Lexi Kent-Monning’s novel The Burden Of Joy is a stunning debut, one of my favorite books of the year.
The Burden of Joy is an autofiction novel narrated by a woman whose husband leaves her on Valentine’s Day to join a commune in Big Sur. From there, the narrator grapples with that abandonment, her near-hedonistic obsession to nurture others, infatuation, substances, sex, and a parade of dead animals. But like most of my favorite art, it’s just about love and disappointment. I wrote the first draft in almost a fever, always accompanied by music that touches on these themes. I’m one of the lucky ones who can write even when listening to music with lyrics, and am more inspired by music than I am by any other art form. Mostly I listen to music because of the mood a specific song can evoke, and that’s my goal when I write, too: I want a sentence or paragraph to conjure an emotion for the reader. Listening to music while I write is also a visual tool for me too, because I see colors when I hear songs. I would rearrange my playlist depending on whether I felt like the next chapter had to feel blue or yellow, for example; it’s my way of story-boarding or outlining. And of course, a good song is always such a valuable lesson in craft. The way songwriters tell their stories is magical to me: concise but messy, personal yet mythical. That’s how I wanted The Burden of Joy to feel.
- La Mer – Nine Inch Nails
- All Night – Beyonce
They might be an unlikely pair, but these two songs really speak to each other in my mind. I created a playlist called “get through the goddamn day” that was just these two songs, and I listened to it ten million times while writing The Burden of Joy. Trent Reznor wrote this song in Big Sur, which is mostly where I wrote this book, and I would just drive along the cliffs listening to this song over and over, composing sentences in my head. I wanted the book to have the same feeling of tension this song has, that gives way to an eerie momentum. The Beyonce song I think is one of the most tender post-cheating songs ever written. That feeling of “I will forgive you but you haven’t even asked for forgiveness yet,” the underlying hope that’s still somehow there, even when you know better. These songs follow the same structure to me of desperation and longing giving way to a possibly misguided hope. I think I subconsciously wrote along the same structure.
- For One Moment – Lee Hazlewood
- I Need You – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
The feeling of sudden solitude is so beautifully distilled in these two songs. They’re both simple in their pleas, but they’re holding so much back. My goal in writing this book was to mimic that – encapsulating the universal feeling of begging for something to change.
- Bixby Canyon Bridge – Death Cab for Cutie
Growing up, my sister and I held our breath every time we crossed the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, and it was such a formative tradition that I wrote it into the book. It was outside the realm of my imagination that one of my future friends would write a song about it decades later, that I’d write a book, and that I’d listen to that song while writing that book. Ben (Gibbard) even blurbed The Burden of Joy. What a gift when your childhood and adulthood collide in such an unexpected and meaningful way. I’m also a sucker for an e-bow!
- Swim in the Light – Kid Cudi
The person the “Daniel” character is based on sent me this song when I was just starting to put together fragments that became this book. It was surreal to be elated at being sent such a dark song, but knowing he was thinking of me meant I listened to it obsessively. The refrain in this song, “You could try and numb the pain, but it’ll never go away,” is echoed throughout the book by the character Lexi, who tries anything and everything to feel differently than she does.
- Full Moon – Eden Ahbez
What a lovely and strange song. I’m so drawn to the kindness and peace in his voice, and I listened to this living in my tiny coastal town, where I did all the things he does in the song – lived with the dawn and dusk, combed the beach, gathered, hiked to the marketplace. The comfort he reaches in recognizing he’s nothing and everything is aspirational for the narrator in The Burden of Joy.
- Breathless – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
I wrote about this song in the book, both directly and indirectly. The myth of Orpheus, a folky bounciness from Nick Cave, animals in the lyrics…it’s all catnip to me! The lyric “still your face comes shining through” is from a super old song he played live as a duet with Kylie Minogue a million years ago that I had a video bootleg of, and I was beside myself when he finally used the lyric in an official release. I will happily listen to any love story Nick Cave wants to tell.
- No More Honey – Blonde Redhead
The mood of this song is so tangible to me – blurry and sensual. I listened to this song specifically while writing sex scenes between Leo and the narrator in The Burden of Joy. Kazu’s vocal here is so soft but sure, and the guitars are kind of languid. It feels simultaneously intentional and accidental, and I’m so captivated by it. I don’t think there’s a sexier band on earth than Blonde Redhead.
- With Every Heartbeat – Robyn
How satisfying is a sad Scandinavian pop song? The way she sings “We could keep trying, but things will never change” is so devastating. I love how she’s talking herself out of her feelings and trying to be logical, but ultimately just gives in to the pain with the repetition at the end of “and it hurts with every heartbeat.” The Burden of Joy has a lot of character interiority and I used these lyrics as an example of how to do that while still being engaging. I feel like it can be really easy to lose a reader with too much interiority, so striking a balance was tricky and important. I saw Robyn live and at the end of this song she turned around and pretended to make out with herself, that old gag of running your own hands up and down the back of your body and in your hair. That’s it. That’s exactly it.
- By Your Side – CocoRosie
One of the most barren and brutal elements of The Burden of Joy is the narrator’s increasing grasping at straws to maintain a connection to Daniel and Leo. She’s willing to compromise and forfeit so much of herself and her beliefs just to keep them. I found this song when I was editing the fifth draft and it fit my playlist perfectly. Sonically, I love that super rich vocal at the forefront and the lo-fi soundscape in the background…and the birds!
- My Shadow Life – Mark Lanegan, Duke Garwood
Sparse and scratchy. I couldn’t write a book about fucked up love without Mark Lanegan. Nobody should, really.
- Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) – Irma Thomas
This is such a strange song – the bells sound slightly creepy, and the lyrics could be sung by a Stepford Wife. I almost feel claustrophobic listening to it. What a fantastic embodiment of lovesickness.
- See Saw – LEVY
Another juxtapositional song – it’s so upbeat, but the lyrics are so quietly sad and defeated. It feels like the singer, James Levy, is waving his white flag and forfeiting. This one hits me hard and really resonated for me in terms of the arc of the narrator towards the end of the book.
- Same Ol’ Mistakes – Rihanna
My writing mentor, Chelsea Hodson, had this on her Largehearted Boy playlist and we listened to it a lot on car rides during a workshop I did with her when I first started writing The Burden of Joy. It made the cut on every playlist I made for every draft of the book in the following 5 years, so I had to include it here! This song hypnotizes me. I know if I put it on repeat, I’ll hit my word count goal for the day – it just puts me in a complete trance.
- Beside You in Time – Nine Inch Nails
I have to start and end with Nine Inch Nails. Musically, this song is one of their most haunting. It feels wobbly and unsafe to start, but it slowly builds to solid ground. The narrator is saying goodbye to someone he loves, greeting an ending, and finally rejoicing in the fact that this snapshot of their lives will always bind them, and will always exist to them. I found that sentiment so comforting as I wrote about heartbreak and parting in The Burden of Joy. Writing this book was my way of saving a snapshot.
Lexi Kent-Monning is an alumna of the Tyrant Books workshop Mors Tua Vita Mea in Sezze Romano, Italy, taught by Giancarlo DiTrapano and Chelsea Hodson. Lexi’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in XRAY, Joyland, Tilted House Review, Neutral Spaces, Little Engines, and elsewhere. A native Californian, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY.