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September 7, 2016

Book Notes - Alexander Boldizar "The Ugly"

The Ugly

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.

Alexander Boldizar's novel The Ugly is a bold and hilarious satire, a stunning debut.

Laura van den Berg wrote of the book:

"The hilarious and inventive and unforgettable story of Muzhduk the Ugli is a work of kinetic absurdism infused with deep intelligence and feeling. A gift of a debut from a wholly original new voice."

In his own words, here is Alexander Boldizar's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Ugly:

The Ugly grew out of a mental movie that became the novel's opening scene—the Dull-Boulder Throw, a contest where two large mountain men toss boulders at each other to determine who will have the right to become chief of a small tribe of lost Slovaks living in Siberia's Verkhoyansk mountain range. They don't duck, they don't move out of the way, and the scene, in my mind, is completely silent.

Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth, who wins the Dull-Boulder Throw, is a 300-pound Kaspar Hauser, a blank-slate cultural "outsider." And there are few things as culturally defining as music. But when Muzhduk's tribal homeland is stolen by an American lawyer out to build a butterfly conservatory for wealthy tourists, Muzhduk must travel to Harvard Law School to learn how to throw words instead of boulders. He must go forth into the world.

He travels from Siberia to Cambridge to Africa as he fights fellow students, Tuareg rebels, professors of law, dark magic, bureaucrats, heatstroke, postmodernists, and eventually time and space. Thematically, the novel is driven by the question "What is thinking?" with different approaches, cultures, and people clashing into each other as Muzhduk struggles against the machine that shapes the people who govern our world.

My music playlist reflects this clash, the influence of ways of thinking on Muzhduk. Most of the songs are tied to areas through which Muzhduk travels—from Siberia and the Arctic to Tuareg Sahara and urban America—but they are also related thematically. I'm indebted to Dan Bodah of WFMU's Vocal Fry (@vocalfrier) for his fantastic musical advice in putting this list together. His knowledge of music, like the Law of the Sea treaty and the voodoo ceremony near the end of The Ugly, is as deep as space and long as time—from Siberia to the Sahara and everything in between.

"Dynggyldai" by Alash Ensemble

Character drives plot, and "Dynggyldai" captures Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth well. It's a joking tongue-twister of a song from Siberia (Tuva), that feels light despite the depth of the throat-singing, much as the boulders fly more easily in Verkhoyansk than they do in Massachusetts. Despite the rocks and death and threat to their land, there's a lightness to the Uglis' quasi-mythical world, where Muzhduk can wander from lover to lover in the meadows and everything is direct and honest and uncomplicated. If I had to choose a single song to represent the whole novel, this would be it.

"Wesley's Theory" by Kendrick Lamar

"Wesley's Theory" by Kendrick Lamar, with some additional vocals by George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic, comes from Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly album. It captures the notion of using words for manipulation and taking advantage of beauty for personal gain. Following directly after "Dynggyldai," it comes in with a bit of a shock—in Lamar's words, "When the four corners of this cocoon collide"—like the sudden arrival of John the Attorney, who seeks to pimp butterflies. That clash is the catalyst for Muzhduk's quest.

"Fight" by Tanya Tagaq

Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer from Nunavut, Canada. I have three of her songs in my list, which is probably poor playlist editing, but shows how enamored I am with her music. Muzhduk gets from Siberia to Boston by walking over the Arctic, then spends nearly a year in Montreal. Although I initially had some Montreal bands in the list (Shalabi Effects and Grimes), Tagaq's music just feels so much more appropriate for Muzhduk that the longer I thought about the list the more fitting it felt that she take their slots. "Fight" is Muzhduk's driving ethos, his one strength that helps him cut through a world that is far more complicated than he is.

There's also a duality to "Fight" that matches The Ugly. The foreground of the song is a fast rhythm and repetition of the word "fight," but the background is far slower, more meditative. In a novel, of course, I couldn't layer tracks on top of each other, but did alternate settings between America (written in the third person) and Africa (first person) with the aim of creating a similar juxtaposition. In my earliest drafts, the Africa storyline was one long malarial trip. I changed this out of consideration to the reader, but despite the much faster plot in the final version, the juxtaposition of styles in the hope of creating a bit of an existential sideways slide remains.

"I'm Afraid of Americans" by David Bowie

"I'm Afraid of Americans" touches on Muzhduk's culture clash, first with John the Attorney and later with his classmates at Harvard. The character in Bowie's song, Johnny "wants to suck on a Coke." Without giving away the plot, Coke, and its secret recipe, the main secret of which is that it's not really secret, plays a strong thematic role in the Africa portions of The Ugly.

"Uja" by Tanya Tagaq

All three Tagaq songs in this list are from her album, Animism. "Fight" and "Damp Animal Spirits" have clear thematic relationships, for me, with Muzhduk the Ugli, but "Uja" (an Inuit word for part of the skin of a seal) I included purely for the sound—the natural, throaty voices, drumming and animal noises all sink into the listener's bones. One aspect of Muzhduk's character is as a call to the primeval aspects of man that are increasingly lost in the Western world. As he's exposed to far more complex systems and epistemologies, he struggles to reconcile them with his mountain man origins.

The Ugly was inspired in part by a frustration with analytic rationality while I was at Harvard Law School. I was good at logic, felt like I could fill out the entire volume of its Venn diagram, but became frustrated that so many of my fellow students equated logic with thinking. I did two years of law school, then took a year off to go to Africa, searching for a more tangible, immediate way of interacting with the world. I talked my way onto a National Geographic expedition to go dig for dinosaur bones in the Sahara, trading abstract thought for sand and bones.

Precisely because its relationship to The Ugly is through sound, rather than the sort of analytic connection of, say, "I'm Afraid of Americans," Uja works with the animal spark that animates Muzhduk throughout the story and that Harvard tries so hard to civilize out of him.

"Lawyers, Guns and Money" by Warren Zevon

This one is a bit on the nose, but it's fun—the book is, after all, about lawyers and guns and power, with money a form of power. This was also used as the song for the TV series Justice, which is another theme in The Ugly.

"Maahnt (The Wizards Fight vs The Devil)" by Magma

Magma is interesting. Although the band is French, most of their music, including Maahnt, is in an artificial language, Kobaïan, based partially on Slavic languages, and the songs tell stories set in ancient times. This all reminded me of the out-of-time mythical Slovak tribes I set down in Siberia. Maahnt is from Magma's first album, about a small group fleeing a doomed Earth to a planet named Kobaïa. When they encounter other Earth refugees, they end up in conflict. While Muzhduk isn't fleeing the six Slovak villages of Verkhoyansk, there is a sense of impending doom, of the inevitable conclusion of Western contact, that he's fighting to forestall.

"Nevermind" by Leonard Cohen

When it comes to day-to-day music, my favorites tend to be poets. Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash. I had to include a Leonard Cohen song. I was tempted by his "There Is a War." The line, "There is a war between the ones who say there is a war / And the ones who say there isn't," would have worked well for The Ugly. But in the end, "Nevermind" is the better fit.

The North African kirtan vocal embellishments (sung by Donna DeLory); its use as the intro music for True Detectives, toying with nihilism much as Oedda, Muzhduk's first love interest at Harvard, does; its living-beside-the-killers reality of the modern age; and its range from combat-love to the outsider sensibility ("I live among you / Well disguised"…"In places deep / With roots entwined / I live the life I left behind"), the song captures both the tea analysis of Muzhduk's conversations in the Getaway Guesthouse in Mali and his perpetual outsider status.

"Ammasakoul N'Ténéré" by Tinariwen

"Ammasakoul" means "The Traveler" in Tamashek (the language of the Tuaregs), and Ténéré is a desert region in south-central Sahara, though in Tamashek it just means "desert." So the song means "the desert traveler"—which is what Muzhduk is through much of the Africa storyline, and, in a sense, throughout the novel. The band, Tinariwen, is a Grammy Award-winning group of Tuareg musicians from northern Mali who have been called "a grassroots voice of rebellion"—and unlike North American teenage rebellion, members of Tinariwen were active rebel fighters. I lived with the Tuaregs in the Ténéré for three months during the Tuareg Civil War, always armed, though the closest I came to fighting was having tracer bullets fly over my head as warning shots. Some of those experiences and stories made their way into The Ugly, properly disguised.

Tinariwen's guitar style comes specifically from the Great Bend region along the Niger River that stretches from Gao to Timbuktu. This is both where I spent a lot of time and where most of Muzhduk's Africa adventures take place. The members of Tinariwen claim to have never been exposed to Western music until they started to travel in 2001, which again is a nice parallel to Muzhduk.

One Million Lawyers by Tom Paxton, Anne Hills and Bob Gibson

A book like The Ugly only works if it's genuinely funny, so I had to include at least one silly song about lawyers.

Kunuk (A Song of a Wanderer) by Tandalai

"Kunuk" is the ninth song on an album titled Honkoroi: The Rough Guide to the Music of Siberia, which is a mix of various artists. "Kunuk" is performed by Tandalai, from the Ust-Kanskogo area of the Altai Republic in southern Siberia. Her repertoire includes the ceremonial songs of the Mountain Altai people, along with various animal and bird sounds, and her voice has a five-octave range—"Kunuk's" melancholy vocals combined with simple guitar balance out the some of the more light-hearted or aggressive selections. Among the Altai, female throat singing is traditionally considered taboo, which I thought would appeal to Oedda. And, of course, the wanderer motif is present throughout this list, so I wanted to include one from Siberia.

"Cold Water" by Tom Waits

In Verkhoyansk, it's not considered appropriate for one man to tell another what to do, so Muzhduk has trouble with police throughout the novel. At one point, when he's stopped at the U.S. border trying to get into the country, he overhears a portion of this song on the radio: "Police at the station / And they don't look friendly / They don't look friendly well / They don't."

"Ruby" by Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté

Guitarist Ali Farka Touré and kora player Toumani Diabaté are two of Mali's greats. Since the Africa storyline is not just about Tuaregs, and takes place mostly in Mali, I wanted to include them. Their song "Ruby" is a favorite, and captures the more meditative side of the African storyline.

"Damp Animal Spirits" by Tanya Tagaq

The third and last song from Tagaq's Animism, "Damp Animal Spirits" captures not just Muzhduk's primeval starting point, but also the importance of sex throughout the book—particularly this sort of damp animal sex. The combat-love storyline with Oedda is driven, from her side, by a need to tap the energy of his mountain-man sexual-raider rawness in order to heat up her cerebral postmodern chill. Muzhduk's damp animal spirit is also a central point of connection in his relationship with Peggy, the thing he fights to protect at Harvard—refusing to give up his cock and his fists in the interest of becoming more presentable—and a centering organ, giving him a sense of who he is at his core even as his mind is buffeted from all directions.

"The Future Of Royalty" by Zs

"The Future of Royalty" by the experimental band Zs is a hard, driving song that fits several moments in the novel. The chaotic clanging and clatter could work for the Dull-Boulder Throw, but also for Muzhduk's evening ritual bending the metal on the Statue of Protrusion and Contraption and for the voodoo ceremony at the end of the Africa storyline. Zs' music is simultaneously futuristic and primal, with undertones of hell. Sam Hillmer, Zs' founder, has described it as "No effects, no editing, nothing done in post"—it's uncompromising, unwashed, uncircumcised music that Muzhduk would have appreciated.

"Gadni (Spirit Of The Mountain)" by Ande Somby (featuring Chris Watson)

"Gadni" is a traditional Saami nature song in a style called "yoiking" by Ande Somby, a Saami/Finnish yoiker who also happens to be an author and professor of jurisprudence in the faculty of law at the University of Tromsø, in Finland. According to legend, it was the elves and fairies of the Arctic that gave yoiks to the Saami people—it's also one of the oldest musical traditions in Europe, and because it was associated with pre-Christian rituals was forbidden in schools for a time.

Many yoiks are personal, dedicated to a single human being (or animal or landscape), often created at birth, though they allow for lots of improvisation. "Gadni (Spirit of the Mountain)" is a great song for the spiritual inner nature of Muzdhuk's picaresque quest for a higher mountain to climb, but it's also a fitting conclusion for when he returns home.

Alexander Boldizar and The Ugly links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website
video trailer for the book

Vancouver Real interview with the author
Writer's Bone interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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