October 19, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jane Alison's smart and powerful Nine Island is one of the year's finest novels.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"With echoes of Molly Bloom's soliloquy and Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea, Alison has forged a haunting and emotionally precise portrait, a beautiful reminder that solitude does not equal loneliness."
Nine Island is a nonfiction novel about a woman called J who is (let's say) of middle years, living in a faded-glam condo in Miami Beach, deciding if it's time to retire from love. After thirty years of disaster with men, she's fresh from a spanking-new heartbreak with one she calls Sir Gold, the man she fell in love with hard at nineteen and who reappeared three decades later to break her heart all over again. Really time to give up on all this, she thinks. But as J ponders her romantic past and tries to decide whether to slam the door on love, she blasts rock songs to heighten the pain, and lyrics run through her head all the time. Lyrics like: Should I stay or should I go? Or Why'd ya do it, she said, why'd ya do what you did? Songs that refresh the torture of love; songs that tempt her back into it. "A song starts in my head," J says, "plays in a loop for weeks, and won't stop until a new one knocks it from orbit. But I believe these songs tell me things, floating to my inner ear from a deeper, Delphic self." These are some:
1. "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"—The Clash
This came out when I was in the ice-hot depths of passion for the man on whom Sir Gold is based, and the song felt as though it had always been there. Its feelings, for sure, had always been true. Even the Roman poet Ovid (whose stories of sexual transformation J translates) said two thousand years ago, "I'm unable to live either with or without you / and don't seem to know what I want . . ." Yeah, I really wanna know. Should I stay or should I go?
2. "Talk of the Town"—Chrissie Hynde/Pretenders
1978, sitting in my sister's dorm room one night: under the door slides The Pretenders' first album (gift from a DJ friend). The look of Chrissie Hynde's sexy black-leather legs and tough, strong mouth, and then those songs that blew out of it: they left me vibrating and stunned. Later, in my own dorm room, the pack of boys next door played the record relentlessly, replaying "I shot my mouth off—and you showed me what that hole was for," as if their sticky fingers could not get off that line. But I love Chrissie Hynde and those songs, love her nasty, swaggering, sexy anti-sexiness, which slams up against such tenderness. "Such a drag to want something sometime . . ."
3. "Wuthering Heights"— Kate Bush
That wild seagull voice, yearning for Heathcliff! Heathcliff and his angry, passionate ilk who still stalk the earth, still smash in our windows or make us fly out of them, Heathcliff and his brooding spawn, waiting outside with their dirty torn jackets, their split lips.
4. "Satellite of Love"— Lou Reed
Lou: the first point in the sacred triangle. This is a perfect, strange, two-toned song. A girlfriend and I sang it as we airplaned around each other one evening on a dusky golf course, giddy and drunk, but then fell still as stars silently grew in the sky and cool darkness spread, filling the sand pools. "Satellite's gone up to the skies . . ." Alone, down here watching. Alone up there, too.
5. "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine"— James Brown
Well, this one is for the dancing. Growing up in DC in the 1970s and dancing, then having a faux-tough, way-too-old boyfriend from B-mo who danced and danced to this song one night at a party, alone. Which is how I dance to it, too: alone. Which is when I am most likely both to dance and to feel like being a sex machine, not when the likes of faux-boyfriends are near.
6. "Ashes to Ashes"— David Bowie
The second point of the sacred triangle. "Time and again I tell myself I'll stay clean tonight": words for someone who resolves things daily, but nightly lets resolve slip away. This song is the midpoint in Bowie's long Major Tom story, now all over. "Look at me, I'm in heaven . . ."
7. "Why'd Ya Do It?"— Marianne Faithful
The same old boyfriend who introduced me to this fine, angry, dirty song later introduced me to the reason that I would find it rutting in my head. Faithless. Not sure we can print the words here, so maybe some asterisks will do: "Every time I see your d*** I see her c*** in my bed." Hard to get angrier and cut sharper than that.
8. "Sea of Love"—Iggy Pop
Oh, but then there's this, and him. The third point of the sacred triangle. The range of Iggy's voice and mood, from mock-melodrama to raunch to real, is so powerful in his invitation to that incomparable sea. I believe him. I would go.
9. "Just Another High"— Roxy Music
"Maybe your heart is aching: I wouldn't know, now would I?" A song I wailed thirty years ago, gazing through tears at siren Jerry Hall crawling on the album cover, sick with jealousy over the young Sir Gold as he broke my heart, but also jealous over Jerry Hall getting both Bryan Ferry and Mick. Narrator J paces the Venetian Causeway, Biscayne Bay glinting green all around, and listens for the snort of a manatee, listens for a siren's wail, thinks of the little mermaid's tongue that was sliced off and traded for love, for legs that feel like knives.
10. "Seaside (Mystic Mirror)"— Lee "Scratch" Perry
More mermaids, maybe? "Walking on the seaside, with my lightning in my hand"—I think—it's hard to find the lyrics, but the song's pacing and flow and hiccoughing rhythms, its fabulously mesmerizing repetition, its lilting waves, are what I love. That, and its silvery background singers: I can see sequins glinting on their siren throats as they trill: "Magic mirror . . . mystic mirror . . ."
Jane Alison and Nine Island links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)