Nash Jenkins’s novel Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos is inventively structured and heartbreakingly moving..
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
Stylistic flourishes in the form of playlists, legal papers, and entries from Foster’s blog provide a convincing…panorama of the school’s microcosm . . . Jenkins proves to be a keen world builder and a mostly engaging raconteur.
This should have been an easy assignment. One hundred and seventy-six songs appear by name in Foster Dade Explores the Cosmos; insofar it is an autobiographical novel — insofar as Foster Dade is me — it is in the music that appears in his iTunes playlists: nine of them in all, interspersed among the novel’s seventy-seven chapters, spanning June of 2008 through January of 2010.
I was probably about two hundred pages into writing the book when I decided to include Foster’s playlists as discrete chapters. Not long before, I’d decided to do the same with the posts on his private Blogspot, which I’d previously simply quoted in abbreviated form throughout the text. Other media forms would follow: Part I, Ch. VI is an email from the admissions office to the school’s student tour guides, refreshing them on campus talking points and school trivia; Part II, Ch. VI is a cease-and-desist letter from a corporate law firm in Hong Kong; Part III, Chs. II, VII, X, XVIII are a string of increasingly desperate pseudonymous posts on an online messageboard. I’ve always had a strange affinity for the banal forms of media that precisely in their banality curate worlds into existence: the letterheads, texts, and paraphernalia that populate Wes Anderson’s films come to mind. In Foster, the epistolary conceit also seemed to suit the fundamental voyeurism of the narrator’s project: I wanted the story to have the wistfulness of found footage, of a mosaic assembled from flotsam, its form and content determined as much by its absences as by what is present.
But of all the textual genres that occupy the interstices in the narrator’s story, the iTunes playlists are to me the most meaningful. When I set out in 2018 to expand the short story I’d written as an undergrad five years earlier, I did so with two goals. The first was to write a historical novel, or at least a novel that fifty years from now might have utility as one. The second was to tell a story about adolescence. The playlists allowed me to see that these two endeavors were in fact necessarily intertwined. There was a rather innocent novelty to the last years of the first decade of the twenty-first century that seemed to harmonize perfectly with the novel thrill of adolescence itself: to this day, I can’t disentangle the memory of a teenage crush from the remembered feeling of seeing that she’d left me a birthday wall post on Facebook. We were arguably the first generation for whom the emotional cadences of life were inextricable from the increasingly myriad ways in which we could mediate them. Music has always provided the intensities of puberty both a place of refuge and a language for articulation, but iTunes was unique in its curatorial power: in the playlists we meticulously crafted, we inadvertently created prosthetic images of our emotional selves at a given point in time, suspended in history as in amber.
“Mr. Brightside” – The Killers
I began writing Foster in earnest at my desk in Time’s Washington bureau on a very hot afternoon in July of 2018, and at some point in those first feverish days I elected to use “Mr. Brightside’s” first lines as one of the novel’s opening epigraphs. (I’d decided on the other — a description of Holden Caulfield from the first-edition dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye purportedly written by Salinger himself — back in eleventh grade.) For awhile, I was a bit insecure about it, simply because of the song’s familiarity: there’s a gravitas implicit in epigraphs, and in my head I could hear the more jaded readers scoffing at my middlebrow sensibilities. But there is a catharsis to finding splendor in banality, and to the unabashed earnestness of Brandon Flowers’ lyrics, which limn Foster’s story in more ways than one.
“Life in a Northern Town” – The Dream Academy
Eventually, “Mr. Brightside” would relocate from the novel’s front matter to the opening of Part I, supplanted by a single line from The Dream Academy’s 1984 single. There is something ethereal about this song, with lyrics of innocence and loss interspersed by effusive, almost shamanic chants (sampled a decade or so later by the short-lived pop group Jakaranda, whose sole hit you know from the wedding dress photoshoot scene in the 1997 remake of The Parent Trap). Foster Dade is the sort of wistful teenager who would have found profundity in the more sentimental strains of 1980s new wave pop; “Life in a Northern Town” is precisely the sort of song he’d find wonderfully haunting.
“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” – Vampire Weekend
In January of 2008, seven months before I left North Carolina for boarding school up north, Vampire Weekend released their eponymous debut album. It’s difficult to think of an artist I associate more indelibly with that world in that period: in the band’s chipper insouciance and knowing winks to the trappings and milieus of patrician life, I still hear the ineffable, unpracticed coolness of my boarding school classmates in their Vineyard Vines oxfords and salmon pants; I still cringe at the crudeness of my own desperate impersonations.
“Escape Me (feat. C.C Sheffield)” – Tiësto
About a month or so after arriving at the Kennedy School, Foster creates an iTunes playlist that he titles simply “fitting in”. It consists exclusively of the two genres that reverberated across boarding school campuses in the late 2000s, at school dances and in dormitory showers and from the sidelines of lacrosse games: hip-hop and dance pop. Of the two, I was always anthropologically more interested in the popularity of the latter among my male classmates: the sort of guys who practiced their scowls in photographs and bandied about the word faggot. There’s an unrestrained, bubblegummy effulgence to the genre — of which “Escape Me” is an exemplar — that for a certain type of very inhibited young man seemed to provide the psychocultural equivalent of methadone: an indulgence in the illicit, made safe in controlled environments and predetermined doses.
“Good Girls Go Bad (feat. Leighton Meester)” – Cobra Starship
As a sociological object, this belongs in the same school as Escape Me. But “Good Girls Go Bad” warrants attention as particularly vivid historical artifact, for the sole reason that Leighton Meester was also Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, which in the summer of 2009 — when Foster downloads the track on iTunes and adds it to his running playlist — was about to enter its third season. In a blog post earlier in the novel, when reflecting on his male classmates’ affinity for dance pop, Foster observes how they also gather in the dormitories’ common rooms to watch that week’s Gossip Girl, dressing their enthusiasm in the protective caul of irony. “I’ve learned that there’s a way to enjoy stuff like that—the stuff you’re not supposed to like,” he writes. “The trick is to pretend you’re listening to it because of how much you hate it.”
“Signs” – Bloc Party
And in his desperation to belong, Foster of course watches Gossip Girl along with them. This is almost certainly how he discovers this track, the acoustic rendition of which spangles the more poignant moments of season two’s Christmas episode. There’s something plaintive about the steady atmospheric twinkling of the bells that prelude the lyrics, which speak of grief and loss; it’s the third song Foster adds to his playlist “winter 09” that January, and precisely the sort of track I envision him lying awake at night listening to.
“Play Your Part (Pt. 2)” – Girl Talk
In the mid- to late-2000s, Gregg Gillis — known onstage as Girl Talk — brought a new artistry to the mashup as a musical form. Of all of the artists to appear on Foster’s “fitting in” playlist, it’s Girl Talk whose songs would have appealed most intuitively to his aesthetic sensibility, irrespective of cultural cachet: behind Foster’s sad eyes and subdued demeanor, there is a freneticism to how he moves through and makes sense of the world, one stylized in the playful peripateticism of the mashups’ transitions from one offbeat medley to the next. I always felt like by virtue of his natural sentimentality, Foster would be an unironic Journey fan, and “Play Your Part (Pt. 2)’s” denouement — UGK’s “Int’l Player’s Anthem (I Choose You)” against the ballad-like arias of “Faithfully” — would appeal to his affinity for the sensational.
“Sweet Disposition” – The Temper Trap
Somewhere in my phone’s Notes app is a list I began drafting soon after I started writing Foster, titled something like LATE 00s CULTURE. Every so often, I’d recall a cultural artifact or phenomenon from the peripheries of either that period (e.g. Charlie Bit My Finger) or the years of its characters’ childhoods (e.g. Jerry Spinelli’s “Stargirl”) and record it for future inclusion in the novel. As I revised Foster’s first drafts, my agent Julie wisely cautioned me against oversaturating the text with historically specific cultural references — like soy sauce, gimmicks are effective in small quantities, and an assault on the senses otherwise — and for this reason I abstained from dedicating significant textual real estate to the 2009 film (500) Days of Summer. Its inclusion — and specifically Foster’s inevitable infatuation with the film, which came out in what would have been the July between his sophomore and junior years at Kennedy — would have felt a touch too obvious, anyway: like Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom, Foster is a lovelorn romantic who parses cautionary tales chiefly for latent lyricism and otherwise misses the point. But somewhere beyond the pages of the final book, I’m certain Foster watched (and rewatched) the film that summer or autumn and fell in love with “Sweet Disposition”, the brightly ambient pop-rock track that recurs throughout it.
“Swing, Swing” – The All-American Rejects
I suspect I’m not the only person my age who had their heart broken in middle school and found solace in this song: in the balladic surge of its church organ and in Tyson Ritter’s plaintive warbles; in the lyrics’ implicit suggestion that it’s okay for boys to cry. Foster is a fictional character, but his teenage melancholy is very much my own; preppy boys can be emo too.
“The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” – The Postal Service
Simply for the (indulgent) sake of including as many songs as possible, I concertedly minimized as much overlap as possible between Foster’s playlists, but “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is among the handful of tracks that appears on more than one. There’s something in its atmospheric digital noise that calls to mind the wistful anonymity of city streets late at night: of connections forged and forgotten, of the smears of orange light across dark windows. This is at least the sort of maudlin imagery Foster might offer up while staring up from bed up into the darkness; he does this a lot.
“All My Friends” – LCD Soundsystem
I’m not going to disclose specifics, because I want you to actually buy the book and read it for yourself, but of all the moments in Foster that felt meaningful to write — either as a refraction of my own memories or an exercise in wish-fulfillment — my favorite takes place in Manhattan in the hours just before dawn, culminating in three teenagers standing on the Brooklyn Bridge as the sky begins to lighten, with this song playing from one of their BlackBerries. There’s something mesmerizingly operatic to James Murphy’s nostalgia; in this respect, including “All My Friends” in Foster is my way of acknowledging the novel’s debts.
“Live To Tell The Tale” — Passion Pit
A novel set at an East Coast boarding school in the late 2000s that did not at least passingly refer to Passion Pit would be guilty of a form of malpractice. “Sleepyhead” became big in the spring of my — and Foster’s — sophomore year, but a decade and a half later, it’s this track from the group’s debut EP Chunk of Change that for me is most evocative of this period. I think this is because it’s so unabashedly a love song, so fearlessly vulnerable in the face of rapture — which to me is the best way to describe the dizzying experience of being sixteen.
Nash Jenkins grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, he worked as a correspondent for Time in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C.; his cultural commentary has also been published by the Atlantic. He received his MA from the University of Chicago in 2019 and is currently a Ph.D. student in the Program in Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago.