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November 14, 2008

Book Notes - Porochista Khakpour ("Sons and Other Flammable Objects")

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

A couple of my favorite literary bloggers convinced me to read Porochista Khakpour's debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects. I was impressed with her short story, "In the House of Desire, Honey, Marble & Dreams," at Five Chapters.

Sons and Other Flammable Objects is a wonderful debut novel by a truly gifted author. Khakpour brings to life not only generational clashes but also the conflicts that arise between first-generation immigrants and their children with elegant prose and a rare sense of humor.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"In outline, the conflicts are familiar: father versus son, assimilation versus cultural allegiance. But Khakpour brings her characters vividly to life; their flaws and feints at intimacy feel poignantly real, and their journeys generate real suspense."

In her own words, here is Porochista Khakpour's Book Notes essay for her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects:

Disclaimer: I have really bad taste in music. This is sad to me because I fancied myself a music journalist first and foremost when I got out of school, after internships at fine music mags like Spin and RayGun. But my first love was hair metal and arena rock of most power-balladacious kind (I am from L.A.). I also used to love electronic music—house, techno, jungle, happy hardcore—you name it, I raved it. I was also a huge fan of hip hop, of the radio variety however—hip hop of Top 40 countdowns, the singles, the kind frat boys love (um, Cypress Hill or DMX, anyone?). It’s not just iffy taste but all over the place too: my iPod features Danzig and Aaliyah, Wilson Phillips and Queensryche, Eddie Money and T.I, Faith Hill and Burzum. I am okay with this all; I am not afraid to say I liked that Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera duet “Nobody Wants To Be Lonely” or, say, basically everything by Roxette.

Having said that, I think this list brought out the better in me. Just as an author’s work is often greater than the author, here my musical selections together are probably better than both my musical taste and perhaps some of the music even. My novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects is about an Iranian father and his Iranian-American son, and their struggles as immigrants in 80s suburban Los Angeles, and then their clashes at mid-life and quarter-life respectively in the new century, with Xerxes the son already at crisis in post-9/11 New York.

Some of these songs I actually listened to when I edited the novel (I can’t listen to anything when I am actually writing), some just sort of remind me of the book, and some I just like.

Cat Stevens, “Father & Son”

This song kills me. My novel is centered largely around the father and son saga that is basically this song, which I feel like somehow explains all father and son relationships. How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again/Its always been the same, same old story/From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen/Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away/I know I have to go. Cat Stevens always sounds so corny when you transcribe him, but listen to this song and watch yourself become clinically depressed.

Googoosh, “Nimeyeh Gomshodeyeh Man”

Googoosh is the Iranian Madonna-Barbra Streisand-Stevie Nicks-Diana Ross. Her heyday was the Seventies although the old girl is still going strong. She is all camp and guts and sex and candy and gold. There is not a single Iranian who does not worship her—evidence that in spite of what Ahmadinejad would like you to think, Iranians really are all just a bunch of gay men. I like this song because of how disco and glam it is. She really captures the air of pre-Revolution Iran of the Seventies—the excess, the glitter, the exuberance, the mindlessness. This song means “My Lost Half.” The tune is so manically upbeat and silly that you would never guess it has the saddest lyrics ever—this is so Googoosh! And so I imagine this is what Darius and Lala, the parents in my novel, listened to right before the Islamic Revolution.

The “I Dream of Jeannie” jingle

What Middle Eastern person wouldn’t be obsessed with a show all about a sexy platinum blonde genie and her magical powers over a grumpy American astronaut? Xerxes as a kid was obsessed, as was I.

Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy”

I was listening to this song constantly while editing the novel. I think it sums up my protagonist well, and if this were made into a movie, this is a must for the soundtrack. Much of the Los Angeles sections of the novel take places in the early-to-mid Eighties. Back then, I learned a lot about Western culture through MTV. I feel like everything sounded like this back then. Anyway, Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto, the synth, the Eighties drama, is just perfect and I wish my novel could convey one ounce of its emotionality.

Dead Kennedys, “Buzzbomb From Pasadena”

I have punk rock tendencies and in my novel I have a punk rock adolescent named Sam who befriends Xerxes; Sam probably listened to this, as they grew up, like I did, in Pasadena. It’s a crazy song by a band I love. And Jello Biafra’s doing his best old lady screech (as this song refers to the old Jan and Dean tune “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”) by playing the 33 1/3-rpm-recorded-track at 45 rpm.

Frank Black, “Los Angeles”

I played this a lot to get back to that mood of early Nineties Los Angeles that I teenaged and thus came to age in. I loved the Pixies growing up so when Black Francis turned Frank Black I was very concerned, but then when they released this single I was thrilled. It’s not really a true tribute to my terrible, wonderful, toxic, dazzling city, but the atmospherics somehow reek the city.

Missing Persons, “Walking in LA”

In my novel, the mother Lala Adam always took note of her great LA outdoors… “only because she was one of the few nobodies who walked in LA.” In the original draft I had given more direct props to this song: “When a particularly shrewd musical act of the 80’s sang ‘nobody walks in L.A.,’ people were so bored by the faux-revelation, that they did not even bother to nod: yes, fine, okay, this is a fact.

Frank Sinatra, “New York, New York”

This song, in its butchered form, is constantly looping through the mind of Lala Adam who finally visits her son’s adopted city. I write New York was “a place to get lost among those big almost bendable-looking silver buildings that went so high airplanes interrupted them, that loomed over those streets that were chained with an endless traffic of loud yellow cabs, that stopped only for zigzagging black-cocktail-dressed and diamonded and sunglassed and smoking Audrey Hepburns dashing to window shop at Tiffany’s, where inside the perfect marble halls there were the echoes of an old Old Blue Eyes crooning these something-Bond shoes are longing to stray through the heart of it, all the way into the midnight as a lit red apple starburst its seed heart on a heavens-puncturing silver needle on top of another too-tall monument, to the cheering of millions, fireworks again and again and other times just plain fire maybe even, the city running, feverish, the thrill, the kill—oh, Lala Adam prayed she would, if she should make it anywhere, she could make it there …”

Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Love Comes to Me”

This song always reminds me of 9/11. It is beautiful and tender and sad, as the best Will Oldham tunes are. I try to capture post-9/11 era New York over and over in the novel—the paranoia, the fear, the anger, the hurt—and even in my other writing. Rarely do songs do justice to that era when really J-Lo, Alicia Keys, and Ludacris were the ones dominating the radio and MTV. But this song that came out and I discovered much later does somehow get that time quite right with its stunning fragility.

Eminem, “Lose Yourself”

There is something so Wong Kar-Wai about this song (Wong Kar-Wai being of course my ideal director-pick for the novel—insert long story where I justify why I think this). This song, I have to admit, would not be on the novel soundtrack, but I love it so much and it actually always helps me get motivated to work. It is the ultimate underdog anthem. This song came out when I was in grad school and I used to imagine it playing as I walked into the classroom on those days when my story was up for a workshop beating.

Golden Shoulders, “I Will Light You On Fire"

I just love this song. A lot of lovely things burn in my novel—um, hence, “flammable.” But really I just love this song.

Flock of Seagulls, “I Ran”

If you’ve ever tried to get permission for clearance of lyrics, you know it’s a pain. I gave up rather early on this song, even though there was a whole section in the novel that incorporated its lyrics. Here is an excerpt from that outtake, where Xerxes is in a video store and hears the song:
“Suddenly he became aware of the soundtrack around him. It was an old song, a song from the time of his early youth that he remembered liking and singing along to but all wrong, an old joke for him, that the young Xerxes liked to think could later be brought up among his imagined future society of Iranian-American friends, that crazy song that didn’t mean it at all but fit so perfectly. There it was again, in a sort of extended version: And I ran…I ran so far away…I just ran. I ran all night and day. I couldn't get away! Instead now, Xerxes wished it would just shut the f*ck up, leave him alone, let the issue die out and give him a second of peace.

Iran-so-far-away had seemed so funny ages ago. He picked up a few videos hurriedly and brought them up to the front, trying to tune it out, knowing any second it would be over. But it wasn’t. There was so much to it. He even had to learn some new lyrics, which didn’t make him any happier with the song, but especially at such a time in his life—if you could look at every life move like fortune cookie messages, omens and signs, superstitions and signals, envision such modes that Xerxes Adam pretended to ignore—it took on a deeper relevance, and made him want to leave, run so far away, even more…Reached out a hand to touch your face/You're slowly disappearing from my view. Disappearing from my view…and I ran, ran so far away…”

It fits my novel indeed, but so many people have tortured me with that song over the years—including dear friends who seriously suggested “I Ran So Far Away” as a title for my novel when I was desperately picking brains for one—that I really deeply hate it. But I can’t deny it belongs here.

Porochista Khakpour and Sons and Other Flammable Objects links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at publisher
the book's MySpace page
excerpt from the book

Book Chase review
Bookforum review
Chicago Tribune review
Huffington Post review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
Publishers Weekly
The Quarterly Conversation review
Radar review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Sycamore Review review
Village Voice review

3:AM interview with the author
3 Quarks Daily interview with the author
The Alcove video interview with the author
Apostrophe Cast reading by the author
Authors@Google reading by the author
Five Chapters short story by the author
Galleycat interview interview
Library Journal review
Litpark interview with the author
The Moment blog profile of the author
The Page 99 Test for the book
Pars Times interview with the author
ParsArts interview with the author
PRI's World Books audio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
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)