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March 15, 2018

Book Notes - Curtis White "Lacking Character"

Lacking Character

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.

Curtis White's postmodern gem of a novel, Lacking Character, is clever, absurd, and marvelously entertaining.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Endlessly inventive and endlessly imitative... [Lacking Character] bills itself equally as a bomb tossed into the bunker of literary convention; an algorithm endlessly replicating the capitalist apocalypse; a picaresque through which White's mad characters tilt at real giants disguised as miniature-golf windmills. The result is a profane wrestling match between high style and low comedy which owes as much to Rocky and Bullwinkle as it does to Gauguin's Vision After the Sermon"


In his own words, here is Curtis White's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Lacking Character:



I admit it. I’ve written some grim books. Fiction and non-fiction. Depression, alcoholism, TV, science zealots, robots. Lots of bad stuff. But not in this one, not in Lacking Character.

Lacking Character is my happy child. My Ode to Joy.

Honestly, all of my books, even the grimmest, have been comic. They’ve been satires, and there are satiric elements in Lacking Character. But mostly it's a book about the great Romantic Ethic of Play emerging from a tradition begun by Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, Byron’s Don Juan, and Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.

The problem with creating a playlist for such a book is that most of the music I like is in a minor key. If I were a composer, my major key would be minor. It’s like with the Renaissance composer John Dowland: “Semper Dowland semper dolens”: John Dowland is always sad, a little bit sad. Even when he was dancing a galliard, it had to be a “melancholy galliard.”

For me, that’s true even with pop music. For example, my favorite early John Lennon song is “I’ll Cry Instead.” It’s a rocker, a Carl Perkins rocker, but the song begins in a key harshly minor, as if there were a key called Bitter Minor, accompanied by dark lyrics: “I’ve got every reason on earth to be mad,” right out of the “angry young men” scene in working class London in the 1950s. Surely, people danced to it, but while they were dancing they must have been wondering, at some level, “better hide all the girls…?” A little frightening.

Anyway, that’s my dominant taste, but it doesn’t quite fit the mood of this book. Which is a comedy, a playful comedy. Sort of. Mostly.

So what I’ll provide here is a soundtrack, ambient music, perhaps, something in keeping with the prevailing mood of manic invention that dominates a book that, in the end, wants to dance.

In chronological order but otherwise all over the place:

Mozart, Divertimento in D major k 136

Let’s start with Mozart because, how could we not? For me this is the quintessential Mozart of laughter, joy, and unbounded energy. I could tell you about it but it would be like trying to tell a stranger ‘bout Mozart’s Divertimento in D major k 136. (That’s a Lovin’ Spoonful joke.)

Berlioz, Symphony Fantastique, Second Movement (1830)

A waltz, a waltz to end all waltzes, crescendoing for seven minutes, leaving us breathless, and really, really glad to be alive, in spite of it all.

Thelonius Monk and Art Blakey, “In Walked Bud” (1958)

So gloriously deranged! Monk’s dissonant percussive punctuation, Blakey’s eccentric rim shots, What? What is happening here? Such a privilege to be human and to hear this shit!

Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, “Minglewood Blues,” (Garden of Joy, 1968)

On Garden of Joy a bunch of New York roots musicians go all California and hippy-like, led by Geoff and Maria Muldaur. You know the Grateful Dead’s version of this song, but Geoff Muldaur’s possessed vocal takes it to a whole ‘nuther level…of spontaneity and joy! This music should be remembered, but I fear that it’s not. Help me with this, will you?

Steely Dan, “Boddhisatva,” (Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)

As you might know, there wasn’t a lot of ecstasy in Steely Dan’s brilliantly morose catalogue. This is the exception. No gloomy lyrics, just “take me by the hand and show me the sparkle of your China.”

In closing, an ‘80s Medley: David Bowie, “Let’s Dance,” Black Uhuru, “Party in Session,” Nina Hagen, “Universal Radio,” Ian Drury and the Blockheads, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” and Tom Waits, “Swordfishtombone.”

“Came home from the war with a party in his head.” That about says it.

This playlist may seem a little dated. Nothing post 1990? I thought about it and concluded that popular music since the Pixies (or the Indy scene where my ears tend to loiter) has been “kinda blue.” Which, as I indicated earlier, only makes me like it more. But Father John Misty? Bjork? Neutral Milk Hotel? Swans? Radiohead? Sufjan Stevens? All gorgeously grim.

But I will add one encore from of Montreal’s Early Four Track Recordings. Each song begins with “Dustin Hoffman…Needs a Bath, Gets a Bath, Thinks About Eating Soup” etc. All in the most gloriously surreal tradition of garage band joy.

It’s my pleasure.


Curtis White and Lacking Character links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Barbaric Heart


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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