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September 25, 2018

Stephen Markley's Playlist for His Novel "Ohio"


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.

Stephen Markley's novel Ohio is a powerful and timely debut.

NPR Books wrote of the book:

"Ohio isn't just a remarkable debut novel, it's a wild, angry and devastating masterpiece of a book. Markley's debut is a sprawling, beautiful novel that explores the aftermath of the Great Recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a powerful look at the tenuous bonds that hold people together at their best and at their worst. [Ohio] is intricately constructed, with gorgeous, fiery writing that pulls the reader in and never lets go."

In his own words, here is Stephen Markley's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Ohio:

If I had to accuse myself of something it would be scattershot musical tastes over the course of a scattershot life. I forget how I encounter any given song or artist other than generally standing mid-stream of pop culture and trying to occasionally wade over to the fringes; I'm now almost always at the mercy of Spotify's algorithms because I don't take the time to seek anything out; I still have my entire massive book of CDs from high school, which is mostly 90s rap (Drag-On's Opposite of H20 anyone?). I can't really recall what I was listening to while writing the novel Ohio, but here's a list of what seems to have crept through my subconscious, possibly eking into the text in unexpected ways.

"The Stable Song" Gregory Alan Isakov

I've occasionally described Ohio as a ghost story where the ghost never appears (a designation I'm pretty sure I stole from Stephen King), but the novel is about being haunted--by people you've lost, decisions you've made, friendships you've forsaken. The characters each return to their hometown on the same night, and they all have on their minds and in their hearts something they've lost. This song, for me, always captured the essence of what I was trying to bring to the page, a sense of having drifted your whole life, but also having never truly left this one person, place, or moment.

"All Things To All Men" The Cinematic Orchestra, Roots Manuva

I stumbled across this due to the aforementioned Spotify algorithm, and I always pictured one character in particular, Bill Ashcraft, this drug-addled, alcoholic political activist cruising along to this song as he trips out of his head on LSD. It's a long, dense song that makes you feel like you're stumbling down a street corner at night, half-drunk, but with sudden vivid insight into the absurd joke of the political, social, and economic quagmire that is the American experience.

"Same Drugs" Chance the Rapper

I've heard people accuse this song of being schmaltzy, but if that's the case I gladly embrace it. I taught this to my students when we did a class on narratives in pop music because it's such a lovely, compressed, and efficient story about growing past another person and the nostalgia you feel for the bond that once existed between you. It has these little whimsical phrases evoking Peter Pan: "You must have lost your marbles"; "when did you start to forget how to fly"; "don't forget the happy thoughts;" "When everything we read was real and everything we said rhymed." It casts this whimsical note over our collective substance abuse, that you can only ever make it with someone if your tastes in self-medication align, and once that moment passes it can change everything between two people.

"Carry Me Ohio" Mark Kozelek

This one for obvious reasons, plus it namechecks rivers and landmarks I'm all too aware of from growing up in the area. Actually, I went through a number of titles for the novel before settling on simplicity for simplicity's sake, but this song sort of wakes you up to the poetry of that single word. It has something to do with the way your mouth moves when you say it, your lips going vertical, horizontal, vertical in rapid succession, and each sound is its own lost spirit.

"Darkness On the Edge of Town" Bruce Springsteen

A young woman once said to me, "I don't believe anyone can truly be a bad person if they love Bruce." That seems extreme, but I've never seen it proved wrong. People who only know Bruce from the big hits are missing a religious conversion in their lives. It's his darker stuff I've always been drawn to, and as a teenager dealing with the death of one of my closest friends, I found the most surprising respite in his music, which I basically listened to nonstop from 2000 until 2005. I love that he's this short story writer in a rock star's body and so many people across so many different classes, age groups, races, genders, and life paths see themselves in the tales dreamed up by this ratty-bearded kid from industrial New Jersey. "Darkness" was the first song of his I heard that made me sit up like, "What in the fuck is this?" Like many of Springsteen narrators, the guy in the song is wandering through his place in post-industrial America. He's keeping secrets, he's lost the woman he loves through some fault of his own, he remains defiant. Just play this and "Promised Land" at my funeral, please.

"All That You Have Is Your Soul" Tracy Chapman

During the gestation period of this novel I was hanging out with a young woman in my apartment and this song came on. She said something like, "Were you also a teenage girl crying with her friends at sleepaway camp in the early Nineties?" All I know is that as a guy trying to start for his high school basketball team in rural Ohio, I had to keep somewhat secret my abject love for Tracy Chapman and her brazenly unironic, head-melting tunes on justice, race, love, and loss. When writing the character of Stacey Moore, I had Chapman and that young woman in mind, because that night she said something else I really liked: "Sure, all you have is your soul, but we should all take at least a little bite of that shiny apple every now and then."

"Shelter From the Storm" Bob Dylan

This song has been sort of wrecked by its overuse as an anthem of the Baby Boomers' (see Cameron Crowe stuffing it into the end of Jerry McGuire), but Dylan remains, IMHO, simply one of the most mesmerizing writers of the Twentieth Century. I laughed and laughed at the literary world's hand-wringing after his Nobel win, and I laughed twice as hard when he plagiarized parts of his Nobel acceptance speech from Cliff's Notes, but it was nevertheless one of the most beautiful explications of what the journey of art, of literature, of creation actually feels like in the most tactile, heart-rending sense. Dylan is this utterly irascible, trickster figure, who will always defy and mystify his fans and critics. "Shelter From the Storm" describes the ramble we're all one, this bizarre, unhinged journey that never ends where you think it will, and maybe the one or two or seven people you meet along the way who are like, "All right, get in here. We'll make love and then go throw rocks at the trains passing in the night."

"Chonkyfire" Outkast

This is the final song on Aquemini, and it probably wouldn't make the top fifty in most fans' estimation of Outkast songs, but there's something inexplicable about the sound it creates. It's epic, it's full-throated, it's apocalyptic. My affinity for Nineties hip-hop mostly rests on the fact that that was the age I discovered this wild, uninhibited act of rebellion in musical form. I tended more towards the political or the lyrically interesting, but discovering Outkast, particularly Aquemini with Rosa Parks, SpottieOttieDopaliscious, and this final mind-blowing track--it felt like Indiana Jones figuring out the Grail was just these two guys from Atlanta.

"I Do My Father's Drugs" Joe Pug

Joe Pug's music served as something of a basis for the career of the character Ben Harrington, and I think he's one of the most underrated singer-songwriters alive. "My Father's Drugs" is one of his masterpieces, and though careful readers may be questioning my affinity for songs about drugs, this is really more about the cyclical nature of generations attempting to upend the status quo, of trying and failing, desperately, to change the conditions that have isolated, weakened, and demoralized us. It reminds me of protesting Dick Cheney's appearance at a Cleveland church in 2004.

"City of Refuge" Abigail Washburn

Abigail Washburn is one of those musicians you're almost afraid to tell anyone about because you want to selfishly hoard her honey and cigarettes voice for yourself. I don't even recall how I stumbled across 2011's City of Refuge, but it's one of my favorite albums of the decade. The title song and "Last Train" in particular always call to mind, for whatever reason, all the errant, directionless wandering of my mid-twenties, and that wanderlust definitely found its place within several characters of the novel.

"Youngstown" Bruce Springsteen

The original version on The Ghost of Tom Joad is, without a doubt, a masterpiece, but you really haven't heard "Youngstown" until you've heard him perform it live, say in Cleveland, Ohio, circa 2004 (same weekend as when I went to protest Cheney; sometimes the stars just align). When it's born into the world as a true rock song, it has a power and anger that the album version doesn't. It's not just that it's a story set in my corner of the world or that it so bitterly and accurately describes the sense of having the floorboards of your life and livelihood ripped out from beneath you a plank at a time by powers you don't control and men you'll never meet, but it bears a truly radical message. The narrator sings, "My daddy come on the Ohio Works when he come home from World War II/ Now the yard's just scrap and rubble/ He said, 'Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do.'" I mean, Jesus Christ, talk about taking a full swing at the skull of the neoliberal order. What I love most about the song is its scope, traversing the history of a place from 1803 to the modern moment, watching the smokestacks rise and billow and then go clear. You can smell the coke and limestone, you can feel the rain coming down as the characters wander the scrapyard. It's a remarkable piece of literature and speaks to a universal story of exploitation that keeps repeating itself over and over again. How the story's always the same. It was that sense of history and fury and defiance that I always wanted to imbue this book with.

"Elevation" Hildur Guonadottir

The first civilian I gave the book to (someone outside of the long editorial process) claimed she read it in three days and was listening to this song as she blew through the final pages. It produced, she said, a pretty fantastic effect. Once I listened to the song, I honestly couldn't agree with her more. Very spooky.

Stephen Markley and Ohio links:

the author's website

Minneapolis Star Tribune review
NPR Books review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review

Ohio Magazine interview with the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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