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January 19, 2011

Book Notes - Jeff VanderMeer ("The Third Bear")

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

Jeff VanderMeer's genre-defying fiction always impresses me, and his short fiction collection The Third Bear is some of his best work yet. Richly imaginative and deftly executed, these stories bear (no pun intended) repeated readings.

Library Journal wrote of the collection:

"Fans of imaginative literature and true speculative fiction should appreciate this groundbreaking collection by a World Fantasy Award winner that calls to mind the works of Borges, Kafka, and Stanislaw Lem."

In his own words, here is Jeff VanderMeer's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Third Bear:

My latest story collection The Third Bear is meant to be tight and unified, unlike my prior collection Secret Life, which was meant to be loose and free-flowing. Any and all musical styles would've served for Secret Life. But The Third Bear is a different creature. It's somewhere between elegy/dirge and celebration, chronicling the strange moments that occur more often than we want to believe. At base, it's a collection that's about the search for something beyond what we know—a search either forced upon the protagonist or eagerly sought out by that person. It's also an acknowledgment that certain things will always be beyond our ken. The stories, in terms of music, seem to me to be coiled and constantly turning in on themselves, with the counterpoint of moments that burst free from that maze. I don't know if that makes any sense, because I'm trying to convey a feeling in my brain that probably can't be put into words.

Regardless, the soundtrack that makes the most sense to me would include bands that do the same thing in their music: they can be sedate and subtle one moment, and then transcendently noisy and out of control the next.

The Spoon of Gimme Fiction would work well with The Third Bear. So would The Church with a single like "Chaos" or "Sealine". The National's "Slipping Husband" or "Available" off the CD Sad Songs for Lazy Lovers would also work; these songs are about the mundane world, but they are also about a kind of transition wherein the mundane turns out to be either nightmarish or other than what the people in the songs expected. Verdi's "Aida Overture" has qualities that fit the collection as well. I also keep coming back to the soundtrack for Ulysses' Gaze.

But there's also a certain variation in the muscularity of individual stories that requires further exploration through music. The title story "The Third Bear" is all-bear, all the time. It needs something grating/ominous like Lustmord's decompression, or the more disturbing songs from Scott Walker's latest couple CDs. In a less aggressive way, "Song for Bob" by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis has the requisite menace and sadness. (Proof that inspiration and final result are not the same thing: "Peter and the Wolf" was ghosting through my head while writing The Third Bear, in part because my parents played it for me when I was a kid, but it wouldn't fit as part of the soundtrack for the book.)

Then there's the new, unpublished story from the collection, "The Quickening," which has been posted here as a PDF. It's about a mysterious talking rabbit in 1950s Florida. Not only do I have no memory of listening to music while I wrote the story, all I can imagine as accompaniment is…silence. If you read it here, I'd be interested in finding out if it brings up any musical associations.

Short stories in general are mysterious creations for me. You must make words count, but in part because of the same brevity that requires focus, there also must exist within a short story something luminous or something unexplained. The best stories I've read generate a feeling akin to the emotional resonance of the best songs: like the end of James Joyce's "The Dead," they provide closure and open up at the same time and leave the listener, the reader, transformed and maybe even a little shaken.

Jeff VanderMeer and The Third Bear links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book ("The Quickening") (PDF link)

Clarkesworld review
Fantasy Magazine review
Grame's Fantasy Book Review review
Library Journal review
The Little Red Reviewer review
Locus Online review
Punkadiddle review
SF Crowsnest review
Stainless Steel Droppings review
T.N. Tobias review

A Dribble of Ink interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for his novel Finch
SF Signal interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists
Online "Best Music of 2010" lists

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