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November 6, 2008

Book Notes - Kyle Minor ("In the Devil's Territory")

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

In the Devil’s Territory is Kyle Minor's debut short fiction collection, and its impressive stories explore the choices we make and their effects on our lives. Minor proves a masterful storyteller, especially when dealing with the intricacies of the closest human relationships.

The Columbus Dispatch wrote of the collection:

"The range is impressive. Even more impressive is the thoughtfulness with which Minor explores the limits of our understanding of ourselves and one another; and the compassion that sometimes, briefly, reaches across those limits."

In his own words, here is Kyle Minor's Book Notes essay for his debut collection of short fiction, In the Devil's Territory:

Let me preface my playlist by saying this: I love, love, love music. All kinds of music. I listen to rock music, country music, hip-hop, techno, classical music. I have an album of emo Christmas tunes. I once snuck into a Macy Gray concert at the Sundance Film Festival disguised as an ABC cameraman. My brother used to be a Christian rock star. Every morning in the shower I listen to the second half of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. I named my youngest son Dylan.

So it is not out of some singular musical impulse that my entire playlist revolves around the life’s work of a critically acclaimed but semi-obscure artist who is roughly the same age as I am. It is, instead, because I have written a singular book that engages with the weirdnesses of my own upbringing, an upbringing heavily rooted in a community of fundamentalist Christians in West Palm Beach, Florida, many of them from the South, many of them heavily influenced by Bob Jones University, by the Southern Baptist Convention, by Dr. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family empire, by the life-immersive Christian school I attended for fourteen years, on a campus heavily wooded with exotic trees imported from New Zealand, Australia, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, by the used car dealer whose home the school purchased and turned into its campus.

So my playlist must be similarly singular, written and performed by an artist whose songs are as unsparing in their long stare into the darkness as I hope my stories are. I choose the poet laureate of my postevangelical generation, singer-songwriter David Bazan, who now performs under his own name, and who formerly fronted Pedro the Lion and the keyboards-and-drums band Headphones, and whose work has more in common with the searingly specific apocalyptic visions found in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction than with the vague and uplifting prophecies offered in lyrics by U2’s Bono. Here goes:

“Bad Diary Days,” Pedro the Lion (from It’s Hard to Find a Friend): To a greater degree than almost any songwriter I know, David Bazan exploits the rhetorical structures common to formalist poets and story writers gifted at structure. In three elegant acts, Bazan unfolds the slow revelation of a wife’s affair from her husband’s point of view, and in a tragically clear-sighted envoy, the husband makes meaning of her ultimate admission of guilt: “she swore that she could explain / she swore that it would not happen again / she swore that she could explain / we both knew her words were in vain.” As if all that weren’t enough to run the listener through the emotional wringer the characters have been run through, the song concludes with a turbulent instrumental outro that incorporates the melody of the envoy to chilling effect, inviting the listener to contemplate again the husband’s terrible pronouncement.

The song works on multiple levels, as do many Bazan songs. Certainly, we’re getting quite literally the picture of multiple failures of love, infidelity not necessarily being the most insidious of them, as they unfold in something approximating real time (or at least it seems that way, thanks to the seamless logic of the song’s structure.) We’re also getting a picture of what happens to the interior life of a young man whose propensity for magical thinking (“barely ever fight, she knows that i love her / at first we made it every night, but i don’t want to bug her about it / she just has a funny way of loving me”) is undone by the exigencies of an adult life he has not been well prepared to face. And, framing all of this, we have a metaphor for all the betrayals that sometimes, when listening to Bazan, one is convinced might well be the fruit of all human motivation, in all its selfishness.

“Secret of the Easy Yoke,” Pedro the Lion (from It’s Hard to Find a Friend): Pedro the Lion’s debut EP, Whole, was released on the then-independent Christian punk label Tooth & Nail, out of Seattle, the place where bands like MxPx, Starflyer 59, and Underoath began to connect with their largest audiences. That album, if I’m hearing it correctly, is a rough allegory of redemption, in the tradition of writers like C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan, but by way of a heroin addict, and with plenty of screaming (notably on the song “Almost There.”) Despite the gritty subject matter, the Whole EP found Bazan firmly within a didactic tradition long embraced by fundamentalist Christians. The record is shaped after the pattern of New Testament conversion stories – the fall, the abasement, the acknowledgement of guilt, the redemption, the embrace of Christ. But with the second album, It’s Hard to Find a Friend, the listener finds Bazan wrestling more forthrightly with the problems that the redemption narrative raises in the minds of those for whom real life has not borne out the neat and tidy arc from fall to grace. The questions reach their climax in the album’s tenth song, “Secret of the Easy Yoke,” in which the speaker (an analogue, I’m reasonably sure, for Bazan) tires of the clichés and easy answers his faith community has long offered, and of the ways in which rhetoric and practice don’t neatly match up: “but if all that's left is duty / i'm falling on my sword / at least then i would not serve / an unseen distant lord.” Although the song does conclude with a desire to be reconciled, and a plaintive “peace, be still,” the music that accompanies it undercuts the sentiment, leaving the listener awash in the tension the song itself means to tackle.

When I heard this song for the first time, I had already washed out as a preacher, and I was working at a start-up religious publishing company that promised to be different from all the other religious publishing companies that had preceded it, but which proved, in its pursuit of the dollar at whatever cost, to be just like all the ones that had preceded it. I was in despair, and I found real comfort in this lyric, as well as the germ of a model. If I was going to be a writer, I was going to be a writer like Bazan was a lyricist, breaking with the story I had been told to tell
myself about my life, and replacing it with the things I had actually seen, lived,
and observed, and allowing the tensions and the steady unease of all of it to be.

“June 18, 1976,” Pedro the Lion (from the Progress EP): Let me here quote the lyrics in full:

You were born in KC, Missouri

To a girl who wasn't married

After your birth she brought you to the nursery

Kissed your head and told you not to worry

And the quietly she turned and slipped away

In the elevator her heart began to pound

To the rooftop, in her slippers, and her gown

On the edge, she took one last look around

Then closed her eyes and pushed away

Speeding toward the ground

Through the air without a sound

So gracefully

Twelve flights down, nearly naked on the ground

Skin and tragedy always attract a crowd

So it was when the policeman came around

He took more than fifty eyewitness accounts

Each one was in awe, for they'd never seen a girl so sad and beautiful

Speeding toward the ground

Through the air without a sound

Speeding toward the ground

Through the air without a sound

So gracefully

For awhile, perversely, I liked to perform the song at parties, and preface it with a fiction: “Have I ever told you the story of my birth mother? Let me sing you the song.” Then, the song over, the tears flowing, I’d announce that I was just kidding, this was David Bazan’s song, I gotcha good, didn’t I?

I stopped doing this after a late night near the Olentangy River. I sang it for a girl whose mother had recently received a threatening diagnosis. I hadn’t known before I made the fiction and sang the song, but I was made to know it afterward, and I’ve never quite shook the grief I felt that evening, watching her cry, listening to her boyfriend tell me it was time to go home, knowing that my unwelcomeness had been brought on by my own choices.

Later, I realized it would be important to bring my own tone deafness, my own failures of empathy, to bear, in my characters, many of whom are so like me in their capacities to match their generosities with tin-eared and inadvertent cruelties for which they find themselves no less responsible than cruelties of the intentional and malicious kind.

The Control Album, Pedro the Lion: One would do well, most of the time, to avoid the didactic impulse in songs or fiction, since that’s the place from which most of the worst, most aesthetically ugly, cheesiest, most laughable, most wrongheaded, and most insidiously dangerous work has come. But if one excluded the didactic from literature altogether, one would be leaving out the great satirists, the great instructors, our Vonneguts and Saunderses and Kiplings and Orwells and Huxleys, etc., etc., etc.

Often enough, it is the artists of this rather direct ilk that call attention to the lies language can cover, and ask us to strip away the bright shiny surface the words have made, and apply to it the X-ray of simplicity. To wit, George Saunders:

“Once upon a time, there was a wealthy country. Just to the south was a poor country. Between them ran a border. People from the poor country were always sneaking over, trying to partake of the wealth of the wealthy country. The people in the wealthy country resented this. Or some did. Some seemed fine with it, and even helped them once they got here. Some said it was a crisis and a big wall was needed. Others said: What crisis, it’s been going on for years, plus they work so cheap, you want to pay nine bucks for a freaking quart of strawberries? The national media seized on the story and, as always, screwed it up: reduced it to pithy sound bites, politicized it, and injected it with faux urgency, until, lo, the nation was confused.”

Or Kurt Vonnegut:

“1492. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.”

Or David Bazan, in these lyrics from the Control album:

“I would never divorce you / without a good reason / and though I may never have to / It is good to have options / But for now, I need you.”

“If it isn’t making dollars / Then it isn’t making sense / If you aren’t moving units / Then you’re not worth the expense / If you really want to make it / You had best remember this / If it isn’t penetration / Then it isn’t worth the kiss.”

“Your father drank a little / You’re on liver number two.”

“Wouldn't you love to be / On the cover of a magazine? / Healthy skin, perfect teeth / Designed to hide what lies beneath.”

“Lately I have been wondering why / We go to so much trouble / To postpone the unavoidable /And prolong the pain of being alive.”

More Songs, More Lyrics, for the Sheer Pleasure of Quoting Them:

“The sperm swims for the egg

The finger for the ring

If i could take one back
I know what it would be
I do.”
- “I Do,” Pedro the Lion (from Achilles Heel)

“Arizona curled up with California

Then she tried to hide the whole thing from New Mexico . . .
But California, not California!
How could you?”
- “Arizona,” Pedro the Lion (from Achilles Heel)

“You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord

To hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the f*ck up

You thought it must be the devil trying to make you go astray

Besides it could not have been the Lord because you don't believe he talks that way”
- “Foregone Conclusions,” Pedro the Lion (from Achilles Heel)

“It's faster
To buy cigarettes and some cold beer

If you don't rattle the cashier

By asking her back to your room

She's calling security

The car’s on fire in the parking lot

And nobody wants it to rain

But God isn't listening

So all of the windshields glisten

The water and oil mix

Causing the fire to spread

To five or six

Innocent automobiles

Waiting in their nearby spots

What a cruel god we've got.”
- “Cold Beer and Cigarettes,” David Bazan (from Fewer Moving Parts)

Other songs, ephemera, etc.: I’ve totally left out talk about Pedro the Lion’s gorgeous concept album Winners Never Quit, which is a modern-day retelling of the prodigal son story, with a politician as the older brother (the good son, in the prodigal son mythology), and the inversion of all sorts of proverbs and children’s fables as the primary rhetorical device. The bad son ends up in jail awaiting his redemption and grieving for his parents; the good son brutally murders his wife; and “all the while / the good Lord smiles / and looks the other way,” and in the aftermath of the murder, the album concludes (in address to the bad son): “Count it a blessing / that you’re such a failure / your second chance might never have come.”

I’ve also left out the gem of Bazan’s side project Headphones, “I Never Wanted You,” which is best enjoyed in Bazan’s stripped-down solo performance on YouTube:

I suppose, six single-spaced Microsoft Word pages into this blog, I ought to be lamenting the fact that I’ve been given this great opportunity to shill for my own book, and instead here I am shilling for my favorite musician. But rest assured, if David Bazan’s work and mine have anything in common at all, and you listen to his songs and like them, you will, I hope, run quickly to or or your local brick-and-mortar and buy my book, In the Devil’s Territory, $17.95 in paperback. And if all you do is just discover David Bazan, that’s all right with me, too.

Kyle Minor and In the Devil's Territory links:

the author's website
the author's book tour diary
the author's MySpace page
the author's Facebook page
the book's page at the publisher

Columbus Dispatch review
Publishers Weekly review

Chad Simpson interview with the author
Freight Stories short story by the author
Independent Collegian interview with the author
Plots with Guns short story by the author
Syntax of Things essay by the author

David Bazan links:

David Bazan's website
David Bazan's MySpace page
Pedro the Lion's MySpace page
Headphones' MySpace page
One Times One interview with David Bazan
David Bazan's Daytrotter session

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)