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February 16, 2018

Book Notes - Ryan McIlvain "The Radicals"

The Radicals

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 Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ryan McIlvain's second novel The Radicals is both timely and fascinating.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The author of Elders (2013) serves up another story of true belief and its discontents, this time set in the time of failing banks, rising inequality, and the Occupy movement…Memorable…A welcome return that will leave readers looking forward to future work from McIlvain."

In his own words, here is Ryan McIlvain's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Radicals:

Two Scenes from The Radicals, with musical accompaniment!

Who was it that said writing about music is like dancing about architecture? (I've investigated the oft-quoted line, and it turns out its provenance is murky.) I've always admired the quote, its cleverness anyway, and resented it at the same time—its scoffing agnosticism, how it puts up fences and NO TRESPASSING signs in the backyards of the various media.

I'm content to be a trespasser myself, thinking this morning about the music that coursed through my head and my L.A. apartment as I wrote my latest novel, The Radicals. And not just the pieces and songs that inspired the prose but the music that made its way deep into the rhythms and images of the prose, since music matters very deeply to several characters in this book, and since I reject the idea that writing about music, or architecture for that matter, or dancing, or any other artistic medium, is some sort of travesty. A translation? Sure. Changed, bent, refracted through the changing lens of text? Of course—but what's wrong with that?

This territoriality isn't limited to musicians, I should point out—"The meaning of a poem is another poem," said the critic Harold Bloom, in a gorgeous line. Perhaps the most apt, fluent language to speak to art in is the language of that art: music to music, dancing to dancing, poetry to poetry. Yet who would suggest—certainly not Bloom—that writing about poetry in prose is a waste of time?

Climbing down from my little soapbox, and quickly moving to—

Scene One: Aimee Bender's office at the University of Southern California

Books and papers everywhere, art on the walls, rugs overlaying the industrial blue carpet and lending a certain softness to the room. It's the kind of shabby-chic decor that shows how vibrant and loose, how dynamic and un-desiccated an artist-professor's life can be. I'm talking to Aimee, blathering on, my natural state, when somehow Mahler comes up.

"I've been listening to his Kindertotenlieder," I say. "Songs on the Death of Children."

"Jesus," Aimee says—or something like that, some honest oath at the startling heaviness of the subject.

Or maybe she's taken aback by the weird smile on my face—"All one word," I add, "because, you know, German."

It's part of Mahler's courage, I'll later decide, that he managed to experiment and play without ever taking off the mantle of his seriousness. Not everything reduced to a quippy one-liner for the man, or for Aimee either, as it too often did for me. This was late 2013, early 2014 or thereabouts—and Mahler became a kind of ballast against my own light tendencies, my squeamishness with frank emotion in the post-Gawker moment. When one of the characters in my novel, Professor Karen Hahn, mentions a student recital to her TA and sometimes protégé, Eli Lentz, it's no accident that she recommends the Mahler in particular. I see now that some of the calm openness of Aimee's demeanor—and more than that: her writing, her teaching—found its way into my book.

Later that night Eli turns up at the recital venue, an underused church in Greenwich Village with a smattering of the performer's friends and family in the pews, a few gray-haired locals—it's music as secular sacrament. The Mahler pieces on the program are from another set of his lieder or songs, and the showstopper is "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"—"I Am Lost to the World."

I first heard this piece in a scaled-down piano interpretation, with the unparalleled, sinuous-voiced Lorraine Hunt Lieberson bringing the song to life. I don't think I'd ever heard Hunt Lieberson sing before, but in 2009—

Scene Two: Sharon Gould's apartment living room in Millburn, New Jersey

—my new girlfriend puts her on the CD player and an almost shockingly beautiful voice rises out of the depths of the piano's bass notes, the notes muddled and a little muddy at first, with the mezzo soprano's voice like something flowering, something pushing up through the earth. I should mention it's dark in the room and the mood romantic—music as a very different kind of sacrament. A few years later Sharon and I will marry, and along the way we'll trot out old favorites for each other like Fiona Apple's "I Know," Led Zeppelin's "Going to California," Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"—and of course it's no accident that these songs made it into the novel too.

Tonight it's about the Mahler, though, and that quietly shocking sincerity in the notes, and in Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's breath of life. It's the perfect soundtrack to fall in love to.

I did, and Eli will as well, with the gifted musician whose recital he's turned up to on a kind of whim, or maybe on one of the universe's earnest errands.

Ryan McIlvain and The Radicals links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Elders
Signature essay by the author
Tampa Bay Times interview with the author
Vanity Fair 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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