Rebekah Bergman’s debut The Museum of Human History is one of the year’s most inventive and compelling novels.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“With melancholy imagination, Bergman elegantly tackles nothing less than the entire arc of human history. . . . the novel blends fairy tale, philosophy, and shades of literary-futurist classics like Never Let Me Go.”
My debut novel, The Museum of Human History, is told through a chorus of voices. It follows several characters whose lives cross paths with Maeve Wilhelm, a girl in a coma who has stopped physically aging. The characters grapple with time–what it takes from us and what it gives us–and the delight and anxiety of memory. Among them, there is a museum owner who feels dwarfed by his famous family, a performance artist with a mysterious past, an entomologist who dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist, and Maeve’s identical twin. The novel draws from the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty and, to borrow an image, writing it often felt like using a spinning wheel to pull out each individual character’s thread, gradually and iteratively.
In my non-writing life, the eight years I spent on the book were a time of great change: there was the pandemic, two moves, death and grief, pregnancy and parenthood, and the list goes on. Through it all, I had these characters who were coming more and more vividly to life in my pages. Now that I’ve finished the book, I miss learning the hopes and regrets and idiosyncrasies of these fictional people.
In keeping with the book’s themes, I’ve curated this playlist as a kind of time capsule. These are songs I listened to while writing but also songs that I hope will serve as mementos, reminding me of the people that populated my book–and my mind and spirit–for the better part of a decade.
7/4 (shoreline) by Broken Social Scene
Broken Social Scene must be the band I listened to more than any other while writing. Though usually I had their ambient, mostly instrumental debut album Feel Good Lost on repeat, it’s the song “7/4 (Shoreline)” from their self-titled album that I suspect will bring the neighbors in my novel back to me. 7/4 is a propulsive song with a distinct beat that includes Feist on vocals.
Since the neighbors in my book speak and operate as a group, the musical collective of Broken Social Scene feels fitting for them. The neighbors are a gossipy bunch and they provide commentary on the book’s major events, including, early on, when hazardous red algae begins washing up on the shoreline of their private beach.
Under the Table by Fiona Apple
When Fiona Apple’s album Fetch the Bolt Cutters came out, it was the early days of the pandemic. I was locked down, as we all were. For me, that meant I was trying to finish a first draft of my novel while stuck in a small Brooklyn apartment with my partner and a very large dog. Our tiny patch of an outdoor balcony became my oasis. At 7pm every evening, I went out there to join the rest of New York City in applauding for essential workers and also just going a little bit wild making noise, screaming, and banging on pans.
Sometimes as I waited for that 7pm release, I sat out there with my laptop and listened to Fiona Apple’s then-new album. Its mix of fury and playfulness was exactly what I needed (although I’d have to apologize to my dog who would whine at the recorded barking at the end of a few tracks).
The speaker of “Under the Table” is funny and bold and a little petulant. “Kick me under the table all you want,” she repeats, “I won’t shut up.” She refuses to be shushed or pushed and she’d beg to disagree with you but, she notes, begging itself disagrees with her. All of this sounds just like Maeve’s twin sister Evangeline. Evangeline can see the hypocrisy of the adults around her and she is never too shy to say it out loud.
Pray for Me by The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar
To draft this novel, I blocked out long stretches of time on weekends and evenings over the course of years. When I got stuck and the weather allowed, I would put on my sneakers and headphones and go for a run. The exercise, fresh air, and music could sometimes help me see a problem from a different angle.
Months and even years after the release of Black Panther, my running playlist was mainly the Black Panther album. Though my runs were short and slow and I wasn’t training for anything, Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant album made me feel strong and powerfully competitive. I’d return to my desk ready to channel that energy on the page.
Monique Gray’s story took me more time than any other character’s to figure out. So there were a lot of runs as I worked on her chapters and tried to get myself unstuck. She is a performance artist who hid her grief and personal tragedy when she fled her home as a refugee. The Black Panther album was the backdrop to a lot of my thinking through the history of her country. Now, it’s the sung chorus of “Pray for Me” that feels emotional and urgent and weighted with Gray’s life: “Who gon’ pray for me? Take my pain for me?” The Weeknd asks. These are some of Monique’s central questions too.
Elvis Perkins – While You Were Sleeping
This song is beautiful and nostalgic and–I believe–features a theremin, the eeriest of instruments. It’s written in direct address to someone who is asleep and has been for a while. The lyrics are about the passage of time and all that this person has missed in their slumber. Lionel Wilhelm, Maeve’s father, stumbles into a life and a family that then slips away from him. He ends up devoting himself fully to Maeve’s care. He comes across as, at turns, entirely hopeless and naively hopeful, horribly selfish and frustratingly selfless. To me, he is extremely loveable despite his very obvious flaws. This is a song I’ve loved for a long, long time–even before there ever was a Lionel–but now it only makes me think of him.
I Hope I Think of Bike Riding When I’m Dying by Neat Beats
To be honest, this song came on my radar thanks to the Spotify algorithm, which picked up on my occasional leanings toward experimental, collage music like The Books and kept feeding me more. Most of these were misses, I have to say, but this one has been in heavy rotation ever since it showed up on my Discover Weekly.
“I Hope I Think of Bike Riding When I’m Dying” is a short trip hop song. It features a vocal sample of what sounds like a home video of a dad teaching his child how to ride a two-wheeler. There is genuine joy in his voice as he introduces the viewer (and listener) to the scene. He is encouraging (“You can do it, sweetheart”) and attentive (“Are you alright?”) and then proud when, presumably, his child successfully rides off away from him. This plays and fades as a melodic piano riff builds and repeats. The combination feels like the kind of half-dream, half-memory you have right before falling asleep or right upon waking.
A home video is such a wonderfully manufactured kind of memory. It’s a story being told to the future of a past that is still the present. Is there a more perfect song to embody the strange limbo state of a character who fell into a coma in childhood and stops aging for a quarter century? Also, what a gorgeous title for a song.
Crucify Your Mind by Rodríguez
I began listening to folk musician Rodriguez after watching the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Knowing the true story of the singer-songwriter’s life added another layer to the folksy simplicity of his music. In short: despite positive reviews to his first albums in the early 70s, Rodriguez was dropped from his label because of lackluster sales. He quit music completely and took work in demolition in Detroit. Unbeknownst to him, however, his music was extremely popular in South Africa. His songs became anti-apartheid anthems and bootlegged versions of his albums were said to have sold more copies than Elvis. No one in South Africa knew who he was or what had happened to him, but they knew his music.
This unexpected path toward unknown fame feels very reminiscent of Kevin Marks. Kevin Marks is the son and grandson of local heroes. He opens up a museum to house their legacy out of his paralyzing fear that he would never live up to them. In his world, Kevin feels limited and small, but to me, he is a hero of the novel.
Tess and Luke
Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying by Labi Siffre
Here’s another song by a singer-songwriter from the 70s. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. The repetitive lyrical structure feels lifted from a poem. And the way the lyrics shift subtly verse by verse until a final reversal gives it a final moment of levity and humor.
Tess, in my book, is a writer of lists that also sound a bit like poems. She is terminally ill but she never loses her humor. Her husband Luke proves unable to ever get over his grief after her death.
“Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying” sounds immediately like it belongs to a bygone era of music. And in a book of people obsessed with the future and eager to adopt all kinds of early technology, Luke and Tess stand out for their retro tastes and love of antiques.
Samson by Regina Spektor
For a portion of the pandemic lockdown, I passed the time trying to re-learn and learn the piano and this song was a favorite one for me to tinker with. I love Regina Spektor’s narrative lyrics and gorgeous piano arrangement. And Samson is a melancholy character study–focusing on a Biblical-inspired Delilah who was in love with the titular Samson.
“The history books forgot about us,” she laments. It’s a wonderful line for Syl who is in love with a historian two decades her senior and who ends up powerless against her own memory loss, forgetting him.
Syl was also the very first character I wrote, and so I’ve known her the longest. “I loved you first,” as Spektor sings.
Rebekah Bergman’s fiction has been published in Joyland, Tin House, The Masters Review Anthology, and other journals. She lives in Rhode Island with her family. The Museum of Human History (Tin House, August 2023) is her first novel. Read more: rebekahbergman.com