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May 7, 2010

Book Notes - Emily St. John Mandel ("The Singer's Gun")

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

More than a literary thriller, Emily Mandel's second novel The Singer's Gun is a finely wrought novel both contemporary and timeless that defies genre classification. Mandel's spare yet lyrical prose is always beautifully written and her characters are always believable in this fast-paced and moving work.

In the Los Angeles Times, Sarah Weinman wrote of the book:

"The beauty of the novel is that its key truths are those the reader arrives at on his or her own, without the help of a straight-line narrative or a dominating perspective. Instead, Mandel feeds off of our need to make connections, even when the pattern they form doesn’t really exist. We start with anxiety and end with it, thrumming in the background for us to listen in - or ignore, at both cost and reward."

In her own words, here is Emily St. John Mandel's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Singer's Gun:

Anton Waker is used to a certain degree of corruption. His parents are dealers in stolen goods, and at eighteen he went into business with his cousin Aria, selling fake passports and social security cards to illegal aliens in New York. But he's become increasingly interested in finding a way to live a more honorable life, and by his late twenties he's reinvented himself as a middle manager in a respectable consulting firm. He rents a modest apartment in his favorite neighborhood, he goes every morning to an office job that he loves, and he's engaged to be married to a woman who knows nothing of his past.

Anton and his new wife travel to Italy after the wedding. At the end of the trip they make their way to Sant'Angelo, a small village on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. He hadn't planned to separate from his wife on their honeymoon, but his life has begun to come undone: he's being blackmailed by Aria. Anton's new wife is unaware of his past, and if he doesn't help Aria with one last job, Aria will tell his wife that Anton's Harvard diploma is a fake. In the meantime, his job in New York has seemingly evaporated. Left alone on the island of Ischia, waiting to perform a mysterious transaction on Aria's behalf, Anton realizes that he had nothing to return to in New York.

"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan cover)" – Van Morrison

What Bob Dylan's rendition of his own song was missing, the music critic Greil Marcus wrote in his recent book on Van Morrison, When That Rough God Goes Riding, was perhaps "a sense that the song was taking place in a world that was not quite the real world, and that the person to whom the song was addressed was in danger; that was what the song said when Van Morrison recorded it … ."

Van Morrison's cover is ghostly and mysterious, with a trace of menace. Bob Dylan's rendition of the song doesn't move me, but Van Morrison's cover seems to me to be a song about losing everything. But whatever you wish to keep / you'd better grab it fast…

Anton's job began fading out in the early spring, some months before his wedding and his arrival on Ischia. He'd known that his company, a water systems consulting firm, was performing background checks in preparation for a major municipal project, and he knew what his background check was likely to find. But it still seems possible that everything might somehow work out, that perhaps by some magic they might not find anything, that his suddenly-fragile career might be salvageable, until the day his secretary disappears.

"The Greatest" – Cat Power

Once I wanted to be the greatest…

A song that aches with lost ambition. Elena James was Anton's secretary, until suddenly she wasn't. Reassigned without explanation to the backwaters of the proofreading office, she struggles through her long and increasingly unbearable days. There was a time in her life when she showed considerable promise—she was sufficiently brilliant to earn a full scholarship to Columbia—but those days are long past and she's fallen into a corporate limbo. She isn't sure what she wants to do with her life, except that she still loves New York and she never wants to return to her arctic hometown.

I was asked recently in an interview if Elena and I are similar. We're not, and she's purely fictional—although her abusive coworker in the proofreading department is an amalgam of two of the least pleasant people I've worked with—but she's also what I perhaps might have become if things had gone even a little bit differently in the days just after I moved alone to New York. I find it easier to live here than anywhere else I've ever lived, but I believe that our relationships with cities are as personal and as varied as our relationships with people. There are people who arrive in this city and find a way to forge a life here, people who discover that they've found home; but there are others, just as intelligent and only slightly less lucky, people like Elena, who find themselves gradually eaten alive.

"Something Beautiful" – Clem Snide

You make me want to break something beautiful…

Anton is marrying Sophie partly because he loves her, and partly because he's tremendously concerned with the question of how to live honorably in the world, and after all the years they've been together, marrying her seems like the right thing to do. But in the tense and delirious lead-up to his wedding, he's started sleeping with Elena.

There's an obsessive, slightly off-balance and almost queasy quality to this song that somehow makes it seem like the ideal soundtrack to an office affair.

"Slug" – U2 (From the album Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1)

A good soundtrack for living in limbo. Every morning Elena rises in her Brooklyn apartment and boards the train that will take her to Grand Central Station. Anton and Elena both work in the Greybar Building, at Lexington and 43rd Street. The tower's connected by a corridor to Grand Central Station.

I worked in the Greybar Building for a number of years, which meant that three or four days a week I exited the subway and walked out into Grand Central Station. I know of no place in New York more beautiful: it's essentially a cathedral devoted to trains, which meshes well with my proclivities, and I love all of it—the exquisite Tiffany clock in the centre of the main concourse, the vaulted archways and the acres of marble, the chalky green ceiling with the constellations of the northern hemisphere traced in small round lights. The constellations are backward: the artist claimed after the fact that he was influenced by a medieval manuscript showing the sky as seen by God from above, but that sounds to me like spin control. I used to look up at that spectacular ceiling as I crossed the main concourse, and I'd feel a little bit lifted.

My office window in the Greybar Building looked directly into the side of the Hyatt Hotel, no more than a hundred feet away. The Hyatt is a perfectly reflective wall of sheer dark glass: it's impossible to tell where the walls end and the windows begin. Once I looked out and a window was open. A man sat in the windowsill of his hotel room, dangling a cigarette outside. I was so used to thinking of the building as a mirror that it was a shock to remember that living souls went about their business on the other side of the glass.

I worked on the seventh floor. Once or twice the Greybar's elevator doors opened on the mezzanine level; a mysterious place, all exposed pipes and linoleum and dust, ancient oak doors with brass handles. I wondered what it would be like to work there.

"D'Artagnan's Theme" – Citizen Cope

And I don't know how else to say
In a different way
Why don't you just fade away?

My editor made me cut my favorite section. I'm not complaining—in retrospect it was fatal to the pacing of the book—but I think about the lost section frequently and wonder if I might possibly be able to turn it into a short story someday, or perhaps even another novel altogether.

The cut section concerned a man named David Grissom. He's my favorite, I think, of all the characters in this book, possibly even my favorite of all the characters I've ever written. (He's still one of the most important people in the book, but he doesn't get his own section anymore.) David was an artist. He began as a landscape painter but then moved indoors to frame the image—landscapes glimpsed through sliding glass doors, landscapes visible between the fabric of curtains—and then turned away from the windows altogether and began painting interiors, and then began adding more and more people until all of his paintings were of cocktail parties, and then he moved closer and closer to the glasses until all of his paintings were of drinks; the ghostly outlines of ice cubes, silver bubbles suspended in sheer almost-white. He painted constantly, but he mostly made his living selling coke to art school kids.

There's a quality of sadness and exhaustion in this song that makes me think of him. When his wife died he fled the city and drifted across North America and then to Europe, but he couldn't shake her. He traveled frantically, pursued by her unfading ghost. Eventually he made his way more or less at random to the island of Ischia, and boarded a bus at Ischia Porto. There's a bus that makes a circle around the island, linking all the seaside towns. On one side of the road that circles the island there are orchards and small houses and rocks, a steep hillside; on the other side, a jumble of villas and then finally the sea. David stayed on the bus until the driver announced the town of Sant'Angelo, which he chose because he thought it had a beautiful name.

"Poison Cup" – M. Ward

She said ‘If love,
if love is a poison cup,
then drink it up…'

"I'm not unafraid," David tells Anton, as they sit together one night in the piazza in the town of Sant'Angelo. They've been speaking of David's beloved wife. "I keep hoping I'll stop seeing her ghost and then, I don't know, get some kind of peace in the world—but if she left, I mean really left, if I didn't think she was still somewhere close by, I think I'd miss her even more…"

"Just Like Greta" - Van Morrison

Well, I guess I'm going A.W.O.L.
disconnect my telephone
just like Greta Garbo,
I just want to be alone…

This song makes me think of Anton, waiting on the island of Ischia after his wife returns to New York. He's not sure what will happen to him or what his life will be like after the transaction, and everything seems terribly up in the air, but there's a certain pleasure in being alone with his thoughts after all the chaos and confusion of the summer. The first paragraph of Chapter One:

For reasons that were difficult to think about in any great detail, let alone explain to his wife in New York, Anton had rented a room on the island of Ischia for the off-season. In exchange for a hundred euros a month and the understanding that he'd wash his own towels, he was given a small blue-painted room overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea with the outline of Capri visible in clear weather against the edge of the sky. For the first few days the silence was miraculous, and he thought he might finally have found what he was looking for.

"Oh, My Girl" – Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter

Anton thinks very frequently about Elena in New York. In the coming days the mysterious transaction he's been waiting for will finally occur, his waiting will be over and everything will change.

"Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)" – Tom Waits

No one speaks English, and everything's broken

and I'm down on my knees tonight…

A song about being destroyed in a foreign country.

"Passing Afternoon" – Iron & Wine

There are names across the sea, only now I do believe
sometimes, with the windows closed, she'll sit and think of me

Alexandra Broden is a State Department agent, in the division that investigates passport fraud. Aria Waker's fake-passport business has long since come to the attention of Broden's unit, and there are indications that Aria has moved into human trafficking. Both Anton and Aria have been under investigation for some time, and Aria's phone has recently been tapped. On the night of the transaction in Sant'Angelo, someone called Aria in New York: the call came from an Italian cell phone but proved otherwise untraceable.

The day after she receives the tape of the phone call, Broden drives into Brooklyn to visit Anton's parents. They'll tell her nothing, but Anton's mother is in shock and Anton's father's hands are shaken, and Broden leaves certain that something catastrophic has happened in Italy. She leaves Anton's mother sitting on the loading dock of their store, staring blankly at the river with a cold cup of coffee in her hands.

"The Privateers" – Andrew Bird

Oh cause I, I can see your ship from here
now the weather, so bright and clear
I can see you're just a little profiteer
As your confession draws more near

I saw two movies back-to-back a few years ago: North by Northwest and Miami Vice. I loved both of them, but I was troubled and vaguely offended by the ambivalence of the female villains. Both movies featured women who at first appeared to be cold-blooded, mercenary, and murderous—in short, all the attributes you want from your villain in a good action movie—but as it happened, really they both had hearts of gold and only wanted to fall in love and be rescued. I wanted to write about a woman who didn't have a heart of gold, who wasn't waiting to be swept up by a hero, who was utterly mercenary and unrepentantly villainous.

But few people are purely, entirely evil, and having done all that, having written that character, I find that I have a certain amount of sympathy for Aria. She doesn't have a heart of gold. She doesn't long for a conventional life. She doesn't need to be rescued. She is lethal, but she isn't a sociopath. She understands what she's doing and she finds, as events unfold on the island of Ischia and as Broden closes in, that she is capable of guilt.

Emily St. John Mandel and The Singer's Gun links:

the author's website
the author's book tour events
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
BookPage review
Bookviews by Alan Caruba review
A Curious Reader review
Draw a Blank review
Indiebound review
Journey of a Bookseller review
Library Journal review
Lit and Life review
Los Angeles Times review
Luxury Reading review
MostlyFiction Book Reviews review
The Mystery Gazette review
The Nervous Breakdown review
New York Journal of Books review
Petoskey News-Review review
Philadelphia City Paper review
Publishers Weekly review
Rundpinne review
She Is Too Fond of Books review
Skylight Books interview with the author
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Three Guys One Book review

Beyond the Margins interview with the author
BookPage interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Last Night in Montreal
The Millions essay by the author about her day jobs
Three Guys One Book essay by the author
WORD Brooklyn Blog essay by the author about Greenpoint

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists