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November 22, 2016

Book Notes - Eduardo Rabasa "A Zero-Sum Game"

A Zero-Sum Game

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.

Eduardo Rabasa's debut novel A Zero-Sum Game is a complex and hilarious political satire.

BBC Culture wrote of the book:

"Rabasa uses various narrative devices to make a rambunctious journey through the layers of corruption and the various faces of power in a housing complex that could be anywhere."

In his own words, here is Eduardo Rabasa's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel A Zero-Sum Game:

I think it was Schopenhauer who wrote that music is the purest of the arts, as it's the one on which emotions are expressed in its most essential form, without going through the intellect, with all the implications that this carries. So I'm a bit wary of overstating the importance that I believe it has on my writing, precisely because I often think about this importance: I've come to the conclusion that if even a small fraction of what music can do could be conveyed through what I write, I'd feel like a lot has been accomplished.

In the specific case of the process of writing A Zero-Sum Game, music played a crucial role in two ways: the most concrete one was a small ritual before and after every writing session, which was more or less like this: I'd get up every morning at 5 am, make the first of several cups of black tea, and play in the same order the same songs from Pink Floyd's The Wall album: "In the Flesh", "The Thin Ice", "Nobody Home", "The Show Must Go On", "In the Flesh" (the second version, sung by "the surrogate band"), "Waiting for the Worms", "The Trial" and "Outside the Wall". At the same time, I'd read through the printed pages from the previous day's writing, make corrections, and try to put myself in the proper state of mind to continue with the writing. At about 7:25 I'd have to run to my Italian-language lesson, so before that I'd stop and play once, as a sort of reward for having finished, the amazing live version of Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing", of the album Alchemy: Dire Straits Live, in which Mark Knopfler plays a fantastic and lengthy guitar solo.

At that time I was renting a small studio on the ground floor of a house, so my upper-floor neighbour wasn't overly happy with this ritual; I took comfort in the fact that with him being an alcoholic, he also played very loud music until the wee hours of the morning, so I figured we were sort of even. Even now, every time I hear any of the songs enlisted above, it immediately transports me (much to my chagrin, especially when in a social environment) to theA Zero-Sum Game mental state, which is by no means a pretty or enjoyable one.

The second way in which music was relevant for the writing process was through the following list of songs, that for reasons that I'll try to explain (doing my best to not overanalyze each one) were somehow connected to specific issues that I was doing my best to portray on the book. They're divided into two big sections, a sort of A and B side, corresponding to what I believe are the two main subjects that run across the novel: the contemporary individual's disenfranchisement with politics and a hopeless romantic infatuation.

A side

"A Wolf at the Door," Radiohead

I more or less had in mind that I wanted to try and find a Radiohead epigraph for the novel, as their music has easily been one of my main formative experiences, in terms of trying to understand the alienation that our contemporary societies produce on people at the most microscopic level. For a long time, I thought of using "Down is the New Up", which is a bit of a rarity, until I paid closer attention to "A Wolf at the Door", and I thought it contained many of the elements I was hoping to be able to express in the novel: the being/not being on the list, the Stepford wives, the investments, the deals but, mainly, the part towards the end when it talks about how the city boys in first class already know, even without knowing, that somebody is going to come and clean it up because, "someone always does": contemporary (legal) slavery in a nutshell.

"Fake Plastic Trees," Radiohead

Not only do I think it's one of Radiohead's best songs, but it served a very specific purpose for a passage in the novel: there is a character called Pascual Bramsos who is an artist (loosely based on Thom Yorke), that at some point invents a guitar that is made of polystyrene (a homage to "a cracked polystyrene man"), which is able to pick up the white noise (DeLillo) of the environment. During a concert that happens at a party, he just sits there holding the guitar, doing nothing, and thus letting it shriek to the tune of the pervading feelings of the crowd: the result is almost unbearable for himself, but except for a few exceptions, the party guests can hear almost nothing.

"I Do Not Want This," Nine Inch Nails

The suffocating environment that runs throughout The Downward Spiral, which I think is a masterpiece of an album. The paranoia. The shouting going on inside one's own mind. The feeble admission that if only somebody would reach out. But they never do. So it turns into uncontrolled hatred. And out-of-control selfishness. I don't know if I know anything that better defines the psyche of our age than the following verse:

I want to know everything
I want to be everywhere
I want to fuck everyone in the world
I want to do something that matters.

"Yellow Ledbetter," Pearl Jam

An enigmatic song that maybe not even Eddie Vedder knows what is really about, and maybe that's why he changes the lyrics every time it's played live. But, from what some people can gather, it seems to be about a letter delivered to notify the death of a son killed in combat, and thus the mysterious tone makes it seem more absurd, a little like what David Bowie sang in "Soul Love" when he wrote about a son "Who gave his life to save the slogan". What are the ideas that are implanted in us so strongly that we decide we need to go and kill some people we don't even know, possibly giving up our own life in the process?

"Waiting for the Worms," Pink Floyd

The image of the worms taking over the brain and disconnecting it from any possible contact either with itself of with others is a very powerful one. When this becomes widespread, we come to the paradox of a society where instead of real people interacting with real people, we have each person's worms struggling with the other person's worms, and, in the specific case of contemporary society, the table is served for the fanaticism of greed and accumulation, even if in the end as a result we all end up living an impoverished version of what life could be (R.E.M's "Imitation of Life"). The worms would have never dreamt they could achieve as much.

"I Fought the Law," The Clash

But still, there is always the Beckettian hope of at least managing to fail, and to keep on trying to "Fail again, fail better". When an intrinsically unfair law rules, there will always exist the urge to fight it, even if those who choose to do so know that in the end, in all likelihood, the law will prevail and will crush them. But in some sense it doesn't really matter: for as long as it lasts, the fight itself proves to be more rewarding than a lifetime of conformity and obedience.

"Made of Stone," The Stone Roses

How you can make a beautiful and cheerful song about fantasizing that a rich person falls of a cliff and burns down in flames while driving their car is still beyond me. But it reminds me of Foucault's concept of "bomb books", because he openly stated that he didn't want anything to do with actual bombs, as he didn't want to physically hurt anybody; instead, he hoped his books would achieve, metaphorically, a similar effect to the rattling that a bomb causes, only that he was aiming at the minds of his readers. By making people dance and sing along to lyrics like "Bad money dies/I love the scene" (I saw them perform live and along with "I am the Resurrection", this song was what moved the audience most), the Stone Roses showed me that anger can be turned into something that can even be enjoyable. That is remarkable.

"Mis-Shapes," Pulp

The revenge of the misfits. They can't even go to town for fear of being "smacked in the mouth". They don't look the same, they don't do the same things as those who fully belong, but Jarvis Cocker offers them a masterful redemption: again, no exhortation to violence ("We won't use guns, we won't use bombs"), just the consciousness that "We'll use the one thing we've got more of: that's our minds". And, to top it off, the power of ridicule: "What's the use of being rich?/If you can't think what to do with it/Cause you're so bleeding thick".

"Charmless Man," Blur

The (happy for the rest of us) paradox that probably affects most bankers and financial types: for all their money and luxuries, they will never be interesting or liked for anything else than their wealth and social status. The charmless man is a drag and hangs out in places "Where people go to drink away their gloom", to no avail: the very reasons that earned him a place among the privileged elite make him hideous to people that he'd die to be accepted by, and everywhere he goes, even in the elevator, he finds Blur singing in his ear the song that irremediably mocks him.

"Pennyroyal Tea," Nirvana (the Unplugged version)

Anguish at its most enviable level. And there is strictly nothing to do about it but drink Pennyroyal Tea. And enjoy Kurt Cobain's beautiful lament, his being "so tired I can't sleep". This is a hymn to coming full circle and finding comfort in knowing that there is not much to do but to wait for the whimper that will signal the end of the world. But there are whimpers and whimpers. This one is among the finest.


"Rocket Queen," Guns N' Roses

A dirty and somehow misogynous song that even includes the pathetic trick of having a woman moaning in the background, that was supposedly having sex with Axl Rose while they were recording it. But, since it was composed in the pre-political correctness times, it is nevertheless a good example of the power of seduction, of infatuation, of having your world narrowed down to sexual desire that you know in the end will probably ruin you. And just when you thought that G N' R couldn't get more macho and Neanderthal-ish, they surprise you with a fragile and tender ending:

Don't ever leave me
Say you'll always be there
All I ever wanted was for you
To know that I care

"Start a War," The National

"Do you really think you can just put it in the safe behind a painting, lock it up and leave?" I don't know if you can express any better the demand to somebody that he/she stays so you can both torture each other a little longer, even being willing to "get money and get funny again". But, as most of us painfully learn at some point (lucky the ones who don't), conflict provides as stable a structure as few other things can do. We might as well learn to treasure it and enjoy it, as Matt Berninger's powerful vocals suggest we do.

"Once in a Lifetime," Talking Heads

The nagging voice that we almost never seriously pay attention to: "Well, how did I get here?" Still, the large automobile, the beautiful house and the beautiful wife (or their corresponding equivalents) prevail until it's too late. But there is the hope of the common misery: "Same as it ever was". And hearing David Byrne honestly screaming "My God, what have I done?" will help to double-down on the self-inflicted pain, this time as the eternal fantasy that things might/could/should have been different. If only we'd have had the courage to follow a more honest type of lies…

"We Float," PJ Harvey

Time is not linear. It is composed of connected bubbles on which we can actually manage to float, especially when they are made of the substance of excess (echoes of William Blake's "The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom"). And, what greater excess than falling in love up to the point where, if only for a moment, the world disappears and there is nothing left but naked bodies communicating in ways that language could never even get close to? PJ Harvey's pitch-perfect delivery of:

But now we float
Take life as it comes

…makes one know that it'd be very difficult to argue that life must be about anything else than trying to find, if only once, this particular state which defies every known category of time and space.

"You Know I'm no Good," Amy Winehouse

An anthem to Freud's controversial concept of repetition compulsion as the utmost manifestation of death drive. But a crucial point: in this song there is no deception: "I told you that I was trouble/You know that I'm no good". Even when Amy Winehouse's alter ego has it going pretty good, after all has been forgiven and forgotten by "my fellow, my guy", the urge to go and fuck it all up again is too strong to resist. As my analyst once told me: "It's one thing to cheat, and a completely different thing to get caught cheating". The aggression lies in the latter. There is no cheating but on oneself because, as Freud clearly stated: "The only reason why monogamy prevails is because it isn't widely practiced". (A testament to this song's universality is the extraordinary cover by the Arctic Monkeys, in which Alex Turner doesn't change the lyrics to accommodate for his gender and thus sings it from the same woman´s perspective on which it was written, and it works just as well).

Eduardo Rabasa and A Zero-Sum Game links:

excerpt from the book

BBC Culture review
Publishers Weekly review

The New Inquiry interview with the author
Fiction Advocate interview with the book's translator
Words Without Borders interview with the book's translator

also at Largehearted Boy:

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