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March 1, 2018

Book Notes - Peter Stenson "Thirty-Seven"


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.

Peter Stenson's novel Thirty-Seven is dark, immersive, and thought-provoking.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A book that manages to break your heart, make you dizzy, and punch you in the gut all at once. You will be hard-pressed to find a novel as dark or intense in any bookstore."

In his own words, here is Peter Stenson's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Thirty-Seven:

I remember once learning in some high school class that smell is the most memory-evoking sense. Sure, the olfactory connects to the hippocampus and the limbic system—autumn leaves smell like happiness and Victoria's Secret smells like seventh grade embarrassment and Newports smell like dope—but for me, the memories summoned from smell are 8-bit versions of past experiences. They pale in comparison to the memories evoked from music.

It's an odd experience creating a playlist for my new novel, Thirty-Seven. In listening to songs pivotal to its creation, I'm struck with the memories of writing certain sections (sitting in my Subaru in twenty degrees hammering out a few pages before work, lonely coffee shop nights after getting the kids to sleep), the actions of my characters (perched on top of a granite boulder whispering into the cavern of a cult leader's ear), and my own past experiences with each song (driving to go see Maze Runner and getting sidetracked by floodlights and ending up at a rave and dancing next to a girl who asked if she could press her forehead to mine and stare into the whites of my eyes). In this way, music breaks down time. Music rips apart distinctions between self and fictional characters. Music not only allows, but forces, me to experience all of these memories at once.

It is precisely these destructive and transformative traits of music's relationship to memory that shape the characters in Thirty-Seven. They are all broken in the ways that the world breaks. They seek understanding and companionship and truth and love with the drastic and imperfect tools at their disposals. They violently attempt to rid themselves of past memories through the forging of new ones. This, of course, is a fool's errand; addition does not have the effect of subtraction. We are little more than the learned maladaptations from our memories. The experience of listening to music proves this truth, day after day, four bars at a time.

"Blue Moon Revisited (A Song for Elvis)" by The Cowboy Junkies
Dancing in vacant barrooms. Solitary actions of the everyday. A summer dress brushing against a clavicle. Effeminately pretty boys trying not to hurt. Love, like that real intoxicating us-against-them-with-zero-hope-but-you're-by-my-side-and-I-want-to-live-in-the-space-between-your-gums-and-lips type of love. This song was my everything while writing Thirty-Seven. Ninety percent of the novel was written to these four-and-a-half minutes. While Margo Timmins' vocals aren't quiet as haunting as Elvis's, she brings a certain sensuality, a sexualized despair, that is the very cornerstone of the novel.

"Lady" by Chromatics
That steady momentum of routine hinting at progress. The ordinary slowed. A camera panning a couple sitting on a mattress with knees touching and eyes interlocked and tension building, decisions being weighed against consequences, the unsaid question of are you enough? "Lady" played a large role in the creation of Talley. She, like all characters in the novel, is searching. She clamors for something different, for maturity, for connection, love, meaning, and this song with its multiple rhythms and hypnotic vocals personifies these desires.

"Suicidal Thoughts" by The Notorious B.I.G.
Invisible mist only existing when the high beams of passing cars splash across you. Downcast heads, hands in pockets, hoods up, aware. The steeling of sadness into the projection of strength. Biggie's opening two stanzas have always spoken to me (I haven't traditionally had the cheeriest of dispositions), and in turn, they speak to the narrator of Thirty-Seven. This song is full of a hurt hardened over a loose two-four snare. This sentiment—how to persevere when you're close to hopelessness—is a central conflict for everyone in the novel. They seek release. They crave meaning. They want rules and structure and punishment and family and a reason not to give up.

"Oh! Sweet Nothin'" by The Velvet Underground
Trudging the fuck out of existence while trying to find beauty. Motel fathers feeding their weekend-visiting children KFC. The game of accidental touches in the cramped high school dark room. A stranger's wave from the top of his steering wheel, a finger-and-a-half, inclusion. Doug Yule's lead vocals are soulful and imperfect and vulnerable. They are devastating. This song has always brought to mind a doomed romance, one where the seeds of destruction are shared character flaws, which really helped while writing the sections of Thirty-Seven between Mason and Talley.

"See the Sea (Red)" by Vitalic
Industry. Plumes of heat from dancing bodies. A sweaty strand of hair plastered across a girl's flushed face. The intensity of isolation in a room full of people. Dancing hard with closed eyes, trying to think of your night as an act of celebration rather than erasure. This song was a big part of the final third of the Thirty-Seven, starting with the rave, and moving forward. It's methodical and dark and plotting and ominous, but somehow, hopeful, which is exactly the state of mind Talley and Mason find themselves in during the final seventy pages of the narrative.

"Eriatarka" by The Mars Volta
Screaming into your windshield as you bash your hands against the unpadded steering wheel. The jarring florescence of ER hallways. Masturbation in locked, single-person restrooms. The embarrassment of armpit stains. Waves crashing over a toddler's utopian masterpiece. "Eriatarka" has a sort of wall-of-sound dissonance that was crucial to writing Mason's psyche throughout the final fifty pages of the novel. The song is fractured and grating with its time signature changes, perfectly mirroring what the narrator undergoes as the two story arcs become one.

"Creep (Live in Boston)" by Brandi Carlile
That magical moment when dope still provides more benefits than consequences. A seven-year-old boy understanding the lipstick he stole from his mother is something to be ashamed of. Twirling beneath the tendrils of a Weeping Willow, protection rather than entombment. The allure of self-pity. Every raised voice reminiscent of your father. On the one hand, it feels blasphemous to list a cover of Radiohead instead of the real thing (same is true with Elvis), but for the atmosphere of Thirty-Seven, the female vocals seemed more authentic. Carlile is such a talented vocalist; her gritty voice is Talley's soul, or, more specifically, the honesty that Talley seeks through the destruction of her life.

"Love You All" by Cloud Cult
Perfectly blended wool sweaters that cause no irritation. Watching your sleeping partner as a single sliver of sunlight makes its way up his chest, across his neck, chin, nose, and then his eye, which blinks and then opens, flutters, sees you, smiles. A child sitting in the backseat of a station wagon pretending to sleep as he listens to his parents whisper about the exotic world of adult responsibilities. Light. Warmth. DMT. Reprieve. The rough texture of a jean jacket scrapping against your chin as you hug and hug and hug, pulling tighter, please never let go. "Love You All" is the final song on Cloud Cult's Feel Good Ghosts. The album is a haunting meditation on grief, as Craig Minowa, the lead singer and songwriter, attempts to cope with the death of his two-year-old son. The album builds up to this song, which is simplistic and beautiful, the only lyrics being, "I love my mother/I love my father/When it's my time to go/I need you to know/I love you all." The song captures that ever-elusive emotion of sorrowful joy. This is the same emotion that the Survivors attempt to experience. And they get so very close.

Peter Stenson and Thirty-Seven links:

Kirkus review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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