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October 4, 2007

Book Notes - Jamie Rich ("Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

To look at the cover of Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, you would think the book was young adult fiction, and you would be partly right. Teens will definitely enjoy the book, but Jamie Rich's intricate storytelling makes this tale of loss worthwhile to adults as well. As much as I adored his last novel, The Everlasting, Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? is darker and ultimately a more fulfilling read.

In his own words, here is Jamie Rich's Book Notes essay for his novel, Have You Seen The Horizon Lately?:

Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? is a bit of a departure for me. The third in a thematic trilogy that also includes my books Cut My Hair and The Everlasting*, I made a conscious decision to challenge myself and step away from the pop-culture soaked narratives that I am kind of known for. I usually absorb music like a pen sucking up ink and then spit references on the page in great goopy blobs. Not so for Horizon. I wanted to show that I could go almost completely without, except where it really made sense to the story.

This turned out to be easier than I would have thought, as it really was the perfect decision for this tale. Even so, I made an extensive playlist for myself that I could listen to when I needed to find the right mood to write the novel. Horizon is an often contemplative, melancholy book, revolving around broken promises, true love vs. human frailty, and the need for escape. As it turns out, there is no shortage of kindred material in pop music. The actual playlist is much longer and in a somewhat different order, and if LHB will indulge me, I'd like to point you to an entry on my own blog that gives you the blank tracklisting without any explanation, and fills in the four songs I left off here.

This, however, is the only place I'll tell you why.

In a nutshell, the story of Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? is the story of Percival Mendelssohn, a kind of pop philosopher who was seduced by fame and grew blind to his own ideas of what it meant to love. This lead to a tragic night where his wife Iris took her own life and prompted him to go into exile. Nearly eight years later, a young Percy fan named Julia Jimenez shows up in Beijing, knocking on the door of a man she insists is her long-lost idol. This is where the novel actually begins, as she attempts to get inside his house and draw him back into the land of the living. In this process, they share their stories, as well as those of other authors they love, finding the common link between all of us are the tales we tell about ourselves.

1. The Who – "They Are All In Love/Blue, Red and Grey"

Long before this book had its current title, I had intended to call it They Are All In Love, making it a kind of opposite end to the Who-titled Cut My Hair. It's the infamous tune where Pete Townshend wrote the lines, "Good-bye all you punks, stay young and stay high, just hand me my checkbook as I crawl off to die." Which, if you think about it, for me to throw this at my early punk rock novel and give two fingers to the success I imagined I would have (this idea came before that book was published in 2000), it's a pretty punk rock gesture. Even so, the title never really fit the story, and though I toyed with the song's more moody neighbor from Who By Numbers as a replacement, I eventually went another direction. Still, both songs always lead.

2. Suede – "He's Gone/By the Sea":

"He's Gone" is a number from the Head Music album I was kind of ambivalent about, but it's the sign of a good collaborator when she can drop something on you at just the right time to have it make sense for what you are doing. Joëlle Jones, who drew the cover for the book and who creates comic books with me, told me about her own personal connection to this song, who and what it makes her think of, and I realized that it has very obvious connections to my story of a near-messianic writer who has gone into hiding. The chorus became the opening quote in the novel. "By the Sea" has long been a favorite of my own, and it makes me think of many things that have been recurrent themes in my writing--namely, leaving one life for another, seeking some transcendence--and it was always a given for Horizon. I tell anyone and everyone that this is the song to play when I'm dead, and I mean it.

3. Faye Wong – "Dang Shi De Yue Liang (Moon at that Moment)"/ Beijing Angelic Choir – "Kitty, Stop Meowing"

Two songs that broke the rule by appearing in Horizon. Actually, the rule was quickly amended to refer particularly to the "present day" of the narrative, as opposed to the flashbacks, where music was more likely to come up. My main character, Percy, is hiding in China, however, and I thought it would make sense if some Chinese music was in his home. I have adored Faye Wong since I saw her in Chungking Express and spent many months passionately seeking out her albums. Of the many ones I acquired, this song still always strikes me the hardest. I don't know the lyrics outside of online translations, but the mood of it is so bittersweet, so romantic and kind of lonely at the same time. The Choral music has a similar longing to it, and also helped inspire my decision that the hermit author would surround himself with a large pride of stray cats.

4. Depeche Mode – "A Question of Lust/A Pain That I'm Used To"

The other rule breaker. Depeche Mode ends up being the initial thing that Percy and his wife talk about when they meet in high school. She has a Violator pin on her bag, and he recognizes it, and to me, that's young love in the modern world, forged over a badge advertising a shared band. "A Pain That I'm Used To" I felt spoke quite well to Percy's state of mind at the time of the story, whereas "A Question of Lust" is the teenaged couple's song and is used in two different contexts. Strangely, though, it wasn't on my actual playlist.

5. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – "Man Out of Time"/Elvis Costello – "Broken"

Elvis is all over this soundtrack. The more I wrote, the more I listened to his back catalogue, and the more I discovered the same emergent themes in his work. "Man Out of Time" is one of his many wry commentaries on men who are lost, who've blown it, and who are drowning in despair and humiliation. I like this one, though, because not only does it sound like impressions of a film noir movie, but it has random inklings of defiance. It drips with irony. On the other hand, "Broken" has none. It is about as naked as you can get. "And if you leave me, then I am broken, and if I'm broken, only death remains." I just got goosebumps typing that.

6. The Iris Suite: Lush – "Light from a Dead Star"/Dot Allison – "Tomorrow Never Comes"

Obviously, these songs aren't linked under this title by the artists. I put them together as the songs that would accompany my thinking of Iris, Percy's wife who committed suicide before the novel started. That's not a spoiler, it's the catalyst for Percy's flight. I needed songs that would get at her despair. My friend, the author and editor-in-chief of SLG Jennifer de Guzman, suggested I track down the Lush song. It tells the story of a man who surrounds himself with women, but maybe doesn't treat them as he should. (Jennifer was my visual cue for the other main character in the book, Julia, so I had to listen.) On the other hand, "Tomorrow Never Comes," sung so beautifully and heart-wrenchingly by Dot Allison, has the right kind of emotional punch for Iris. It's an apologetic farewell to a lover, and listening with the events of the book in mind, considering it coming from a suicide, it makes me hate myself all the more for what I put Iris through. Why is she apologizing to Percy? After a ginger-vodka fuelled night writing about Iris, I had to ignore Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? for over a month. The resultant scar that was on my arm has pretty much disappeared.

7. Keane – "Fly To Me" "When I am an old man and live by the sea…fly to me." It's actually kind of funny that I didn't put this story in a seaside town of some kind, as images of exile by the water will keep coming up in these songs. Horizon has roots in my novella I Was Someone Dead, which in my fictional world was written by Percy, and that's on an island. This time around, though, an island in metaphor only.

8. Sinead O'Connor – "Sacrifice"

This is an Elton John cover, but no one can sing it like Sinead. It's so painful, so bitter, so full of heartache. Listen to it on headphones as loud as you can stand it. The song starts off very quiet, a whisper, but it grows in volume moment to moment, until the hurt turns into righteous bile. I'd hate to be the "you" on the other end of this lashing out, but then again, it might be worse that I tend to recognize myself swimming through the same spite.

9. Fiona Apple – "Never is a Promise" In a similar vein, Fiona demands a certain commitment to eternity from her lover. Horizon deals a lot with promises, fidelity, what concepts like "forever" mean and how it runs afoul of human weakness.

10. Gene – "You"

Like Costello's "Broken," this is about as unironic as you can get. Gene have been a huge influence on me, as I really think Martin Rossiter has an incredible ability to capture real human feeling in his lyrics. In this case, the song's lack of irony is a strike in the "win" column. It's my moment of romantic abandon in the soundtrack. It's an unabashed tribute to someone else's ability to change your life, which, despite all the dour backstory in Horizon, is really where this is all going.

11. Elvis Costello & Steve Nieve – "I Want to Vanish/Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?/Poor Fractured Atlas"

Though the original versions of these songs from the remarkable Attractions album All this Useless Beauty would work as well, I wanted the simplicity of the live versions from the Costello & Nieve boxed set that came out at the same time--just a singer and his pianist. Elvis' singing in these versions is more raw, more open to the moment. Once again, you can see it in the titles, the themes of trying to get away, the acerbic view of manhood and what men do to try to prove themselves. I hate to say it, but I'm not a big fan of men. I think most of us are failures at this whole male thing. I don't like what we do to our women. Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? both chastises its central fella for his misbehavior and hopefully goes a little way at redeeming the species at the same time. (And yes, if there is a Y-chromosome club, my membership just got revoked--but I used to have to take P.E., so it's not like there wasn't prior evidence that I never really belonged.)

12. The Divine Comedy – "Too Young To Die/Tonight We Fly"

Literate, adolescent self-pity about a displaced whiner who feels as if he is neither a child nor an adult, who then runs away on a romantic lark with an undetermined mate. If I were a musician, I could have done in 7 minutes 17 seconds what it took me 90,000 or so words to get at in a novel. Plus, I'd get more chicks. (Great, now the X-chromosome club won't invite me to their banquet either. I had to go for the cheap joke!)

13. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – "Julia's Song"/The Rubettes – "Julia"

Not necessarily thematically sound as far as the lyrics go, but if Iris was to get her two songs, and Percy to get his infinite amount, then Julia deserves a couple. The Rubettes actually capture the ebullient tone her presence would hopefully bring to Percy's life in exile.

14. Simon & Garfunkel – "Kathy's Song"

"And the song I was writing is left undone/ I don't know why I spend my time/ Writing songs I can't believe/ With words that tear and strain to rhyme."

15. Morrissey – "At Last I Am Born"

Traditionally, this finishes my playlist, because it's the kind of explosive change I was hoping to achieve with the book. The final song on Morrissey's most recent album, it has this amazing orchestral sweep to it. It's a song about triumph, about realizing all that has held him back lo these many years is meaningless, and finding some kind of rebirth in a Camus-like rejection of his sad and twisted life.

16. Sarah Nixey – "Love & Exile" Not actually on my playlist, as I got my hands on Sarah's Sing, Memory album after the novel was put to bed, but this particular song's title became the three-word description of the book and we used it as a design element when we put it all together.

17. Geneva – "If You Have To Go/Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?"

This band came and went in the late '90s, leaving us with two diamond-perfect albums. Both of these songs are off of their second one, never released in the U.S., Weather Underground. The title of that record alone fits what I am trying to do: a storm beneath the surface of the known, allusions to people with radical ideas going off the grid. "If You Have to Go" is quintessential Geneva. It's melancholy and resigned to a sort of failing, while also being full of love and hope. In my mind, it's about saying good-bye to someone who you can't be with, but giving that solemn promise that you will never, ever let the love go (and, as we've learned, never is a promise).

On the heels of that, "Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?" is what happens when you step away at the end of the "If You Have To Go" (which closes on a refrain of "and I don't know why" over and over). Philosophically, I believe that if you make that kind of promise, if you say that you've reached the end of the emotional line and choose to freeze your heart at this point of pure devotion, it's that existential leap of faith/freedom that releases you from the bonds of common feeling. I don't think it's mere coincidence that much of the artwork on the Geneva album showed images of space capsules disengaging from their main rockets. "Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?" is the sound of jettisoning yourself into something grand, turning around, and holding out your hand in hopes that your one special person will accept your grasp. Ignore all your troubles, my darling, and just look at what is out there!

I'm guessing most of you don't know Geneva, but you should really seek them out. Their two albums-- Further and Weather Underground--can often be found ridiculously cheap in the used section of Amazon. The lead singer, Andrew Montgomery, has a voice that is angelic, transcending all earthly strictures much like I suggest the song "Horizon" does. He's got a new band called St. Famous, whom you can find on MySpace. I recently had the joy of trading a couple of messages with Andrew and telling him about this book. If I can thank him for the inspiration by turning a few listeners his way, mission accomplished.

* Thematic in that they all advance similar ideas in different stages, but not so tied up in plot that you can't read them stand-alone. Feel free to start with this one. It's pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Jamie Rich and Have You Seen The Horizon Lately? links:

the author's blog
the author's MySpace page

the author's Book Notes essay for his novel The Everlasting

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)