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November 30, 2017

Book Notes - Joseph Keckler "Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World"

Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World

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.

Joseph Keckler's first book Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World is an impressive collection of essays and stories.

Wayne Koestenbaum wrote of the book:

"Joseph Keckler is a captivating raconteur, with a delicious ability to transform scenes of dread into comedic triumph. His deadpan delivery contrasts brilliantly with his virtuoso appetite for moody glissandi and hectic staccati. I marvel at the social incongruities--the faux pas, the accidental couplings, the identity slippages--that he narratively dishes out as if they were artisanal pizzas, seasoned with a hilarity and drama that add up to box office boffo."

In his own words, here is Joseph Keckler 's Book Notes music playlist for his book Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World:

My new book of humorous essays and stories is filled with portraits of outré characters I've known and been--often people who want to be somewhere or someone beyond where and who they are. As far as I can tell, the book is mostly about the persistence of desire. The title refers to ancient cartography, where dragons were drawn at the edge of mapped territory. In one essay I refer to the life one wants as being nearly unimaginable, "the dragon at the edge of a flat world." This means that the way you wish to live is located on the outside of what's been mapped, lurking dangerously at the outskirts of possibility. But it is 3-dimensional and alive, a creature and a fire.

Here are some songs that are in the book, literally or in spirit. Some intersections.

"Breaking Glass" by David Bowie

Sometimes a song is so brief that a new world springs out of it. You might wish the song were longer, but you can just play it again and again.

I listened to this one over and over again the first day I had my driver's license. The opening guitar riffs gave me some self-aware sense of sleaze and a true feeling of freedom as I lurched around my small town in the beaten up old station wagon I'd borrowed from my mom. I was moving through familiar landscapes but I suddenly existed in a new form-- not pedestrian nor passenger, but driver!

I'd been transfixed by David Bowie for a while, fascinated by the way he built shape-shifting into his identity and therefore had been able to continuously change—and, more shockingly, was permitted by the culture to do so-- decade after decade. I was particularly taken with"Breaking Glass," now the soundtrack to my own transformation, as I became the captain of this silver boat on wheels. The lyrics are made up of just a few, somewhat disconnected statements, several of which seem to be about vandalizing someone else's bedroom.

Breaking glass is a gesture of release, and released is how I felt.

“Shave Em Dry" by Lucille Bogan

I included this song in one of the stories in the book,"Sounds and Unsounds of the City." As its name implies, that story is about all the noises going on inside and outside my apartment-- a preacher sermonizing under the floor, a train rattling by out the window-- as well as different versions of sanity/insanity and systems of belief swirling around inside and just outside the building. Anyway, at one point my character and his friend are listening to this goody, one of my favorites.

“Shave Em Dry" is a 1930s blues classic celebrated for dispensing with mere sexual innuendo in favor of vivid, X-rated similes, at one point mapping a church onto genitalia. I had to get permission to quote the song, so Turtle Point Press sent a wonderful email to the copyright holder. "I am writing to request permission to reprint the following lyrics: Your balls hang down like a big bell clapper and your dick stands up like a steeple. Your goddamn asshole stands open like a church door and crabs walks in like people!"

I remember hearing the song first as a teenager and being somehow stunned that people used "dirty language" in any sort of distant past. Sadly, they did not teach Petronius at my high school. So this singer of sex, Lucille Bogan, seemed more real to me, in a way, than other early blues musicians. And I suddenly understood that everyone has always been a regular old lustful, puerile human.

At one point in the song Lucille can't help herself and she breaks into laugher. Then she whoops and just keeps going. And that's a take they used. An eruption of laughter is not a blooper; it's a burst of reality!

“Fiji Mermaid" by Joseph Keckler (arr. John Moran)

I wrote and recorded this song a while back and then wrote a story around it for this book. Despite being largely autobiographical, the book suffers from occasional fits of surrealism-- and this is one of only a couple more fictional pieces in there. The Fiji Mermaid is a grotesque siren, made of monkey and fish parts sewn together, a sideshow hoax come to life. She's a different sort of creature at the edge, and this is her beckoning, her weird siren song (though she'd sing it differently.) I claim to have met her in Brooklyn.

“…. a desolate intersection that felt to me like The Crossroads, though perhaps not a crossroads where you could make a deal with the devil. More like a crossroads where you've made an appointment with the devil but he stands you up. There is a McDonald's there, with a pagoda. It is the McDonald's at the edge of the world." – "Fiji Mermaid" in Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World

“Crossroads" by Tracy Chapman

My mother always listened to Tracy Chapman when I was little. My impression was that my mother mainly, or only, listened to Tracy Chapman.

And her songs are filled with stories of escape, sacrifice; quests of the soul, problems of money and possibilities of freedom. Then as a teenager I borrowed these albums of my mother's and listened to them as I drove home from work, drowsily thinking of my own future.

Years later, I performed a part of "Cat Lady," a piece about my mother (which is in the book) in San Francisco. Afterwards I was in the dressing room and Penny Arcade tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Joseph, this is Tracy Chapman. She wants to meet you." I thought Penny was making a joke at first, about a woman who resembled Tracy Chapman. But she was the real one. She told me how she liked my work and wanted to keep track of me. What world had I slipped into where Tracy Chapman was watching me perform?

Recently I (re?) discovered her song"Crossroads," which is about saving one's soul in a culture where you are constantly being sold to, and being bought. A socially critical twist on the blues tradition of crossroads songs, it's hypnotic and addictive, melancholy but with an appealing groove. It's the kind of song I'll play over and over, until it becomes smoke that has filled the room.

“Vecchia Zimarra" ("Old Coat") by Puccini, sung by Ezio Pinza

Another expansive fragment, somehow perfect in its brevity, an aria from La Boheme: this lament appears in the book, following a possible interaction with a ghost, and in the midst of a good friend and mentor, Sheila, telling me she's moving away after struggling too hard and too long in New York.

In La Boheme it's the aria Colline, the philosopher, sings to his coat before selling it in order to buy medicine for his dying friend Mimi. The moment takes place late in the opera, after the youthful hijinks of Acts I and II are long gone. Though the aria is just a passing moment in the show, it's weighted; it's written in the manner of a funeral march and the final notes of the opera quote it musically. As Sheila reminds me in the chapter, Colline is really saying goodbye not only to his coat but to his friend, his youth, lost hopes and ideals, and an entire way of life. He is shedding a skin.

Nos esprits libres et contents (“Our Minds Are Free and Content") by Antoine Boësset, performed by Le Poème Harmonique

I just love the sound of this 1609 gem. In fact, I'm so obsessed I'm going to make a feature film just so this can be its theme song. I was listening to it a lot this year, during the final stages of revision and editing and so on.

So could it be part of my list? I've investigated and, lo and behold, the lyrics seem to be all about the nature of desire.

The singers chant about dancing through the woods and allowing innocent pleasures to banish other desires (less innocent, one imagines.) They brag of dodging Eros through their constant movement, though near the end of the song, they admit, "finally he enters our eyes."

Joseph Keckler and Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World links:

the author's website

Lambda Literary review
Publishers Weekly review

WYBC interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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