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September 24, 2018

Christina Dalcher's Playlist for Her Novel "Vox"


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.

Christina Dalcher's novel Vox is a startling and provocative debut.

Vanity Fair wrote of the book:

"Christina Dalcher's debut novel, set in a recognizable near future and sure to beg comparisons to Margaret Atwood's dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, asks: if the number of words you could speak each day was suddenly and severely limited, what would you do to be heard? A novel ripe for the era of #MeToo, VOX (Berkley) presents an exaggerated scenario of women lacking a voice: in the United States, they are subject to a hundred-word limit per day (on average, a human utters about 16,000). Considering the threat of a society in which children like the protagonist's six-year-old daughter are deprived of language, VOX highlights the urgency of movements like #MeToo, but also of the basic importance of language."

In her own words, here is Christina Dalcher's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Vox:

I wrote a book about women and girls living in silence, having no voice. It’s telling that the novel’s title is Vox (Latin for 'voice'), although it might have been Hush or Quiet or Wordless or a million other things. But I also wrote a book about motherhood and families, about the danger of not paying attention, about an America that looks very little like the America I grew up in.

When I’m writing, I never listen to music. It’s just not my style, and I find it more distracting than inspirational. But I do think of music—mostly when the book is finished and I return to read a few pages. There’s no surprise that many of the songs I’ve picked in my Vox playlist relate to voice (or the lack of voice), but I’ve squeezed in a few about love and rebellion and family. Most of them are old, reflecting the fact that I’m a child of the sixties—if not culturally, then at least technically—and most of them are songs that have been with me for a long, long time.

“For What It’s Worth” - Buffalo Springfield
My pick for the all-American protest song is the one with that weird title nobody seems to remember. But we remember Stephen Stills’ (as in Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young) line: “…stop, hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.” This is a song about paying attention, about looking and listening for signs of violence before that violence becomes reality. Even though it was released in 1967 (that’s my year, people!), is there any music more relevant and timeless? And, of course, one of the major themes in Vox is what happens when we fail to look and listen. Until, as the song goes, “there’s a man with a gun over there.”

“Hush Little Baby” - Wretch 32
In Vox, mothers don’t dare sing lullabies to their children. One song, and you’ve maxed out your 100-word daily quota. I did write in a scene where Jean hums her daughter to sleep with “a song about mockingbirds and billy goats” — you know the one. It’s an oldie, and not very pop culture, but when I heard what Wretch 32 did with the theme, when I heard the line “Daddy ain’t sure if he can raise you right,” my thoughts immediately went to Jean and her dilemma. Without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say Jean finds herself in a position where she has to make a choice. And it’s a terrifying choice for any mother to face.

“Back to Black” - Amy Winehouse
There’s no transparent thematic relation between Winehouse’s mournful ballad and my novel, but the tone is right. The tone is dead on. And, of course, “Back to Black” is about surviving loss and moving on, even if moving on means moving into some dark, internal sphere of loneliness and depression. Lyrics like “I died a hundred times” and “My odds are stacked” resonate perfectly with Jean’s inner monologues during the initial part of Vox.

“Words” - The Bee Gees
Okay, okay, I hear you groaning and saying “What time warp did Dalcher get stuck in?” But, you know, after Vox came out, a Twitter pal sent me the link to this tune and I (she says with embarrassment) actually cried a little when I listened to it. I was thinking of what it might feel like to not be able to tell someone—partner, child, mother—that I loved them, thinking that if, in Barry Gibb’s mind, “words are all I have to take your breath away,” what a horror it would be to no longer have those words. There’s a scene early on in Vox when Jean and her husband are in bed and she can’t say a single thing. Not even his name.

“Lady Madonna” - the Beatles
The only Beatles tune mentioned in Vox is “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” but this one fits better. It's not the specific worries in this song that grabbed me. Instead, it's the abstract theme of parental worries while time races on. Jean's worries in Vox are very different, but her war against the situation she’s in parallels that of “Lady Madonna” for me.

“The Sound of Silence” - Simon & Garfunkel
When I was a kid, I wondered a lot about what the title of this song was referring to. Maybe everyone did. I can't say I have the answer for everybody, but Vox pretty much provided me with an answer—it's sort of an anthem to that miraculous gift we have called language, and how easily it is taken for granted. Perhaps the "neon god" represents the waste of that gift in the form of empty partisan babbling, idle chatter, or the deluge of pointless social media postings. Or maybe I just have a real soft spot for Simon and Garfunkel.

“American Woman” - The Guess Who
An American woman who’s “gonna mess your mind” doesn’t seem like it meshes with the close, introspective start of Vox, but it meshes with the latter parts where we leave behind the literary misery of dystopian dysfunction and venture into the faster-paced thriller part of the book. I’ll just bet there’s a whole bunch of men who’d love to say “don’t wanna see your face no more” to Jean. This song has a kickass intro beat and a sexy, empowering mood. I can hear my main character laughing all the way to laboratory at the lyrics “Now woman, I said stay away.” Like hell she will.

“Teach Your Children” - Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
So much heartache is packed into this song that I, even as a non-parent, get torn up when I listen to it. Writing a book about a mother who watches her son turn into a monster despite her best efforts, who fears she won’t succeed at teaching her children well, made me want to open the windows and blast Nash’s lyrics as loud as I could. Maybe it would work, maybe not. If I know anything about parent-child relationships, it’s that they don’t always turn out the way we want them to, despite our best efforts. For better or worse, we inevitably become ourselves.

“This Land Is Your Land” - Woody Guthrie
You gotta love a man who plays a guitar with a sign that says “This Machine Kills Fascists” on it. Though Guthrie’s insistence that “this land was made for you and me” can be interpreted as a response to economic inequality during (and after) the Great Depression, we can think of it as a call for equal treatment along other lines—racial, gender-based, etc. I heard this one a lot when I was growing up, and I like to think my main character might spend the days singing a few verses in her head, wondering how we got from “This land belongs to you and me” to “This land belongs to me. Not you.”

“The Weight” - The Band
When I was writing early scenes with Patrick, Jean described her husband as “[carrying] the keys around like a weight, and sometimes I think it’s the heaviness of this burden that makes him look older.” How could I not think of The Band’s imagery- and character-rich song about a traveler heading to Nazareth and being constantly asked to perform impossible favors by strangers? When I heard the song was inspired by Luis Buñuel’s surrealist films, most of which served as commentary on organized religion, the fit with Vox became even stronger.

“100 Words” - Stanbury & Dalcher
What? You haven’t heard this one? Well, neither have I, and I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to write the lyrics a good friend (who happens to be a composer, musician, and mastering engineer) has been begging me to write ever since I told him about Vox. The idea he pitched was to put exactly 100 words—no more, no less—to music. Songwriting remains one of life’s great mysteries to me, right up there with why they sell hot dogs in packs of six and hot dog buns in packs of eight. So until I have a musical epiphany, this track will be nothing more than three minutes of silence on an invisible album. It’s appropriate we end here.

Christina Dalcher and Vox links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review

Entertainment Weekly profile of the author
Newsweek profile of the author
Signature essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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