January 31, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mike Scalise's The Brand New Catastrophe is a heartfelt and astonishingly funny memoir.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Scalise's narrative verve and brisk prose create a winning chronicle of illness, recovery, and 'courageous defiance.' A frankly written debut memoir that captures all the fright of a medical calamity and the humor and grace necessary to survive it."
So, I wrote this memoir about a brain tumor I had that contorted my body makeup and left me with zero hormones whatsoever, and how—thanks to a contrarian fugue state that lasted through my early twenties—I came to sort of enjoy that experience. I didn't mean for it to happen that way, and there are other dynamics at play in the book (family stuff, history stuff, Andre the Giant stuff). But at its heart, The Brand New Catastrophe became, surprisingly, a love letter to a complicated time when—lacking of any other successes in my underachieving life—I discovered a striking aptitude for the art of being sick.
"Being sick" can be very a passive state, though, and passivity can make for a pretty boring book. To convey what felt true to the experience—that I somehow came alive under the spotlight of illness—I knew the book had to work against that passivity. It had to be something that moved.
I didn't realize it at the time, it's clear now the music I drifted to while writing BNC had that same tension between content and tempo: songs that communicated one feeling, sonically, while lyrically undermining that feeling, producing a rhythmic emulsion; something unexpected, pleasant, and new. As I finished BNC, I kept returning to these types of songs—some I loved, some I wasn't even sure I liked. Each maintained that emotional friction in suspended animation, almost like a psychic editor, repeating over and over in a way I eventually internalized: If it didn't feel like this then, don't write about it now.
The Breeders – "Huffer"
Title TK was released in May 2002, just before my diagnosis. I listened to it constantly well into the summer, when I entered the doors of an ER with what I thought was a migraine, but instead discovered was something more strange and menacing. The first third of BNC chronicles what came after that discovery, which on its face it's standard medical narrative stuff: The bleeding tumor on my brain, the rush to remove it, the flocking of my loved ones around my bedside as we learned the details. But it didn't feel standard. My life had changed for the worse, yes. But I was alive, and ecstatic about it. I wanted to tell everyone. Immediately.
That's what "Huffer" wants, too. From it first moment (Kim Deal yelling wonderful nonsense) to the heart of the song, it's a fast, messy celebration of being busted up and bruised, but still here. It felt good to return to it as I wrote those early diagnosis scenes. Many years on, it helped to remember I never considered myself a poor kid with a tumor, locked in a hospital bed. I was too exhilarated to survive the near miss.
Mike Doughty – "All the Dirt"
One of my biggest struggles, tonally, was depicting how I existed socially after my diagnosis without making my reader want to beat me with a tire iron. After I got out of the hospital—tumor gone, but hormones gone too—I became a brash avatar for my own illness, elbowing my brain tumor story into conversations to often very uncomfortable results. My illness became a social manipulation. I used it for my own ends. And while unlikability in literature is fine—I want zero part of that debate—memoirs tend to adhere to a decency threshold that makes it unwise to both impose your life on a reader's time and make them want to set your character on fire. Plus, there's a pretty durable social script when it comes to how one approaches illness, and there are punishments for abandoning that script.
My early drafts mismanaged all of that. Scenes I meant to be layered came off clumsy or miscalibrated or mean. Then, after a long time not hearing it, Mike Doughty's "All the Dirt" re-found me: a relentlessly hopeful song Doughty wrote about bottoming out as an addict, and alienating everyone he knew as a result. It that has, to date, my favorite lyric—"Nobody likes you/ Nobody you like, likes you now"—and listening to it again unlocked some promise for those difficult scenes: what if keeping a reader's trust and patience was less about wallowing in unlikable moments, and more about offering a critique of that unlikability that a reader might participate in?
De La Soul – "Breakadawn"
Everyone shines on this track. Dave is smart and hilarious as always. Prince Paul's slow, stripped down arrangement feels like the warm blanket it should. But Posdnous goes superhuman here. His bars are long and loopy yet somehow quick despite the mellow beat. Pos plays both with and against that beat in a way that constantly throws the listener off balance. He's always several steps ahead of them. It's the hip-hop equivalent to Donald Antrim's winding, kinetic prose, both of which greatly influenced the contemplative moments of the memoir. It was a nice writing lesson from Pos (and Antrim): the action in a scene may be minimal, but that doesn't mean your rendering of it needs to be.
Tom Vek – "We Do Nothing"
New Order – "Temptation"
Freelance Whales – "Starring"
Writing the back third of this book felt like the final yards of a tightrope walk, and these songs balanced me. They're each euphoric confessions of utter failure, which felt so reassuring that I listened to only these songs for the final months working on BNC. "We Do Nothing" is an upbeat take on fatal stagnation. "Temptation" is a siren call to futility. And "Starring"? A hyper-poppy resignation to helplessness ("This is me starring / in a stranger's nightmare"). Here I was, tying off the threads of a story about an illness I'd live with far longer than the book's final word, one that divorced me from my own self-image, presented no cure, yet still filled me with a complicated hope and gratitude that refuses to fade to this day. I needed a tonal guideline for all that. These songs gave it to me.
David Byrne & St. Vincent – "I Should Watch TV"
One of my hormonal rarities was acromegaly, a condition that effected the lives of giants of pop culture like TV's Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne), NBA center Gheorghe Mureșan, and, of course, the literal poster boy of pituitary abnormality, Andre the Giant. I didn't have acromegaly for long, which means I don't have the size (or imprint) of those men. But I did struggle with knotty self-image issues that came from my induction as a junior member into their oddball brotherhood. It's a struggle that's never really ended and grows more complex by the day. So naturally, as I finished edits on BNC and came to peace with that story in book form, I found myself clinging often to this jazzy polka-type jam where David Byrne sings: "Behold and love this giant / Big soul, big lips / That's me and I am this."
It's since become the memoir's sonic thesis, and not just because of the curious links to the acromegaly experience, or the disjointed spirit of life without hormones. It manages also to channel the rare relief of realizing, finally, that I'd never outrun my body ailments and their unpredictability, and it might be more interesting work to find a way to love them. Or, as Byrne wails at the end of this number:
It's good to lose and it's good to win sometimes
It's good to die and it's good to be alive
Maybe someday we can stand together
Not afraid of what our eyes might see
Maybe someday understand them better
The weird things inside of me
Mike Scalise and The Brand New Catastrophe links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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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