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June 13, 2017

Book Notes - Tom Stern "My Vanishing Twin"

My Vanishing Twin

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.

Tom Stern's My Vanishing Twin is an imaginative and unforgettable novel.

Tobias Carroll wrote of the book:

"Few have ventured into the strange and compelling territory claimed by Tom Stern... [My Vanishing Twin] covers everything from stifled artistic ambitions to our capacity for self-destruction, but at the core of the book is the unconventional bond between two brothers, giving this offbeat tale an unexpectedly warm heart."


In his own words, here is Tom Stern's Book Notes music playlist for his novel My Vanishing Twin:


Stream the playlist on Spotify.


I wish my novels were songs. Songs live with us in a way that other modes of storytelling and communication simply can't, speaking to us with a lizard-brain primacy. My work aspires to this depth of connection and I hope it leaves you thinking and feeling like a great song can. I hope.

My rabid envy of song is all over My Vanishing Twin. The book's protagonist, Walter Braum, uses music to block out the complicated world around him. He joins bands like surrogate dysfunctional families. He believes in music in a way that he cannot bring himself to believe in anything else. But Twin is not really a book about music as much as it's a book inspired by music.

My Vanishing Twin is the story of a man who has compromised his life to a point of stasis when he discovers, due to a freak instance of a medical phenomenon known as Vanishing Twin Syndrome, that he is pregnant with his own twin brother. When the twin is born, he proves to be a highly functioning adult with a voracious intellect, effortless charm, and preternatural, savant-level business acumen. In the searing light of his twin's boundless adroitness, Walter decides to strip his static life down to essentials and to set out after the strongest passion he can remember having: his youthful desire to be a rock star. Only problem is, Walter knows nothing at all about music.

The following are some of the songs I listened to ad nauseum while writing Twin, songs that informed my thinking about the characters, the story, and the language of the book as well as the humor central to its tone.

"A Higher Power," Jens Lekman
Forgive my histrionics right out of the gate, but I fear this song is perfect. It is purely narrative, never betraying its story to comment upon its larger meaning, rendering its characters and their wondrous naiveté with stupefying clarity. I know these people. I know their ocean-deep infatuation. And I know their love won't last, but is all the more beautiful because of it. Oh, and the song is fucking hysterical. The opening lines: “She said let's put a plastic bag over our heads/And then kiss and stuff ‘til we get dizzy and fall on the bed.” God damn it! I hate it that I didn't write that! How did you do that, Jens?

"All I Want To Know," The Magnetic Fields
I could have chosen upwards of thirty songs by Stephin Merritt for this list. The man's music is just bafflingly beautiful and deeply funny at the same time. This song begins with a simple question asked of someone we quickly surmise is a former love: do you still want me? Merritt proceeds to draw this question out through the zigs and zags of the protagonist's futile attempts to move on. Sifting through guilt, longing, regret, indignation, responsibility owned and deflected, he naively seeks some shred of a definitive answer. It is a gorgeously human portrait that magnifies a universal half-note in the larger pop requiem of failed love. And Merritt crafts it with complete economy. I aspire to this standard of depth, intricacy, and honesty with the inner conflicts of the characters in Twin. I hope I got anywhere close.

"I Think I'll Be A Good Ghost," Say Hi
This song's main character contemplates the potential benefits that the afterlife might afford him and how effective he might be at haunting the people he once knew. It's a humorous elevation of a self-pitying impulse of our youths. The song lays bare the tension between the emotional desire to stay petulantly young and the inevitable maturation of our minds and bodies. In a very different tenor, Walter Braum fights his way towards reluctant maturation throughout his arc in Twin.

"Love Will Tear Us Apart," as covered by Jose Gonzalez
In visual arts, covering an artist is a rote technical exercise. In literature, it's plagiarism. But music's basis in performance affords the practice of listening to another artist's work and articulating what you hear back in your own voice. Bad cover songs are karaoke. Good ones reinterpret, reinvent, and expand upon their inspirations. This cover helps me to hear the original Joy Divison song with even greater depth. This idea of deepening knowledge through understanding someone else is central to the unusual sibling relationship at the center of Twin.

"Ohio," Damien Jurado
I heard this song countless times before I really listened to it. It's almost as though it was written to do this. It is a devastatingly beautiful, quiet story, unfolding softly with each verse. Eventually we discover the song is describing the complicated dance we do in the wake of misguided love and the scars it leaves. But it is also a tale of redemption, of lessons learned. The protagonist is so sparsely rendered, but every ounce of his longing and his acceptance comes through, making us love him, respect him, admire him even. Twin involves several disintegrating and conflicted relationships. This song reminded me how important it was not to judge either side of those relationships when rendering them.

"Sleep All Summer," Crooked Fingers
Yet another portrait of an imperfect relationship, this one growing out of a love turned vestigial and a mutual disinterest in moving on. This, too, is just as universal a facet of love and companionship as is a first kiss. And the fact that Bachmann wrote the song as a duet is just fucking brilliant. It strips away any blame and illustrates a conflict that is the product of his characters' choices, even if they know better. These people crave the warmth of the familiar over the truth.

"Every Little Hair Knows Your Name," Jens Lekman
I'm going to finish this list with the same artist that started it. Jens Lekman, for me, really set the narrative standard for this book. This is another song that makes me laugh as hard as it makes me want to curl up in a ball and moan. It's just so absurdly human. A protagonist who knows he's being ridiculous but simply has no other path forward through his heartbreak. It is an acknowledgement of how limited we are as individuals, and how the grandiosity of our emotions just doesn't seem to heed this reality. To me, Jens Lekman is the Joseph Heller of contemporary music. There's no greater praise, if you ask me.

The more I contemplate these songs, the more I realize they are all complicated portraits of struggling or failed relationships. And in many ways, that is exactly what My Vanishing Twin is about: two brothers trying to figure out how to live with the unprecedented family bond that has been imposed upon them.


Tom Stern and Boy links:

the author's website
the author on Twitter


also at Largehearted Boy:

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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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