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August 28, 2018

Matthew Klam's Playlist for His Novel "Who Is Rich?"

Who Is Rich?

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.

Matthew Klam's novel Who Is Rich? is a smart and incredibly funny debut.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"With a perceptive eye and biting humor, [Rich] skewers the participants at the conference, 'an open-air looney bin,' including his own students and fellow faculty members. Rich may be a mildly depressed neurotic in the midst of a lengthy midlife crisis, but Klam ensures that he is also a profound, often-hilarious commentator on marriage, child rearing, and artistic endeavors."

In his own words, here is Matthew Klam's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Who Is Rich?:

Reviewers described my narrator, Rich Fischer, as 'foolish,' 'impulsive,' 'hilarious,' 'sarcastic,' 'bitter,' 'wondrous,' 'sad,' 'libidinous,' and -- my favorite -- 'casually suicidal.' And while he may be many things, I tend to think him as one: a terrific lover. He's in love with love, or the idea of it, and nearly blows it all after falling for a woman who, like him, is lost in her marriage, with small children, and interrupted sleep.

Every year Fischer leaves his family at home to teach a class on cartooning at an annual week-long summer arts conference. The location, a New England fishing village with blockbuster beach days and narrow, cobblestone streets, generates feeling, memories, instant nostalgia. It increases this falling-in-love tendency. The conference is its own separate locus of energy; it attracts teenagers who take their poetry seriously, old guys with a melanoma, part-time landscape painters, theater types, all led by a faculty of important novelists, unknown biographers, sculptors, addicts, drunkards, and perverts. For the week that the conference takes place, it's a little like summer camp for grown ups, and a little like an open air loony bin.

Fischer is a graphic novelist who now makes a living as an illustrator for magazines. He and his wife Robin are basically broke. Amy O’Donnell is a student in narrative painting, a philanthropist, mother of three, married to a nasty billionaire who runs an investment fund. Rich and Amy met at the conference a year ago, had a one night fling, then spent the winter obsessed, texting at all hours, seeing each other twice, briefly, before all communication ended. The novel takes place a year after their first meeting, back at the annual shindig.

Some of these are summer songs. My favorite summer songs include many not listed below: every song on Argybargy by Squeeze, Carly Simon's early stuff, and The Sundays' first album, to name a few. But the playlist here is made of intense, whispery, achey love songs.

Some of these songs precede the story, but not the impulse behind the story. When I'm writing a piece of fiction, I overestimate the props I'll need, in hopes that those things foment and push me into new territory. As I work, I pull down from a cloud of ideas whatever might fit. Some of these songs were in that cloud when I started writing.

'A Case Of You,' Joni Mitchell

"Just before our love got lost you said, 'I am as constant as the Northern Star...." The opening phrase, about obsession and the inevitable letdown, I can relate to that. I love the James Blake cover from 2011, but there are literally hundreds of covers of this song, and at least a dozen notable ones, including one by Prince where he scrambled the lyrics. Mitchell was said to have written the song about Graham Nash, who she lived with for years. "I drew a map of Canada, with your face sketched in it twice..." The song is sweetness, heartache, pain.

'Lady of the Island,' Crosby, Stills & Nash

"Holding you close, undisturbed before a fire, the pressure in my chest when you breathe in my ear..." I love this song so much I get confused, I listen and think, Yeah, I was there, that's how it happened. Well, I wasn't there because I was five when this album came out! It's another song about an impossibly intense romance, this one is by Graham Nash and is almost surely about Joni Mitchell. It appears on Crosby, Stills & Nash's first album. Nash's voice is just above a whisper. "The brownness of your body in the fire glow, Except the places where the sun refused to go, our bodies were a perfect fit in afterglow..." I like the nearness of Nash's voice, and his imagery of the lovers. No two people can stay this close for very long, and the song lives in that perfect moment. There are several extended love scenes in my book, one on the carpeted floor of Amy's walk in-closet in her mansion in Connecticut, one in an old barn, and one on narcotics. In those scenes I intentionally left the reader unsure about whose body or words were whose, to give a sense of the merging when two people flip over each other.

'Bring It On Home To Me,' Sam Cooke

This version, recorded at the Harlem Square Club in Miami in 1963, is so different from the well-groomed pop track he recorded a year earlier, as a B side to 'Having a Party.' That studio version also appears on, The Best of Sam Cooke, an album from 1962 that I stole from my brother in 1982, and brought to college, and played so often the cover fell apart at the seams. For some reason the live recording wasn't initially released by Cooke's record company, but sat on a shelf for two decades, maybe because the gritty sound undermines his smooth, cardigan sweater-persona. The only other live recording of Sam Cooke I've heard, at The Copa, he's backed up by a big, corny orchestra. But here Cooke's road band cuts loose, and has a reckless, raucous energy. It includes Rock and Roll Hall of Fame saxophonist King Curtis, and an audience so transfixed that they can be heard calling back to Cooke, who begins with a long riff, tinged with gospel energy, and includes lyrics from another of his hits: "You -- that's what I wanna tell you -- you send me, Ooh, you send me..." This track has a quality of mayhem, a throbbing, heart-stomping, blood-pumping passion.

'Autumn in New York,' Billie Holiday

A jazz standard by songwriter Vernon Duke, this version is from an old 78. "Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain..." Despite the summer-heavy theme of my novel, it was important to track the emotional arc of Rich and Amy's year leading up to the present moment. Several key moments take place in flashbacks, and one of those occurs in the fall, in a dark bar in lower Manhattan, where they pass the hours, holding hands and making out in a booth by candlelight. They wrap their legs around each other, knock stuff off the table, and almost set the place on fire.

'The Psychiatrist is In,' Stuart Murdoch

The first words of the song, from the soundtrack of the film God Help the Girl, put me in the mind of a certain eternally infantalized anti-hero, mired in middle class self-destruction. "Grow up, you're nearly twenty five. What happened when you were a child?" This line takes aim at a generation of therapized, feely types, like Fischer, who learned to more fully express themselves in a shrink's office. Amy might've also benefited from psychotherapy, given the traumas she's survived, but she's from a different culture, more repressed, and reports to Fischer that at a low point she tried it, once, was bored by the sound of her own voice, and never went back. The song goes on, "Find your space. Are you breathing well? Do you feel OK? Are you calm? Are you comfortable? Is your heartbeat racing? Is this your soul you're facing?"

'Which Will,' by Nick Drake

Drake -- broody, romantic, pining, and solitary -- has an understated voice and a gentle acoustic guitar. This song appears on Pink Moon, the last record he made before quitting, at 23, and moving back in with his parents. During his brief life he had a passionate following but almost no commercial success. Back home, he spiraled into depression, psychosis, and suicide, ending it all at 26 by overdosing on a sleep aid/anti depressant. He's a doomed figure, but his sound is utterly idiosyncratic, sui generis. On many of his songs, the guitar tuning is strange and unique, as he struggles to find a way to reproduce what he hears in his head.

Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, II, J.S. Bach

I first heard this piece on the soundtrack to Hannah and Her Sisters, when the movie came out in 1986. I was 22, and bought the concerto on vinyl. In this particular scene Barbara Hershey's character, Lee, insists on playing the record for her brother-in-law, Michael Caine's Elliot. They're about to begin an affair. Thirty seconds in, Elliot loses control and rushes over and smooches Lee, they bang into the turntable, the record skips, Lee shoves him away, and a moment later Lee's boyfriend, Frederick, played by Max Von Sydow, rushes into the room. But by then it's too late.

'I Heard Love Is Blind,' by Amy Winehouse

There is a squirrely, trickster energy to this song that cracks me up. Here, Winehouse poses a question to her lover: What if I got so drunk I slept with someone because he reminded me of you? "I couldn't resist him, His eyes were like yours, his hair was exactly the shade of brown. He's just not as tall, but I couldn't tell, It was dark and I was lying down." Adulterers are not simply greedy and two-faced; they're also struggling to recover something they've lost while bonded to the one who now imprisons them. But they're a little unreliable, and Winehouse's winking attitude is perfect: "You are everything, he means nothing to me. I can't even remember his name. Why are you so upset? Baby, you weren't there, and I was thinking of you when I came."

'That Summer Feeling,' by Jonathan Richman

Rolling Stone ranked this #44 on the list of all time greatest summer songs, but I'd put it at the top. Richman taps a mournful, achey, campfire folk sound to celebrate the most insideous quality of summer: "Do you long for her or for the way you were? That summer feeling is gonna haunt you the rest of your life..."

Matthew Klam and Who Is Rich? links:

the author's website

Guardian review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
New York Times review
Observer review

Weekend Edition interview with the author
Vulture profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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