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October 30, 2008

Book Notes - Ben Parzybok ("Couch")

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

I first discovered Small Beer Press through the works of Kelly Link (who co-founded the press with her husband, Gavin Grant). Since reading her short fiction first collection, Stranger Things Happen, in 2001, Small Beer has introduced me to many interesting books and authors, and I have never been disappointed with a volume they have published.

Couch is the first novel they have published from their "slush pile" (unsolicited manuscripts), and it's easy to see what made Ben Parzybok's book stand out. Parzybok's debut novel is a fantastic tale of three roommates (one an infamous computer hacker, one a con man, and one a psychic) and their possibly magical couch on a thrilling and often hilarious quest.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Parzybok's quirky humor recalls the flaws and successes of early Douglas Adams."

In his own words, here is Ben Parzybok's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, Couch:

Composing and listening to music go hand in hand for me, and I'm deeply indebted to some of these musicians for influencing and inspiring my work. I interpreted creating a soundtrack roughly - some of this would go in the movie, were the book made into one, others I wedged into the soundtrack because I couldn't imagine leaving them out.

Thom is a computer geek whose hacking of a certain Washington-based software giant has won him a little fame but few job prospects. Erik is a smalltime con man, a fast-talker who is never quite quick enough on his feet. Their roommate, Tree, is a confused clairvoyant whose dreams and prophecies may not be completely off base. After a freak accident floods their apartment, the three are evicted—but they have to take their couch with them. The real problem? The couch—huge and orange—won't let them put it down. Soon the three roommates are on a cross-country trek along back roads, byways, and rail lines, heading far out of Portland and deep into one very weird corner of the American dream, with a willful couch in tow.

Do Make Say Think - Highway 420 from the album Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn: Highway 420 is a perfect fit for Highway 30, which the roommates travel down, carrying the couch behind them. It's hard, slow, meditative work, a time for introspection on self and one's destiny. Do Make Say Think make fantastic music to write to.Though they have no lyrics, in listening to their music, you have a sense there's a lot of intelligence there.

Datarock - Computer Camp Love: I think the book is, and I hope readers will agree, very funny - and the hilarious Computer Camp Love is perfectly crafted for Thom's childhood. I can imagine Thom living this Commodore 64 geek romance in 1984.

Ben Allison - Third Rail: I love jazz bassist Ben Allison - and his track Third Rail says train adventure like nothing else. It's perfect for Theo's handmade, open-air rail cart that carries himself, a giant man named Randall, an opinionated dog, Thom, Tree, Erik and an unruly couch through various outer suburbs toward the Pacific ocean.

The Crooked Jades - Goodbye Trouble The Soul of Man: The couch - their cross, their trouble, is taken from them, and they are deeply sad. We all love our troubles, do we not?

Deltron 3030 - Positive Contact: Can I just say: Sci Fi Rap - Hell yeah! Let's have more bands like this. Positive Contact is a great song and though this song is about a super-space-wars-rebel-fighting-DJ, it's appropriate for Thom - who illicitly networks together thousands of computers inside of Microsoft in an attempt to answer the question- if there were a 100 monkeys, a 100 typewriters and infinite time would they write all of literature's great works? The lyrics start "Now let's see -- Deltron Z, Art avenger". If Thom were to stop and think about it, he might envision himself an art avenger - but he's got no ego involved in the act, more a profound curiosity combined with some mad skillz.

Modest Mouse - Heart Cooks Brain: Thom's Brain is a character in the book, here's the part where brain is introduced - "Brain was the entity of indeterminable size that sat somewhere above Thom's right eye, one inch in. The origin of headaches. That Muppet cynic gallery that studied his every move from some disappointed forefather's eyes. Part logician and part patriarch, brain intruded on Thom's consciousness primarily as a backseat driver. " Through much of the story there's a battle waging between Thom's heart and his brain. I think the song's title fits this war's resolution.

Built to Spill - In Your Mind: On that theme, Built to Spill's totally brilliant song from 'Ancient Melodies of the Future', which manages to talk about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the fractal organization of nature, the narrator's paranoia, aging and personal relationships - all in under 4 minutes. This song is definitely on Thom's brain's team.

Kid Koala - Skanky Panky: This somewhat dark, funny, ominous, drunk-inducing song by turntablist Kid Koala is a great representation of the character of the couch itself. No one is sure what it is, only that there's something deeply disturbing about it.

Smog - Held: What a truly great song from a great musician. Thom surrenders to love! And Jean loves him back! Hooray! Then: Back to the business of carrying couches.

The Breeders' version of Happiness is a Warm Gun: For a while, Thom seriously deludes himself into believing he's a super hero -- until he very much discovers he is not: "I need a fix, 'cause I'm going down." For a while, he had a gun, and he was happy, if a bit flustered.

Andrew Bird - Scythian Empires: The Scythians were a ~500B.C. nomadic people known for their archers. Enough said? No? OK - Couch spirals deeply into ancient civilizations in the last third of the book as they go looking for a lost city. The book addresses the loss of knowledge (genetic, cultural or learned) through the history of humanity and the death of culture. This is a sad song about an empire mostly forgotten.

Veda Hille - Instructions & Seasoned: There are some musicians you owe a debt to, and some you wished were vastly more popular. Veda Hille fits both here. I composed this book in Ecuador in 2002 with very limited access to music other than what was on my laptop. Veda Hille's album Spine was there and it pushed me through a lot of productive days. The music and the intelligence of the lyrics made me write better. From INSTRUCTIONS, a song that is simply a list of instructions to the listener - there are a couple of incredible lines that very aptly fit scenes for Thom 16) "When Blinded, construct images around unknown sounds, assume you're correct." when Thom is lying, near-death and unseeing on a couch in a remote village he does just that and 11) "Learn to recognize the beauty of your own back", which would be an excellent start for his own self-confidence. Another favorite line comes from Seasoned -"My heart is busted from enthusiastic over-use." Thanks, Veda!

Shirim Klezmer Orchestra - Yiddish Blue, Galitsianer Tantz: If, hypothetically speaking, three furniture movers, a band of Colombian guerrillas and the residents of an entire village completely isolated from the outside world were to converge in a dark hut with copious amounts of Andean moonshine, these songs would most definitely be on the DJ's playlist.

TV on the Radio - Dreams: The chorus is 'All your dreams are over now' - which is, quite literally, what happens to Tree. Tree dreams the future and at one point the dreams simply end. The rest of the song has less to do with Tree, but it's a great song nevertheless.

The Microphones - The Pull: A great, atmospheric, melancholic song for when the roommates are lost in the fog deep in the Andes, carrying a couch, one of them dying. And yet, they, too, feel the pull. "from high above you, i saw your earth framed body wrapped in wool. the glow surrounds you. and when you breathed in... i felt the pull." wow.

Beck - Go It Alone: I like to think of Thom at the end, when all hope is more or less lost, listening to this song in his head to drown out the sound of his own brain and realizing that if he's going to get the shit done, it's going to have to be him, and him alone.

Ben Parzybok and Couch links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's page at the publisher
one of the book's character's website

Me and My Big Mouth review
Publishers Weekly review
A Stranger Here Myself review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
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)