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November 6, 2017

Book Notes - Becky Mandelbaum "Bad Kansas"

Bad Kansas

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.

Awarded the 2016 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, Becky Mandelbaum's collection Bad Kansas is impressively rooted in its sense of place.

Pam Houston wrote of the book:

"With heart and precision, and a fresh and resilient humor, Bad Kansas reveals the lives people are living in that flyover state in a collection in which every sentence is a made thing, never merely a vehicle for conveying information to the reader. Mandelbaum’s sharp eye for detail, a deep emotional intelligence, and a slightly canted―yet ultimately compassionate―worldview combine to produce complex, authentic, empathic characters, reminiscent of two of the greatest place-based collections ever: Richard Ford’s Rock Springs and Annie Proulx’s Close Range."

In her own words, here is Becky Mandelbaum's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Bad Kansas:

I've always envied musicians. For one, there's no mode of seduction more efficient than song except, perhaps, for dance. Once, while working a seasonal gig in Grand Teton National Park, I fell head-over-heels for a guy who was completely wrong for me but who once sang a song about Arkansas that nearly made me faint. And yet, aside from an awkward stint with the clarinet when I was in middle school, I've always preferred the pen to instruments. Still, I think in every writer there exists the dream of music, the desire to straight-shoot a feeling into someone's heart without the clunky, unromantic business of grammar and syntax. If my writing can make someone feel even a fraction of the emotional frisson that a really killer song can make someone feel, then I consider it a victory.

For this playlist, I've selected a song for eight of the eleven stories in Bad Kansas. Some selections are more literal than others, but all of them boil down to the kernel of feeling that either inspired the story or exists somewhere within it—a feeling the story is working toward. That being said, picking some of these songs was a bit like choosing perfume for a friend—the process transpired on a level more pheromonal than cognitive.

Kansas Boys
"Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd

"Free Bird" is what the story's central character, Deschutes, sings at his best friend's funeral, but it also resonates with the kind of lifestyle the characters are after—one in which they are unencumbered by the emotional burden of love. I wrote the first draft of this story after college, when my boyfriend at the time left Kansas to join the Montana Conservation Corps. In the wake of his absence, I was devastated, but there was something else to the devastation, an additional flavor I couldn't identify. It took me awhile to realize the flavor was jealousy—I wanted to be the one to leave, to go work in the mountains instead of hanging around Kansas, heartbroken and pining. I was jealous of the kind of cavalier attitude that allows someone to cut ties in the name of adventure, of freedom. On its surface, "Freebird" is a song about freedom, but it's also about stubbornness, about the kind of you-can't-change-me-I'm-just-a-rolling-stone kind of egotism the characters in this story exact on one another in the name of "freedom."

The Golden State
"The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

This story, which is autobiographical in an emotional sense, was inspired by the homesickness I felt after moving to California. I missed Kansas with an intensity I'd never felt for it while living there—I wanted to claw my way back, eat the soil, stand outside in its thunderstorms and let the lightning rattle me. Although not about Kansas, this song has always captured the melody of homesickness and nostalgia. I never meant to let go of the hand/ that's been clinging by its thick country skin/ to my yellow county teeth.

A Million and One Marthas
"So Rich So Pretty" by Mickey Avalon

I imagine this story's central character, Laney, listening to "So Rich So Pretty" in her bedroom, while she's trying on her sexy new swimsuit. When I was in middle school, I was, for a brief moment, allowed into the circle of popular girls. I remember riding in a silver Mercedes convertible that likely cost more than all the cars I'll ever own combined will cost, and having the driver, a girl we'll call Hannah, blast this song on the stereo. This was on Wichita's east side, driving past strip malls and fast food joints—we likely looked insane, a bunch of thirteen-year-old girls in heavy eyeliner, blasting terrible music, some of us still in braces. And yet, in the moment, I felt like the coolest person on earth. There's arguably nothing more quintessentially adolescent than imagining you're a celebrity sexpot when in reality you're a dopey-looking teenybopper driving around Wichita, Kansas in somebody else's father's luxury vehicle. A Million and One Marthas is all about that feeling—the joyful, ephemeral vanity of teenage naïveté.

Go On, Eat Your Heart Out
"Elastic Heart" by Sia

I was going through a Sia phase when I wrote this story. During grad school, some writer friends and I had a tradition of watching Dance Moms, a reality TV show in which, essentially, a group of pre-teen dancers are emotionally and verbally abused by an overbearing coach named Abby Lee Miller who, as it turns out, recently went to prison for fraud. The show's star dancer, Mackenzie, features in this song's music video, where she and Shia LaBouf scramble around a human-sized bird cage in a way that is uncomfortably pedophilic but is meant, I think, to suggest some kind of Freudian struggle with the self. In the way that memory and music ultimately meld, "Elastic Heart" now reminds me of Go On, Eat Your Heart Out, and vice versa. I like to believe this story's main character has a heart that's more elastic than she thinks—she's stronger than she knows and, for me, that's the story's raison d'etre. Not that she's moved on from her ex, but that she's learning to embrace the things that make her happy—food being one of those things—and, at the very least, recognize the things that don't.

Night of Indulgences
"Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes

I had to put this song somewhere, because it mentions Wichita, which is something few songs do. More than that, Jack White manages to make Wichita sound cool, which approximately zero other songs do. Ben desperately wants Wichita to be cool, so he can feel that his life means something. What he hasn't yet learned is that place has nothing to do with meaning in the way he thinks it does—he'll be just as lost on the east coast, if not more.

Thousand-Dollar Decoy
"Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria" by Townes van Zandt

There's a scene in Thousand-Dollar Decoy in which the story's main character, Elliot, sits at home in his new apartment, waiting for his girlfriend to return. He unpacks all of her belongings and proceeds to steep in them, in the memory of her. To me, this song sounds like memory itself—like the default soundtrack that clicks on if you let your brain loose to daydream during a heartbreak.

Queen of England
"The Swimming Song" by Loudon Wainwright III

For me, this song has always sounded like the victory of growing up, of learning kindness. It shimmers and quakes in the way memories from early adolescence seem to shimmer and quake, their surfaces disturbed by a combination of hunger and hormones and frustration and, most importantly, joy. Everything is big and emotional and the end of the world. The brothers in Queen of England embody this frustration and hunger—they both want power but are too young to have it. In the end, I think the narrator finds his power in compassion.

Bald Bear
"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" by Bob Dylan

A friend of mine once told me this was the saddest song he knew. There's something especially devastating about the ambivalence Bob Dylan injects into this song—clearly, he's still in love, but is trying to convince us, as well as his lover, that he's moved on. For me, the saddest part of Bald Bear is when Jackson asks the narrator why she's trying so hard to force feelings between them when they both know it won't work out—he's trying to convince her to give up. Everyone's been in that position, where they're clinging to a love they know isn't real so they can enjoy the illusion of love for a little while longer. This song contains more anger and hurt feelings than Jackson has for the narrator in Bald Bear, but the sentiment still feels spot-on. There ain't no use turning on your light, babe. I'm on the other side of the road.

Becky Mandelbaum and Bad Kansas links:

the author's website

Seattle Book Mama review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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