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January 17, 2017

Book Notes - Kathleen Rooney "Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk"

Eternal Sonata

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.

Kathleen Rooney's captivating novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is both smart and lyrical, and features one of the year's most unforgettable protagonists.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Rooney's delectably theatrical fictionalization is laced with strands of tart poetry and emulates the dark sparkle of Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Truman Capote. Effervescent with verve, wit, and heart, Rooney’s nimble novel celebrates insouciance, creativity, chance, and valor."

In her own words, here is Kathleen Rooney's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk:

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is about a woman named Lillian Boxfish—formerly the highest paid female advertising copywriter in the world in the 1930s—who takes a 10.4-mile walk around Manhattan on New Year's Eve 1984, when she is either 84 or 85 years old (she lies about her age). One of my own favorite hobbies is flânerie, attentive yet aimless drifting through the urban streets, so it felt right to make Lillian a flâneuse as well. Women, especially old women, are frequently underestimated, so letting Lillian rove the city where she spent her entire adult life—her stratospheric rise and her painful fall—fearlessly meeting her fellow city-dwellers and having adventures let me add a heroic lady walker to the still largely male literature of flânerie. A former poet, Lillian adores New York City and the people in it, so this playlist is an audio ode to the pleasures of experiencing the urban environment on foot.

"Human Nature" by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis, performed by Michael Jackson (1982)

The way that this song starts captures perfectly, in both sound and lyrics, the inducement to walk that any city gives to a flâneuse or flâneur: "Looking out / across the nighttime / the city winks a sleepless eye / Hear her voice / Shake my window / Sweet seducing sighs." Lillian hadn't planned to make a 10-plus-mile drift, but she can't resist, so she puts on her mink coat and out she goes. The song itself and Michael's delivery of it—trembly and longing—describe the elements of restlessness and voyeurism that go with flânerie: "Reaching out / to touch a stranger / Electric eyes are everywhere / See that girl / she knows I'm watching / She likes the way I stare." This song gets the feast for the eyes and the thrill of seeing and being seen that city walking can offer.

"These Days" by Jackson Browne, performed by Nico (1967)

The novel has a split structure between the present-day of the elderly Lillian walking in 1984 and the past that she reflects upon as she walks, going all the way back to her arrival in New York City in 1926. The retrospective attitude of Browne's lyrics and the straightforward melancholy of Nico's performance fit the way the book unfolds.

"Unguided" by The New Pornographers (2007)

A true flâneuse never consults a map or uses GPS; she follows her instincts and intuitions. Hence the lyric "There's something unguided in the sky tonight" being apt for Lillian's evening. Also, the rhythm of this song and the inclusion of the idea about killing time match Lillian's stroll because flânerie can be a means of time travel. Lillian notes that, as a very old woman, she has so much past and so little future, but she observes this fact with acceptance and not sadness. There's something about walking that can help a person deal with time, no matter their age.

"Tinseltown in the Rain" by the Blue Nile

Obviously, Tinseltown is Hollywood and Lillian walks Manhattan, but this song still applies. It's about feeling wistful and thinking of loves past, and ultimately about the ephemerality of both the best and worst feelings in life. Paul Buchanan understands the paradox of feeling alone in an urban crowd: "Oh men and women / Here we are, caught up in this big rhythm." He also understands the sweetly doomed sensation of desiring that a person, place, or feeling will stay the same, even as you know that such permanence is impossible:

One day this love will all blow over

Time for leaving the parade

Is there a place in this city

A place to always feel this way?

"Cavern" by Liquid Liquid (1981)

There's a decent amount of music mentioned in the book, but this is the only song directly referenced—during a party scene—included on this playlist. The structure of the novel, with Lillian shifting from her past to her present, means that she is, in a sense, as the lyric says, "slipping in and out of phenomenon." And that's how a satisfying urban walk can work, too—if you walk long enough, far enough, through a big enough variety of landscapes, whole days and nights can seem to start over again. You fall into and emerge from forgotten pockets of history and architecture. Also, the bass line of this song is seductive and hypnotic, like the rhythm of the best kind of walk.

"Temptation" by New Order (1982)

Aside from the evident connection to flânerie in the lyric, "Tonight I think I'll walk alone / I'll find my soul as I go home," the peppy but introspective touchiness of the song calls to mind a motto of Lillian's: "Solvitur ambulando"—"it is solved by walking." Sometimes you have a problem and the only thing that's going to take care of it—not solve it, necessarily, but just make it bearable or give you some perspective—is to go take a walk. Also, the lyric "Each way I turn, I know I'll always try / To break this circle that's been placed around me" applies to how Lillian keeps connecting to the people she encounters on her walk, breaking through the stereotypes she might have of them—as limo drivers, security guards, bodega clerks, unwed mothers, etc.—and the ones they might have of her as an old lady.

"When I'm Walking" by Jonathan Richman (1983)

Lillian used to be a light verse poet in the vein of Dorothy Parker in addition to being an adwoman, and this goofy, rhyme-y walking song catches that silly/witty vibe. Other characters periodically tell Lillian that it's not safe for her to walk around the city and that she should go home or get a ride, and she unfailingly refuses. Like Jonathan Richman, she knows that if you love the world, then you're going to want to walk in it:

Well I love the world

So why sit still?

Well, in fact I don't want automotive help, thank you

I do fine just walking all by myself

"Tonight the Streets Are Ours" by Richard Hawley (2007)

Lillian comes through a lot of struggles over the course of her eight-plus decades, and she explains to another character that it's not an exaggeration to say that walking saved her life. This triumphant anthem suggests that feeling of pure potential you can achieve on an aimless walk—anything could happen if you just get out there. I love the part where Hawley sings:

Those people, they got nothing in their souls
And they make our TVs blind us
From our vision and our goals
Oh the trigger of time it tricks you
So you have no way to grow

Like don't look at your screens, look at people's faces. There are so many voices telling us to be afraid of the city and not to talk to strangers, but strangers are so interesting. Talk to some of them. Lillian would.

Kathleen Rooney and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review

Chicago Magazine profile of the author
Electric Literature interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Live Nude Girl
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for O, Democracy
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Oneiromance
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for René Magritte: Selected Writings
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Robinson Alone

also at Largehearted Boy:

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