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April 17, 2018

Rebekah Frumkin's Playlist for Her Novel "The Comedown"

The Comedown

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.

Rebekah Frumkin's ambitious debut novel The Comedown is an impressive account of American life across generations.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Frumkin's powerfully drawn moments present themes of race, religion, and education; addiction and mental illness; sex, love, and inheritance....Frumkin displays a real knack for creating lifelike, original characters and letting them do the talking."

In her own words, here is Rebekah Frumkin's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Comedown:

The Comedown is multi-generational, and so was the music I listened to while I wrote it. This playlist is so inspired by my characters’ preferences that it doesn’t feel like my own. I tend to approach my writing like a method actor studying for a role: if I’m going to inhabit the psyche of a baby boomer, for instance, then I’ll listen to her music, read her books, watch her TV, talk to people who knew her in an effort to understand her. Most importantly, I’ll draw upon moments of intense emotion in my own life that could possibly bring me closer to hers. Music elicits emotion in me like almost nothing else, which is good news for my “performance” on the page – if the song makes me feel happy then I’m better able to channel a character’s happiness. And that happiness changes with the variables of the character’s identity. A middle-aged, straight fisherman’s happiness is an entirely different genre from a young, queer prison abolitionist’s happiness. Picking the right song for the right emotion for the right character was one of my favorite parts of writing this novel.

“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys

Pet Sounds was an earth-shattering album, and “God Only Knows” is a harmonized prayer right in the middle of it. Writing to this song was like writing in my sleep – I was putting words on the page but in an abstracted, dreamy way, watching myself write from a distance and nodding and thinking, “Good job, Rebekah.” I listened to this song most when I was writing a character, Melinda, who takes up space in a way women aren’t supposed to, who is married to a coke-addicted egomaniac, and whose son is one of her few tethers to reality. She isn’t the picture of confidence, but she never collapses into a pile of self-loathing. She manages, despite everything, to love herself: instead of “god only knows what I’d be without you,” “god only knows where I’d be without me.”

“To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees

This is one of a handful of songs I played on repeat for hours while writing The Comedown. The Bee Gees are typically associated with a semi-nude John Travolta combing his hair in Saturday Night Fever, but they’re more than a shaggy disco band. They wrote ballads like “To Love Somebody,” which contains the powerful refrain: “You don’t know what it’s like / Baby you don’t know what it’s like / To love somebody / To love somebody / The way I love you.” Those lines almost sound like a parent talking to their child. And even though many baby boomers hated disco for its encroachment on the folk, rock, and folk-rock of the ‘60s – there was even a Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park in 1979 that turned into a riot – I think the refrain of “To Love Somebody” applies to Reggie, Natasha, and Melinda, all boomers passionately devoted to their children. Even Leland Sr. manages to collect himself enough to care about the younger of his two sons. I’ve never been a parent, but the Bee Gees helped me write about them.

“I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5

I recently watched the Goin’ Back to Indiana version of this song and felt bad for how little I cared about the other brothers: the only person onstage was Michael in his weird sunflower costume, clapping his hands and dancing with perfect rhythm. Michael, like Brian Wilson, was a massive talent with a tyrannical father-manager. “I Want You Back” has him screaming at the top of his lungs, desperately fighting for a second chance with a woman who’s abandoned him. The song should be sung by someone three times his age, but somehow he manages to fill it with enough emotion to outstrip the abilities of any adult. Reggie would have been a young man when this song topped the Billboard Hot 100 – in an earlier version of the book, this song is playing when he first meets Sunny. My editor wanted me to rewrite the scene for practical reasons, but I still kept the spirit of Michael in the book, populating it with fans of his music and child prodigies alike.

“Tell Me Something Good” by Chaka Khan and Rufus

In this song, Chaka Khan appears to have the world’s worst lover, some guy totally underserving of her. I kept listening to this funky, sexy, song over and over, trying to piece together why Chaka Khan is begging this lame dude to tell her something good. Just leave him, I’d think, you can do so much better. Still, I can’t get enough of this song – it’s a quintessential 70s track, the kind of record that would be playing while Reggie and Natasha were having sex. The wah wah of the synthy talkbox somehow calls to mind the debauchery that went on behind bedroom doors in 1974: stolen kisses and psychedelic trips and plots against unhip parents. The fact that Chaka Khan was a member of the Black Panther Party would probably still the hearts of many a white kid who was more into the civil rights thing for the drugs than the liberation of marginalized people – there were (and continue to be) many such white kids. But they don’t matter. What matters is how Chaka’s brilliance shines through in this song. Her talent for music is like Natasha’s for criticism: persistent, undeniable, and beautiful.

“Heart of Glass” by Blondie

Cocaine is basically its own character in the book, so I’ve dedicated two songs on this playlist to it. This is the first. Blondie, hanging out in Studio 54 with her band of L.L. Bean models, might as well be singing about addiction and recovery: “Once I had a love and it was divine / Soon found out I was losing my mind / It seemed like the real thing but I was so blind / Mucho mistrust, love’s gone behind.” Leland Sr. never recovers from his addiction and Lee seems to be headed into the same territory. This song helped me write their drug-fueled manias: the beat is just cheerful enough to call to mind cocaine’s quick-wittedness and self-possession but not its jagged aftereffects. That part is for the lyrics.

“Atmosphere” by Joy Division

This is a beautiful song which sounds like a funeral dirge for Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis. It was released just two months before Curtis’s suicide, and the lyrics seem to be calling him back to earth: “Don’t walk away, in silence / See the danger / Always danger.” The Comedown has characters who suffer, like Curtis did, from disturbances in their mental health: Leland Sr., Leland Jr., Caleb, Lee, Tarzan/Tweety, and Maria Timpano are some of the most notable in the book. Curtis was epileptic, prescribed a cocktail of anticonvulsants to keep his brain’s electricity in order. It’s hard not to compare him to Maria Timpano, who has a chronic brain disorder that nearly kills her and grants her a 200+ IQ. I’m not a terribly big fan of the “mentally ill genius” trope, often because it functions as an apologia for (men’s) shitty behavior, but I do think there’s something to be said for one’s disability informing one’s view of the world. Curtis would not have sang how he sang and danced how he danced without his neurodivergent brain. Neither would Maria Timpano have written how she wrote or loved how she loved.

“Just a Friend” by Biz Markie

I fell in love with the Freddie Scott track Biz samples from before I’d even heard of this song, which (the song) is boy-dorky, like if an overindulged class clown started rapping a chart-topping single. “(You) Got What I Need” is an example of R&B wizardry, and Biz’s track doesn’t deny its power. Instead, Freddie Scott’s love story becomes the irresistibly catchy refrain to Biz’s corny heartbreak. Of all the characters in the novel, this song reminds me the most of Aaron. He would have been almost 20 in 1989, the year Biz topped the charts with “Just a Friend.” And, like Biz, Skee-Lo, and others who rapped about how great it would be if they could just pull hot ladies, he would have been a “nice guy,” the kind of straight, cis man who talks about “the mysteries of the female sex” and bemoans other men’s attractiveness. At least Biz doesn’t take himself too seriously – I’m not sure the same can be said for any man in my novel.

“Debra” by Beck

This is the second of the two cocaine songs on this playlist. Although it’s a Beck-proclaimed “slow jam,” there’s something about it that reminds me of the bedraggled morning after a night of indulgence. If you had just blown lines and lines of amphetamines and were so energetic you had to walk two miles to a park, where you would then sit sweating on a bench, wide awake and underslept, watching the sun come up, this song would be playing in your head. This song would be playing in your head as you were arrested for loitering around 5:00am, as you were chatting people up in jail, as cops leered at you while you paced your cell. “I pick you up late after work / I say, ‘Girl, step inside my Hyundai’” – that is exactly the kind of thing Leland Sr. would say to a woman he was trying to court. In my mind, Leland Sr. even looks a little like Beck: a thin white dude in a wide-lapeled suit, singing about stuff that doesn’t make any sense.

“A.D.H.D.” by Kendrick Lamar

Finally, a song about the millennial drug-taking experience! “My generation sipping cough syrup like it’s water / Never no pancakes in the kitchen / Man, no wonder our lives is caught up in the daily superstition / That the world is ‘bout to end / Who gives a fuck? We never do listen.” Kendrick Lamar is brilliant without bounds, the kind of talent that makes you weak in the knees when you listen to his early stuff: the fact that he only got better after Section.80 is almost unfair to other rappers. This song almost exactly captures the drug-glazed apathy of Netta’s college years, the hedonism of Lee and Tarzan/Tweety’s adolescence. Kendrick is talking about a generation that was born into the crack epidemic and matured into DSM diagnoses like A.D.H.D. While Netta, Lee, and Tarzan/Tweety may be privileged in ways Kendrick’s subjects are not, they share a desire to get as fucked up as possible and forget about the world crumbling around them.

“Chanel” by Frank Ocean

Although many have hoisted him aloft as a queer icon, Frank Ocean has resisted categorization. Other than revealing that his first love was a member of the same gender, he hasn’t adopted any labels for himself. His music revels in ambiguity. When I think of “Chanel” I think of Tarzan/Tweety, a person who doesn’t want to be defined by their appearance or pronouns, who wants to live in that murky suspension before all the categorization and delineation that goes on in our world. “I see both sides like Chanel” refers to the interlocking Cs of the Chanel logo, as well as, perhaps, Frank’s quicksilver fluidity. He’s bisexual one minute, pansexual the next, gay another: there’s no pinning him down, hard as Gen X music critics might try. He’s no one’s symbol, and neither is Tarzan/Tweety.

Rebekah Frumkin and The Comedown links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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