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February 28, 2018

Book Notes - Scott O'Connor "A Perfect Universe"

A Perfect Universe

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.

Scott O'Connor's collection A Perfect Universe brims with fully drawn and relatable characters.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Each fast-moving story presents a vivid sense of a California beyond the bright lights of Hollywood… Fans of Jennifer Egan will enjoy O’Connor’s depiction of angst and ennui in capitalist California."

In his own words, here is Scott O'Connor's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection A Perfect Universe:

A Perfect Universe: Ten Stories/Ten Songs

“Waking Light” – Beck

A Perfect Universe begins with “Hold On,” a story about a struggling musician trapped for three days in the ruins of a collapsed office tower. While writing this story, I often thought about what would keep him going under there, through the pain and fear. A voice calling out for him in the darkness, maybe, or the smallest glimpse of sunrise through cracks in the wreckage--the slimmest promise of hope. “When the morning comes to meet you/Lay me down in waking light” Beck sings here, and it sounds like that kind of promise.

“Lazy Eye” - Silversun Pickups

“It Was Over So Quickly, Doug” is a kind of theater-in-the-round: three alternating voices recounting an average morning that’s blasted apart by a sudden act of violence. Silversun Pickups perfectly capture that discomfiting aspect of LA’s personality—how a tranquil, sun-drowsed moment can turn to utter chaos in a heartbeat.

“Spunky (Live)” – Eels

At first glance, the main characters of the stories “Jane’s Wife” and “Golden State” seem worlds apart. Liz is a blocked writer whose wife just walked out on her; Claire is a teenage outcast who has moved to the west coast with his mom to start a new life (yet again). So much separates them—gender, age, 30 years in storytelling time. But one of the magical things about story collections is that the various characters begin to connect across the pages—sometimes literally, sometimes thematically, sometimes emotionally. The last case is true for these two, both lost within the bewildering turns their lives have taken, feeling like strangers in this strange landscape.

Mark Oliver Everett (‘E’ of Eels) is one of LA’s poets of this kind of disconnected discontent. Honest, unflinching, filled at times with a wonderfully defiant optimism—to me his music sounds like these two characters. They’ll never meet, but if they did they’d have so much to share.

“The Unquestioned Answer” - Laurie Spiegel

“Interstellar Space” is one of the book’s stories that revolve around a fictional sci-fi film from the 1970s—its creation, failed release, and surprising, enduring legacy. If I were able to commission a soundtrack for the film, Laurie Spiegel would be at the top of my list. An electronic music pioneer, her work is technical and soulful, full of both promise and threat. It seems to bloom, fractal-like, from a single opening note, connecting and expanding and connecting again. Whenever I imagined a scene from the movie, Speigel’s music was usually in my head, helping bring it to life.

“Everybody Knows” – Concrete Blonde

“In the Red” is a story that feels like it requires a Leonard Cohen song playing in the background—maybe in one of those bleak, everyday places you sometimes hear Cohen songs, like the frozen food aisle in a supermarket or while waiting on hold—and it somehow feels completely right, like it was made for you to listen to, right here.

I think Cohen’s songs are so widely interpreted both because of the man’s songwriting genius and the way in which his original versions leave some much generous space in the room, square-footage to fill with our own slants and stories. I love Cohen’s version of this song, with its rushing, spy-movie-soundtrack feel, but I’m partial to Concrete Blonde’s cover, which manages to enhance the original’s dark axiomatic proclamations with a kind of sneering triumphalism. For some, the deck is indeed stacked--the fix is in from the beginning. You didn’t know? Everybody knows.

“Let’s Do it Again” - The Staple Singers

“Flicker” is a love story with a broken heart. It’s about desire and shame, fame and secrecy, a golden moment at the sea, a life cut short. It’s also an example of the complicated feelings writers have for their characters—how real they can sometimes seem. Though I created the tragedy in the story, when I think about this piece I prefer to remember the time just before the fall, with these two characters spending their last days together in a rented beach house, maybe dancing to this song, turning and swaying, coming together and apart, room to room.

(Side note: The song was written by Curtis Mayfield, but feels like it emerged fully-formed from Mavis Staples’ bedroom growl. Due to their mastery of Gospel music, it’s easy to forget how effortlessly sexy the Staple Singers could be.)

“08 Ghosts I” – Nine Inch Nails

“Soldiers” follows Frankie, a battered kid who’s in danger of becoming just like his abusive father. When he meets three seemingly privileged siblings from the right side of the tracks, they spend an afternoon together on a play-acted military mission, slaying dragons real and imagined. This track (like Frankie, like his mission) is a slowly-waking machine, a buzz saw coming to life: current begins to flow in the wires; pistons start to turn; the blade, finally, spins.

“We’ve Been Had” The Walkmen

“The Plagiarist” is about (obvious spoiler) a writer whose whole life is revealed to be a fraud to everyone but him. But what is art and what is theft? Who gets to decide? And what are you left with when all of your lies have been taken away?

Bruised, shambling, pissed-off, more than slightly inebriated, this song is the sound of a man desperately clinging to his last fistfuls of dignity and meaning.

“Baby, I Love You” - The Ronettes

Like most kids of my generation, I first heard Ronnie Spector as the spectral voice haunting Eddie Money’s near-perfect (perfect?) 1987 anthem “Take Me Home Tonight.” It would be a few years before I’d hear Spector’s own music and learn her story, which quickly becomes a Los Angeles archetype, the kind of film noir/true crime mash-up the city likes to spit up every now and again. Ronnie’s work with the Ronettes—along with that of Martha and the Vandellas—was the inspiration for the 60s girl group I created for the story “Colnago Super.” But here’s the original, with Ronnie’s voice and all of its attitude and power and heart. Even Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound couldn’t drown her out.

“Queens of Noise” - The Runaways

“Colnago Super” is the story of Ellie, a teenage bicycle thief on the hunt to find a kidnapped boy. Much of the story follows Ellie on her bikes—searching, running—skirting the edges of the LA river’s concrete culvert, slaloming through the canyons, sprinting across the industrial plateau of the San Fernando Valley. There were no Walkmans in 1976, so Ellie wouldn’t cruise the city in headphones (her preferred medium would be easy-to-steal 45s), but I’m sure she’d always have a song in her head as she rode, the faster the better.

Scott O'Connor and A Perfect Universe links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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