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July 18, 2017

Book Notes - Brian Platzer "Bed-Stuy Is Burning"

Bed-Stuy Is Burning

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.

Brian Platzer's debut novel Bed-Stuy Is Burning is an impressive literary pageturner.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The city is burning indeed in New Yorker contributor Platzer's debut novel, sometimes with fire and sometimes with much-compounded shame… Expertly paced, eminently readable, and a promising start."

In his own words, here is Brian Platzer's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Bed-Stuy Is Burning:

I wrote Bed-Stuy Is Burning about a fictional race riot in modern day Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I starting thinking about this novel seven years ago, when my wife and I moved to Bed-Stuy. I'm an 8th grade English teacher, and on my way to work, I started seeing kids not much older than my students, lined up in handcuffs against the subway grate. I could see the anger, not only in the kids, themselves, but in the police who were stuck playing an authoritarian role that made some of them visibly uncomfortable, and in the impotence so many of us commuters felt as we watched this spectacle of public embarrassment.

So I began to imagine what life would be like if tensions were ratcheted up. I researched race riots, methods of policing, my neighborhood's history, and gentrification, and I spent hundreds of hours talking with my neighbors to hear their stories. I also listened to a lot of music, mostly singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan who try to get to what people are really thinking and feeling, and hip hop artist/storytellers from Bed-Stuy, like Jay-Z, Mos Def, and The Notorious BIG. Here are the songs I listened to most while writing:

"Hearts and Bones" (Paul Simon)

Paul Simon's voice can be simultaneously tender and cynical, which lets one of the best love songs ever written be a break-up song. I turned to "Hearts and Bones" repeatedly while writing in an attempt to capture the tension between hope and a sense of inevitable loss. Simon returns three times to the line "The arc of a love affair": the first time following it with "Rainbows in the high desert air"; the second time with "His hands rolling down her hair"; and the third time with "Waiting to be restored," establishing the cycle from optimism to regret. When he sings, "[She said] Tell me why, why won't you love me for who I am where I am. He said: 'Cause that's not the way the world is baby. This is how I love you, baby. This is how I love you,'" he illustrates his relationship with Carrie Fisher in all its complexity. She loves him. And he loves her, just not how she wants to be loved.

"The Vampires" (Paul Simon)

Simon's musical, "The Capeman," has been unfairly maligned. "Adios Hermanos" is one of his most moving songs, and the cast album is filled with thrilling moments. Still, I listened to "The Vampires" primarily as an example of what to avoid. I'm a white straight man who, in my novel, writes from many perspectives, one of which is that of a black lesbian teenager. In her voice, I wanted to avoid the cringe-worthy, novel-ruining moments that can occur when writers impersonate someone—especially members of often ill-treated minority groups—in a way that forefronts the writer, himself. In "The Vampires" from Simon's album "Songs from The Capeman," Simon sings in character as a Puerto Rican teenager telling a story about his friend who is insulted. Simon, in the voice of one Puerto Rican teenager, does an impression of a second Puerto Rican teenager doing an impression of an old Irish woman. Simon sings, "Fucking Puerto Rican dope-dealing punk—get your shit-brown ass out of here." It's a moment that encapsulates everything I wanted to steer clear of. The forced slang, the cursing, the venom—though possibly written or co-written by Derrick Walcott—is ridiculous when sung by Simon. In the show, when Renoly Santiago sang the same lines, they were funny and wry. But when Simon voiced the character, they were absurd. Every time I wrote from characters appreciably different from myself, I did my best to foreground the importance of giving them their own voice as opposed to inserting my tics, morals, word-choice, and vision of the world.

"Bam Bam" (Sister Nancy)

I hear this song coming out of cars and in through my Bed-Stuy windows a few times per week. My two- and four-year-olds dance every time. We've started playing it each morning during breakfast, and they dance while eating their yogurts.

"Bananaphone" (Raffi)

The other song we listen to every morning over breakfast. It's funny! Catchy!

"It's a real live mama and papa phone

A brother and sister and a dogaphone

A grandpa phone and a grandma phone too!"

"Grandma phone" sounds like gramophone! What a pun! Raffi is great.

"Callin' Out" (Lyrics Born)

The combination of Lyrics Born's speed when he's rapping and the crescendo of his verses' transition to the hook is thrilling. But what makes this track stand out is a method that I think of as setting and then exceeding expectations. The first few verses are short, compact—but in the final verse, the rhymes keep coming. It starts:

"Fought them like a lion in the Colosseum,
And you can positive ID 'em I'm in the mausoleum

You think I'll ever hang it up hoh body stop dreaming

You think I'll ever stop oh baby now you're reaching

I won't stop till I feel my lungs stop breathing

I won't stop till I feel my heart stop beating"

The listener expects the hook will arrive here, as it does earlier. Instead, he continues with faster flow and denser rhymes:

"I won't stop speaking this week and next week

And all false teeth, seeing eye dog

Stop seeing fire freezing, ice heat and fire palms reading

All bad fall free and clear from the mountain top screaming BABY"

I tried to do something similar in my novel: establish expectations and then break them. I like to make a reader think she knows where a scene will end, and then I like to push it further, go deeper, provide more. Vampire Weekend uses the same technique in "Horchata." The first few verses reach a tight conclusion, but the third keeps going, beginning with the same first line "In December drinking horchata," but surging beyond the expected length into a swelling of more aggressive rhyme. Both songs create ecstatic, sublime moments that I try to approach in my own work.

"It'll Be Better" (Francis and the Lights)

Francis doesn't believe it'll be better. You can hear it in his voice. He says it over and over again, but he doesn't believe it. He's too relaxed. Too withdrawn.

When he sings,

"I swear to God that if you come back to me

It'll be better

It'll be great"

he's neither lying nor telling the truth. He's sad, but doing okay. He wants her back but doesn't know what to say. This is the mode of many of the lovers and parents in my novel. They want it to get better. They want to end violence. They're good people trying their hardest. But they don't know how.

Just like this song, they ask

"What's it gonna be

What's it gonna be

What's it gonna take"

in a way that demonstrates their desire to improve conditions between the powerful and the disenfranchised, between gentrifiers and long term residents, between parents and children…but they don't know how. Still, they don't give up.

"Je pense a toi" (Amadou & Miriam)

I listen to Amadou & Miriam while I write. My French isn't good enough to be distracted by the lyrics, but the propulsive beat pushes the sentences forward.

"Love Minus Zero Over No Limit" (Bob Dylan)

Just the best. All the versions are good, but the MTV unplugged performance is transcendent.

Brian Platzer and Bed-Stuy Is Burning links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Wall Street Journal review

Salon interview with the author

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)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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