December 13, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize, Kathy Page's The Two of Us is a short story collection that masterfully explores the complexities of our closest relationships.
Quill & Quire wrote of the book:
"Deceptively expansive short stories...her ability to find little frissons of shock or recognition in situations just this side of mundane marks her as a significant miniaturist..."
The stories in The Two of Us are all about couples, pairs of various kinds: lovers, spouses, siblings, mother and baby, father and daughter, mother and son, teacher and pupil and so on. Some look at a relationship that we might sometimes take for granted, open it up and show how astounding it is, for example, "Daddy," or the title story, "The Two of Us," about a mother and her unborn child. Most of the stories, though, explore less than perfect relationships—ambivalent, flawed, unequal, even abusive. These are the kinds of relationships a therapist might not recommend, yet, for the couples concerned, they are compelling and sometimes enduring. As a writer, I'm not interested in diagnosis or in fixing my characters' predicaments, just in showing them in all their messy glory. It seems to me that most relationships are flawed, yet (most of the time) seem far preferable to being alone. Connection is what we all want.
Several of the stories in The Two of Us hone in on the parent/child relationship, and in no case is this working perfectly. Characters such as the absentee father in "Johanna," the controlling mother in "Manor Close," or the unforgiving son in "Dear Son," struggle, as many do, with the most fundamental of all our connections.
Is it too much of a generalization to say that while fiction explores, song celebrates? In any case, less than perfect parents and how we deal with them, a staple element in fiction, seem relatively rare in song. Where they exist, the material is often deeply and avowedly personal.
"I Wonder," Kellie Pickler, from Small Town Girl, 2006
"Headlights," Eminem, from The Marshall Mathers LP2, 2014
Eminem annihilated his mother in "Cleaning Out My Closet," (The Eminem Show, 2002) spitting out the words (lyrics seems wrong here) in bullets of sound: "See what hurts me the most is you won't admit you was wrong/Bitch do your song – keep telling yourself you was a mom!" He grew to regret his undiluted fury, and the way that he had underplayed his father's neglect, and, years later, apologized for it in "Headlights," a song about ambivalence if there ever was one: "And to this day we remain estranged and I hate it though, but I guess we are who we are…"
Kellie Pickler's mother abandoned her when she was two, and her simple country song gets to the heart of the experience: "Sometimes I think about you/Wonder if you're out there somewhere thinking about me/And would you even recognize the woman your little girl has grown to be?" Prompted by hearing the song, Pickler's mother shared her own complex story about an abusive relationship that she had to leave—but as yet there has been no happy ending and the two, like Eminem and his mother "remain estranged."
I don't love either of these songs, but they are unusual, and interesting emotionally, in the same way that Kelly Clarkson is in "Because of You," which loses me once the orchestra comes in and it turns into an anthem. A song's author is not always its best performer. Perhaps one day, someone will do a better version of "Because of You." Meanwhile, I'm mentioning it, but can't include it on the list.
"Gingerbread," Kim Barlow, from Gingerbread, 2001
Sibling songs are rare, too, but Kim Barlow from Novia Scotia performs her own material with casual brilliance and she is great on messy, complicated relationships and real-seeming people getting on with their messy lives. I'm sure she could write short stories if she wanted to. "Gingerbread" takes the singer and her kid brother on a folkloric walk in the woods; they become separated and almost kill each other, yet pull back just in time, and shyly (I love that part) realize that their estrangement was a mistake: "We had travelled differently/I did not recognize him/He forgot my voice."
There's no story without struggle, so complex characters and relationships are the lifeblood of fiction, but, naturally enough, love songs tend to focus on the more idealized forms of romantic love, or on our longing for it. "We can make it if we try," Grover Washington asserts in "Just The Two of Us." It sounds reasonable enough, and the music is soothing and seductive, though isn't it the case that if you have to try, the magic has already gone?
"Loving You" Minnie Riperton, Perfect Angel, 1974
The state of being happily in love is something several of the characters in The Two of Us have known, and lost. "Loving You" is a great evocation of that blissful, but perhaps pathological, and often very temporary condition. It begins with twittering birdsong and the line "Loving you is easy because you are so beautiful…" The combination of Minnie's sweet voice, the la la la chorus and an extraordinary interlude of human birdsong, makes this an impossibly beautiful song, perfect for the evanescent experience it describes.
Adele, "Someone Like You," on 21, 2011
But is love a sickness? In "Someone Like You," written during the aftermath of a breakup, we get a darker view—a delicious combination of suffering , as expressed in the lyric, and the warmth of Adele's voice. "Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead." Sometimes, one of you moves on and the other does not; she may even turn up unexpectedly and want you to listen to how she feels. This is something I suspect that some of my characters might do. In Adele's case you would be crazy not to welcome her, because the song is so beautiful, yet in real life, you might be terrified.
I remember my parents enjoying this Beatles song and laughing at the lyrics: "Will you still need me Will you still feed me When I'm sixty-four?" McCartney sings cheerfully of the pleasures of affection and domesticity that may follow on from passion and new love, but it's a serious question: how do our feelings change over many years? Does "love" survive? Not often, and not often in a recognizable form, as the two nonagenarians characters in my story "The Perfect Day" would testify. But sometimes, yes, Kim Barlow tells us in her warm and rambling meditation on the notion of enduring love, populated with a variety of down-to-earth characters, such as Ida and Marie, who have been "a hot topic since they took up on a motorbike in '47."
"Beeswing" by Richard Thompson, from Blue Mirror, 1994
This ballad, sometimes called "a novel in a song" is that rare beast, a song that's about character as much as it is about feeling. Thompson's voice is a perfect blend of tough and tender, well-suited to the story of a relationship that did not last, a woman who could not be confined, regret, and the impossibility of ideals…
Kathy Page and The Two of Us links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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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
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