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March 18, 2008

Book Notes - Kevin Brockmeier ("The View from the Seventh Layer")

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

Kevin Brockmeier's collection of short fiction, The View from the Seventh Layer is published today, and shows the talent and vision that caused Granta to name him one of the best young American novelists. As much as I enjoy Brockmeier's novels, his short stories are what I truly savor, he is a genuine master of the form.

In his own words, here is Kevin Brockmeier's Book Notes essay for his short fiction collection, The View from the Seventh Layer:

One of the games I like to play with my music collection is to classify each of the artists, without time for reflection, as either science fiction or not science fiction. Nearly always, I can make the determination immediately, even if I might find it difficult to justify afterward. I suppose that I’m guided mainly by tone and delivery, rather than subject matter, genre, or musicianship. David Bowie, for instance, even ignoring his role in The Man Who Fell to Earth and his Ziggy Stardust period, is quite obviously science fiction, while Creedence Clearwater Revival is obviously not. Kate Bush is science fiction, while Tori Amos (despite some similarities of presentation) is not. Radiohead, Bjork, and Roxy Music-post-1976 are all science fiction; R.E.M., Van Morrison, and Roxy Music-pre-1976 are not. Almost all synth pop music: science fiction. Almost all adult contemporary music: not.

The View from the Seventh Layer is not strictly or even primarily a work of science fiction; in a collection of thirteen stories, I would say that four of them fall squarely within the science fiction and fantasy tradition, four of them squarely outside, and the other five straddle the border, some leaning most of their weight toward realism, some toward fantasy or science fiction. (And yes, I’m aware that science fiction and fantasy are not one and the same. A few fantasy- but-not-science-fiction bands: The Divine Comedy, Nilsson, The Magnetic Fields, and Dead Can Dance.) That said, the question of which musicians are science fiction and which not is one that I began to toy around with when I was writing the stories included in the collection. Here, then, is one possible soundtrack—

Ten Songs by Science Fiction Bands:

1. “Strange Angels” by Laurie Anderson (from Strange Angels)

“They say that Heaven is like TV / A perfect little world / That doesn’t really need you / And everything there / Is made of light / And the days keep going by.”

Almost any Laurie Anderson song could be used as an illustration here—certainly “O Superman”—but Strange Angels is my favorite of her albums, and also, I believe, the most underrated.

2. “These Are Your Friends” by Adem (from Homesongs)

“What have you done? / You’re cutting your cord / You’re floating in space / But these are your friends / They’ll be your star-map home.”

Though his second album, Love and Other Planets, is more explicitly science fiction, this track from Homesongs is his finest, I think. Both albums are filled with quiet, spacious, cozy yet challenging songs, many of them so uncluttered that you can hear each note striking against the silence.

3. “Clean Steve” by Robyn Hitchcock (from Eye)

“‘There’s tentacles between our worlds,’ / He said, ‘so I believe.’ / I said, ‘The man next door’s best friend / Was making videos with Clean Steve.’”

I think of Robyn Hitchcock as a science fiction performer in the “soft” European tradition—like Karel Capek, Dino Buzzati, or J. Rodolfo Wilcock.

4. “Hallelujah” by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra (from Melody Mountain)

“There’s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”

Here we have the only recording of this Leonard Cohen track to rival Jeff Buckley’s, from my favorite album of the decade so far—a slow, deliberate, intimately presented collection of cover songs with minimal acoustic and electronic accompaniment, all voiced by one of the most expressive singers in the world. Susanna and the Magical Orchestra are among the very few performers whose new releases I make a point of buying the moment they become available. (The others? Richard Shindell, Jim Bianco, and Iris DeMent—none of them remotely science fiction). They record for Rune Grammofon, the most trustworthy label around these days.

5. “Good Old World (Waltz)” by Tom Waits (from Night on Earth: Original Soundtrack Recording)

“When I was a boy, the moon was a pearl, the sun a yellow gold / But when I was a man, the wind blew cold, the hills were upside down.”

Tom Waits is, of course, one of the great beautiful freaks of rock music. His Island records are all science fiction, his Asylum records not.

6. “The Apocalypse Song” by St. Vincent (from Marry Me)

“It’s time / You are light / I guess you are afraid of what everyone is made of.”

Marry Me is a beautiful, ornate, intelligent collection of sharp-cornered love and disintegration songs. The whole album breathes the air of science fiction without ever being too obvious about it.

7. “Doctor (A Visit to the)” by Stump (from A Fierce Pancake)

“A woman on the television said she was a fantasy side holiday in Ballybunion taken when the light was off the cuff remark led to a head but when the light it was an office space the final frontier boldly go where no man goes at all.”

This long-deleted masterpiece is one of the finest and oddest albums of the 1980's, with jagged melodies, calculatedly scattershot drumwork, and picturesque lyrics about pirates, cavemen, and Charlton Heston, all of it somehow adding up to a suite of perfect pop songs.

8. “Vampires in Blue Dresses” by Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s (from The Dust of Retreat)

“Your mother is a vampire / She sucked your old man’s life away / Turn everything off / Just cover your neck / Cause life is full of your regrets / And I should be one.”

I know, I know—vampires aren’t science fiction, and yet the album as a whole has an unmistakable SF flavor to it, even if I couldn’t find any lyrics to bear out the assertion. This one seems to grow truer and more cutting every time I listen to it.

9. “Masterfade” by Andrew Bird (from Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs)

“And when you look up at the sky / All you see are zeros / All you see are zeros and ones.”

If Robyn Hitchcock is science fiction in the “soft” European tradition, then Andrew Bird is science fiction in the warm, flawlessly composed, character-driven tradition of such American writers as Jonathan Lethem and Walter Tevis.

10. “Objects Began to Appear from the Future” by Alog (from Duck-Rabbit)

“[Various whistling and beeping effects]”

This instrumental track from the Norwegian experimental outfit (also on the Rune Grammofon label) sounds vaguely like the kind of song you might get if you started an electronica band and made R2-D2 your vocalist.

Kevin Brockmeier and The View from the Seventh Layer links:

Kevin Brockmeier's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for his novel, The Brief History of the Dead

the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at the publisher

Earthgoat interview with the author
Granta profile of the author
Interstitial Arts profile of the author interview with the author interview with the author

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 (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)