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June 25, 2018

Joe Mungo Reed's Playlist for His Novel "We Begin Our Ascent"

We Begin Our Ascent

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, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Joe Mungo Reed's novel We Begin Our Ascent is a compelling and meditative debut.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Exceptional … Reed's first novel lives squarely within Don DeLillo's sphere of influence … but Reed relies more heavily on plot than DeLillo, and the effect is remarkably successful: Alongside the ideas and the jokes, there is real suspense and human drama. … Fast and smart, funny and sad, this is an outstanding sports novel, and Reed is an author to watch."

In his own words, here is Joe Mungo Reed's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel We Begin Our Ascent:

We Begin Our Ascent tells the story of a professional cyclist, Sol, in the middle of the Tour de France. At the book’s outset, things are not going so well for Sol’s team, and the novel recounts – though an account of the race, and via flashbacks to Sol’s home life with his wife, Liz – the way in which increasingly desperate attempts by Sol, and his team to turn things around lead Sol into dubious moral territory and a questioning of the values that have driven his career.

The novel is a story of ambition which, I hope, speaks not to those interested in professional cycling but to anyone whose pursuit of a goal has lead them to places they did not expect.

Tour de France by Kraftwerk
There’s one very obvious choice here, so let’s begin with it! The aesthetic of this song reflects a key part of what drew me to write about professional cycling. Cyclists treat their bodies like machines: they obsess about how to fuel themselves, and they consider how many watts of power they can output and for how long. However, to complete a race like the Tour de France also requires an irrational romanticism. To find meaning in all the suffering of the race must necessitate an aggrandising, perhaps sentimental, perspective. The interplay between the mechanistic and the emotional is something I love about this song.

Livin ' on a Prayer by Bon Jovi
In one of the race scenes in the novel, the team leader, Rafael, sings Bon Jovi over the radio channel which each team rider receives through earpieces. I had the inspiration for this detail when I read that a real team manager, Bjarne Riis, would sometimes sing Abba songs to his riders as they raced. I chose Livin' on a Prayer because I felt it suited the fictional circumstances: Bon Jovi’s music is of Rafael’s era, and he inflicts it through the airwaves on his younger riders. It is a small example of the tendency exhibited elsewhere in the book, by which Rafael pushes his own preferences onto his team.

Exploration of Space by Cosmic Gate
I mention in the fifth chapter of my novel that the cycling team mechanics service bikes while listening to techno. From what I’ve read, being a team mechanic is a difficult job. These guys drive all day and then work all evening cleaning and preparing bikes for the next stage of the race. The energetic, slightly silly Exploration of Space is the kind of thing that I imagine Northern European bike geeks pumping out of a stereo to keep themselves energised.

Bassoon Concerto in E minor RV484: I. Allegro Poco by Antonio Vivaldi, Milan Turkovic, The English Concert

Liz, the wife of the novel’s narrator, plays the bassoon. Her mastery of this unfancied instrument is a sign of her drive toward perverse challenges. There is an intricacy and a balance to this piece that reflects Liz’s attentive, thorough personality.

An Alpine Symphony Op. 64: II. The Ascent by Richard Strauss, London Symphony Orchestra
European bicycle races tend to be decided in the mountains: this is where winners make time on their competitors and where ordinary, mid-level racers struggle to complete their day’s racing. The image of high mountains as a rarefied zone, in which essential truths are discovered and beauty comes with a tinge of dread, has a long lineage in European culture, well exemplified in Strass’ An Alpine Symphony.

I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramones
A rider’s experience of multi-stage racing is as much about inactivity as it is about physical exertion. What defines a cyclist’s success in a long tour is their ability to recover, and in service to this fact riders spend a great amount of time between stages doing very little. The song’s essential itchiness, and the refrain of “Nothin' to do, nowhere to go,” speaks to the frustration of this kind of waiting.

Hotel Song by Regina Spektor
My novel contains many scenes set in nondescript hotel rooms. This song’s mention of smoking cigarettes might not resonate with the experiences of professional cyclists. The reference to cocaine, given a few notorious cases in the sport’s history, might actually be quite apt.

Lo Vagabondo by I Nomadi
Winner of the 1998 Tour de France, Marco Pantani was a huge fan of karaoke. As Matt Rendell recounts in his excellent biography, The Death of Marco Pantani, the cyclist sung ‘Io Vagabondo’ on Italian TV. Instead of singing the first line of the song as written - “I’ll fly into the sky of life” – the nervous Pantani accidentally sang “I’ll disappear into the sky of life.” The mistake has a chilling resonance given that Pantani’s life ended tragically and all too soon. One of the riders in We Begin Our Ascent is noted to be a karaoke singer as a tiny tribute to Pantani.

Helplessness Blues by The Fleet Foxes
The desire expressed in this song – to be “a functioning part of some great machinery” – is a key facet of the personality of my narrator, Sol. Sol is a middling rider, very happy to be moving along in the middle of the pack, and to be putting his energy into assisting his team leader rather than racing for personal victory. This self-effacing quality is tested by events. The question of how collective ambitions can lead individuals into morally compromising positions is the main meditation of my novel.

Joe Mungo Reed and We Begin Our Ascent links:

Kirkus reviews
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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