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March 9, 2018

Book Notes - Matt Young "Eat the Apple"

Eat the Apple

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.

Matt Young's memoir-in-essays Eat the Apple is inventive, poignant, and entertaining.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Young matches his stylistic daring with raw honesty, humor, and pathos . . . Young writes from a grunt's perspective that has changed little since Roman legionnaires yawned through night watch on Hadrian's Wall: endless tedium interrupted by moments of terror and hilarity, all under a strict regime of blind obedience and foolish machismo."

In his own words, here is Matt Young's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Eat the Apple:

“I Was a Teenage Werewolf” by The Cramps

This song frames the mindset I was in before I joined the Marine Corps and I think fits well with “Choose Your Own Adventure,” which acts as a kind of preface to the book. I was that “Midwest monster”—or I wanted to be at least. I wanted to be tough and scary and crude because I thought that’s how men were supposed to be. The crusty garage rockabilly soundscape of the song and the unapologetic, indulgent comparison of a murderous mythological beast to a pubescent boy is A-plus—silly and appropriate. Teenage years generally aren’t as bad as we remember them (there are exceptions of course), but when we’re living those moments we can’t see the end, and we can’t possibly know that things are going to get better. So we feel untethered and alone and make drastic decisions, of which I’m guilty, and, on which the Marine Corps capitalized. The moment in the song that feels a bit chilling, and maybe inches toward the heart of the conflict in the book is the sentiment “No one could make me stop.” It’s a line about unchecked male power and rage and the inability of reason to stand up to it.

“I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges

Marines have indoctrination down to a science. They don’t excise your identity and replace it—that part of your past-self is still there—they beat it dormant and overlay this intense sense of history and importance and purpose onto it like a lead blanket. Early on for me as a Marine there was nothing but the Marines. I wanted every piece of it. I wanted to prove myself to other Marines. I wanted the approval of my drill instructors, infantry instructors, and sergeants. I try to get at that desire in essays like “Living in the Third Person,” and “Seeking a Higher Power” among others. I bought in fully I was a dyed in the wool devotee calling cadence, screaming repetition, pushing myself to failure. It was addiction. It was fanaticism. It was dehumanization. I mistook those things for love and lost my former self fully. Iggy gets it.

“Portions for Foxes” by Rilo Kiley

“Love Story” is told from the perspective of my ex-fiancée. It’s a bridge between training and my first deployment, and as a story feels very separate from the other narrative arcs happening at that moment in the book. Anyway, it’s different enough in style in tone that it needs it’s own song, I think. Enter, Rilo Kiley and her song about a toxic relationship. The ex arc was difficult to write. I think a good portion of my other behavior can be explained away as a reaction to trauma to some extent, and maybe could even be forgiven (though that might be hopeful). I took years from my ex and treated her horribly. During the second revision of the book it was something my agent kept bringing up. “You’ve got to write that,” he said. I’d written this first piece but hadn’t revisited it at all and he thought touching on the relationship in a few places would round out the book, add depth, help ground readers in time. He was right. I’m happy I wrote it, but for it to be effective I couldn’t pull punches and that led to some difficult realizations about who I am/was as a person and a man.

“Inertiatic ESP” by The Mars Volta

War is confusing and dark and funny and tragic and broken and freezing and painful and it soaks your clothes through with sweat and blood and makes you feel powerful and worthless and it is boring and exciting and hallucinatory and it feels like being in love and jamming your thumbs into your worst enemies eyeballs and it is degrading and debasing and disgusting and it feels like slipping away from yourself into someone else and you don’t recognize any of these things until time passes because people tell you there’s no time to feel anything because feeling is weakness and weakness is death. Starting with the story “Deserter,” when I write about leaving for war, I wanted readers to feel completely overwhelmed and helpless until I returned after “Hashim Ibrahim Awad.” “Inertiatic ESP” is the second track on The Mars Volta’s Deloused in the Comatorium, a story in album form about a man who overdoses and slips into a coma. This song comes at the moment when the protagonist of the album drops into that coma and wakes in a dark nightmare. Whenever someone asks me what war is like I think of this song. It opens violently and never really ends and just bleeds into the next movement.

“We’rewolf” by Every Time I Die

And then I was back in the States after eight months in Iraq. I was broken in ways I couldn’t articulate I just started self-medicating. I drank, I did drugs, I went to strip clubs, I cheated on my fiancée, I lied to my family, I started bar fights, I self-harmed, I was confused, I was suicidal. In stories like “Meeting the Mortar God,” “Future Perfect,” “Down the Rabbit Hole,” and “All of the Above” I just want to feel something. “We’rewolf” is a mirror directed toward that opening moment in the book of being a confused teenager, but it’s a funhouse mirror image that’s taken that angst of feeling like an outsider and distorted it, made it something monstrous and damaged. The song is a ridiculous, beer-soaked, manned-up satire, but for the year I was home between my first and second deployments it accurately represents how I spent my time.

“Crockpot” by Slothrust

Within that year span of being home I found out our battalion was slated to return to Iraq. In “Dominoes Tolls the Bell” I write about how we were supposed to deploy to Okinawa, Japan but our new battalion commander gave up our spot as he’d not yet been to war. There was a lot of anger at first. We felt betrayed and expendable and thrown to the wolves. But then we felt relief—I felt relief at least. Iraq was familiar. We were going to deploy to the same city, similar areas of operation. I dropped into that familiarity. “Crockpot” is about being stuck in the boring domestication of a relationship (that fucking title!) and feeling trapped by that thing, addicted to the dependability of that thing. It’s about fear of the unknown and being disgusted with yourself for choosing the easy and comfortable and familiar. In “Packing Level: Expert” I write about that banality and use the form of the packing list to show how not just preparing for war, but addiction, excess, and depravity began to feel normal and routine. The Marines made IEDs, firefights, sleep deprivation, raids, detainees, interrogations our new normal. In “Junkie” I show how we needed that normalcy and how we’d go searching for it.

“Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith

When I returned from my second eight months in Iraq I had a year left on my contract. Those of us who hadn’t reenlisted and didn’t have time for another work up or deployment were put to work beautifying the camp. It was humiliating and shitty and lonely and boring. I worried constantly about what I would do when I left the Marines. I missed carrying a gun, feeling powerful. I felt so overwhelmed by my family’s questions about coming home and my fiancée’s love that I volunteered to go back to Iraq a third time three months after I returned from my second deployment to avoid them. For those three months I went back on my bullshit. I drank, I cheated, I hurt people, I hurt myself, I went internal and didn’t talk about any of it, or I lied and made excuses about all of it. I didn’t tell my family I volunteered. Instead, I told them the deployment was mandatory. I strung them along in the fictions I created and used them for emotional comfort and put them in a position where they felt like they couldn’t question the decisions I was making because I’d leveraged going to war as some kind of get out jail free card. They had to sit back and watch it all or risk me torching the bridge separating us. In “Needle in the Hay,” we’re mostly in the perspective of a helpless partner watching their lover drop down a deep, dark hole of addiction. For moments that span stories like “How to Throw a Drunken Punch,” “Cause and Effect,” and “The Wizard” the comparison feels apt.

“Mr. November” by The National

I’d be shunned from the Midwest forever if I didn’t include a song by The National. “Mr. November” is regret and nostalgia and delusion and comeback and empty promises, which are all pretty much in line thematically with everything happening during the second half of the last section of the book—mostly during my third deployment to Iraq. When I volunteered to deploy that third time I told myself it would be a fresh start. I had grand plans to start over (“Third Time’s the Charm”), and remake myself (“Chewing the Fat”). I would be a good person, try and get my shit straight (“Trajectory”), but I ultimately ended up a coward. When someone says, “I won’t fuck us over,” you can pretty much bet you’re about to get fucked over. I do a lot of fucking over at this point in the book.

“Strange Mercy” by St. Vincent

When I was finally home for good the people I’d gone to war three different times with were ending their active service, just like me. They were heading home or to new units. They had families and obligations and plans and I just felt empty and weak and disappointed in myself. I thought I’d ruined all my relationships back home and that I was leaving an identity behind and I didn’t think anything was waiting for me beyond the gates of Camp Pendleton. I couldn’t see myself ever feeling good about who I’d been and what I’d done over the previous four years. I browbeat myself, fell into old bad habits, and needed to talk to a therapist. “Strange Mercy” isn’t a particularly long song, but the ethereal synth-instrumental bridges make it feel long, and they lead to moments of grace. It’s a song about a small human instant and defending and holding onto something fiercely. It’s mournful and delicate, but there’s fury and steadfastness and strength underneath. It’s kind of a chuck on the chin to my past self who I lay into pretty hard in “Soapbox.”

“Two-Headed Boy” by Neutral Milk Hotel

I end the book with “A Real Boy,” and with myself in literal free-fall, an acknowledgement that whatever I do I’ll never be separate from the Marine identity I created and that I’ll be working through the incurred trauma forever to some extent. Whenever I sing this song it is in the car and I scream it at full volume along with Mangum’s uninhibited semi-off key exclamation, usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed by life. “Two-Headed Boy” is about the grotesquerie of feeling like you’re sharing a body but also about letting that body feel joy and learning to make space in that body and realizing that emotions and feeling aren’t always convenient. It’s about the struggle of two things trying to exist together as one. And that, like, it’s okay to struggle. And everyone else around you is falling too.

Matt Young and Eat the Apple links:

the author's website

Fresh Air review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review

New York Times Book Review podcast interview with the author
Writer's Bone interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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