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February 14, 2006

Book Notes - Kevin Brockmeier ("The Brief History of the Dead")

Last year, the Boondogs, a band from Little Rock, sent me a collection of short stories by a local author to thank me for posting about them. The book, Kevin Brockmeier's Things That Fall From the Sky, was filled with many stories I had previously enjoyed in literary magazines and short story collections. When I heard he was releasing a new book this year (today, officially), I knew two things immediately: that I would have to read the novel and that he would be a perfect fit for the "book notes" series. The novel, inspired by Brockmeier's 2003 short story of the same name, is about a city at the end of the world (quite literally), and fascinates both conceptually and with Brockmeier's easy and often witty style.

Visit the book's website as well as its MySpace page.

In his own words, here is Kevin Brockmeier's "book notes" submission for his novel, The Brief History of the Dead:

The Brief History of the Dead takes place in two separate terrains: the odd-numbered chapters of the book are set in a city populated exclusively by the dead but not yet forgotten, while the even-numbered chapters are set in our own world, the world of the living, at some point in the near but indeterminate future. Much of the novel's action is shaped by the dissemination of a lethal virus, which has a desolating effect on both the inhabitants of our own world and, eventually, as the people who succumb to the virus die and take their memories along with them, on the residents of the city. I was curious as I wrote the book about how those residents would react to the circumstances of their existence, what kind of relationships they would form with each other, and what they would do when it came time for them to pass out of living memory.

I don't ordinarily listen to music while I write, for the simple reason that I'm usually setting off in pursuit of some specific rhythm and I find that music almost always disrupts that rhythm rather than enhances it. That said, I do interrupt myself pretty frequently to listen to one song or another. This happens at least a few times a day, most typically when a phrase I've written down starts ricocheting around in my head and brings a particular song to mind. I could tell you quite a bit about the music the characters in some of my previous books would be likely to have enjoyed, but in the case of The Brief History of the Dead, because the novel is set in two such unusual landscapes, I'm afraid that most of the music in question would be completely unfamiliar to me. Instead, what I have to offer are a number of songs that I either associated with the book as I was writing it or that I have come to associate with it since, almost all of them taking up one posture or another toward death. Here, then, are---

Nine Songs about Death ... and One That Didn't Seem to Be until I Really Started Thinking about It:

1. “I'm Not Afraid to Die” by Gillian Welch

“Nobody knows / What waits ahead / Beyond the earth and sky / Lai-de-lai-de-lai / I'm not afraid to die.”

Not long ago somebody asked me if there were any songs I was in the habit of listening to when I was writing The Brief History of the Dead, and this was the first one that came to mind. Again, I never actually listened to it as I was writing, but the song has a wonderful, simple, drifting quality that seems almost dateless to me and that I hope is well-matched to the book. The melody is one of the best Gillian Welch has ever produced, the kind of tune that can go (and has gone) rolling and swaying through my head for hours on end without ever becoming unwelcome to me.

2. “Death Is Not the End” by The Waterboys

“When you're standing at a crossroads / That you cannot comprehend / Just remember / Death is not the end / And when all your dreams have vanished / And you don't know what’s around the bend / Just remember / Death is not the end.”

I understand that this is actually a Bob Dylan song, but the version I know is a beautiful, Celtic-accented, live rendition by The Waterboys, with the sound of one person clapping at the very end. I like to imagine the song being adopted as a hymn by some church somewhere, since it seems to have something of the buoyancy and delight that many hymns must have had before all the revelry was drained out of them by tradition.

3. “Pictures of Success” by Rilo Kiley

“When you're dead / In hospitals and on freeways / When you're dead / In resting homes and clinics / When you're dead / It must be nice to finish / When you're dead.”

I was listening to a lot of Rilo Kiley during the time I was writing this book, particularly their second album, The Execution of All Things, which is one of my two or three favorite records of the last few years. I first heard this particular song when I was borrowing the car of a friend who had cued it up and left it waiting for me in her CD player---I replaced it before I returned the car with a CD of songs from The Muppet Show, which may not sound like a kind gesture but was. The chorus here (this is the Rilo Kiley song I'm talking about, not the Muppets one) reminds me of the work of J.G. Ballard, the great poet of apocalyptic fiction, in its embrace of extinction and its mood of haunted clarity.

4. “My Home in the Sky” by Greg Brown

“Well, I don't need no angels / With big chicken wings / Or halos or harps / Or none of those things / I just want to do / What the thunderheads do / And see the sunset and the moonrise / From a new point of view.”

This song is lighter in spirit than most of the others on this list, a sweet-natured, bucolic, dirt-roads-and-open-fields sort of serenade about a man who would rather float through the clouds when he dies than walk through the gates of that city on the hill. Greg Brown has a lazy bearish rumble of a voice that somehow comes across as infinitely comforting and trustworthy, and I'm willing to believe every word he sings.

5. “The Graveyard Song” by Robin Holcomb

“No marker here will name the place / Where ashes float like laughter / I cast them out and I see your face / The words come tumbling after.”

I'm a soft touch, as any of my friends will tell you, but I'll confess for what it’s worth that this song always makes me tear up. It’s a delicate, carefully sculptured elegy with solo piano accompaniment. I often feel foolish talking about music because I don't play an instrument, and I don't know the vocabulary, and the way music operates is almost entirely mysterious to me, so I find myself trying to invent new words to describe what I imagine must be utterly common experiences. Nevertheless, I wish someone could explain to me how such a sad song manages to take on so much elation at the very moment Robin Holcomb sings “How I shall pass I cannot know / But I don't mind to be starting over.”

6. “When I'm Gone” by Phil Ochs

“Won't see the golden of the sun when I'm gone /And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I'm gone / Can't be singing louder than the guns when I'm gone / So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here.”

I've known this song longer than any of the others on this list. Like many people my age, I was introduced to Phil Ochs through the music of Billy Bragg, and I remember singing their songs in classrooms and hallways with my high school friends, back when we all used to sing all the time. Both Ochs and Bragg are famous primarily for their topical songs, which was probably what drew me to them at first, but it’s their other songs, the ones about love and loss and aging into their own characters, that I appreciate the most today. In any case, I think this is Ochs's gentlest and loveliest song, a perfect little seize-the-day ballad, and also the one that’s likeliest to last.

7. “Hope There’s Someone” by Antony and the Johnsons

“Oh I'm scared of the middle place / Between life and nowhere / I don't want to be the one / Left in there, left in there.”

I heard this song for the first time just a few weeks ago, on a mix CD that a friend gave me for Christmas. Antony sounds something like a cross between Nina Simone and Tiny Tim, with a little bit of Boy George thrown into his phrasing, and I'll admit that my first thought upon hearing him was “What in God's name is this?” But I felt driven to keep listening to him, and I quickly began to think of him as one of the music world’s beautiful freaks, in company with people like Iris DeMent and Tom Waits, whose voices have always seemed so unique and expressive and moving to me. Much of Things That Fall From the Sky, by the way, in set in the “middle place between life and nowhere” that Antony sings about here.

8. “(I Love) The World” by New Model Army

“And if one day the final fire / Explodes across the whitened sky / I know you've said you'd rather die / And make it over fast / With courage from your bravest friends / Waiting outside for the end / With no bitterness, but an innocence / That I can't seem to grasp.”

New Model Army was my favorite band when I was eighteen, and this was my favorite of their songs---the one great post-apocalyptic post-punk track I've ever run across. I remember pulling into the parking lot of a Denny's late one night shortly before I left for college, shutting off the engine, and drumming along with this song on the steering wheel until it finished, then opening my eyes and realizing that all my friends had gathered around the car to watch me perform.

9. “Tonight We Fly” by The Divine Comedy

“And when we die / Oh will we be that disappointed or sad / If Heaven doesn't exist? / What will we have missed? / This life is the best we've ever had.”

I spent a year studying in Northern Ireland when I was in college, where my finest discoveries were the music of The Divine Comedy and the books of Robert McLiam Wilson (whose story in Granta's most recent “Best of Young British Novelists” issue was both the most satisfying and the least commented upon, by the way). This particular song is another one about taking up residence in the sky, but nimble and ecstatic where the Greg Brown song is pastoral and contemplative, the whole thing propelled forward by a flawless combination of drum, piano, and strings.

10. “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison

“And you shall take me strongly / In your arms again / And I will not remember / That I ever felt the pain / And we shall walk and talk / In gardens all misty wet with rain / And I will never, never, never / Grow so old again.”

I would probably call this my single favorite song, and while I had never exactly thought of it as a death-song before I began to put this list together, the lyrics do seem to have a certain paradisiacal, back-in-the-arms-of-Eden quality to them, don't they? In any case, I've been listening to it for a long time now, and it never fails to command my attention. It has a wonderfully inspired structure, looping and rising and looping again like a hundred circles stacked one on top of another, and I don't think that Van Morrison has ever again been able to testify quite so convincingly as he does here---and not just with one particular lyric, but at every single moment. The song reminds me in a way that I would find hard to pinpoint of one of my favorite novels, Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, perhaps because both of them are works I think of as celebrating in the face of all the suffering in the world. I can't tell you how much joy listening to this one brings me.

see also:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)