Author Playlists

Blair Austin’s Playlist for His Novel “Dioramas”

“I wrote Dioramas in order to get at something that lay beyond words and for which I had no language.”

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Blair Austin’s novel Dioramas is an imaginatively told and and engrossing debut.

Chigozie Obioma wrote of the book:

Blair Austin’s Dioramas is a novel of endless possibilities and conceptual fiction at its finest. While it bears resemblance to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this novel is a masterwork in its own right and a major artistic leap for a debut novel.

In his own words, here is Blair Austin’s Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Dioramas:

I wrote Dioramas in order to get at something that lay beyond words and for which I had no language. I can’t articulate that place even now. Experimental filmmaker, Stan Brakhage, used to talk about making films “at wit’s end,” the place where the mind itself—and language—can go no further and the artist has to go on without words, without the ability to name their thoughts and feelings, to make an artwork that will speak to the unnamable. Dioramas first came to me as the voice of an old man speaking out of the darkness. Lecturer Wiggins, too, is searching for an answer that can’t be put into words but for which words are the only medium. This playlist reflects an attempt to find songs that touch the undercurrent of the book and the way it feels.

Stream the playlist at Spotify

“The Stranger Song” by Leonard Cohen

This is an enigmatic song freighted with the history of the Twentieth Century. A card dealer/wanderer seems to shape shift across the landscape of the song. In his long travels—across trains and platforms—a sense of poetic doom hangs in the air. The patina and the imagery of this song interest me. I first heard it when I was eight and it has stuck with me. The reversal of the person who is known and who has always been a stranger. And the line, “And while he talks his dreams to sleep, you notice there’s a highway/That is curling just like smoke above his shoulder.” An unknowable audience listens to the lecturer in Dioramas; it may be there, it may only be in the narrator’s mind. This song and Cohen’s hollow delivery seems to come from behind a curtain in an empty theater. There is such a privacy to his voice.

“The Man Who Sold the World” by David Bowie

Dioramas is set far in the future in a world much like our own that looks like our past. The confusions of Bowie’s song capture perfectly the mood and the feeling of temporal shift and distance I was after. I don’t understand the meaning of the song, but its enigma fascinates me. I was reading Paradise Lost and listening to this song, so take the following with a grain of salt. The man in the song seems to be Lucifer, trying to sell the world to Christ during his long wanderings. When we come upon them in the song, there is a muted recognition and we suspect that the man who has traveled so far and whom the speaker meets “upon the stairs” is himself. The roles reverse; it is as if, in casting Lucifer out of paradise, God has given, or sold, him the world. And Christ, being a god, appears to be the God who exchanges himself for the world. The past and the future meld together, people meld and time is hallucinatory. Granted, I don’t think this is Bowie’s interpretation. But an enigma makes the mind dig and dig, and you come up with something off the wall that feels like it fits.

“Frank Sinatra” by Cake

Broadcast into space is the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “Stormy Weather.” Again, vast distance and time stretch out into the darkness. What amazes me about this song is how, just when you think the scene will be spectral all the way to the end, Cake introduces an old man who “sits collecting stamps/in a room all filled with Chinese lamps/He saves what others throw away/He knows that he’ll be rich someday.” The image is deep-textured and cluttered—you can see the whole room and instantly know the old man. We’ve all known someone like him. We sympathize with him yet we feel we are different from him. The old man is the central consciousness of the song and the entire weight of recorded history is being broadcast out into space from the grooves of records while he’s sequestered in his hobby. We feel his isolation but he does not. He’s keeping busy; he’s immune.

“Au clair de la lune” by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville

One of the first recorded songs, a child or a woman singing, stopped in time on what happens to be Baudelaire’s 39th birthday. De Martinville had figured out how to record voices by printing their visual image (similar to sonagrams in modern bird-watching where you can learn to “hear” the bird’s song by looking at its shape on a time-stamped grid). De Martinville never heard his recordings. They would be decoded much later and even then played at the wrong speed. It was only after the recordings were slowed down to their true speed that the haunting song emerged. It sounds like the humming voices in Stan Brakhage’s first film, “Desistfilm.” A ghost is calling across the paper. A voice, maybe a woman or a child, nervously careful. The theme of storage, of what we keep and what we lose, is prominent in Dioramas, which are also a way to store an imagined instance of “real life.”

This is a fragment, not a song, a few seconds easy to miss.

Nightingales and Bombers 1942 (An Actuality Recording, BBC)

Again, not a song. In 1942, the BBC was transmitting a live broadcast of a nightingale singing. The birdsong was going across the airwaves when a bombing squadron on their way to Mannheim flew overhead. The BBC stopped the broadcast (because the Germans, hearing the bombers, would know the raid was en route), but the recording itself continued, capturing the bombers’ passage over the green park. This is all accidental in contrast to the diorama, which is carefully planned. The birds are layered over the bombers and the bombers over the birds, like sheets of glass. Everything is there at once.

“Concrete Desert” by The Bug, Earth

Wiggins spends all his time trapped inside his own mind, projecting his observations upon static scenes in the museum. Hypnotic and repetitive, this song can play in the background and change any environment. It is a grey song, unreal, rainy, filled with pulsing static. It touches on the liminality of mental life, life lived in the quiet of thought, where threats lurk.

“Kol Nidre” by John Zorn

Aramaic for “All Vows,” “Kol Nidre” is Zorn’s stark translation of the prayer sung at the beginning of services on Yom Kippur. Utterly haunting and beyond language, this song captures, like the best of Arvo Part, a feeling where hope isn’t possible but something must be expressed.

“A Walk Through ‘H’” by Michael Nyman

From Peter Greenaway’s masterpiece, The Falls, a surreal mockumentary about the aftermath of a Violent Unknown Event (VUE) that never gets explained but the consequences of which are everywhere. The creepy nature of the film’s narration, its utter BBC calm, is chilling but also funny. The inexplicability of the VUE is key: the central event in the world, and it has no bearing on logic and is beyond understanding. Yet the language keeps piling up and the layering-on of fresh and archival images, one after another, give us an ever-expanding sense of wonder. The song is hard to listen to but gives the feeling of a cheerful, yet manic activity. You imagine factory floors and speeding newsprint and crowds in all their movement. In Greenaway’s world the cornucopia has split and given birth to monsters.

“Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley

I don’t know what to say about this one. The speaker’s vulnerability is yours, mine, ours. We feel something’s gone completely sideways with the world. And there’s a journey from the inside, “maybe I’m crazy,” to the outside, “maybe we’re crazy.”

“View From Here” by The Gories

The vocal delivery of this song is funny and sad all at once. The speaker is trying to do things and failing miserably. Sometimes he’s looking for companionship. He’s sometimes paranoid. Nothing goes right. “I went to the Love Shack but the Love Shack was closed/I had to go back home.” It’s as if he’s not meant for the world or the world is not meant to be lived in. He’s alone. He wants out. Yet he’s describing his experience, “the view” from where he is standing.

“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys

Another haunting song. The lyrics completely belie the sense of hopelessness at the core. It is built as a hybrid of parts that somehow gel together, I don’t know how. The song keeps stopping and beginning again. The quality and depth of longing is what gets me. This is a speculative song. The lyrics are telling us about a feeling the speaker has. He’s got an intuition that things are going to be all right between himself and his love. But underneath is doubt, anxiety, a despair so pure it almost becomes hope. And at the end, the haunting, yet whimsical electro-theremin rises as if a phantom has floated in. At issue for me is the asymmetry of affection. Someone always loves more than the other; someone always yearns more.

Blair Austin was born in Michigan. A former prison librarian, he is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan where he won Hopwood awards for Fiction and Essay. He lives in Massachusetts. Dioramas is his first novel.

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