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November 5, 2018

Jeremy T. Wilson's Playlist for His Story Collection "Adult Teeth"

Adult Teeth

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.

Jeremy T. Wilson's impressive short story collection, Adult Teeth, makes everyday life enthralling.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Like Lorrie Moore and Bobbie Ann Mason's short fiction, Wilson's stories display subtle humor and a deft ear for dialogue, making for a wonderfully varied and enjoyable debut collection."

In his own words, here is Jeremy T. Wilson's Book Notes music playlist for his story collection Adult Teeth:

Thematically Adult Teeth is tied together loosely by the idea of transition. Characters stand at the threshold of major and minor shifts in their lives and aren’t responding particularly well to the potential change. A major transition occurred in my life when I moved from Ft. Worth, Texas to Perry, Georgia, where my parents grew up. I was going into the eighth grade, an already awkward time, and I had to start over in a town that didn’t even have its own movie theater or mall but had at least a dozen churches. A band from Athens, Georgia saved me.

I found R.E.M. roughly at the same time I moved in 1987, when Rolling Stone heralded them as America’s best rock-n-roll band. I’d been listening mostly to Duran Duran and glam rock, so R.E.M. was a welcome departure, and discovering them helped make this new state cool and filled it with an unexpected poetry and mystery. The cover to Murmur with its kudzu swallowing some abandoned structures mimicked my feelings of dislocation. Something wild and hungry was out there ready to eat me up. One of my new friends gave me a mixtape of his favorite R.E.M. songs, and we sat with a tape deck rewinding and rewinding Michael Stipe’s inscrutable lyrics. Did he just say: “We could gather throw up beer”? We picked up guitars and learned all their songs. We made more mixtapes for our friends and girlfriends. We got political and pretentious and echoed Stipe’s aphorisms in our own brooding, adolescent voices: “Love songs are odious.”

I thought for a really long time about the best way to create this playlist, but in the end it just seemed right for me to ascribe an R.E.M. song to each of the stories. Some of them are set in Georgia; some of them are set in Chicago, but all of them are about transitions in some way, those liminal spaces where “things they go away/replaced by every day.”

1. “Begin the Begin,” Life’s Rich Pageant for “Welcome to Gorilla City”

This just makes sense, right? There’s the obviousness of beginning at the beginning to kick something off, so here we go. Sara’s living an artless life until she sees these animals wheat-pasted on the local water tower and gets the urge to save them. She understands the fleeting nature of art and that’s what makes it beautiful. She faces a moment where she needs to start over, but where? “Example, the finest example is you”

2. “Crush with Eyeliner,” Monster for “Trash Days”

I remember hating Monster when it came out. I didn’t understand what was happening to the band I loved. They seemed to be making fun of themselves, or trying lamely to introduce grunge into their jangle. I didn’t get it. But this was always my favorite song. Stipe singing about lust and personas instead of the evils of Styrofoam or acid rain felt fresh. In the story, LeAnne suspects her out-of-work husband has purchased a sex doll and is hiding it from her. “I’m the real thing,” Stipe sings, and Thurston Moore echoes, “I’m the real thing.”

3. “Losing my Religion,” Out of Time for “Rapture”

One of the things I love about Stipe is his ability to take clichés and colloquialisms and turn them into something original. He’s almost like a folk artist in that way. The Howard Finster of indie rock. Here, an old southern saying about getting fed up gets twisted into the refrain for an obsession. Probably the best R.E.M. song ever, where all of their individual super powers are on full display. I mean, Peter Buck claims he was just learning how to play the mandolin and stumbled into the opening riff. Genius. The story features obsession, religion, and loss, but no mandolin.

4. “Life and How to Live It,” Fables of the Reconstruction for “Nesting”

I love the self-help connotations of the title of this song, which fit with the way Megan’s preparing for the baby by reading books. There’s an irony in this title as well, because, really? Could we ever get all that from a book? Yet we try, and we try. With parenthood looming, Tate is desperate for some guidance, not necessarily from books, but from his deceased father, a man who could build anything. Tate’s father may or may not have come back as a ghost to talk to Megan and help her build the playset that Tate can’t build himself. “My carpenter’s out and running about, talking to the street/My pockets are out and running about/Barking in the street to tell what I have hidden there.”

5. “Camera,” Reckoning for “Leaving Charity”

However you interpret the lyrics to this one, there’s definitely a spirit of loss pervading the song. One person is leaving another, whether it be to the great beyond or just out of town. “When the party lulls if we fall by the side/Will you be remembered? Will she be remembered?” Clark asks his buddy to film his departure with his camera, and Mac doesn’t want his best friend to leave, but he’s too stubborn to tell him how he really feels.

6. “It’s the End of the World as we Know it (And I Feel Fine)," Document for ”Everything is Going to be Okay”

Of course it’s not going to be okay. We might as well dance to great rock songs!

7. “Photograph” Born to Choose for “Inside the Happiness Factory”

When this song came out in 1993 it was a dream come true for me, Michael Stipe AND Natalie Merchant?! It appeared as the first track on the pro-choice benefit album: Born to Choose, which also features Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, and Pavement, among others. The lyrics are sort of bland in retrospect, but they certainly fit for a character who receives a mysterious text message and photo that he reads way too much into. “From the threshold what's to see/Of our brave new century?/The television's just a dream/The radio, the silver screen”

8. “The One I Love,” for “Chopsticks”

The main characters in this story are having a divorce party, and a friend of theirs is downstairs playing DJ for the occasion, thinking it’s funny to play all kinds of love songs. Of course that douchebag would choose this song. It’s not a love song, and everyone knows it.

9. “You Are the Everything,” Green for “Piss-ants”

When I listen to this now I think the song must’ve been buried deep in my subconscious while I was writing this story. There’s a kitchen. There’s a beautiful woman. There’s someone lying in the backseat with their teeth in their mouth, maybe. It’s funny how stuff like that works. We take in so much culture and media, how is all of it supposed to stay out of our work? Authors sometimes say they don’t read other people while they’re writing. “I don’t want to sound like somebody else,” they say. Like there’s some sanctuary they can retreat to that’s immune from influence. We can’t escape it; we carry with us what we carry with us.

10. “Nightswimming,” Automatic For the People for “It Don’t Get No Better Than This”

This album came out after I graduated from high school and had just started college. The song drips with instant nostalgia. I was already missing a place I had been eager to leave. In the story, Peeps is convinced he’s ready to get out of his small town, mostly because people tell him these days are the best of his life. In the end, he goes swimming. It’s night.

11. “Stumble,” Chronic Town for “Adult Teeth”

This song has nothing in particular to do with this story, but I love at the beginning of the recording how you can hear Stipe laugh and then say “teeth” just before clicking his teeth together. I played this tape so much I wore off all the words.

12. “Electrolite” New Adventures in Hi-Fi for “Florida Power and Light”

While I do think there are some good songs in the post-Bill Berry incarnation of R.E.M. (“Supernatural Superserious” is an irresistible earworm), I don’t carry them with me as much as I do the albums when R.E.M. was still a four piece, the song credits all listed as Bill Berry/Peter Buck/Mike Mills/Michael Stipe, thus the exclusion of any songs after 1997 on this playlist. As Stipe said in a New York Times interview in 2011, “Bill was a great editor. He couldn’t wait to get to the end of a song, so he kept them short and concise and without flab, and we lost that without him.” Every short story writer needs an inner Bill Berry. This is the best closing track off any R.E.M. album, and in the story something is definitely ending. It might’ve been cool if this was the last track the band recorded, so I’ll make it the last song on my playlist. The music stops and all you hear is the sustain of the piano and Stipe’s voice: “I'm not scared/I'm outta here.”

Jeremy T. Wilson and Adult Teeth links:

the author's website

Chicago Tribune review
Foreword Reviews review
NewPages review

NewCity Chicago interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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