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February 19, 2019

Lindsay Stern's Playlist for Her Novel "The Study of Animal Languages"

The Study of Animal Languages

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.

Lindsay Stern's novel The Study of Animal Languages is an exceptionally funny and thought-provoking debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Thought-provoking…A taut, brainy tale that tracks the breakdown of an academic couple’s marriage while dissecting differences between language and communication, knowledge and truth, madness and inspiration."

In her own words, here is Lindsay Stern's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Study of Animal Languages:

About three quarters of the way through my novel, The Study of Animal Languages, an old man named Frank has a manic episode in an aquarium. Standing before the shark tank, with its towers of kelp undulating overhead, he becomes convinced that he can read the body language of the animals gliding past him. Later, he recounts the experience to his son-in-law: “You know how, in music, the notes go straight to the feeling, without wedging a thought in between? That’s what their language was like. Their feelings—if that’s what they were—they flowed through me. Beautiful, terrible dances of the soul, more exquisite than any thought of mine could conjure up. I felt oafish beside them, kid. Their joy was painful to me.”

One of the pleasures of writing fiction is the discovery that your characters come up with better lines than you do. Frank responds here to the question that initially inspired my novel: what might the noises coming out of animal throats—the sounds we tend to tune out as gibberish—actually mean? The question pivots on the assumption that we are reliable translators of the sounds uttered by our own kind, including ourselves and our loved ones. And that’s how my curiosity about animal voices evolved into a book about a marriage in crisis.

In crafting this playlist, I started by hunting for songs whose lyrics touched in literal ways on language and marriage and madness. But something in that approach felt unfaithful to the songs’ power, which to me derives from their melodies. So in lieu of that lyric-oriented selection, I’ve chosen the songs that sustained me during the book’s creation, glossing them with snapshots of where I was in life when I was listening to them most frequently—compulsively, typically on runs. With the exception of Suzanne Vega’s “Language,” each one fed the sentences, and sentence-rhythms, that compose the book.

Run On by Moby

The week before I wrote the first scene of the novel’s first draft—titled Archery—I was living for free in a bookstore in Paris. It was August, and stormy. My makeshift bed was on the second floor of the shop, in a room that overlooked a horizontal stretch of roof where someone had placed a wooden nutcracker. He had a mustache and blue top hat and lay on his back, so the warm rain beat on his face. I had come there to “write a novel in Paris” and write I did—every day—but I didn’t have characters yet, so my ideas had no one to matter to.

Ride On, Right On by Phosphorescent

When my characters finally showed up, I had almost no time for them. I’d left Europe and was teaching in Cambodia, writing in the evenings in my shared room on the second floor of a guesthouse called “Tattoo.” In the mornings I biked to my classroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where the asphalt shaded into grassy dirt roads. Its window had no glass, so my students and I sometimes used it as a door. During their breaks I paged through the Khmer-English dictionary, taking photos of some of the entries. One read: “sound made by a panic-stricken crowd/flock (of people/birds).”

Big Coat by Wiretree

I took off teaching one day to attend the Khmer Rouge trial, which was being held in an international court east of the city. Seated on stage left was a white-haired man, Nuon Chea, since convicted of genocide, who had been second in command to Pol Pot. About halfway through the day’s proceedings, he whispered something to a man sitting beside him. That man must have been his guard, because he stood up and led Chea off into the wings. When they returned, Chea was wearing a windbreaker. A war criminal getting cold: the image still haunts me, and challenged me to find the warmth in TSOAL’s rigid narrator.

Fiery Crash by Andrew Bird

As I was building that narrator, I was mourning a relationship, which meant I was spending a fair amount of time screaming into pillows. It was excruciating, but it also exposed me to layers of myself I hadn’t experienced before. So it goes with TSOAL’s narrator, whose “fiery crash” doubles as an education.

Another Sunny Day by Belle and Sebastian

The novel suffered its own regenerative breakdown when I realized I had to rewrite it. I had moved back to the States and was living in a furnished railroad style one-bedroom in Iowa, falling in love with my downstairs neighbor. There was a hole in one of my window frames, which was the rope-and-pulley variety. You could see the taut rope extending down into the shadows. One night in winter, a voice blasted out of this hole. It was a bat, echolocating. I bolted downstairs.

Little Lion Man by Mumford and Sons

On runs along the Iowa River I would listen to this song on repeat, feeling my way into Frank. Eventually I saw that the novel’s epigraph, Wittgenstein’s dictum “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” pertains as much to him—and to anyone yearning to make sense of and to the world—as it does to roaring cats.

Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen

By the time the book found its sea legs I had moved back east. Ivan finally felt real to me. The work of building his “I”—which Leonard Cohen brilliantly equates with its homonym, the phrase “ay yai yai”—was almost complete. On runs around the Central Park reservoir, I prepared to abandon him.

Language by Suzanne Vega

This song doesn’t belong here, because I encountered it long after the copyedits to the manuscript were complete and my patient editor had finally exiled me from its pages. But if TSOAL were a country, Vega’s song would be its anthem. She sings: “[W]ords… / don’t mean what I meant / They don’t say what I said … / They don’t move fast enough / To catch the blur in the brain / That flies by and is gone / … And is gone / … And is gone.”

Lindsay Stern and The Study of Animal Languages links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
New York Journal of Books review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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