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June 14, 2019

Lauren Acampora's Playlist for Her Novel "The Paper Wasp"

The Paper Wasp

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.

Lauren Acampora's debut novel The Paper Wasp is a a haunting literary thriller.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Take The Talented Mr. Ripley, cross it with Suspiria, add a dash of La La Land and mix it all at midnight and this arty psychological stalker novel is what might result."

In her own words, here is Lauren Acampora's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Paper Wasp:

The Paper Wasp is set partly in Western Michigan, where the narrator Abby has been living a dull existence in her parents' house and working as a superstore cashier. She secretly creates detailed drawings based on her fantastical and possibly premonitory dreams, including one in which she reconnects with Elise, her former best friend who's now a Hollywood actress. When their ten-year high school reunion comes around, Abby works up the nerve to attend—and just as in her dream, she and Elise embrace as long-lost friends. Elise drunkenly extends a casual invitation for Abby to give her a call if she's ever in Los Angeles, and Abby subsequently takes this as license to fly to California, call Elise from the airport, and appear at the gate of her sumptuous home in Malibu.

The rest of the novel takes place in and around L.A.—Malibu, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Topanga Canyon, Joshua Tree—and the music I associate with the book is the music I associate with Southern California. I traveled there to do field research, combining it with a family road trip to the Grand Canyon. On our travels, we passed through the Mojave Desert and stayed overnight in a tiny rusty camper in Joshua Tree. We brought along a "desert mix" of music for the drive, and the songs on that mix are inextricable with the experience of writing the book and strongly linked to Abby's character. Many of the songs are from the 1960s and '70s, and I think the book has a bit of a retro vibe. Abby is herself partial to music from that time because it calms and comforts her. As she reflects, while anxiously driving her parents' car around her Michigan hometown: "I played soothing music—Fleetwood Mac; Cat Stevens; Crosby, Stills and Nash—suggestive of an easier era, corded phones, and handwritten letters."

Many of the songs on this playlist (and many of my own favorite songs), tend to shift back and forth between minor and major keys. To me, these changes make a song interesting and emotionally affecting. The music seems to express darkness, despair, and longing at one moment, then shifts to light and hope with an ecstatic rise. I think of this musical change as reflective of the change in Abby's life circumstance: her journey from a grim existence in Michigan to the comforts and sunny promise of California. Also, just as Abby's moods are mutable, the mood of this book is ever-changing, from despair to hope, from melancholy to joy, back and forth. I think of The Paper Wasp as toggling between keys—darks and lights—and ending on a triumphantly bright orchestral swell.

"Crimson and Clover" - Tommy James and the Shondelles

This is the song that comes to mind for the scene in which Abby first sees Elise after ten years at their high school reunion. The swell of emotion in the music seems to convey the obsessive love Abby feels for Elise at that point. The slow tempo fits that moment of suspended time, when her senses become so finely attuned to every detail, when she experiences a swoon of sensory overload—"crimson and clover, over and over"—like a wave continually pulling her down. Abby is flooded with the vision of Elise in her starry black beaded dress, the scent of honeysuckle in her hair, all the sensuous parts of her and of their surroundings that come together and latch into place just right.

"California Dreamin'" and "Twelve-Thirty"- The Mamas and the Papas

The Mamas and the Papas capture the perennial excitement of being young, throwing off convention, and going west. These two songs form a pair in my mind, as they both utilize the minor-major key shift in order to reflect the change of atmosphere that comes with leaving behind a cold, drab place and going to California. As in the lyrics to "California Dreamin'": "All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray...I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A." There's a sense of helplessness in the song, of being trapped by the cold and by the expectations of others, and dreaming of escape. "If I didn't tell her, I could leave today." This is Abby's state of mind at the beginning of the book.

Once the dream has become a reality, once Abby has actually gone to California, there's a shift in tone to celebration and joyous disbelief. As in "Twelve-Thirty," Abby is taken by the warmth and light around her. "Young girls are coming to the canyon / And in the morning I can see them walking / I can no longer keep my blinds drawn..." Abby is ecstatic to have escaped the "dark and dirty" place she came from, and gone through the looking glass to the California fantasy world of her imagination.

"Ocean Size" - Jane's Addiction

Jane's Addiction brings me back to my visits to L.A. in the 1990s, with my then-boyfriend who grew up there and who loved to surf and skateboard. We listened to Jane's Addiction ad nauseum, and Perry Farrell was a kind of symbol of the bohemian art life. Venice Beach was the band's spiritual home: gritty, passionate, and weird. This song in particular reminds me of Venice and of that particular phase of life, both for me and for Abby. It's full of youthful energy, the desire to embrace the infinite possibilities of the future, the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean. As the song goes: "Wish I was ocean size...I want to be as deep as the ocean." As Abby sits on the beach in Venice at the lip of the water, she feels its power and her own.

"Message" - Harry Perry

Harry Perry is the legendary turbaned rollerblader who's been a fixture of Venice Beach for longer than I've been alive. He makes his way up and down the boardwalk, playing his guitar and singing his own psychedelic compositions. A similar character makes a cameo appearance in The Paper Wasp, and in my mind he's singing Harry Perry's song "Message," with the lyrics: "I've got a message, got a message, from another world, dreaming and receiving, I've got a message from another world." As Abby sees it, he's a kindred visionary, "deep within his own waking Spring."

"A Violent Yet Flammable World" - Au Revoir Simone

During the time I wrote this book, I watched the new season of Twin Peaks on television. As any David Lynch fan will tell you, watching Twin Peaks or any of his work is a uniquely immersive experience, with an atmosphere that lingers in the mind well after it's over. Lynch used the new season of the show to spotlight some of his favorite new musical artists, ending many episodes with a performance at the fictitious Bang Bang Bar. I'd never heard Au Revoir Simone before seeing them play "A Violent and Flammable World" on that televised stage, and I fell in love with the song immediately. It's complex and ethereal, and it's bound up with Abby's character for me. "Tonight I sleep to dream of a place that's calling me / It's a whisper / It's always just a dream / It's a funny thing / Still I cannot forget what I have seen / We fold like icicles on paper shelves."

"Inn of the Seventh Ray" - Eleanor Friedberger

The Inn of the Seventh Ray is where I imagine Elise taking Abby for brunch toward the end of the book, when she wants to be away from it all, and where their dynamic shifts in a lasting way. It's a restaurant high up on the hill in Topanga, with outdoor seating beside a creek. The wooded setting is beautiful, and it's furnished with rustic wooden tables and chairs, and decked with fairy lights and wildflowers. It's tucked away on a twisting mountain road that can be dangerous to navigate, but it's also a popular wedding venue and a celebrity favorite. And despite its laid-back, natural ambience, it's not cheap. Even when Elise says she needs to get away, she still chooses a chic place where she might be noticed. The lyrics of this song don't make a whole lot of sense to me, except for the refrain, "You promised to take me to the Inn of the Seventh Ray," with its spacey echoing reverb. Abby's opinion of Elise has already begun to sour by this point, and there's a sardonic, jaded quality to this song that fits the mood just right.

"Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)" - Neil Young / "Into the Black" - The Chromatics

I associate Neil Young with Topanga Canyon and vice versa, and this song makes me think of Paul, the character in The Paper Wasp who lives alone in his cabin there. He's a documentary filmmaker, idealistic, concerned with social justice, and truth, and he purposefully lives in this simple cabin in the woods without modern technology, as if it were the 1960s. The Chromatics also do a gorgeously haunting cover of this song with a female vocalist, which changes the feeling completely, and gives Abby a claim on it. To me, the two versions are like a conversation between these two characters who share a mutual affection but have vastly different natures and purposes.

"Some Velvet Morning" - Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra

This is such a darkly psychedelic, spooky, bewitching song, and I love everything about it. It begins with Hazlewood's driving, baritone voice, and then is abruptly cut off by an innocently tinkling music box and Nancy Sinatra's dreamy, slow-waltz chanting. It's like two completely different songs mashed together by interfering radio stations. The effect is destabilizing, and suggests Abby's vacillating mental states in the novel, her alternating moods, and the strange coexistence of her waking and dreaming lives.

"Paint It Black" - The Rolling Stones

I get a lot of grief for not being a huge Rolling Stones fan, but I've always loved this song. The lyrics are about depression, grief, and nihilism—but somehow the song also evokes to me the decadence and nihilism of the L.A. party scene. It has that minor-major key thing going on, along with a propulsive bassline and drums that make me think of reckless, self-destructive momentum. I associate it with the debauched summer solstice event at the Rhizome, with Elise's slide into alcoholism, and also with Abby's dark outlook and the spellbound purpose with which she carries out her carefully strategized final acts.

Lauren Acampora and The Paper Wasp links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Deborah Kalb interview with the author
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for The Wonder Garden

also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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