November 29, 2012
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, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Susan Vaught's Freaks Like Us is an intense, honest, and rewarding young adult psychological mystery narrated by a schizophrenic teen.
I absolutely cannot write a novel without music, and it has to be the right music. Sometimes I'll spend up to an hour flipping through my playlist until I hit the exact right piece to begin a paragraph or a chapter, or form the backbeat for a difficult scene I'm struggling to capture. Freaks Like Us had a soundtrack—songs I played repeatedly, or at various points to pull myself into Jason's strange and wistful emotional landscape.
"Re: Your Brains," Jonathan Coulton
Not every song is serious. Some songs aren't even close to serious! Jason and his friends have fun and enjoy each other, but they have issues that set them apart from a lot of people their age. They could take their problems too seriously and turn to stone in the world of the living, but they choose not to do this. They laugh. They keep walking. If they survived a zombie apocalypse, they'd write a song about it, too. I think it's a mistake to think people need education about their problems. This isn't always the case, especially for teens. They know very well what's wrong, and they'll tell you. The question is, will you listen?
"Stone on the Water," Badly Drawn Boy
Sometimes, just when everything is going along like it should, life takes a hard left.
Jason, Derrick, and Sunshine made it to their senior year in high school despite impossible odds, and they're still alive. They're still together. They face a lot of scary things, sometimes in their own minds and hearts, but they're making it. They're getting by, even doing well, until the brakes start to squeal and the landscape shifts and Jason doesn't know the whole car's crashing until his world has gone belly up, tires spinning. "Stone on the Water" picks up the frenetic intensity of shock and disbelief when he loses what matters to him. Things do matter to Jason, and they matter a lot, even if most people don't realize that by looking at him. All they see is a Freak. Sometimes Freak is all he is, even to himself. Sunshine stands between Jason and giving up on himself. There's no way he can stand not having her in his life. When she disappears, he'll do whatever it takes to find her.
"Angie Baby," Uncle Devil Show
People disappear in the movies and on television shows. People aren't supposed to go missing in real life. At first, Jason can't feel much more than stunned fear. What happened to Sunshine? Where did she go? Did someone take her? Is she hurt? Is she—no. He's not about to go there. And yet, the voices he hears won't give him any peace. "Angie Baby" has always been a creepy song, but Uncle Devil Show's version captures the fractured reality Jason feels as he's forced to plunge into the reality of Sunshine's loss, and the madness of a full-tilt law enforcement search for a missing kid. Schizophrenics don't have a choice about the noises in their head, and he can't turn down the volume. His fears go into a cruel, terrifying echo chamber, and they whisper unthinkable things to him. Maybe he knows more than he's letting himself remember. Maybe he had something to do with Sunshine's disappearance. Maybe he was the one who hurt her. . .
"Miss Misery," Elliot Smith
Jason and his friends have always tried to carve out a peaceful place for themselves despite the pain they've had to face. Jason thought they were happy, at least when they were together. Going over Sunshine's life in so much detail, with the glaring light of legal attention blazing across every pain-filled corner and crevice, leaves him uncertain. She told him everything . . . right? He knew what hurt her and what made her smile . . . didn't he? Why is it that he sees Sunshine as a whole and vibrant person, while other people seem to think she's fragile—almost pitiful? He's not sure he can stand the answers to the questions.
"Left for Dead," Citizen Cope
It doesn't take long for Jason to realize that the police and the FBI don't see him as a resource in the hunt for Sunshine. He's a Freak to them. He and Derrick are throwaway messed up kids who can't do anything but get in the way. They're pushed to the side, interviewed and treated with suspicion, then ignored. Everyone thinks they can do a better job of finding Sunshine than Jason and Derrick. After all, what could her best friends possibly know, right? Except how she thinks, or what might have been bothering her, or all the places she might hide. Citizen Cope's music is haunting and hopeful at the same time, and as an artist, he holds up vocal banners for the forgotten, the downtrodden, and the dismissed. "Left for Dead" is short but poignant, and it picks up the alienation of being left out of life's mainstream, noticed by only a very few people who are almost as forgotten as Jason.
"Video Games," Lana Del Rey
With each hour that passes, Sunshine's chances for survival drop. Jason feels each tick of the clock like a punch to his chest. He faces a brutal choice: take his medication and keep his voices under better control, or go without his pills and stay awake and alert, but let the world go creepy as his symptoms escalate. He chooses to risk his illness so he can search for Sunshine. With the stress he's under, it doesn't take long for strange to take over. His hallucinations toy with him and confuse him, but he presses ahead with his search. So what if the police and the FBI don't care what he has to say? He knows Sunshine. He knows he can find her. He and Derrick have a pretty good idea where to start looking. "Video Games" has a surreal quality, a richness and texture expressed through layers of strong vocals, unusual sounds (love the bell tolling in the beginning), powerful instrumental accompaniment—even hints of harp music here and there. Writing to this piece was like slipping into Jason's reality for four minutes and forty-two seconds.
"D'Artagnan's Theme," Citizen Cope
A more intense round of questioning focuses Jason's attention on the fact that he isn't actually being ignored by law enforcement.
He's a suspect.
His attempts to join the forces of good and help in the search for the girl who means more to him than anything haven't just been rejected, they've been perverted. He's incredulous and angry, though probably not surprised. He's a Freak after all. He's always known that.
Citizen Cope's play on the Musketeer who had to prove his worth captures this soul-deep insult without missing a beat.
"Full Moon," Black Ghosts
Jason's voices taunt him with possibilities, and block him from sorting through crucial details of the last week he spent with Sunshine. The madder he gets, the more worried he gets, the worse those voices become. Time is passing. Everyone is watching him instead of searching for Sunshine. Why do they have to poke at what he doesn't dare let himself remember? I know this song screams TWILIGHT to Twi-hards, but it's an excellent piece of music even without that association. The aching urgency seemed just right for sections of Freaks Like Us.
"King of the Road," Jim White
Jim White has a knack for doing unbelievably strange things to songs. This version of "King of the Road" literally ain't your mama's "King of the Road." It's downright bizarre, and wonderful. And a little scary. Turn normal on its head. That's just what Jason needs to do to escape prying eyes and work with Derrick to really look for the girl he has to find. They can't pull this off alone, though. They have to put their trust in some very dangerous people. The guys who agree to help them—these guys are way past "a little scary."
"Wayne Andrews, the Old Bee Keeper," The Prize Fighter Inferno
Everyone has a special place, where they feel protected and safe from every bad thing in the universe. Too bad Jason has to get through a scary forest to make it to Sunshine's sacred space and find out if she left him any clues. The trees seem to be coming to life, and he can't hear much past his voices now. It's bad. It's weird. This song taps that weirdness full-on, but it's definitely not bad. Like most on this book's playlist, "haunting" would be a good word. It makes me smile and shiver at the same time.
"Hush Now," Fink (featuring Tina Grace)
When Jason finds something he doesn't expect in Sunshine's special place, it's like she's reached out from . . . somewhere . . . and touched him. It's like she's one of the voices whispering to him, but what's she trying to say? And the bits and pieces of memory he keeps having, of the Saturday before she disappeared, what do they mean? What did Jason do? Even asking himself that question terrifies him. Giving in to the noise of the voices seems easier than grabbing for that answer. The bluesy, insistent movement of "Hush Now" feels almost like Jason's heartbeat as he tries to close his fingers around the little bit of Sunshine he can touch.
"Human Punching Bag," M. Ward
Jason and Derrick trusted the wrong people for the right reasons. When you trust the wrong people, bad things—and sad things—happen. I'm not sure any song could sing it better than this one.
"Old Haunt," Adam Hurst
Sometimes, pain runs too deep for words. Jason's wounded in so many ways now, he's not sure he can recover. He's not sure he wants to. I turned to Adam Hurst's instrumental piece to set the stage for Jason's fragmented struggle to come back to consciousness, both physically and mentally. It didn't let me down.
Of course, my playlist during all the writing was even longer, and here's a taste.
"The Train Song," Ben Gibbard and Feist
"Anna Begins," Counting Crows
"You Don't Know Me," Diana Krall/Ray Charles
"Don't Ever Touch Me Again," Dionne Farris
"Mercy Now," Mary Gauthier
"World of Confusion," Government Mule
But all the writing brought me to these two songs:
"Little Bird," Emmylou Harris
"I Remember, I Believe," Sweet Honey In the Rock
Even when it seems like the sun won't ever rise again, even when it seems like it shouldn't, it does. The relentless, and yes, haunting hopefulness in these two pieces helped me through the conclusion of this story. I particularly liked using Sweet Honey In the Rock, because they are the perfect opposite of what happens in Jason's head. His voices argue and create discord. Using only voices for instruments, Sweet Honey in the Rock creates absolutely perfect harmony, a crystalline, natural sound of peace. Jason's true struggle to believe in himself and trust his own perceptions might take him to better places. It might put him on the road to what happened to Sunshine, if he can tell himself the truth—and if he can let himself remember even the things he's hiding from himself. Is he that brave?
I think he is, but I'm sure readers will have their own opinions.
Susan Vaught and Freaks Like Us links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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