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July 7, 2011

Book Notes - Seth Fried ("The Great Frustration")

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

Seth Fried's debut story collection The Great Frustration is often dark, funny, and absurd at the same time, a promising and entertaining first book from a truly gifted author.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:

"The 11 stories in Fried's debut have the vigor of adventures, taking place in settings as disparate as Spain in the time of the conquistadors, a king's harem, a city under siege, various scientific setups, and--in the case of the title story--the Garden of Eden. Such an imagination is refreshing, but even more rewarding is that the stories don't rely solely on concept or conceit, and trudge forward into the lovely mess of strong characters wedged into dramatic circumstance."

In his own words, here is Seth Fried's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Great Frustration:

"Caravan Breakers, They Prey on the Weak and the Old" - Frog Eyes

If you want to publish a book of fiction, there's a lot of pressure to write something that will appeal to a popular audience. When you try to put forward anything that's not immediately familiar to that audience, you're made to feel like you're being precious or impractical. That's why it's encouraging to listen to artists like Frog Eyes. I can't think of a band that seems less concerned with the popular aesthetic. And unlike a lot of other edgy bands (who make ambient, emotionless music) Frog Eyes is actually exciting to listen to. Their music is emotionally raw and honest. This song in particular is a great example of how intense their stuff can be. Listening to Frog Eyes gives me the courage to be weird (really: myself) in my work. At the same time, their music seems to emphasize the fact that creating art outside of the popular aesthetic doesn't necessarily mean you have to be emotionless or ironic.

"Sing" - Bill Murray as Nick Summers

I'm not sure how many people are still familiar with Bill Murray's lounge singer sketches from SNL in the late 70's and early 80's. If you haven't seen them, you should. They're really great. Though, I tend to get frustrated when people talk about them, because the premise is invariably explained as follows: "It's funny because he's, like, this lounge singer who's really corny and bad." I totally disagree with this interpretation. Those sketches are funny not because Nick Summers (his name changes based on location: Nick Rails, Nick Lava, Nick Sands) is a bad lounge singer. They're funny because he's an energetic lounge singer doing his best to work really bad venues. He's corny in the sense that all lounge singers are corny, but within that context the character of Nick is pretty charming and great. The song I'm referring to is from the very first lounge singer sketch which aired in 1977. Nick Summers is performing at the Breezy Point Lodge on Lake Minnehonka. After spending his set trying to interact with the painfully apathetic crowd, Nick closes with a spirited rendition of The Carpenter's hit, "Sing." The funniness of the sketch (and of this song, which is not coincidentally about the life-affirming power of music) isn't that Nick is a bad lounge singer. It's that he's performing his ass off for a room that can't be bothered. When he interrupts his own song to tell his audience to put on some 612 before they go out or to flash their headlights if they see bears at the garbage dump, it's because he genuinely seems to care that these miserable jerks have a good time. Behind all the schmaltz, he's a real guy who wants to be good at his job. And that's funny. I think humor is much richer when you drop a real person into a ridiculous situation and not the other way around. That's the kind of humor I work toward in my writing, and I think this particular sketch/song exemplifies it perfectly.

"Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" - Bob Dylan

It would be pretty weird for me not to mention this song, since the second story in my collection is "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre." I'm a huge Dylanophile in general, and I thought it would be fun to base a story on "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues." The story ended up evolving a lot on its own, so I doubt anyone would see much of a connection between the two besides the title and the fact that both prominently feature boats. However, there's a morbidly comic tone in the story that was definitely inspired by Dylan.

"Oil" - Jonny Greenwood

Lots of music has informed and inspired my writing, but there are very few things that I can listen to while I am actually in the middle of writing. That said, I listened to Jonny Greenwood's soundtrack for There Will Be Blood a lot during the writing of The Great Frustration. The score he put together for that film has this way of making you feel like all your thoughts are really intense and important. I spent a lot of wonderful afternoons listening to this track in particular and brooding over my ridiculous stories about harems and conquistadors and monkeys being dropped into volcanoes.

"The Rat's Revenge Part I and II" - The Rats

The Rats were a garage band from Akron, Ohio (not to be confused with the Portland-based punk group of the same name). They never released an album, and as far as I can tell this two part song represents the extent of their output. In terms of the song's structure and content, there's absolutely no reason that it should be any longer than 30 seconds. However, The Rats (who are personal heroes of mine, despite the fact that I know next to nothing about them) apparently felt it necessary to make this song over five minutes long and in two distinct parts. Part I is about how they are going to have The Rat's Revenge on you, whereas Part II is about how they've just had The Rat's Revenge on you. But that description makes the song sound far more thought-out than it actually is. It becomes obvious about a third of the way through Part I that the two vocalists for The Rats aren't really concerned with the words they're singing so long as those words sort of rhyme. This improvised approach ends up producing some pretty befuddling lyrics, especially toward the end when they start to run out of rhyming words:

Super giant sewer rats are everywhere,
hanging from the telephone poles.
We saw you mowing the lawn,
and that was all.

Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite songs of all time. I have never listened to it and not had an amazing time. It's just a great song. The fact that it doesn't really make any sense or that it's overly long didn't stop The Rats from making it awesome. The Rat's Revenge is overflowing with tons of nerdy attitude and swagger. In their one and only song The Rats are just being themselves with total abandon. That is something I really aspire to in my writing.

"Les OS" - The Unicorns

I listened to this song a bunch around the time I was writing "Loeka Discovered," which is the first story in the collection. This song feels really urgent, but in a comic way. That's definitely how I wanted Loeka to feel, so I remember listening to Les OS for inspiration.

"Operation No Clue" - The Submarines

"Operation No Clue" has the distinction of being the only hate ballad that has ever been written about me (that I know of). My best friends in high school were in a garage band called The Submarines (not to be confused with the indie pop group from LA). I was a huge fan of theirs and really wanted to see them succeed. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that one of their best songs was about how they thought I was a complete asshole. To be fair, in high school I wasn't exactly a walk through wine country. But it was still pretty intense to hear about it in song form. The last line of each verse is, amazingly, "Your dreams are never going to come true." Which is obviously terrible news. That line is a reference to the fact that even then I wanted to be a writer. Later on in the song they refer to me as "another hopeless Kerouac." The weirdest aspect of having people I cared about spend so much creative energy hating my guts is that to this day I absolutely love the song. It's catchy as hell, and it just rocks. It's especially impressive if you consider how young they were when they put it together. There was a time when I found it hurtful. But nowadays when I get a particularly good piece of news about my career as a writer (which feels like it's going well), I occasionally open a beer and blast "Operation No Clue" as loud as I can. I honestly feel lucky to have had friends when I was young who made art when they felt frustrated. Whether or not their opinion of me was always high, that had an impact on me.

Seth Fried and The Great Frustration links:

the author's blog
excerpt from the book ("The Great Frustration')
excerpt from the book ("Those of Us in Plaid")

Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Full Stop review
The Hipster Book Club review
Portland Mercury review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
Walk with a Book review
ZYZZYVA review

Bark interview with the author
The Magazine of Yoga interview with the author
One Story Blog interview with the author
Toledo Free Press interview with 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