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August 14, 2018

Julian Gough's Playlist for His Novel "Connect"


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.

Julian Gough's novel Connect is propulsive and ambitious, one of the most thought-provoking books of the year.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Connect imagines a world of systems within systems in which the alteration of a few human cells could have far-reaching and astounding effects on the universe. Recommended for those who enjoy near-future speculation coupled with an engaging and effective exploration of a fractured family."

In his own words, here is Julian Gough's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Connect:

I’m a word guy, so I tend to fall in love with songs for their lyrics. And I also like songs with dramatic or surprising structures – the arrival of the crazy-loud strings, halfway through Julie Cruise’s "Falling in Love"; the wild, wonderful, unsettling way Mary Margaret O’Hara sings "Body’s In Trouble". But, to my sorrow, I can’t listen to anything with lyrics, or anything dramatic, when I’m writing. Yet I do like to listen to something, if only to mask the passing trains, car horns, and random shouts of Berlin street life. So the stuff I listen to when I’m actually writing is very different to the stuff I listen to for pleasure. Unobtrusive modern classical stuff by people like Arvo Pärt; Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (though that gets waaaaay too emotionally overwhelming towards the end). Side two of Low by David Bowie (the first album I ever bought; still endlessly new, endlessly good). Sometimes the low-fat version: Philip Glass’s Low Symphony. Or, above all…

Brian Eno, Music for Airports. This is the album I listened to again and again and again and again and again while writing Connect. It’s the album I listen to while writing everything. Except, of course, I don’t actually listen to it any more… Which is the whole point of Music for Airports. It was the first ambient album; the first album deliberately designed to exist in the background, at any volume, not drawing attention to itself. And after all these years, I don’t even hear it, it’s just a sound that subliminally tells me I’m at work. Very occasionally I’ll realise it’s on, and pay attention for a few moments, and, startled, realise: it’s a really beautiful piece of music.

I love the origin story of this album, this genre: Brain Eno had been hit by a taxi, and was in bed with a broken leg, recovering. He asked a visiting friend, just as she was leaving, to put on an album of harpsichord music for him. But she’d accidentally put it on at the wrong volume, far too low, and Eno could hardly hear it. He couldn’t get out of bed to change the volume, and so he had to listen to it in this unfamiliar way: the harpsichord music mingling on equal terms with the sound of the rain on the window and the wind in the leaves of the trees outside. And it gave him an idea for a new kind of music…

And so I still tend to think of Eno’s ambient music as music for people trapped, with a broken leg, unable to move. Which feels right, when I’m writing a book; as the day goes on, my feet get bored of sitting flat to the floor; my legs rebel, sick of the dark space under the desk, and they lift, writhe, and knot themselves into pretzels under me as I sit there in the chair, the chair, the chair, the chair, the chair, THE CHAIR in which I will be trapped for the next couple of years, inventing a world.

Sitting in front of a bright, clean screen for years (as my life, ignored, got messier), writing a novel about a boy who would rather live in a bright, clean virtual world than the living moment of this messy real world, got weirdly meta. Writing about alienation can get a little alienating. Working on a computer, writing a story about computers and how they change us.

And so, in the last couple of years of writing Connect, I fell in love with a whole other world of music, that exists outside of technology, a tradition that’s far older than Western civilisation; the singing and music of the Aka people, the Baka, the Mbuti, and the other peoples that the Greeks, two thousand years ago, called “pygmies”. (An aside: These culturally gifted but politically powerless people, by the way, are currently being raped, enslaved and murdered with impunity, particularly in the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That is a whole other story, but do google them, and their appalling situation, and if you can lean on a politician to do something about it, please do so.)

There are “official” albums of such music and singing, albums like Music for the Buma Dance, recorded in Cameroon, with drums, with everybody singing call and response, and all the kids singing harmonies. (That’s a Baka album.) There are formal albums of hunting songs available, too, powerful and structured. They’re great; but I prefer the more casual singing you hear in random clips of everyday Aka and Baka life posted on Youtube. It’s the opposite of Brian Eno, and yet it also the place Brian Eno is trying to get to. It’s music that is totally holistic, music you can’t unpeel from its place; in the opening moments, you might hear a bird sing. Then a woman, looking up casually from weaving, or cooking, will sing notes that feel like a response to the bird; another woman will join in. A man in the distance will join them. And all the time, you can also hear the sounds of the birds and animals to which the people are responding. And the birds, the animals, respond in turn to the human singing. Some go quiet; some change their call. Everything alive is a singer, everyone joins in. Singing isn’t separated out from life.

It’s a deep privilege to be allowed listen in on these moments. They’re a reminder that music used to be something we all made, not just something we consumed. Those moments exist still in the delightful and decadent west, they’re just hard to find. But they’re worth seeking out. Hell, they’re worth joining in. If you know nothing about music, that’s OK. Learn by doing. Start simple. Buy a harmonica; all the notes are in the same key, so you can’t play a bad note. Go for a walk with the harmonica in your mouth, and you’ll make music as you move, just breathing. Change the shape of your mouth, it’ll change the tone of the notes. Don’t tense up and “try to play”: relax, and mess about with it. Don’t think about tunes, notes, rules. Just move the harmonica around your mouth as you move. Learn to breathe music. Yes, people will laugh at you. So what.

I lived for years in Galway, in the west of Ireland, where music is also a living tradition, where there are still some places where a musical session (or “sessiún,” pronounced sesh-oon, in Irish) can break out at any time, with musicians turning up and joining in and leaving as they feel moved to. Here’s a tip, if you’re ever in Ireland: Upstairs in the Crane Bar, on Sea Road, has the best sessiún in Galway, but be respectful: you’re not in the audience at a gig, you are inside a living, unfolding moment that is not for your pleasure, that is just about itself. You have become part of it by turning up. Be present. Pay attention. And yes, join in, if you can, and if they give you the nod. You are not a spectator. You’ll hear tunes a thousand years old, and songs that are recent, but that sounded timeless the day they were written. Songs like "Raglan Road," a poem by Patrick Kavanagh (a fine Irish poet, perpetually penniless, who spent much of his life sleeping on friends’ sofas), set to music by Luke Kelly the year the Beatles released Revolver.

For years, I lived in a flat just a few hundred yards from The Crane; an ever-changing, international bunch of broke, scruffy, cheerful, traditional musicians lived in the flat above me. When I was in bed, I could hear, directly above my head, a foot tapping on their floor, my ceiling, keeping time in a never ending sessiún. I would drift off to sleep at midnight with the foot tapping away, and, more distantly, the sound of the uilleann pipes, a tin whistle, a fiddle, a balalaika. I’d wake for a moment at 4am, and the tap tap tap, the whistle, the drone, dreamily continued.

Years before that, thought, as a kid growing up in Tipperary, in rural Ireland, I grew up in a very different musical tradition: post-punk. And so, at 15, I decided I was going to be a pop star in my twenties, and a novelist in my thirties. In the end, my weird, underground, literary band, Toasted Heretic, released four albums, and had a top ten hit in Ireland.

So my first decade of writing was spent on the lyrics to pop songs. It has, I think, fed into the way I write novels. I write words to be heard through the air: the voice is conversational. (You can tell Henry James never fronted a post-punk outfit.) And I love a sentence with a bit of snap and crackle. As a result, Connect is full of epigraphs (they form a kind of book-within-a-book); mostly male voices, talking our world of technology into being. Sometimes they argue with each other, form a kind of call-and-response, like the three epigraphs introducing Section Eight:

‘There must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.” — Aristotle

‘Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted.’ — Bertrand Russell

‘Everybody knows that Aristotelian two-value logic is fucked.’ — Philip K. Dick

And sometimes the epigraphs are lines from songs, that illustrate the themes of the book. And sometimes they are just nods to artists that I love. I threw in a couple of mentions of Silver Jews, because American Water is one of my favourite albums, and because not enough people have heard it. (Main man David Berman’s book of poetry, Actual Air, is pretty great, too: go get that.) Stephen Malkmus and half of Pavement back Berman, and play a simple, harsh, American music, as Berman sings: so cracked and broken. You can hear his despair, his stage fright, his credit card debt. You can fit so much life, so much pain, into a three minute song.

Songs, songs, songs… Yes, sometimes, living now, in Berlin, I just want to listen to a song. Not the Aka. Not traditional Irish music. Not ambient. Something produced. Arranged. Recorded in a studio. And so, when I’m not writing… when I escape the chair, I go back to old favourites, and new ones, obsessively. Here’s a handful…

Tracey Thorn Oh, The Divorces!. The family at the heart of Connect has fallen apart before the book begins. But a family, like a war, never really ends. The cascade of consequences goes on for years after it’s officially over. And so the book is, in some ways, custody battle as apocalypse: As Colt’s parents struggle for his soul, Las Vegas ends up burning; collateral damage.

My own first marriage fell apart over the course of writing the book, so that’s all in there, somewhere. And, sensitised to the subject, I fell hard for Tracey Thorn’s “Oh! The Divorces”, from her 2010 album, Love And Its Opposite. It’s very English, very understated, very beautiful. “The afternoon handovers by the swings…” Thorn just gets better and better. Her new album, Record, might be her best. (Go check it out.)

Gil Scott Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott Heron’s smart 1970 deconstruction of mass media, of how TV culture masks reality in America, feels so brutally up to date right now. (Not surprising it popped up in Black Panther.) The technology has changed (swap “internet” for “TV”, and “algorithmic social media manipulation” for “advertising”), but the dynamics are the same.

Turtles All The Way Down, by Sturgill Simpson. This is insanely great. Gorgeous, lyrically wild, in the great psychedelic country tradition of Jimmy Webb (who wrote "The Highwayman," and "Wichita Lineman.") When country singers do magic mushrooms, wonderful things happen. That sense that it’s all connected, that there’s a greater meaning behind the chaos of our lives, and that no God is required for this: that the astonishing glory of this dynamic, self-assembling universe with its 1,000,000,000,000 galaxies, each containing 1,000,000,000,000 stars, is entirely enough, if you can see it clean. Connect is an attempt, over 500 pages, to see the universe, and our place in it, clean. But Sturgill Simpson does it in three minutes.

Nick Cave, generally. With and without the Bad Seeds. There are a lot of Nick Cave songs in the book. (Colt’s father, Ryan, likes Nick Cave.) And Sasha, the young hacker who upends Colt’s world, wears a black T-shirt with “Bad Seed” on it. That T-shirt actually belongs to the woman Connect is dedicated to, Solana Joy, who was upending my world (in a good way) around the time I wrote those scenes. (Reader, I married her.)

Kate Bush, Cloudbusting. Her amazing take on the life of Wilhelm Reich, whose lifetime of research was burned by the FBI… A song written from the point of view of a boy, whose parent is a scientist, whose research gets them into a lot of trouble with the government… So yes, "Cloudbusting" totally ties in with the themes of the book. But mainly it’s a song that makes me cry.

Anyway, all the above, in their various ways, fed into Connect. I can’t simplify the book here, or sum it up: it took me seven years to write because I was trying to do everything I’m capable of doing, in layer after layer after layer. Trying to do all the things my favourite music does, all at once. Thrill you; amuse you; console you; blow your mind. And so, if you’ve made it this far, I’ll ask you one small favour, directly, even though I know we are supposed to play it cool: go into your local bookstore (or if you don’t have one nearby, go click on Look Inside on Amazon), read the first five pages of Connect, and see if I wrote it for you. I tried to. I hope I did.

Julian Gough and Connect links:

the author's website

Guardian review

Irish Times profile of the author
Unbound Worlds interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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