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October 13, 2016

Book Notes - Melissa Yancy "Dog Years"

Dog Years

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.

Winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Melissa Yancy's short story collection Dog Years is powerful, nuanced, and heartfelt.

KIrkus wrote of the book:

"All these stories, many of which center on the medical industry, are meticulously wrapped up in layers of interiority, awareness of the outside gaze, and what it means to straddle the public and the private. The author's characters are deeply flawed but not irredeemable; they are delightfully and infuriatingly human, sympathetic without invoking pity, and complex without being inscrutable. Subtle but powerful, this collection is a moving portrait of what it means to be seen and to see ourselves."

In her own words, here is Melissa Yancy's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Dog Years:

Years ago, I wrote a story called "Recommended If You Dig," in which the young male protagonist can't reconcile the fact that his love interest doesn't agree that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is among the greatest albums of all time. It's a deal breaker for him. The characters in my story collection Dog Years are NOT that guy. These people are busy: they have jobs that involve life and death, sick children or sick parents. Most of them listen to best-of-the-decades radio stations on their commutes, when they aren't listening to NPR. They probably didn't acquire new favorite artists past college (true for so many of us, anyway) and none would take pride in being a cultural consumer. But for me as the writer, these are the tracks that these stories invoke.

"Sunday Morning"/ Margo Guryan
If I had to choose a theme song for the entire book, this would be the track. Like many people my age, I didn't discover Guryan until the Linus of Hollywood cover of "Shine" and re-release of her 1968 album Take a Picture. Guryan's music was just the kind of thing you dream you'll stumble upon thumbing through old LPs in the corner of a forgotten thrift store, but never actually do. I loved all the tracks, but "Sunday Morning" was most essential. I always find sweet songs the saddest, and Guryan's voice is breathy and wistful and more hopeful than a voice like Karen Carpenter's. It's the hopefulness that slays me, and almost reminds me (although sonically far apart) of the feeling I get listening to early Built to Spill. It sounds like sunshine pop: "I'll put coffee on to brew/We can have a cup or two/And do/What other people do/On Sunday morning"—except for this admission of doing what other people do that suggests these moments of unexamined ease don't come so easily for Guryan. The characters in my title story and elsewhere in the book so often want to live in this feeling, to stand in a little ray of sunlight, even while they know it's fleeting, that time is winning.

"Already Home"/ Jay-Z and Kid Cudi
For six years I worked for a children's hospital, and my experiences with a fetal surgeon and other details appear in the book. It is hard to do the hospital justice in a few words—every human emotion and every kind of human being collides there. But in spite of all this richness, the day-to-day of my role in the hospital's foundation was highly political, stressful and intense. Like a nasty sorority or CW show. And being the bourgeois yuppie white girl that I am, I would often listen to hip-hop on my way to the office to get psyched up, like I was taking it to the streets. The Blueprint 3 was a big event for me (although I know Jay obsessives have mixed feelings about this one). "Already Home" was a favorite parking lot anthem at the time, with singalongs to the Kid Cudi chorus: "Oh they want me to fall (fall)/Fall from the top (top)/They want me to drop (drop)/They want me to stop (stop)/They want me to go (go)/I'm already gone (already)/The shit that I'm on/I'm already home" and the Jay verses: "I'm in the hall already, on the wall already I'm a work of art, I'm a Warhol already On another level, on another plane already/ H-O-V I got my own lane already (already)."

"Christian Brothers"/ Elliott Smith
"Hounds" is the only story in the collection dark enough to earn itself an Elliott Smith song. I actually find the later and lesser Smith-in-Los-Angeles albums to have the excruciating hopefulness that might be more consistent with some of my other choices here. I don't know if anything has ever been sadder than Smith belting, "LLLLLLL! AAAAAA! morning had to come/be walking in the sun," but early Smith that's unequivocally self-flagellating and melancholy is comforting in its way. "Hounds" is about a woman who runs a surgical reconstruction program for veterans, and the Smith lines "It's sick what I want" and "Nightmares become me" could have been straight from the story. The characters aren't irredeemable, but unlike many of the others, they aren't trying to be happy.

"The Climb"/ Miley Cyrus
Pop stars love to visit hospitalized children, and one of the stories in the collection, "Miracle Girl Grows Up," deals with the way sick kids become their own kind of celebrity. "The Climb" is exactly the kind of power ballad that would accompany a fundraising triathlon video, with shots of runners crossing the finish line, young celebrities holding up giant poster board checks, and kids wheeling down hospital corridors. I'm conflicted about how empowerment anthems make me feel. Alone in my car, I've cranked up Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten" or Rachel Platten's "Fight Song." There are times (like those wonderfully manipulative Olympic games packages) when empowerment anthems can provoke even the most jaded to sprout a single goose pimple. But they can also cheapen things, and when layered over images of powerful emotional experiences (especially used in a PowerPoint, in a conference room) it all becomes so maudlin you have to look away in embarrassment. My writing is interested in that manipulation, in the line between pathos and bathos.

"W.A.N.D."/ The Flaming Lips
In contrast, this song makes me feel like I just tossed back a fistful of Pixy Stix. This is as anthem. How can you listen to this song and not get fired up? It makes me want to unleash a weird karate-stomp-dance around the house. I'm not sure if the song subtly undermines the protest song genre (as in, we're fighting the powers-that-be with a magic wand, since that's how hopeless fighting the power is) or if it's sincere (W.A.N.D. stands for the Will Always Negates Defeat) or some sly combination of the two. It was used in "Colors," a perfect late-capitalist-Silicon-Valley Dell Inspiron commercial, wherein the magic wand is, of course, a laptop that meets every need. But it's also a great commercial, an advertisement for the song. My story "Teeth Apart" is about a yogi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and about feeling complicit in everything.

"Mad World"/ Adam Lambert cover
For BuzzFeed, Kelly Dunlap called Lambert's cover of "Mad World" the peak of American Idol, which is, admittedly, the equivalent of the zenith of a speed bump. My story "Firstborn" features a delusional, alcoholic Francophile, and this is a song she would sing to herself dancing blitzed around the house. This Lambert cover version brings to mind questions some of these stories do: How much is too much? What makes something cross over from moving to maudlin? This performance perfectly straddled that line.

"Africa"/ Toto
If the internet is to be believed, the inspiration for this track is "a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past." I'll choose to believe this explanation because that is exactly how the song sounds. The characters in my story "Go Forth" naïvely imagine other places and people, but aren't adventurous enough to see for themselves. This song is terrible, but I've loved it since I saw an a cappella version many years ago. I can't help myself.

"The Happy Prole"/ Quasi
The Quasi album Featuring "Birds" has really held up for me. It doesn't sound like the 1990s in the way so many records do; the roxichord and absence of guitar give it a creepy timelessness. It's one of the ultimate albums about the dissociation of the modern world (even before the dominance of the smartphone!) office life, California, divorce and general dystopia. It gives me this funny feeling now, like the book 1984 when the year 1984 had passed, as though it's about a future that both has and hasn't come to be. Any track off this album will do, but perhaps the one that best fits my story about workplace inertia called "The Program™" is "The Happy Prole."

"The People"/ Common
There's a line in "The People" that goes: "While white folk focus on dogs and yoga/ People on the low end try to ball and get ova." Since my book is called Dog Years and includes exactly one story with a yogi, this is my "acknowledging privilege" track. I also want to say how important emcees are to me. I rarely listen to music when I write. If I'm listening to Nick Drake or Pink Floyd, I'll think the story is imbued with this texture and atmosphere that hasn't made it onto the page. (This is one thing filmmakers get to do that fiction writers don't. I'm jealous.) But I do have an entire catalogue of hype songs that get me in the mood to write. Rappers explicitly write about writing, about hunger and failure, about the power of the written word. "Headlines" by Drake, "Watch Out" by Atmosphere, "8 Mile " by Eminem, and "Moment of Clarity" by Jay-Z are just a few of my favorites. Without hype tracks, there'd be no book.

Melissa Yancy and Dog Years links:

the author's website

Kirkus review

Interview magazine interview with the author
Otherppl interview with the author
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profile of the author
Salon interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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