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January 24, 2017

Book Notes - Josh Barkan "Mexico"


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.

Josh Barkan's raw and unsettling Mexico is one of the year's finest short story collections.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Masterful stories that peel away at the thin border between everyday life and profane violence in modern-day Mexico."

In his own words, here is Josh Barkan's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Mexico:

Until I sat down to write this playlist, I had never thought about how many musical references there are in the stories of my collection Mexico. I could put together a playlist based literally on some of the music related to the protagonists of the stories. In "The Chef and El Chapo" the chef says, "I tend to wear a bicycle cap or a baseball cap with some heavy metal logo. I had on a baseball cap, with the letters AC/DC on the black front." The protagonist of the story "I Want to Live"—a beauty queen married to a narco—begins her entertainment career singing traditional Mexican songs similar to what Paquita la del Barrio performs. The architect in "Acapulco" sits alone in a strip club, where he does not want to be: "That left me alone for a while, sitting in the club without having to pretend to be interested in Gonzalo's conversation. I had a chance to take in the soft, Latin beat of the music. There were a few trumpets. It was supposed to be happy music, but in the sad, red light falling on the pole dancer on stage the trumpets sounded forlorn to me, and I wondered what I was doing in this club, so far from my girlfriend, Julieta, in Mexico City." The painter in "The Kidnapping" tries to comfort another woman kidnapped with him by singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to her, after she has had her fingers cut off to get her family to pay ransom:

"I want people to be happy, you know what I mean? So I started singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Amazingly, they let me sing, at first. I started singing louder and louder. I wanted the woman in the next room to hear. She'd been going downhill. She'd lost two fingers, already, and I thought, if I can sing this song loud enough she'll come back to life. So I just started singing. I don't know why in the hell I chose that song. It's just the one that came to me. It's easy, you know. And after I'd been singing for a bit, I swear I heard that other woman singing, too. She wasn't singing the same song. She started singing some Mexican song. But there it was, some other nice song in Spanish that somehow fit together, perfectly, with "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and even though her voice was weak, she was singing with some kind of inner strength, in perfect harmony with the melody of my own song, and the two of us sang to the concrete ceiling, feeling like we'd stolen a moment, going round and round, repeating the songs a few times, like some kind of chorus of monks but with more joy. They shut us up, of course. They came in and hit me on the mouth. But it didn't matter. It's those moments of joy that make life worth living. It's that harmony, when all around you there's dead silence."

There are plenty of other musical references in the book—the protagonist of the last story "The Escape From Mexico" plays classical bass. Gang members at his school cut his arm with a machete, and years later he is married to a composer and plays the bass: "Playing music, as I hold my bow, I can only represent the scar of my body in the slow, sad sections when the plaintive sound of the bass overwhelms the audience, in those long, sighing musical underlying interludes which a great composer like Beethoven gives a bass player to remind the audience that sorrow is the underlying note of a life as it seeks higher ground."

But I don't want to make a playlist that is so literal. Instead, what I think matters is the music I was listening to during the period I was writing the book. My wife is a painter from Mexico, and I met her three years before I started writing the stories in the collection. She introduced me to all sorts of music in Spanish that was new to me and that I came to love, while we were living in her painting studio in Mexico City. So I was listening to a mix of music that she introduced me to—some also in English—and that we were discovering together.


Fink: "Pills in My Pocket"
The minor chords on the guitar always get me in this song, and the long way he drags out his words. It's that feeling of loneliness that I can always relate to, but he's trying to get beyond that when he says "let me in please."

Alexi Murdoch: "Orange Sky"
I used to listen to this song on road trips from Mexico City to Oaxaca. The "orange sky" reminds me of the sunsets in the rural parts of that drive, looking out at small farms. This is the juxtaposition I often want to capture in my story collection—the feeling of two worlds colliding.

Aterciopelados: "Mi Vida Brilla"
This is a love song—where the singer sings of the way her lover makes her life "shine." Most of the protagonists in my stories are looking for this way to find something that might shine out of the very dark situations they find themselves in. My wife was also making my life "shine," when we first fell in love.

Babasonicos: "Yegua"
This song has a super sarcastic tone—and humorous. The singer talks about his fantasies and how he is "easy" some nights. With the Babasonicos I started to learn how many Argentinian musicians turn out a lot of rock that Mexicans love and that never make it into the consciousness of listeners in the U.S.

Belle & Sebastian: "I'm a Cuckoo"
I heard Belle & Sebastian in concert in Mexico City and they sang this song. The Mexicans knew every word of this song—and every other song sung that night. As my wife always says, most bands from abroad are stunned when they play Mexico City—to see the complete devotion of the fans.

Caetano Veloso: "If You Hold A Stone"
Another concert I went to in Mexico City, with Caetano. What gets me in this song is not only the repetition of "if you hold a stone," but the way the singer slowly seems to be able to push the weight off of himself, even as he feels it. The jazz-like riffs on the flute and bass also wow me.

Café Tacuba: "Eres"
One of the biggest bands to come out of Mexico. The protagonist of the story "The Kidnapping" has a girlfriend who was in a band, and I imagine her listening to this kind of music. Big drums on this one, which I like.

Carlos Vives: "La Tierra del Olvido"
Vives is from Colombia. This is another love song, about a guy feeling like he's dying if he can't get the love of the woman he loves. He sings about the earth, and the water, and the key to his heart—kept by the woman. The accordion here is what draws me in.

Cat Power: "The Greatest"
We'd stay up late into the night painting and writing with Power.

Chiara Mastroianni & Benjamin Biolay: "La Plage"
My wife's cousin, Elisa Miller, is a Mexican filmmaker who won the Palme D'Or at Cannes for a short film. She used to play this when we'd go over to her house, and it reminds me of just how many amazing artists I've met in Mexico: painters, architects, filmmakers, etc. These are some of the types of protagonists in the story collection.

Coldplay: "Don't Panic"
More road trip music to Oaxaca. My wife could not live without Coldplay.

Dakota Suite: "The Cost of Living"
This is one of the few bands I introduced to my wife. Usually she was teaching me. I am normally a morning writer, but in the second half of the collection I started writing stories late at night. This feels like one of those nocturnal songs.

Gustavo Cerati: "Altar"
Cerati, an Argentinian, is possibly the biggest rock star to have come out of Latin America. This song is mellower than many of his hits, but it has his cool, larger than life voice. For the forty-somethings of Mexico, this is their hero, with Cerati's enigmatic lyrics. I used to listen to him at night, driving fast on the elevated highways of Mexico City.

Keane: "Looking Back"
One night, driving around the Parque Mexico, in Mexico City, I could really feel the lyrics of this song—leaving the past behind. Like many expats, I had "run away" to Mexico City, and it became a new home.

Kings of Convenience: "Homesick"
The harmony in this song, and the exploration of "previous motives," is what moves me. Most of my characters are struggling with personal problems—ways they have betrayed others or have been betrayed—while they are caught in a tough external problem, such as a life or death situation that forces them to look at their motives more closely.

Lila Downs: "Mezcalito"
Downs has revived traditional music from Oaxaca and become a major music figure from Mexico. But she's also super contemporary in her sound production—such as the sound of the sax coming in on this song. I feel it is important to capture references to the traditions of Mexico while portraying the present, in my stories, because the two are so intertwined.

Manolo Garcia: "Contigo me Quedaria"
Another concert I saw in Mexico City. Manolo is from Spain.

Marisa Monte: "Levante"
Monte, from Brazil, captures a somewhat psychedelic sound that feels like the nocturnal drug scene in the story "Acapulco."

Paquita la del Barrio: "Tres Veces te Engañe"
Paquita is the great traditional singer from Mexico, who sings songs of lamentation. Here she sings about cheating back on the man who cheated on her. This is the music the character Esmeralda would sing in the story "I Want to Live."

Radiohead: "Bodysnatchers"
The grating fast guitar in this song gets at the dark, frantic feeling in some of the bleaker scenes of some of these stories. The song also has the energy that I feel is so important when writing.

The Shins: "Young Pilgrims"
Back to those interior reflections of doubt. Lots of interior reflecting in my stories. They tend to have more exposition than many short story writers put in. But, again, the singer finds a way through his doubts—pushing against "fate."

The Swell Season: "Low Rising"
One last mellow song, which I listened to all the time in the painting studio in Mexico City. And another song of self-searching, reaching bottom and trying to rise up. Ultimately, I feel my stories are optimistic, just like this song.

Josh Barkan and Mexico links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
New York Times review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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