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August 14, 2009

Book Notes - Victor LaValle ("Big Machine")

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

In reviews of Big Machine, Victor LaValle has been compared to Thomas Pynchon, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Junot Diaz, Ralph Ellison, and others, but his voice is unique with its snappy dialogue and dark humor set in often surrealistic environments.

The novel is as imaginative and clever a book I have read all year. While reading the book, I was reminded of the first time I read several of my favorite authors (Murakami, Vonnegut, Carver, etc.). When finished, I had one more name to add to that list, Victor LaValle.

Ed Park wrote of the book in the Los Angeles Times:

"For a book with a dazzling array of flashy moving parts -- secret societies, backstories toggled for maximum effect, angels and demons, suicide squads recruited from among the homeless -- the language is more effective for being low key. This is not to suggest the sentences don't have snap, just that they're compact -- more toward the noir end of the dial, away from a more overtly lyrical or maximal style -- it's comparable to the voice in some of Haruki Murakami's novels. The vibe is similar: One odd encounter leads to another, with a phantasmal logic often laced with humor, the whole thing building up to a sort of monumental dreamwork."

Big Machine may not only best book of the summer, but of the year.

In his own words, here is Victor LaValle's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Big Machine:

Big Machine is my third book, but it's the first one I actually enjoyed writing. Before it I wrote a book of stories and a previous novel and I'm inordinately proud of both. But after the novel, The Ecstatic, I found myself floundering a little. The writing had been fruitful, but not pleasurable. Both were wrenching, autobiographical books; the kind that took me a while to recover from.

Now that's well and good for some; suffering is the heart of art, that's one belief. But, honestly, I hate to suffer. And I'm actually an optimistic guy in real life. So when I started this third book I told myself it was all right to have a little fun. As the book progressed I decided it was all right to have a lot of fun. I stopped thinking of literature as a daily serving of vegetables; it should be good instead of just good for you. Of course, the best literature always is but I had to remind myself of that.

To help me keep that new mindset, one where pleasure and significance weren't mutually exclusive, I found myself listening to songs that managed exactly that balance (at least for me). Entertaining and electrifying; each one a blast of brilliance from which I might leech a little inspiration. So my playlist is a catalogue of some songs I played over and over again while I wrote my new book. They're in no particular order. And even when they made me sad, they were still so much damn fun to hear.

1) Paul Williams – "The Hell of It" – A song from Brian DePalma's freakout film of 1974, Phantom of the Paradise. This one's got a jumpy little piano and Paul Williams' voice sounds sweet, even angelic. But then here's the chorus: "Good for nothing/Bad in bed/Nobody likes you and you're better off dead/Goodbye, we've all come to say goodbye (goodbye)/Goodbye (goodbye)." To say it's a campy song from a campy movie is to miss the venomous joy at the heart of both.

2) The Supremes – "Remove this Doubt" – My girlfriend played this Supremes gem for me about two years ago and I lost my mind. Diana Ross sounds too wounded, too lost, for this to be a conventional blockbuster single. (It was the b-side to "You Keep Me Hangin' On.") But the doubt Ross suffers in this song, about a boy's love, struck a chord with me because her yearning, her questioning, sounds positively cosmic.

3) Muse – "Knights of Cydonia" – I love these guys. Shamelessly epic, willing to be bombastic, even silly, all in an effort to produce songs that just rattle your head. And yet, at heart, they're also kind of funky. Rarely do they go so far off into space that they lose the beat, that rhythm. I would play this song (and the whole album) when I felt myself getting a bit timid. If I wasn't sure whether or not I should include an army of homeless people engaging in domestic terrorism I spun a few Muse songs and I thought, Hells yeah!

4) Erykah Badu – "Penitentiary Philosophy" – This song has a slow build, but when Badu and the musicians behind her really explode—by the first chorus—the song feels like a series of artillery bursts. This song is absolutely furious; as in violent passion, as in unrestrained energy. This song is made to echo across canyons, to churn the seas.

5) Iron Maiden – "Run to the Hills" – My first love, musically, was heavy metal so Iron Maiden were a foundational group for me. They've got so many great albums from this period—Killers, Number of the Beast, Powerslave—but this one is a special favorite. That opening beat alone gets the heart shuddering! To have a metal song by a white British band, with that beat, that's also sympathetic to Native Americans? Forget it. I was hooked. Still am. (See also: Anthrax's "Indians.")

6) Mos Def – "Ghetto Rock" – This is off The New Danger. An album I loved. Mos is great, in part, because of what he risks. This song, in particular, stayed with me for a long time because it was about refusing easy categorization. The chorus is just: "Yes we are so ghetto/yes we are rock and roll." The song also incorporates childhood rhymes, a heavy dose of bass, and a sense of defiance in each line Mos Def spits. I've taken inspiration from Mos for a long time now, and will for a long time to come.

7) Fela Kuti – "Coffin For Head Of State" – A 14 minute dirge that'll have you humming prayers in two different languages to three different gods! Fela Kuti's song about a severe personal tragedy gets turned into a philosophical inquiry about faith, culture, colonialism, politics, and national history. What kind of material belongs in a popular song? Fela proved this was the wrong question. What kind of material can a great artist fit into a popular song? Now that's a question worth asking.

8) PJ Harvey – "Man-Sized" – The ever feral, ever fearless Polly Jean Harvey. I could've listed ten songs by her. Each one a marvel of intelligence and courage. But I loved this one in particular because it's gruesome (when you read the lyrics) and revealing and more complicated than the best efforts of many talented artists. And yet you really can just sing it to yourself while walking down the street and enjoy the melody. I would catch myself singing these lyrics a little too loudly: "Douse hair in gasoline/Set it light and set it free." I just couldn't help myself.

9) Scarface – "My Block" – The Houston MC, and former member of the Geto Boys. I heard this song and fell for it immediately. For two reasons. First, it has a lovely piano in it and I'm such a sucker for the instrument in a hip-hop song. Second, because Scarface's song is really just a bit of history spinning about his home. (Like Nas' "Memory Lane," which I also love.) But when you try and tell the story of a place, of people, who history has overlooked then you're doing more than reminiscing, you're making myths. Whether you're talking about Bruce Springsteen's white working-class or Jamaica Kincaid's black girls of the Caribbean, it's a natural impulse. Human beings are myth-making machines and everyone needs legends written about them. Why should Homer have all the fun?

10) Metallica – "Seek & Destroy"Master of Puppets is the second album I ever owned. (The first was Raise! By Earth, Wind, and Fire.) While I love Master of Puppets, back to front, "Seek & Destroy" is what I found myself playing most while writing this novel. It's arrogant; it snarls. "Searching, seek and destroy!" Half threat, half boast. I'll take both. A little swagger is good for the soul.

11) Blind Roosevelt Graves and His Brother – "Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)" – This is a track from American Primitive vol 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36). The compilation has a title that always makes me cringe, but the music is spectacular. This one in particular is my favorite. The lyrics don't change much: "I woke up this morning with my mind/Staying on Jesus/Hallelujah." But Blind Roosevelt Graves and his brother, Uaroy, just sound so hopeful. The guitar also jumps along at a good pace. I used to play this one just to get myself ready for another day of writing. Whatever you personally believe in (or don't believe in) the song is just a reminder that a person can make choice to pursue happiness, to keep that chin up and all the other cliches. That can be hard to do, day to day. A song like this helps.

Victor LaValle and Big Machine links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Bookforum review
BookPage review
Flavorwire review
Isak review
Los Angeles Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Stephen's Posterous review

New York Observer profile of the author
Paper Cuts interview with the author
The Root interview with the author
Vanity Fair interview with the author
Wall Street Journal profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks