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January 6, 2009

Book Notes - James Kennedy ("The Order of Odd-Fish")

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

One of the most interesting young adult novels I read last year, James Kennedy's The Order of the Odd-Fish is a fantastically disorienting tale that readers of all ages will enjoy.

In his own words, here is James Kennedy's Book Notes essay for his novel, The Order of Odd-Fish:

Click here to listen to a stream of The Order of Odd-Fish mixtape. (Mac users: if you have problems streaming it in iTunes, try QuickTime.)

The Order of Odd-Fish is a young adult fantasy about Jo Larouche, a girl who has lived her thirteen years in the California desert with her Aunt Lily, a faded Hollywood starlet, ever since she was found in Lily's laundry room with a note warning she was a "dangerous baby."

So far Jo has been, in Aunt Lily's words, "as dangerous as a glass of milk." But at their Christmas costume party a variety of strange events occur that lead Jo and Lily out of California forever and into the mysterious world of Eldritch City, the city of Jo's birth.

There Jo learns the scandalous truth about who she is, and she and Lily join the Order of Odd-Fish, a collection of knights who research useless information. Glamorous cockroach butlers, quests on armored ostriches, and bizarre festivals fill their days, but Jo's dream turns to nightmare when she learns that instead of a hero of Eldritch City, she may in fact become its destroyer. By the novel's climax, Jo comes to understand who she truly is and what it means to call a city home.

I wanted to choose songs that were not only appropriate for the feel of The Order of Odd-Fish, but also came from albums that I actually listened to while writing the book. Some music didn't make the cut because I couldn't find a particular track that fit the list -- for example, I listened a lot to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Holst's The Planets, and Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, but singling out individual tracks does it sound right. I also listened a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, but none of those songs fit either, so I left them out too.

Even still, I think this is a definitive soundtrack for the book! You can listen to a stream of the entire mix here.

1. Delphine, "La Fermeture Eclair" | buy it

The first scene of The Order of Odd-Fish is a raucous costume party at Lily Larouche's decrepit ruby palace in the middle of the California desert. When I watch the movie version of Odd-Fish in my head, this is the first song--swinging orientalist ye-ye blasting as the camera prowls around, glimpsing eggplants, UFOs, and witches dancing in the tiki torches' half-light while our hero Jo Larouche slips unnoticed through the crowd, searching for her erratic Aunt Lily. "La Fermeture …clair" means "zipper," and its lyrics are about a suspicious girl protecting herself from a pushy boy--perfect for Jo's wary character.

2. Rick Wayne and the Flee-Rakkers, "Chick A Roo" | buy it

Jo's guardian is Aunt Lily, an elderly, eccentric ex-starlet from the 1950s notorious for her wild behavior. "Chick A Roo" is the kind of song that might've been written especially for Lily Larouche back in her glory days--the kind of song she probably still dances to in her isolated, enormous, garish ruby palace in the desert, like a happy-go-lucky Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. "Chick A Roo," like Aunt Lily, is brassy, a little corny, and kind of irresistible.

This song is off of It's Hard to Believe It, a compilation of songs produced by legendary weirdo Joe Meek. I wanted to included something from his masterpiece I Hear a New World as well, but I couldn't find anything that quite fit. That said, there's not a bad track on either disc.

3. Motherhead Bug, "Leader = Dealer" | buy it

A giant fish vomits Jo and Aunt Lily (and the lodge of the Order of Odd-Fish) into Eldritch City, where they are greeted by crowds who pick up the five-story lodge and carry it through the streets, led by a marching band. "Leader = Dealer" was suggested by my good friend Philip Montoro, who's forgotten more about music than I will ever know. He nailed it here: the joyous street-party feeling, but also the ominous swelling chorus, make it perfect for Jo's entrance into Eldritch City--it expresses both Jo's excitement at coming to a new world, but also her frightened alarm at Sir Oliver's claim that this parade would turn into a riot if the crowds knew her true identity.

4. Mucca Pazza, "Toubeh" | buy it

I canít help but throw in not just one, but two big marching-band numbers. In the movie of The Order of Odd-Fish in my mind, the band leading the mob carrying the fish-vomited lodge through the streets of Eldritch City is none other than Chicago's own Mucca Pazza. They're a thirty-piece circus punk marching band, decked out in mismatched uniforms, prancing and swinging their instruments as cheerleaders spaz out--an exhilarating romp of trombones, clarinets, fiddles, saxophones, guitars, trumpets, drums, Sousaphones, accordions, glockenspiel, and more. Live, they fill up the whole venue, marching out into the crowd, taking over the balcony, popping out of hitherto unseen trapdoors and windows. They once got in ten canoes and performed while floating down the Chicago river. Let's bring Mucca Pazza to Eldritch City!

5. Quix*O*Tic, "The Breeze" | buy it

The sparse, spooky atmosphere of "The Breeze" puts me in the mind of the Silent Sisters, a mysterious cult that has terrifying plans for Jo. Eldritch City is a messy, rambunctious place, freewheeling and dangerous, its streets rowdy but happy; the Silent Sisters are the opposite, a ruthless secret religion obsessed with purity, peace, and paralysis. The Silent Sisters have all endured tragedies so crushing that they have seceded from the universe--at the highest level, a Silent Sister puts out her eyes, cuts off her tongue, and buries herself in a coffin deep underground to await, with immortal patience, the end of all existence. Paradoxically, the longer one stays still, the more the universe whispers its secrets to you; some Silent Sisters have not moved for thousands of years, accumulating unimaginable powers. The Silent Sisters believe Jo is the reincarnation of their monstrous queen goddess, the All-Devouring Mother, whom they believe will gobble the fractious world and bring all of its tragic conflicts into a harmony of nothingness inside her. "The Breeze" sounds like a song that might be played at a Silent Sisters ceremony, if they believed in songs: the lyrics are about becoming nothing and being no one, about turning into the breeze on top of the trees. It sounds like someone trying to argue a friend out of suicide, except they seem to be half-fascinated with the idea themselves. A calm, simple, sinister song.

6. Chisel, "Innocents Abroad" | buy it

This song makes me think of Jo's first morning as an Odd-Fish in Eldritch City. It's almost the opposite of "The Breeze": where the Silent Sisters want to withdraw, to purify the world, silence its arguments, and halt all conflict, the Order of Odd-Fish is all about curiosity, discovery, and adventure. Jo is eager to explore the city, to make new friends, to find her place in the Odd-Fish; "Innocents Abroad" reminds me of impatient mornings when you're burning to get out of the house and do ten thousand things at once, but your friends are just slowly noodling along, not realizing the day is flying by so quickly. Jo's ready to plunge into Eldritch City, to get her hands dirty, to test herself against the world.

7. Masanka Sankayi featuring Kabongo Tshisensa, "Le Laboureur" | buy it

This is what I imagine the streets of Eldritch City sound like! The hot alien jumble of "Le Laboureur" is another inspired pick from Philip, who has a fondness for Kinshasa street bands. I imagine Eldritch City to be a percussive city--that no matter where you are, no matter what time of day or night, there's four or five different rhythms tangling and overlapping from unseen drums and banging chimes. The dirty amplification, the extraterrestrial buzz of the electric kalimba, the boisterous, gruff vocals all make it bracingly unfamiliar and yet welcoming.

8. Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet, "I Almost Had A Weakness" | buy it

This song is from The Juliet Letters, an underrated (in my opinion) collaboration between Elvis Costello and a classical string quartet. In The Order of Odd-Fish there are quite a few vigorous old people--the senior citizens of Dust Creek, Commissioner Olvershaw, Lady Agnes--who seem to relish their diseases and infirmities, who gleefully lash out at everything young and healthy just for the sport of it. In "I Almost Had A Weakness" Elvis Costello sounds like one of those characters, in this case a venomous grand-aunt railing at her family, a kind of pissed-off Eleanor Rigby: "Thank you for the flowers, I threw them on the fire. And I burned the photographs that you had enclosed, God they were ugly children!" he sings in his sneeringest, snottiest tone, going on to growl, "When I die the cats and dogs will jump up and down, and you little swines will get nothing!" I wish this album had twenty more songs.

9. Marnie Stern, "Vibrational Match" | buy it

I love this song, which manages to be both exuberant and grating, wildly confident and borderline unlistenable. Marnie Stern's squeaky, insistent enthusiasm is perfect for when Jo has found her groove in Eldritch City--even though Jo is still overwhelmed and astonished by it all, running from lizard-dogs in the cavernous neighborhoods, hunting the monstrous Schwenk, discovering ancient temples underground, and visiting the Dome of Doom--still, everything is coming together, life is working out better than she could've hoped, and for a little while she feels exhilarated, like she can do no wrong. This spastic, romping song reminds me of that feeling--"Matter, light, and energy! Speed, gold, and spirit! I'm near it! I'm near it!" squeals Marnie Stern, and it's all the more inspiring because I have no idea what she's talking about.

10. April March, "Sugar" | buy it

This is a seemingly sweet but quite creepy song from French pop revivalist April March. It sounds like the frisky theme to a seventies thriller or spy movie. It fits with Jo's hidden reckless streak, which only really comes out once she gets to Eldritch City--such as when she follows a strange boy down into the subway tunnels, or deliberately provokes Fiona Fuorlini and the Wormbeards, or climbs through the mysterious gash in the Odd-Fish's tapestry. Jo gets more reckless as the book goes on. She knows some things are too dangerous for her, but she can't help but dive in. Jo's risks pay off until she goes too far and tangles with the demonic Belgian Prankster, the Silent Sisters' ally, who has been pulling the strings all throughout Jo's life.

11. Rahul Dev Burman & Asha Bhosle, "O Meri Jaan Main Ne Kaha" | buy it

This is a fragment from the soundtrack of the 1970 Bollywood movie The Train. It seems to have a dozen different openings, each one goofier and peppier than the last, as if the song is continually rebooting itself into wackier and wackier operating systems. The flirty back-and-forth of the male and female vocals, the buoyant riffs, the sheer infectious optimism put me in the mind the energetic, theatrical street life of Eldritch City.

12. Combustible Edison, "Solid State" | buy it

One of Jo's best friends in Eldritch City is Sefino, a three-foot-tall, unutterably vain cockroach butler. Like all cockroach butlers, Sefino is always painstakingly attired at the height of fashion, and his lurid escapades as a foppish insect-about-town are gleefully reported by the salacious Eldritch City tabloids (treatment he both loudly protests and secretly craves). "Solid State" sounds like the kind of music Sefino and his fellow cockroach butlers might listen to while sipping "award-winning" cocktails and primping for one of their wild nights on the town polishing their monocles, arranging their ascots, oiling their exoskeletons and plucking their antennae--nights which start exuberantly but inevitably end in scandal, headaches, and once the embarrassing details hit the society columns, long, outraged letters to the editor.

As a bonus, this song is sung in Esperanto!

13. The Smiths, "Rusholme Ruffians" | buy it

The pivotal scene of The Order of Odd-Fish is the Founder's Festival, a day in which all of Eldritch City throws itself into a giddy carnival. A winding roller coaster twists and roars through all the neighborhoods; a parade of dinosaurs, marching bands, eelmen, and totteringly elaborate floats lumber, prance, slither, and roll down the avenues; and exhibitions of freaks and monsters jostle with bewildering games and concerts. Jo forces herself to enjoy the festival, but uneasily, for she suspects something is afoot--and sure enough, by the end of the festival everything has gone horribly wrong. "Rusholme Ruffians" is a great song about a seedy carnival gone sour. The bouncing, ebullient bass rubs perfectly the wrong way against Morrissey's cynical lyrics as he surveys the squalor of a provincial fair.

14. Dymaxion, "Mice In Drain" | buy it

The high point of the festival is Sir Alasdair's urk-ack concert. Sir Alasdair is a knight of the Order of Odd-Fish, and thus specializes in collecting useless knowledge; other knights of the Odd-Fish might study Pointless Weaponry, or Unusual Smells, or the rigorous science of Dithering, but Sir Alasdair researches Absurd Musical Instruments. He plays an "urk-ack" for the festival concert, an instrument which is actually a live animal, which Sir Alasdair plays by climbing down the beast's gullet and manipulating its forty-one noisy orifices from within.

Before Sir Alasdair learned how to play the urk-ack properly, his practices were an embarrassing farrago of burps, squelches, and wheezes. "Mice In Drain" is a good approximation of what one of Sir Alasdair's early practices might've sounded like--it's both clunky and compelling, silly and then unexpectedly impressive. I love almost everything on Dymaxion's collection of singles Dymaxion x 4 + 3 = 38.33, which sounds to me like a latter-day Joe Meek taking another stab at I Hear A New World.

15. Deerhoof, "Milking" | buy it

Sir Alasdair's urk-ack concert is interrupted when the Chinese millionaire Ken Kiang takes over the stage to perform his own self-aggrandizing musical. But Ken Kiang's one-man show is itself interrupted by yet another interloper, who stages his own over-the-top version of Ken Kiang's musical. As the massive renegade musical continues, it's clear that there is something sinister behind it, that it is going to end in some horrible revelation (and it does). Deerhoof's "Milking" sounds like the kind of song that might be in that musical--it feels like a normal pop song, but there's something unsettling about that chorus, simultaneously cheery and disturbing, the way Matsuzaki Satomi's voice swooshes up with a creepily expectant "aah"--doesn't she sound like the violins in the scary music they use in The Shining (the third movement of Bartokís Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta)?

16. Rahul Dev Burman, "Hum Kisise Theme" | buy it

Another tune from the amazingly fertile R. D. Burman. Near the climax, Jo fights a flying-ostrich duel against her rival Fiona. In Eldritch City, duels are not only a matter of serious honor, but also high theatrics. Everyone who's anyone in Eldritch City finds a way to get to the Dome of Doom, the illegal arena where knights and squires fight their elaborate duels. There are many obscure traditions for spectators to enjoy: for instance, before the actual battle both duelists must costume themselves as one of the 144,444 gods of Eldritch City and exchange ritualized insults, all while the audience hoots, claps, and screams. "Hum Kisise Theme" captures well the braggadocio of the duel's bombastic opening stage.

17. The Ideals, "Mo Gorilla" | buy it

The duel is life or death for Jo and Fiona, but for the spectators it's a raucous party. The Dome of Doom is one of the few places in Eldritch City where the beau monde mixes freely with the desperadoes, the socialites flirt with the gangsters, and dancing and drinking carry on while Jo and Fiona are shredding each other in midair. The Ideal's "Mo Gorilla" sounds like the kind of dance music that is playing as half the crowd ignores the fight, busy making the scene. At one point the duel escapes the arena, and Jo and Fiona rampage after each other through the panicking crowd; I like to think the Ideals would keep on playing. This is from the miraculous Shakin' Fit compilation--29 unaccountably forgotten rock n' soul tracks, raw, rough, and often hilarious, not a clunker among them.

18. Wire, "Ahead" | buy it

Against all odds, Jo unexpectedly wins the duel, and she is whisked off to the victory feast, a dance party deep in the Dome of Doom. It's a short-lived triumph, for soon Jo's secret will be exposed, leading to catastrophe; but for now Jo almost lets herself believe her problems are over, and she recklessly throws herself into the dancing, basking in the flush of victory. At the height of her giddiness she surprises even herself when she makes a romantic move on her best friend.

The song reminds me of the restless, electric atmosphere of a high school dance, the touch-and-go feeling when even your best friends become mysterious to you. At the dance, even the ordinary kids you see every day at school seem lit up from the inside, newly strange and fascinating, and Jo is thrilled as this new, more adult world opens up to her.

19. Black Ox Orkestar, "Bukharion" | buy it

Eldritch City panics when Jo's true nature is revealed, leading to riots and frenzied searches for her. Jo hides when the Silent Sisters come forward to claim her for their nightmare rituals, but in the end, she gives herself up. The Silent Sisters enclose Jo in a veiled palanquin and carry her up through the city, where their cathedral has erupted onto the top of the mountain. After the violence and debauchery of the evening's duel, and the terrified insanity of the late night riots, it is now a gray silent morning, and all of Eldritch City is paralyzed in fear. The insistent, liturgical guitar and the drugged-out, weary chant of "Bukharion" (another one of Philip's choices) captures the mood: all the city hushed in holy terror as the Silent Sisters shuffle through the streets, bearing Jo to their cathedral, where she will finally learn what it is to be the All-Devouring Mother.

20. Dick Hyman, "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose" | buy it

This is a transcendently dorky Moog cover of James Brown's "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose." I imagine you'd hear it playing on a NASA engineer's hi-fi in 1972, the night he and his wife invite the other junior technicians over for fondue. But the goofy noises are weird enough that this could also be the music for the final scene at the Odd-Fish lodge--a song played by the cockroach butlers' own ragtag band (who "make it a point of honor never to practice their instruments") and Sir Alasdair, who cannot be restrained from hauling out his urk-ack and making the most insufferable noises with it.

21. Helium, "Lucy" | download it

I saved Jo's song for the end of the mix. If "Chick A Roo" is Aunt Lily's theme, then "Lucy" is Jo's. The music starts tentatively, Mary Timony's vocals wry and defensive, but then opens up into a soaring, melancholy chorus. I imagine Jo at the beginning of the book, laying alone on the roof of Aunt Lily's ruby palace, staring out into the desert night sky, waiting for her life to begin. It also works for the end of the book, late at night, when she is wandering the Odd-Fish lodge, long after everyone else has gone to sleep, thinking about her adventures in Eldritch City--what she's won and what she's lost, the friends she's gained and the people she'll never see again.

I've been following Mary Timony's various projects for fifteen years, and I listened to her a lot while writing Odd-Fish. Her flat, offhand, matter-of-fact delivery feels very Jo-like to me; for instance, in "Lucy," I like how she carefully brackets the chorus' "oohs" and "ahhs" with a distancing "she said," as if she's only quoting someone else's chorus--at one point she even breaks off her cooing to snap, "I'm not your little flower." Mary Timony manages to be both fantastical and tartly self-aware; I wanted Jo's character to strike that balance too.

James Kennedy and The Order of Odd-Fish links:

the author's website
the author's MySpace page review
Bookworm 4 Life review
Chicago Sun-Times review
Curled Up with a Good Book review
Doin' Time in Erie, PA review
Gapers Block review
The Happy Nappy Bookseller review
Kiss the Book review
Leaving Shangri-L.A. review review
Smithsonian magazine review
Teens Read Too review
Time Out Chicago review 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)