies, sitting on my couch with friends, drinking whiskey and asking each other questions like Is this one too obvious? How about this one?—too sentimental? And when all was said and done, what remained was so perfect that I'd fight like hell to include every one of these songs on the major motion picture soundtrack if Ivan should ever be so lucky.

But before I hand over the list, I'd like to share another (more subtle) reason why this project was so much fun: Ivan's world is a vacuum in which the music you're about to hear shouldn't exist. He lives within the walls of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus where the only dependable soundtrack is squabbling nurses and howling patients. Occasionally, some music sneaks in through the TV in the Main Room, or gets smuggled via old 7" records, but aside from that nada. A pure musical void. And so this playlist became a white canvas for me. It was an entirely new and unique artistic challenge. It left me free to be playful. I could toy with irony. I could build in emotive undertones in a way that you just can't do for a standard summer blockbuster. And in the end it almost felt like I was adding the final emotional touches to the story. Like somehow without these songs the book wasn't yet complete, and only by sorting through Ivan's proper musical companions could the story be finished.

"The Wheel" By SOHN

I died a week ago.
There's nothing left.
It's caught on film.
The very last breath.

Not only are these words the perfect mantra to kick off Ivan's story (who's writing in a despondent state in an attempt to cope with Polina's death three days earlier) but there's something else that makes this song irresistible. It is perfectly un-analog, totally polished, and everything the setting of this story is not. There's something powerful about putting a digital, modern, and flawless recording up against the gritty Eastern Bloc world in which Ivan lives. It breathes life into it, makes it timeless, connects it to this time and place.

"It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" by James Brown

"I'm seventeen years old, and approximately male," says Ivan when he first introduces himself to the Reader. At which point he goes on to describe his body, a deprived corpus consisting of one arm connected to a hand with only two fingers and a thumb, two nubs for legs, and skin so pale it's almost transparent.

Ivan is often preoccupied by the masculine insecurity that comes along with his limitations. He reaches bitterly for the standard roles and expectations that society gives to an able man. Simple things like taking care of another human being, being charming, and having competent sex. But his condition mostly forbids himself from these roles, and because of that he doesn't feel appropriate to his gender. All of this makes James Brown's over-the-top ode to male machismo an ironic and whimsical choice.

Confession: I've a had a longstanding secret fantasy about the first scene of an Ivan movie. Right when we see Ivan for the first time, with his frail incomplete body scooting around in his wheelchair, his body embodying the exact opposite of self-assured masculinity, those first brass and snare hits of his anthem will start blasting, followed by James Brown confidently declaring This is a man's world...

"Skinny Love" by Bon Iver

Come on, skinny love,
just last the year.

As soon as I started this list I knew Bon Iver had to make a cameo. And as classic as it may be, I can't imagine any Justin Vernon song more fitting than "Skinny Love." It's hard not to think of it as Ivan's very own hymn as he pleads with the universe to keep his beloved alive just a little longer. Not to mention that the term ‘skinny love' is a poignant reference to Polina's emaciated post-chemo body.

"Overgrown" by James Blake

In a vivid montage early in the book, Ivan outlines in brutal detail the monotony of his life and world. He shares how every day feels exactly the same. How he adds some spice by dreaming up games and prankery. How he feigns comas just so he can fall into his head and live out the lives he'd rather have lived.

So naturally whenever I hear James Blake sing these lines in "Overgrown," I can't help but think of our boy:

Time passes in the constant state
So if that is how it is
I don't wanna be a star

"Breath (in the Air)" by Pink Floyd

While Ivan's books have helped him become the most learned patient in the history of Eastern Bloc hospitals, his pop culture knowledge remains at the level of, say, a sweet 90-year-old Mississippi grandmother. So when Polina walked into the hospital for the first time with a Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt he explained to the Reader that it was from a band named "Floyd Pink." Later in the book Polina catches Ivan saying Floyd Pink and schools him in a way that cuts deep.

Given all this Pink Floyd chatter, I knew a Dark Side song needed to make an appearance. But choosing the right track from such an epic album wasn't easy. After more internal debate than I care to admit, I chose "Breath (in the Air)" because it has a double purpose. It also serves as a subtle reference to the time Polina lured Ivan into the hospital's courtyard for the first time in order face his agoraphobia and see that the world is bigger than the hospital walls.

"Kettering" By The Antlers

Many Largehearted Boy readers will know that "Kettering" is a song from Hospice, a concept album portraying the toxic relationship between a hospice worker and a patient dying of bone cancer. The patient becomes emotionally abusive as often happens when a terminal patient has lost control over his or her reality (abuse is sadly a last ditch expression of control). It is something I experienced myself during a relationship with a terminally ill woman. There are moments in this book when Polina slips into an abusive tongue as a result of being unable escape her pain and discomfort and her growing fear of death. Consequently, there are many lines in this song that hit close to home. Especially these ones:

you said you hated my tone
it made you feel so alone
so you told me
I had to be leaving

but something kept me
standing by that hospital bed
I should've quit but instead
I took care of you

"More than a Feeling" by Boston

While Polina patiently endures her long rounds of chemo, Ivan watches her scrawling away in a worn journal (one of the few objects she brought in from the outside world). His imagination runs wild with the lascivious things she might be writing in there, and especially with whether any of those things have to do with him. So he embarks on a campaign of patiently waiting for her to get sloppy and leave the journal unattended long enough for him to dive in and read it.

Eventually, his moment comes—Polina forgets the journal in a bathroom next to the toilet. As he sits there on his throne reading away, he learns many things about this enigmatic new patient. One of which is that she seems to love bands named after geographic locations like Kansas, Asia, and Boston. "More than a Feeling" is my tribute to Ivan's discovery and Polina's soft spot for classic rock. And if I were to choose just one '70s power ballad, none could be more spot-on than this track. Brad Delp's lyrics embody all the rebellious teenage love that Ivan naturally feels as a human being but believes is not appropriate to his life and condition.

And isn't this really what we all secretly or not so secretly love about these songs?

"Piece of my Heart" by Janis Joplin

Most of Ivan and Polina's relationship is built around mischief. This includes sneaking into each other's rooms late at night after the hospital has finally fallen asleep. In one of these shenanigan-filled sessions, Ivan and Polina are listening to records that the maternal Nurse Natalya smuggled in for her. Ivan is on edge because the music's too loud and if they're caught they'll likely be quarantined from each other. Polina insists that the night nurse, Lyudmila, can't hear anything because she's in carnal throes with the hospital director. Ivan insists it's not worth it. All the while "Piece of my Heart" is playing on the turntable in the background.

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John

Near the end of the book, Polina goes missing from the hospital. Ivan, of course, knows she only has days left (if that) and so he frantically searches for her in all their dependable spots. When all of those come up nill, he looks outside despite his crippling agoraphobia. After his search reveals nothing, he eventually stumbles onto a broken piece of vinyl, which leads him to another piece, and then another, until he's assembled a record-shaped puzzle of vinyl shards in his lap. Once the pieces come together he sees that he's holding a demolished copy of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which ignites in his head a frenzy of theories as to its meaning.

"Wait" by M83

Every love story needs a token sentimental song featuring acoustic guitar and poignant lyrics. Only problem is I can't stand most of these songs because all to often they shamelessly pander to sentimentality. So thank you M83! Leave it to you to write a song that is both sort of sweet, somewhat sentimental, and yet weird enough to fit Ivan's story.

PS - Listen up for the Roger-Waters-esque screams towards the end of the song. They easily could've been sampled from the halls of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children.

"It Could be Sweet" by Portishead

Despite being a mangled kid living in a strange place, Ivan is still subject to all the urges and instincts that make us human. This is my polite way of saying that Ivan is hopelessly obsessed with sex and often laments the cold truth that he will probably never express his physical urges outside the realm of spirited masturbatory episodes.

"It Could be Sweet" is a fitting choice to represent the sexual side of Ivan's story. The song is not only highly sexual in and of itself, but it's also eerie and quirky and dark, which fits authentically with Ivan's world.

But there's another argument for this song which easily ecclipses the others. After Ivan experiences his first orgasm not resulting from his own hands, he realizes that there is an inevitable and catastrophic connection that comes with it. A connection so strong, he describes, that you might "die if that person went away, which was inconvenient because Polina was going away." Beth Gibbons' chilling refrain you don't get something for nothing, is hauntingly reminiscent of Ivan's finding.

"Give up the Ghost" by Radiohead

Radiohead needed to make an appearance for several reasons:

• They are Radiohead.
• Find me another band whose entire catalog sounds like one big epic soundtrack.
• It's entirely possible that Ivan is Thom Yorke's inner child.

And if it's a given that Radiohead is essential, what possible better choice for this book than a song called "Give up the Ghost"?

"How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" by Al Green

Listen to this song. Just listen. Can you hear how there's something so universal to Al Green's heartache? So universal, indeed, that a boy sitting in a hospital in Eastern Europe, who's never heard a second of Soul music in his whole life, could listen to this song and know exactly what Al Green was feeling when he wrote it. This, I believe, is what makes great art great.

And besides, Ivan could use the advice. And from who better than the Reverend himself?

Scott Stambach and The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Open Letters review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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