The fabulist stories in David Lawrence Morse’s collection The Book of Disbelieving mine the magical from the everyday.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“[I]insidiously intriguing. . . Morse reveals a[n] . . . ability to interrogate the mundane and find its surprising secrets. [These] [p]rovocative tales [are] bound to raise questions about the reader’s own assumptions.”
It might be a strange thing to say for the author of a collection of short stories called The Book of Disbelieving, but I believe in all kinds of things. For example, I believe in modern-day faith healing, by which I mean: the latest health-related study. I believe in the randomized controlled trial. I believe in the evidence accumulated by teams of researchers whose findings were reviewed by panels of experts. Researchers have discovered that cold water exposure can reduce chronic inflammation? The next day I’m shivering under the showerhead. Fasting for 14 hours—according to experts—will reduce the risk of dementia? I’m skipping breakfasts indefinitely. And so I was intrigued some years ago when I read in the New York Times that sitting all day can take years off your life, that there is a simple but effective remedy: walking for a few minutes every hour. Sitting all day is one of the hazards of the writing profession (along with alcoholism, carpal tunnel, rabid narcissism). Since I encountered that article, that’s what I’ve been doing: after an hour, I get up and walk in brisk circles around the house. While I walk, I crank a song. I can’t write while listening to music—I need cleared head space—but I love the cathartic release that music helps me attain after an hour of intense concentration at the keyboard. Often, I choose a walking song that supplements whatever writerly mood I’m in at the moment. Sometimes I go for euphoria. Other times, something brooding and pensive. Or I pick a song not based on mood but theme—a song that explores the tensions that are preoccupying me on the page. Here are nine of my favorites, all of which speak to The Book of Disbelieving’s dominant moods or themes.
1) Iron & Wine, “Thomas County Law”
Three of the stories in the collection: “Spring Leapers”, “The Market”, and “The Stubborn” are set in fictionalized versions of where I grew up: Thomas County, Georgia—so this haunting, melancholy song by Iron & Wine (the stage name for Sam Beam) is obligatory. Beam grew up in the South and attended film school at Florida State University, less than thirty miles from Thomas County. “Every dreamer falls asleep in their dancing shoes / I may say I don’t belong here but I know I do.” In these stories, there are so many dreamers who feel deeply conflicted about their communities, alienated and wanting to escape from the culture and customs (that “law” of the song’s title) by which they were raised. And yet they cannot deny the deep sense of connection that they nevertheless feel for their origin, their home. “Nobody looks away when the sun goes down,” sings Beam in the refrain, which speaks to that sense of always being watched—even in the dark, we feel the imposition of expectations as to how we should live, move, think, feel.
2) The Felice Brothers, “Jazz on the Autobahn”
“Jazz on the Autobahn” is about two adulterous lovers on the run—a sheriff and a Texas oil heiress—trying to flee their former lives but they can’t escape the feeling that not only their lives but all of humanity is on the brink of apocalypse. On the road “in a doomed corvette,” making their way “through principalities of unreality,” they trade visions of Armageddon. It’s the same kind of thing in The Book of Disbelieving—not apocalypse exactly, but I hope that one gets the sense in so many of these stories that unreality can no longer be distinguished from reality; that the fabric of society is unraveling; that our laws and customs may no longer offer salvation from chaos, which was their original purpose, but may be propelling us toward catastrophe. I love the song’s zany, offbeat lyricism, the Biblical imagery with a postmodern angle, the goofy ooh-ooh-oohs, the propulsive beat, the wandering trumpet, which, like the lovers, seems beautiful but lost. “What is freedom?” thinks the sheriff. “Is it to be empty of desire?”
3) David Lynch, “Stone’s Gone Up”
The whispering, strident, grizzled voice, like the sound of a primeval rumor; the isolated strands of guitar plucked from the void; the dreaming, wistful, troubled lyrics; the sirens of emergency responders on their way to some mysterious calamity. That’s what I hear in “Stone’s Gone Up” by David Lynch, the avant-garde filmmaker whose music, like his films, conjures weird, evocative, destabilizing dreamscapes, reminiscent, for me, of a number of stories from The Book of Disbelieving. In “The Tower,” for instance, a civilization lives a Lynchian existence climbing an infinite tower, having long ago lost any knowledge or understanding of the earth below, trying to parse, in the whistling sound of the wind and the shifting imbrications of clouds, some hint of purpose or meaning. “The wilderness stretches out forever,” Lynch sings, “You and me—could we be together?”
4) Big Thief, “Little Things”
This one is all about mood for me—it expresses so well the spirit and tone of many of the stories in the collection—specifically, “The Stubborn” and “The Market.” There’s an exquisite angst, a jangly euphoria: it’s sad, dark, hopeful, on edge. And Adrianne Lenker—the band’s songwriter and lead singer—captures so much pain and suffering through the manipulation of her voice, from her desperate warbling as she implores her lover, “Told you this once or twice/Won’t you hear?” to her abject creaturely shriek moan when she begs to know, “Where are you now? Where are you now?” The searing reverb on Buck Meek’s guitar. And those surprise wind-chimes at the end: hinting at mischief and new beginnings.
5) Waxahatchee, “Hear You”
I could have picked so many songs for this list from Out in the Storm, the brilliantly angry break-up album by Waxahatchee, the performing name for Katie Crutchfield. Like Beam, Crutchfield is a native Southerner (Waxahatchee was the name of the creek near where she grew up in rural Alabama). In “Hear You,” Crutchfield excoriates her ex-lover, who comes across as a preening, narcissistic, argumentative jerk. That energy is infectious, but for me, what I especially love about the song is how it captures that helpless feeling of alienation from those we love, which, Crutchfield suggests, has its roots in the difficulty or even impossibility of reconciling our own competing subjective realities. “You have your truth,” she sings, “and I’ll have mine.” This is a dominant thematic tension in all but two or three stories in my collection. In “The Watch,” for example, the protagonist struggles to convince her husband that the watch given to her by her late father, which mysteriously stops each night at 3:27 am, has taken on metaphysical significance. In Crutchfield’s song and in my book, too, “hearing” our loved ones is only the first step—the hard part is allowing someone else’s reality to permeate and even transform our own.
6) Frightened Rabbit, “The Modern Leper”
Like Waxahatchee, Frightened Rabbit put out several albums while I was writing The Book of Disbelieving that I couldn’t quit listening to—in particular, The Midnight Organ Fight and The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Of the almost universally excellent songs on these two albums, I’m highlighting “The Modern Leper” here because of its powerful expression of social isolation, which has reduced the protagonist of this song to a surreal state in which he’s lost his limbs and his eyesight, too. It is Scott Hutchison’s Beckettian sense of humor that I find so compelling: “You’re not ill,” he says to his lover, “and I’m not dead. Doesn’t that make us the perfect pair?” Though funny, the humor is not comic relief—it’s an expression of the futility and absurdity of the modern condition. In several of my own stories, bleakness and ludicrousness are fused as in “The Modern Leper” into a darkly comical vision. In “The Great Fish,” for example, a village has lived for centuries on the back of a giant whale, unaware of the existence of land. When a mysterious bird arrives, which they regard as a fish that can somehow fly, some predict it’s a sign of the end times. Some celebrate, marching up and down the whale’s spine. And others quarrel, hitting each other in the knees with bones. And then amidst the commotion comes the incompetence: they lose the bird. (If you like the song, check out the terrific cover by Julien Baker on the Scott Hutchison tribute album Tiny Changes, recorded after he committed suicide.)
7) JAY-Z & Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”
A hymn to anarchy, the breakdown of societal constructs, and our seemingly impossible attempts to find meaning in one another and in life itself. The beat drives incessantly, repeating chords snarling over it, escalating into climbing, screeching strings, never resolving, simply looping. There is no room for respite, no rest for the wicked. The primal animal screams continue to intensify, speaking to that wild impulse in us all, weaving in and out of guttural moan-singing, sirens, and a deep, feline roar. How can we live together under agreed-upon rules, when we constantly witness their betrayal by those bound to uphold them? Priests, police, our own partners.
The song corresponds with one particular story in the collection, “Death of the Oarsman,” in which the protagonist’s father violates an ancient custom that the villagers believe will provoke the gods’ wrath. In the aftermath, the protagonist must admit that the gods never existed—their customs had been predicated not on fact but legend (Jay-Z’s “lies on the lips of the priests”). Like the song’s non-believer, as the villagers turn against him and social order threatens to disintegrate, he is left to wonder: “Will he make it out alive?” Without a higher order in which to believe, reduced to our ugliest fundamentals, will any of us?
8) The Woes, “Alleluh”
One of the stories in the collection, “Spring Leapers,” concerns a village where, once a year each spring, the villagers leap off the roofs of their houses, trying to reach heaven. A few of them make it, most of them don’t, falling to earth, lucky if they don’t break an arm or leg or worse. This glorious song by “The Woes,” an outfit based in Brooklyn, who play a soulful, rollicking brand of bluegrass with an ironical twist, captures perfectly “Leapers” crazed-by-Jesus, helter-skelter atmosphere. “Some day glory called / I won’t contest its providence / I question if it calls / Oh Alleluh!” Don’t be fooled by that conventional banjo intro—as soon as you hear the thunderous voice of lead singer Osei Essed, like a cross between a barrel-chested baritone and a holy berserk, you’ll know that you’re in the presence of the spirit. “Now you give me that old time religion,” growls Essed over and over, while the chorus frenzies and the full band rages amok. Limbs will be broken; backs will be snapped in half; innocents will perish but that’s all right: it’s the glory of the Lord.
9) Nina Simone, “Sinnerman”
The anxious, racing, snaring, syncopated beat drives Simone’s wailing entreaties directly into the listener’s psyche. She sings of the sinner, an entity separate from herself (“Oh sinnerman, where you gonna run to?”), until she recognizes that she is—or has become—the sinner (“Please hide me, Lord, don’t you see me down here praying?”), increasingly frantic for salvation, or for some shred of hope. The arc of her struggle mirrors that of the protagonist in the collection’s final story, “The Serial Endpointing of Daniel Wheal,” in which Wheal, living in a dystopian city where corpses are considered carriers of disease, is identified as dead even as he appears to remain very much alive. At first he tries to flee, finding no place to hide, but when he is repeatedly targeted, he begins to question whether he is truly as free of the sin of contamination as he assumed, prompting a crisis of the soul of desperate, Simonian proportions.
Originally from rural south Georgia, David Lawrence Morse studied in Russia after the collapse of communism, cleaned toilets in Yosemite, and taught English then lived on a rice farm in the foothills of Yamaguchi, Japan, before eventually earning an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. His short stories have appeared in One Story, Missouri Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. His essay on the moral and political complexity of mendacity was published in The Washington Post, and his first play, Quartet, was performed by the Takács Quartet and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Morse is the director of the writing program at the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale, and he lives in New Haven, CT.