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March 15, 2012

Book Notes - Heidi Julavits - "The Vanishers"

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Heidi Julavits's new book The Vanishers is a rare literary work that also sits easily on a speculative fiction shelf. Weaving together complex themes of motherhood and forgiveness, Julavits has produced one of the year's most compelling reads in this novel of psychic warfare.

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Heidi Julavits's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Vanishers:

I own a pair of children, young. They are narrow music enthusiasts, connoisseurs of the endless repeat, backseat DJs who apparently experience no satiation point when listening, for example, to Johnny Cash's "Nasty Dan".

I'm pretty tolerant of their compulsive same-song listening needs, probably because I've yet to outgrow this punishing (for others) appetite myself, though I indulge it now in private, or while wearing ear buds, so that no one's being driven insane or being driven to think me insane. I, too, listen to the same song ten or twenty times in a row, but as a more mature person have expanded my repeat repertoire to include albums, as well. These albums change quasi-monthly. These albums—instinctually selected—are the only music I listen to for weeks. One May I listened exclusively to Guided by Voices' Alien Lanes. One September, El Perro Del Mar's Love Is Not Pop. One entire summer, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk.

I've rationalized that this music habit of mine is a psychological casualty of my chosen métier. Because writing novels is also a form of compulsively repetitious behavior. You rake and rerake the same emotional clam flat, hear in your head the same dialogue spoken by the same characters, try for years to get to the bottom of whatever it is you're trying to get to the bottom of (often you have no idea, even once you get there). This insistent and semi-mad inability to broaden one's focus mimics, for me at least, the act of listening to the same album for weeks on end.

And then, one day, you're done. Done! Done with A.C. Newman's The Slow Wonder, done with your novel! You're some combination of satiated and zombied. When you can no longer hear the songs or see the words on the page, it's time to find another madness. You can, with a good conscience ("I gave it my all!") move on.

The songs I've chosen to musically accompany, or aurally illustrate, my most recent novel, The Vanishers, are mostly songs with which I have a stalker-like relationship. This is apt, because my novel is about jealous psychics who make each other sick via "psychic attack;" my main character is stalked by sad and/or emotionally toxic dead people. I've probably stalked Cat Power's "I Found A Reason" over 100—maybe over 200—times, and there's no sign yet that it will ever lose its inexplicable (I would hate to explicate it) appeal. These are songs that evoke for me my bi-polar worldview that I hope my fiction evokes, too. They're either spooky/moody/dark or super fucking chipper. Some I've chosen for the fun "topical intersection" factor. I think those songs will be evident. But they are no less worthy of a thousand March listens.

"Sisters of the Moon" by Fleetwood Mac

People either love Fleetwood Mac or hate Fleetwood Mac. If a person says he "doesn't mind" Fleetwood Mac, that means he hates them. This song, from Tusk, is all about Stevie Nicks throat-gargling her wiccan magic—and you can practically hear, between the 70s guitar solos, the occult rustle of her caftans.

"Just Like Arcadia" by Psychic TV

This is an unexpectedly upbeat track given the cover art (the album is called Allegory and Self)—a creepy line drawing by band member Austin Osman Spare of a scarab-wielding goddess and a steam punk fellow with a close-cropped afro. Dripping on the side are a few masks or faces (see below the relevance of faces). Also: Psychic TV! My novel is about psychics!

"Game of Pricks" by Guided by Voices

I could have put all of Alien Lanes on this playlist, but the finalists were "Game of Pricks" and "My Valuable Hunting Knife." Since Part One of my novel involves a "game of pricks" (among other occult parlor games), it emerged as the more fitting option.

"Smokey Taboo" by CocoRosie

Eerie, weirdo, "high as a helium balloon" spook-fest! (Coco Rosie also falls within the Fleetwood Mac you-love-them-or-you-hate-them category. See this playlist as a prickly taste throw-down—a wheat-from-the chaff enterprise. Though I fully concede that, post-separation, I might prove the chaff.) Chosen for this key lyric: "It's true, I get depressed in fancy hotel rooms." It would be a spoiler to explain how this pertains to my novel. But it pertains.

"My Karma Broke Down" by Three Weird Sisters

A spotify discovery! While searching "Sisters of the Moon", the engine netted me this insanely perfectly applicable-to-my-book band. Three Weird Sisters plays "filk" music, which I learned, with the help of other engines, is science fiction/fantasy folk music. This song comes from their album called Hair of the Frog. Which kind of says it all. Listening to Hair is like going to a medieval festival with people who are earnestly into their chain mail and their maces but who also know it's pretty hilarious to be speaking Olde English to their wenches in 2012. This particular song, aside from the topical relevancy ("I can't buy a ticket on the astral plane") is also, I hope, in synch with my novel's combination of heartfelt sincerity and sense of humor about itself.

"Numb Erone" by The Residents

Madcap—or just mad—instrumental interlude. This song conveys the manic confusion I often experienced while writing this book. Additionally, The Residents maintained their anonymity by wearing eyeball helmets during live performances. Since my book is about identity obscuring, and also about assuming other people's identities, and since it really should have featured a few more eyeball helmets, a Residents song was a no-brainer.

"Can't See My Own Face" by How To Dress Well

I use the word "face" 135 times in my novel. Faces feature prominently, and not just because everyone has one. Plus the Lo Fi, distortion-and-echo-heavy sound of How To Dress Well is the perfect soundtrack to accompany my main character's repeated—and often failed—attempts to wade through the watery astral world to find her dead mother.

(Side observation: This song must approximate what it's like for a fetus to hear music playing outside the womb.)

"Ghost Mouth" by Girls

Donald Barthelme wrote that "the combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they're allowed to go to bed together…reveals how much of Being we haven't yet encountered." Ghost and mouth went to bed together, and their offspring is my book. This song makes me think of Chris Isaak after he had a mood transplant and got a little less minor-key moony.

"Mona Lisa" by Atlas Sound

This song is a "winter is over and now it's spring" song. It demands a barometric outlook change toward the higher pressure zones. Also, there's an artist in my novel (a performance artist, but still); and there's a line about a thimble that once covered a finger that touched the Mona Lisa.

"The Orchids" by Califone

Flowers, the abundant and borderline menacing kind, have become my book's visual cue (see Emily Mahon's "STD Man on Acid" cover design—I wish I had a dress in this pattern, and an iphone cover, and an umbrella). Artist Carlos Charlie Perez took the menacing flower concept a few steps further in the short film he made for my book, which you can see here (and which features an ominous carnie song by Tabby Andriello called "Limehouse Blues").

"Touch Your Woman" by Dolly Parton

There are a lot of women in my book. Ergo this song. Parton's oft-repeated and insistent chorus begins, after a few listens, to sound like a Jane Fonda exercise video tape instructing you to "Touch your woman!", as though "woman" were a distant and hard-to-reach part of your body, maybe your toes.

"Raising the Dead" by Folly and the Hunter

Another spotify discovery; I was trying to find an appropriate Grateful Dead song—not just for the band name factor, but because I spotify cheated on my husband recently when he was out of town, and listened to a bunch of the Dead albums I listened to in high school, again repeatedly, some of them bootleg cassettes I'd pop into the stereo of my powder blue VW rabbit while driving around Portland, Maine, smoking cloves and looking for boys.

Instead I found this. It's really pretty, very Iron and Wine.

"Limit to Your Love" by James Blake

Another echo chamber song with a lot of quasi-dead space filled with reluctant drums and, yeah, more echoes. Deconstructed funk sung by a man whose voice sometimes veers into that warbly Antony and the Johnsons diva register. Androgynous and mournful and languidly obsessive, if such a state is possible.

"I Found a Reason" by Cat Power

When I die, and a doctor performs an autopsy on my body, and that doctor removes my heart and holds it to her ear, this is the song she'll hear.

"It Is Something" by El Perro del Mar

In the movie version of The Vanishers that rolls in my head, this song plays just before the final credits. Beautiful resignation is what this song conveys. Or maybe beautiful reckoning. Happiness is found in unexpected halfway places. It may not be everything, but
it is something
to be older
the sky.

Heidi Julavits and The Vanishers links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

Barnes and Noble Review review
The Edge review
Entertainment Weekly review
Grantland review
Kirkus Reviews review
LitStack review
More review
Page Views review
Prospero review
Shelf Awareness review

The Lit Show interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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