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July 21, 2017

Book Notes - David Burr Gerrard "The Epiphany Machine"

The Epiphany Machine

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.

David Burr Gerrard's ambitious alternate history The Epiphany Machine is one of the year's finest books.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"This is a wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman with the rare potential to change the way readers think."


In his own words, here is David Burr Gerrard's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Epiphany Machine:



"My Body Is a Cage," Arcade Fire
Characters use the epiphany machine—a device that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users—because they feel trapped inside themselves. No song I know evokes that feeling better than this one. Except maybe the next one on this list.

"Every Single Night," Fiona Apple
The obvious Fiona Apple song here is "Extraordinary Machine," and I listened to that song many times while writing The Epiphany Machine. But the chorus of "Every Single Night"—a brilliantly elongated, twisted, and recursive enunciation of "Every single night's a fight with my brain/I just want to feel everything"—is closer to my book's heart, and tattooed on mine.

"I've Got You Under My Skin," Frank Sinatra
I can't hear this fun, obscurely mischievous song without thinking of the epiphany machine's ink working its way into a user's arm. Nothing would delight me more than if you think of the machine the next time you hear this song.

"Think for Yourself," The Beatles
In my novel's universe, John Lennon uses the epiphany machine and falls under the spell of the machine's proprietor, Adam Lyons, shortly before the composition and recording of Rubber Soul, inspiring songs such as "The Word" and "Nowhere Man." George Harrison is sufficiently annoyed with Adam Lyons's influence that he writes "Think for Yourself." Some Beatles scholars believe that, in the world drably called the "real" one, the song was written as an attack on discarded Beatles drummer Pete Best. I like my version better.

"Watching the Wheels," John Lennon
Another person who uses the machine according to my novel is Mark David Chapman, who gets a tattoo identical to Lennon's. This song, released shortly before Chapman murdered Lennon, suggests a contentment that the characters in my novel (like most people I see in the world) desperately seek but mostly find elusive.

"Superstition," Stevie Wonder
I love this song, a joyful, lighthearted rejection of superstition. I didn't make reference to it in The Epiphany Machine—I didn't, for instance, suggest Stevie Wonder wrote it to critique Adam Lyons—but now that I'm making this playlist I wish I had.

"Climbing Up the Walls," Radiohead
For much of the novel, my protagonist, Venter Lowood, is a lost, moody, grandiose high school student. When I was a lost, moody, grandiose high school student, I listened to Ok Computer a lot. I couldn't write a playlist for a novel with "machine" in the title without including at least one song from the album, and "Climbing Up the Ways" narrowly seems most appropriate. "Open up your skull/I'll be there"

"Frontier Psychiatrist," The Avalanches
A crucial section of The Epiphany Machine takes place at Columbia University in the weeks after 9/11, as Venter stews in his dorm room and makes a momentous, terrible decision. Though thankfully I didn't make any decision as terrible as Venter's, I too stewed in my Columbia dorm in the weeks after 9/11, for much of that time listening to this strange collage of a song on repeat. "Frontier Psychiatrist" has an oddball humor, an oddball menace, and an oddball beauty, and I hope The Epiphany Machine has all three of those things.

"Things Have Changed," Bob Dylan
I fell in love with this melancholy yet bouncy song while simultaneously falling in love with the film version of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, which uses it to great effect. That film, which I saw in college, epitomized for me the glamor I expected to find in a literary life. (It would also certainly do the same for Venter.) I was very naïve, but things have changed. Or have they? That "things have changed" is a phrase that should always be regarded with suspicion is a major theme of this song, and of The Epiphany Machine.

"Needle in the Hay," Elliott Smith
Another dark and lovely song that I fell in love with in college. No playlist for a novel about a tattoo machine would be complete without a song with "needle" in the title, and this is my favorite.

"Epiphany," Stephen Sondheim
In this song from Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd's epiphany is that "We all deserve to die," and, further, that he can hasten those deserved deaths by slaughtering customers unlucky enough to take a seat in his barber's chair. The fates of those who sit for an epiphany tattoo are not quite so grisly, at least not immediately, nor are the epiphanies for the most part quite so bleak, but the image of Sweeney and his chair was much on my mind when I was writing this novel.

"You Want It Darker," Leonard Cohen
I finished reviewing final copyedits for The Epiphany Machine on the morning of November 8th, fresh from voting for Hillary Clinton. The atmosphere at my polling place in Queens had been cheery and upbeat, and I thought that perhaps The Epiphany Machine was too dark, that America wasn't quite as bleak as I had portrayed it. By the end of the night I was much more confident in my novel and much less confident in the future. Leonard Cohen died that week, and I've barely stopped listening to this deeply terrifying, perversely hopeful song since.

"Cut to the Feeling," Carly Rae Jepsen
Here's another, rather different song I've been listening to recently. I conclude with it because, the world being darker than anyone could possibly want it, I want to end with an unambiguously upbeat note, and also because the title doubles as the best writing advice I can think of. Cut to the feeling.


David Burr Gerrard and The Epiphany Machine links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

The Brooklyn Rail review
Kirkus review
Open Letters Monthly review
Publishers Weekly review

Paste profile of 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)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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