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October 26, 2010

Book Notes - Adam Levin ("The Instructions")

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

Adam Levin's debut The Instructions is one of the year's most engrossing novels, and has already earned the author a host of comparisons to David Foster Wallace. Don't be put off by the book's 1000+ pages, they fly by with rare humor, fully realized characters, and an intriguing plot.

In a year filled with books that feature engaging and precocious protagonists (Emma Donoghue's Room & Brock Clarke's Exley immediately come to mind), The Instructions fits right in with its ten-year old Gurion Maccabee, who may or may not be the Messiah. Maccabee is one of the year's most fascinating literary characters, his voice will haunt you long after you close the book.

The Village Voice wrote of the novel:

"A book that moves beyond completely transparent influences to reach its own distinct, new, great height. Finding out whether or not Gurion is the messiah pales to watching Levin earn him his rightful place alongside Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter, Pony Boy, and every other classically young, angry character who's fought to change his or her world, whether or not they succeeded."

In his own words, here is Adam Levin's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Instructions:

I can't listen to music while I write, and not just because listening to music causes my parrot to scream and whistle, which does make it close to impossible to concentrate, but also because music disrupts my sense of rhythm—I can't hear what I'm writing if I'm listening to music. For the most part, I listen to music while I'm walking—I take at least one walk a day, sometimes as many as four—and, over the course of the nine years during which I was writing The Instructions, I would, while walking, often think about certain climactic scenes in The Instructions (scenes that, for fear of spoiling, I will not describe here), and what I discovered was that the best music to listen to while thinking about these climactic Instructions scenes was up-tempo stuff with mean guitars, a good measure of distortion, and lots of hey-hey's and oh-oh's, which is also, I submit, the best music to listen to while imagining yourself a) punching someone in the nose; b) kissing someone on the mouth; c) punching someone in the nose so as to remove them from the space between yourself and someone else who you may now proceed to kiss on the mouth; d) getting kissed on the mouth after having been punched in the nose (by someone other than the person who is kissing you); e) sniping. In other words, the best music to listen to while walking around, thinking about certain climactic scenes from The Instructions is by The Misfits. Beyond that, I don't have much to say about The Misfits. Their lyrics, when you pay attention to them, are often as offputting as their melodies are catchy. Take "Skulls." One can't listen to "Skulls" more than once without its weirdly upbeat-but-mournful-sounding chorus getting stuck in one's head, and yet the second verse starts out like this: "Demon I am and face I peel/ To see your skin turned inside-out." Pretty gross. Who wants to kiss—or even punch for that matter—to an image like that? Or the chorus of "Bullet," a song that addresses itself to Jackie O: "Texas is an outrage when your husband is dead/ Texas is an outrage when they pick up his head/ Texas is the reason that the president's dead/ You gotta suck, suck, Jackie suck." Not just gross, but mean. To Jackie O of all people. Wow is it catchy, though. As with "Skulls" and most of the other Misfits songs listed below ("Last Caress" being a rather bright exception), it's pretty easy to deaf yourself to Glenn Danzig's words—and probably not that inoffensive to Danzig if you do so (were your knowing his lyrics of much importance to him, he'd have sung them a lot more clearly, right?)—and concentrate wholly on his lovestruck/heartbroke pugilistic voice.

All of that said, The Instructions itself makes reference to not a single Misfits song. It does, however, contain references to songs by The Fugees, The Clash, The Jackson Five, Radiohead, and Stiff Little Fingers, amongst others. I'll talk about a few of those:

"The Guns of Brixton" by the Clash

In terms of London Calling, I'm more a "Rudie Can't Fail" guy—maybe even more of a "Card Cheat" guy—than I am a "Guns of Brixton" guy, but "Guns of Brixton" is more menacing and also more fun to sing along to in a car with your father. Or at least I'd imagine (my own father wouldn't know the Clash from the from the from the…whatever), and the scene in The Instructions in which the song is featured requires fun father-sing-alonging. Furthermore, "Guns of Brixton," at least amongst the more academically-minded men of Chicago with whom I am acquainted, is, hands down, the most IMPORTANT song on London Calling (which may or may not be the most important Clash album—I've heard Sandinista argued for), and Judah, father of my novel's protagonist and creator of the mix on which "Guns of Brixton" appears, is nothing if not an academically-minded man from Chicago.

"Zealots" by the Fugees

There's a scene in the book in which much is made of a particular line from this excellent song. The line's sung by Lauryn Hill: "Even after all my logic and my theory/I add a motherfucka so you ig'nant niggas hear me." Much used to be made of other lines from the song as well, e.g. Praswell's "No matter who you damage, you're still a false prophet," but that was all too much much-making, and cuts were enacted with great cutting force.

"Gotta Gettaway" by Stiff Little Fingers

This song, which appears on the same mix as "Guns of Brixton," has a mournful-yet-ebbulient-kisser-fistfighting vibe that makes it pretty similar to all the great Misfits songs, but it lacks the nasty lyrics and, of course, it lacks Danzig.

"The Love You Save" by The Jackson Five

This is a somewhat terrifying song wherein a ten-year-old Michael Jackson warns a girl he cares for to cease her flirtations or else he'll….Well, here's the chorus: "Stop, the love you save may be your own/Darling, look both ways before you cross me/You're heading for the danger zone." What is this danger zone? I don't like to think about that. But. VERY joyful, catchy song. Furthermore, there's a line in it that goes, "When Benji held your hand, he felt e-lec-tric-ity," and one of Gurion's good friends, Vincie Portite, who is the music kid of the crew—the one who makes mixes for everyone, knows all the trivia, etc.—thinks MJ is singing "Vincie" rather than "Benji," which is a lot more interesting than it probably sounds to someone who hasn't read The Instructions.

Here's that Misfits playlist, the beauty of which is that nothing's lost if you play it on random:

"Night of the Living Dead"
"Hybrid Moments"
"Some Kinda Hate"
"We Bite"
"Mephisto Waltz"
"Astro Zombies"
"Where Eagles Dare"
"Teenagers from Mars"
"I Turned into a Martian"

Adam Levin and The Instructions links:

video trailer for the book

BookPeople's Blog review
Chicago Tribune review
Lines and Circles review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Tablet review
Village Voice review

Chicago Magazine profile of the author
Chicagoist interview with the author
Riverfront Times interview with the author
Time Out Chicago guest essay by the author

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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists