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March 19, 2018

Book Notes - Jaroslav Kalfar "Spaceman of Bohemia"

Spaceman of Bohemia

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.

Jaroslav Kalfar's novel Spaceman of Bohemia is a moving and often hilarious debut.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"A frenetically imaginative first effort, booming with vitality and originality . . . Kalfar's voice is distinct enough to leave tread marks."

In his own words, here is Jaroslav Kalfar's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Spaceman of Bohemia:

Allow me to preface by saying that my taste in music is pure chaos. When I was a child, I refused to listen to music because it reminded me of my parents’ divorce. I didn’t really start actively listening to anything on my own until I was about thirteen. But don’t pity me just yet. Because I don’t understand music, it is the one thing in my life that I’m able to enjoy with absolute innocent pleasure. There are no stakes. I enjoy a song simply based on whether its sound and lyrics make me feel things, I have no tools or means of analyzing the “quality” of it. When music snobs scoff, I smile back in pleasant naiveté.

I spend about fifty percent of my writing time in silence – when I am actively working on a text, I prefer not to have anything but my own words and rhythms in my head. But the other half of my writing time is when ideas are born, when I’m resolving issues, when I’m figuring out what kind of decision a character makes, how to introduce a new place, how to map out a character’s sensory experience of a particular situation. That’s where music becomes important. It can get my mind exactly to the place where it needs to be, be it upbeat, sorrowful, a war cry, a soothing whisper. The below songs are some of my favorite atmosphere setters, tools of getting myself into the kind of idea trans I need to be in. While writing Spaceman of Bohemia, I much relied on synth pop and the kinds of dreamy epic songs Bowie or M83 have made. But Spaceman is not only a book about Space, it is about loneliness, lost love, trying to understand the loss of something greater than ourselves, and so my music selection during the writing process went far beyond Space, and some of the songs are as grounded and earthly as can be.

Space Oddity by David Bowie
What to say about the classic everyone loves? The song for the strange, the misfits, the adventurous, the undecided, the curious, explorers of both Space and human heart. This song has inspired and continues to inspire scores of artists, and I doubt Spaceman of Bohemia would be the book it is if its author hadn’t heard those longing guitar riffs echoing from outer Space, telling the story of one Major Tom’s lonely mission.

Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher) by Gogol Bordello
The immigrant’s battle song, this insane Roma punk thumper makes me feel invincible and determined in whatever I’m doing. It’s a declaration of immigrants against the hypocrisies of the nations receiving them, a strike against poverty and oppression and bureaucratic systems which dehumanize those in need. It scoffs at the notion of the “good immigrant” – that only those who are brilliant and likely to work in wealth-centered industries are worthy of receiving a shot at a better life elsewhere. Provocative, exciting, and uncompromising, the song gets me in the fighting mood.

Bridge of Khazad-dûm by Howard Shore
The Lord of the Rings shaped my love for books, and of course I adore the movies, too. I’ve been writing to this film score since I was a teenager, and some of the songs still remain on my go-to list for inspiration, Khazad-dûm being the one I play most frequently. The combination of the epic Fellowship theme, deep drums and choral voices that announce the impending doom in form of the Balrog, and the continuous rises and falls in the composition get the blood pumping and fingers moving on the keyboard.

Many Moons by Janelle Monáe
What if a song could have the feel of a brilliant dystopian novel? The beat is catchy as hell, and makes one feel as if walking through an overpopulated city of the future, plotting a revolution. The lyrics speak of oppression, particularly the racial oppression that characterizes America, but its reach feels universal. A song as powerful and relevant as can be, and don’t get me started on the brilliant sci-fi music video accompanying it.

Leave No Trace by Chvrches
I go crazy for Lauren Mayberry’s vocals. Her talent is unreal. The meaning of the song itself is standard indie fare of escaping a bad situation with dignity, but the combination of the band’s fine songwriting, Mayberry’s intoxicating charm, and the strange alien tone of the song makes it a staple for me. To a certain degree, I consider it to be the theme song of Lenka, the heroine of Spaceman of Bohemia.

A Real Hero by College & Electric Youth
Synth pop excites me because the moodiness reminds me of the nuances in battles between good and evil in fiction. This song combines the sweet vocals and naiveté of the lyrics with something sinister lurking beneath, a perfect accompaniment to a movie which is essentially a fairy tale casting the knight in shining armor as a homicidal sociopath in love. The context of the song is fascinating, as it was originally written as a tribute for Captain Sully, the pilot who’d saved his passengers by landing on the Hudson River. The lyrics suggest a hero in a dystopian world who saves lives by holding on to his humanity, and as such offers multiple interpretations for the listener – a sonnet to celebrate a hero, or a contemplation of the hero myth, or, in context of the movie Drive, questioning of whether a true hero even exists. Great questions for writers of fiction.

Thinkin Bout You by Frank Ocean
I came to know Frank Ocean’s work quite late (another side effect of not knowing anything about music is that I don’t always manage to keep up with the breakthrough talent), but as soon as I heard it, I thought of this song in some ways as the earthly cousin of Space Oddity. It’s soaked with the same bittersweet melancholy, recalls things past that cannot be recovered, expresses longing for things that may not have been real in the first place. It was easy to imagine a protagonist trapped in Space to listen to such a song in his darker moments, not to wallow but to reflect.

We Own the Sky by M83
If you asked the roommates I lived with when I wrote Spaceman, they would confirm that I had this band’s dreamy cosmic electropop playing on loop. M83’s songs are at once epic, melancholic, eager to explore another plane of existence that sure must be better and more wondrous that what we know of life on Earth. We Own the Sky captures childlike curiosity about worlds beyond our own while delivering a dark message about the destructive nature of humanity. What we make, what we seek, we destroy, the song asserts, but the act of human creation is fueled by beautiful curiosity, perhaps the one redemptive quality of our species. A song written for the explorers of the cosmos.

Jaroslav Kalfar and Spaceman of Bohemia links:

the author's website

Guardian review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Guardian profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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