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May 24, 2017

Book Notes - Emma Smith-Stevens "The Australian"

The Australian

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.

Emma Smith-Stevens' brilliant novel The Australian is one of the funniest (and smartest) debuts I have read in years.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"In her mesmerizing debut, Smith-Stevens reveals the inner life of a man who describes himself as 'the patron saint of trying.'"

In her own words, here is Emma Smith-Stevens' Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Australian:

The protagonist of my novel The Australian, who is only ever referred to as "the Australian," was inspired by a man I knew for one day—mid-30s, savagely handsome, verbose, and Australian, of course—when I was nineteen. I met him in a coffee shop in the West Village and wound up hanging out at his place on Mercer Street.

His loft was sleek and sparsely furnished: all stainless steel and black leather. We snorted some very pure Colombian cocaine, I removed a tape from my Walkman and popped it into his massive sound system, and we talked. Well, mostly he talked, delivering a hyper-monologue—the details of his life like projectiles that, to this day, remain lodged in my mind. He'd put himself through university in Melbourne by dressing as Superman and posing for tourist photos. He was a voracious reader of self-help books, which filled two large bookshelves. At twenty-three he'd moved to New York to work on Wall Street as a day trader and was now a venture capitalist. (My parents were artists, I grew up in TriBeCa, my education had been "progressive," and the business-world was foreign and abstract. In combination with his accent and my ignorance of what the phrase "venture capitalist" meant, his occupation made him very exotic.) And his refrigerator—I noticed—contained nothing but six bottles of champagne.

At some point he abruptly stopped talking and kissed me. We were sitting on the edge of his low-to-the-floor palate bed with a glossy black headboard. I enjoyed the feeling of his lips, the scent of his aftershave. "Tell me about you," he said, lacing his fingers through mine. "Oh, I wish I could!" I said, dropping his hand. "I'm super late! My best friend's birthday party is starting in two minutes!" Some more making out would've been great. However, I wasn't interested in exposing that I ‘d just dropped out of college due to mental illness and drug addiction, that my life was all dysfunction and terror, and I could think of nothing else that defined me. So I left. But before I did, the man gave me a small, square book entitled Conversations With God. "Keep an open mind," he said, as the elevator doors closed.

Back in my bedroom at my parent's home, I did a fat line off a CD jewel case and read the book cover to cover. A lifelong atheist, by the book's end I was a believer in an all-knowing, all-powerful, and unconditionally loving creator—one who had a grand scheme for me and had instilled in me infinite potential. All I had to do was ask and He would lift me out of the mire, into the light of grace. Yes, I had a drug habit that might've killed me any day, and unchecked bipolar disorder had me aflame: reckless, sleepless, swinging wildly between euphoria and paranoia and suicidal depression. My teeth were filled with painful cavities, my hair was knotted and greasy, and bones jutted sharply. The endless torrent of my crises had alienated all my friends. I could no longer manage the basic functions of living. But God can save me, I thought. God wants me to change. All I have to do is ask.

And so I did—ask for help, that is. From God and then—because I believed I was divinely inspired to do so—my mother. Twenty-four hours later I was in detox, after which I was shipped down to a long-term rehab in South Florida. Although Conversations With God no longer defines my spiritual beliefs, I remain free of drug addiction. Finding stability with mental illness took much longer, and is a far less clear-cut a milestone than washing a bottle of Xanax down a drain; but that burden did, eventually and largely because I remained drug-free, lighten. And so, in retrospect and from a certain angle, that man—the real Australian, as I think of him now—saved my life.

Since my novel, The Australian, has a manic energy, just like the real Australian—and like me, back when I'd met him—so did most of the music I listened to while writing it. I made a playlist of about 150 tracks that helped my prose match the timbre of my protagonist's personality and book's mood. The songs had to be familiar. Music that was new to me, strayed far from the conventions of its genre, or rendered an attention-grabbing narrative, was too distracting. While writing, my brain needed to keep company with each song without consciously engaging them.

During our teenage years, most of us seek and find ourselves in music. The bands that obsess us then will resonate with us forever. Above all my novel-writing playlist (from which the following eighteen songs were plucked) included songs that comprised the soundtrack of Australian's youth, and which continue reverberate in his adulthood—and in mine, as well.

Duran Duran :: "Electric Barbarella"

This song was composed as a tribute to the cult classic film Barbarella (1968), which takes place some thousands of years in the future. An evil scientist named Durand Durand is threatening to end life on Earth with some kind of death-ray technology (analogous to a nuclear holocaust), and to stop him the U.S. government deploys its ultimate weapon: Barbarella, an astronaut (my mind wants to call her an "astronautrix") whose sexual prowess is so powerful that she can use it to conquer any man. The two guys who would soon become Duran Duran frequented a nightclub named Barbarella after the film character, so I guess also in homage—to the movie, the nightclub, or both—the band adopted the name of Barbarella's villain. I don't know why they dropped the "d" at the end of each "Durand." I guess it does sound cooler.

I'm pretty sure "Electric Barbarella" (1997) was Duran Duran's last hit. What's weird is that instead of the futuristic and emotionally flat, yes, but definitely human "Barbarella" that Jane Fonda played so memorably, the "Barbarella" in the song is a straight-up, commercially produced, electric sex doll: "I knew when I first saw you on the showroom floor, you were made for me." And later: "I plug you in, dim the lights, electric Barbarella." If you want to be super generous, you could read it as a song from the point of view of a male Dom singing to a submissive woman with whom he is in a BDSM relationship (listen, think about it), but I suspect that would be overthinking things. The lyrics seem quite literal—if the robotic woman stuff a metaphor, it's never broken—and it leaves me less than confident that the Duran Duran blokes have ever actually seen the film.

I find all of this pretty interesting, but "Electric Barbarella" relates to my novel purely by happenstance: when I brazenly (or rudely—that would be fair enough) popped a tape without asking into the real Australian's stereo, swirled up the volume dial, and started dancing, this song is what played.

Men At Work :: "Down Under"

For me to include this song on this pubic list is an act of bravery for which I ought to receive an outpouring of commendation. Yes, indeed: I listened to this song, sometimes on repeat, during the first few months of writing the novel. There is an American conception of "the Australian," I think, which is essentially a stereotype: the happy-go-lucky, extroverted, good-looking, charming white guy from "Down Under." This notion of "the Australian" is depicted and celebrated in Men at Work's goofy song, and it also serves as the starting point from which my novel's protagonist develops. When we first meet him, "the Australian" (his proper name is never given), he is described thusly: "He smiles widely, his teeth luminous, his canines threatening. All his life, he has been indiscriminate with his enthusiasm, invincible within the hedonistic splendor of the present moment, like some kind of inverted Buddha."

However, everything after the first paragraph works to transcend and deepen readers' understanding of "the Australian" to this Australian, this man, this particular, wonderful, fucked up, loving, infuriating human being—someone with whom gradually (as in any relationship) readers come to feel a close connection and know intimately. I made the choice never to name the Australian understanding that it would raise two questions. First: what does it mean, in the mind of the reader, to be an Australian man? And second: why isn't the protagonist granted a name? I wrote the novel with those questions always in mind—and with the intention that the answers woven into the narrative would enrich the novel (and the experience of reading it) sufficiently to justify that choice.

Culture Club :: "Karma Chameleon"

The beat, the lyrics, the gold-silver rays of Boy George's heavenly voice—everything about this song comes together so perfectly, and it somehow encapsulates everything that my novel aspires to be. The playfulness is in sync with the Australian before his life becomes complicated—yet just as the lyrics add layers of complexity to "Karma Chameleon," there is disturbance lurking in the background of the novel's page one.

The Cure :: "The Walk"

This song captures how the Australian feels on coke, which he falls in love with for a time. It's also one of my favorite songs, and I've heard it enough times that I hardly notice when Robert Smith inexplicably exclaims, "I saw you look like a Japanese baby!" (a lyric that raises many questions, if you think about it), which is to say—I have listened to this song a lot.

Pet Shop Boys :: "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)"

At the very beginning of The Australian, the Australian is paying his way through his final year of university by dressing up as Superman and posing for tourist photos. It is noted that, at this time in Australia, "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" is a massive hit. The beginning of the chorus, which is included in the book, goes: "I've got the brains, you've got the looks, let's make lots of money." The narration continues: "In his mind, the Australian is both of the people in the song. He is smart—smart enough to know when effort is absolutely required and when he can fake it—and he is handsome, with chiseled abdominal muscles underneath the chiseled abdominal muscles of his costume. He smiles widely, his teeth luminous, his canines threatening." Hearing "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)," over and over, ignites the Australian's first major ambition: to become rich working on Wall Street. His pursuit of this goal is what propels his adult life—and the novel's plot—into motion.

The Vaselines :: "You Think You're a Man"

This is a really fun, upbeat song, with verses sung alternately by The Vaselines' front woman, Frances McKee, and front man, Eugene Kelly, who take turns gleefully berating a man for his sexual ineptitude—a characterization seemingly based on first-hand experience. "Man-boy!" they taunt. "You think you're a man but you're only a boy! You think you're a man but you're only a toy! Man-boy! Man-boy!" There's an interlude during which McKee and Kelly groan and moan, presumably granting each other the erotic ecstasy that the "man-boy" never could.

The humiliation this song's muse presumably endures evokes the Australian's shame vis-à-vis Elijah, his coke dealer: "Sometimes the Australian asks Elijah to fuck him. Elijah always laughs like it's a joke, and the Australian laughs along with him, although he wants to cry really badly." More generally, the injuriousness of the song's happy malice is predicated on the overwhelming pressure that most men, including the Australian, feel to be a "real man" (an impossible and illusory goal)—and the self-loathing and panic that result from their perpetual, inevitable failure to do so.

INXS :: "Don't Change"

Here, there is indignation and pride and beauty and savage resolve in the melody—that voice of Michael Hutchence! It's a song of the self-made man ("Don't change the Earth, don't change a thing, for me!") whom the Australian imagines he will become when he first moves to New York City to work as a day-trader—a man who needs nothing and no one, whose life-force is enough to hold up the sky.

Blondie :: "Atomic"

Fiona is a compulsive liar (of small, hopeful lies—"pretty fandangle"), an accessory stylist for a major pop star, and eventually the Australian's wife—and she is awesome. I really hope readers get that. Debbie Harry is the definition of awesome. So yeah, this one is all about Fiona for me—her power, resilience, optimism, and the understated but unstoppable drive she has to find happiness, meaning, and goodness in life.

Berlin :: "The Metro"

This song captures something of the Australian's relationship to New York City, which can be a cold place, unforgiving and alienating: "The Australian has always thought of New York City as an achingly lonely place, the length of Manhattan like an arm extending toward something forever out of reach, the boroughs a collection of nets catching stray souls drifting out to sea."

The lyrics, beat, and melody of "The Metro" are repetitive and monotonous, which gives me the sensation that the room is closing in on me, which is how the Australian feels a lot. When faced with responsibility—becoming a husband and then a father, grappling with unemployment, and so on—everything seems unfair, like the world is conspiring against him: a very claustrophobic perspective, the claustrophobia of narcissism (and we are all narcissistic to some degree).

Morrissey :: "I Have Forgiven Jesus"

To be clear: I am a mega fan of The Smiths and Morrissey's solo career. That said, this song is absolutely hilarious. Peak Morrissey melodrama, self-pity, anger. The lyrics recount all the ways Jesus has screwed Morrissey (a specific abuse for each day of the week!), and he yet the singer generously condescends to grant Jesus forgiveness. The song's title, "I Have Forgiven Jesus," is presumably intended as a provocative inversion of the most basic prayer: "Jesus, please forgive my sins." The whole song is very earnest in its grievances (this description can be applied to Morrissey's entire oeuvre, really) and just beyond with the angst. Still, it's about very real and sad things whose significance and power I do not mean to belittle, like being filled of love without have anyone to share it with, the risks of being vulnerable and open in an oft uncaring and brutal world… It's just that Morrissey's presentation of this stuff, and especially his certainty that he in particular has been singled out, takes the song deliciously too far.

Similarly, when the Australian is first faced real adversity—discord fractures his marriage and a serious illness befalls his mother—he's a lot like the Morrissey we see in "I Have Forgiven Jesus." And, hey—I am not above self-pity! I, too, have felt like I was being tortured by an all-powerful, consciously malicious force in the universe, or that life itself was configured to thwart my happiness. Morrissey, the Australian, and (occasionally) I agree: we are unfortunates to whom an endless parade of awful shit just happens, none of it foreseeable or preventable or at all related to our own doings. We three peons are damned—damned!—to a life (Freudian slip: I just wrote "a laugh") of pain.

Cyndi Lauper :: "When You Were Mine"

I love Cyndi Lauper, in part because there's a fabulous whininess to her voice—like this super cool bratty sound and attitude. The Australian, at some points in the novel, is pining, when really he has no right. He fucked up. So that's the loose connection: romantic loss, grieving that loss, wanting the person back. But above all this song was just fun and energizing to have playing in the background.

Rockwell :: "Somebody's Watching Me"

Hopefully it's not too much of a spoiler to say that, through a curious series of events, the Australian becomes—well, "famous" isn't quite the right word: "There seems to be no appropriate descriptor for his current status in society," the narration notes. "He cannot be a celebrity because he has done nothing to earn the public's celebration. Nor has he done anything sufficiently terrible to warrant notoriety—and anyway, in his present condition, whether people love or hate him is a superfluous detail. The word "star" occurs to him as perhaps a cheaper designation than "celebrity," and one that could be pinned to an unworthy individual such as himself—but because he is not stalked by paparazzi and does not deliberately cultivate a fanbase, the label doesn't quite fit. Is he even a public figure? He thinks not. He doesn't live publicly, he lives privately—it is just that he happens to get filmed while doing so. The Australian accepts that there is no word, though perhaps time will invent one, for his social predicament—one akin to having some unseemly, attention-grabbing thing tacked onto his presence, like an unusually located facial piercing or a curious odor."

In any case, when the Australian becomes broadly know by the public (whatever you want to call that), he senses constantly that he is under scrutiny and surveillance and—like Rockwell (watch the music video!)—it freaks him out.

Depeche Mode :: "Never Let Me Down Again"

Expansive, joyful, and melancholic, this song captures the feeling of connection between two men (I imagine) who have bonded and are driving in a car (on a road trip—again, I imagine). But there's also a sad history, undefined but conveyed by the plea in the chorus: "Never let me down again." I imagine that, if the Australian had ever met his father—a larger-than-life, rock climbing, B.A.S.E. jumping, shark-taunting extreme sports enthusiast, sun-leathered and rugged, emblematic of a model of masculinity that the Australian aspires to but can never achieve—he would feel all that this song portrays: euphoria, sharing with his father the exhilaration of speeding in a car, but afraid that it won't last, that his father will go away, back to his life of solo adventuring—and that the Australian will, again, be let down.

Kate Bush :: "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)"

Here's another one that I included mostly because it's a personal favorite. It's got enough oddness and movement to inspire the same in my writing, but also enough familiarity leave my focus intact.

In retrospect, it reminds me of the Australian at one of his lowest points, in which he is facing homelessness: "His hands and feet have lost all sensation. Unequipped for the elements, he has neither the street smarts nor the will to survive in the outdoors. He imagines himself dead on the sidewalk, curled with his head resting at a queer angle upon his knapsack, face coated in ice crystals that sparkle in the morning light. What could people say about him, other than that he died for nothing?" But in the novel, it is not God he calls on for help. It is a goddess of sorts.

Talking Heads :: "The Book I Read"

I listened to this while editing The Australian. It's one of my favorite Talking Heads songs. Not best known for love songs, I'd consider this not only the band's best love song, but also one of the greats of that genre in American music. The idea of reading a book and seeing it in someone's eyes is queer and wonderful. The book is the primary object of affection in the lyrics, and then the falling-in-love-with-a-human takes place when that book (maybe it's essence, or maybe they've both read the book) is somehow contained in the gaze of the person: "The book I read was in your eyes."

The song also gave a voice to my own thrill at almost being done with writing a book: "Oh… I'm living in the future! I feel wonderful! I'm flipping over backwards! I'm so ambitious! I'm looking back! I'm running a race and you're the book I read so…" I mean, yeah—I was pretty high on the feeling of The Australian nearing completion. It was awesome.

Emma Smith-Stevens and The Australian links:

the author's website

Publishers Weekly review

Fiction Advocate interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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