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April 25, 2013

Book Notes - Jenny Davidson "The Magic Circle"

The Magic Circle

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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jenny Davidson's The Magic Circle is an intriguing and rewarding novel that follows the friendship and immersion of three smart young women in live action role playing games. Comparisons to the work of Muriel Spark and Donna Tartt (Megan Abbott called the book "A Secret History" as directed by Whit Stillman") are wholly deserved.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"The strength of "The Magic Circle" lies in the way the novel's three intellectually accomplished female characters simultaneously complement one another's cleverness and expose one another's blind spots. But in Davidson's commendable ambition to provide them with a rambunctious story line worthy of their cultivated minds, the spirited plot is allowed to eclipse its fascinating players."

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 Jenny Davidson's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Magic Circle:

The Magic Circle tells the story of three women in their late twenties who start playing live-action role-playing games by drawing on the secret occult history of Morningside Heights. The desire for excitement escalates and they turn to Euripides' The Bacchae, with fatal consequences.

When I was revising the first draft of The Magic Circle (then still titled The Bacchae on Morningside Heights), I was in the grip of a minor obsession with the TV series Fringe. I had all sorts of cleaning-up to do in terms of character, storytelling and so forth, but most of all I was concerned with mood. I wanted The Magic Circle to give the reader something of that feeling of claustrophobic desire I experienced watching Fringe – longing to enter the world of Fringe even as I was also repelled by it, knowing perfectly well that the same kinds of thing that make me want to escape my own life and enter Fringe afflict protagonist Olivia Dunham with anxiety and depression similar to my own.

These songs aren't actually featured in The Magic Circle, but they express some of the feelings and ideas I hope the book conveys. Most of all, it's the feeling of being hungry for something magical to happen to counter the boredom and anomie of real life but knowing at the same time in your heart of hearts that anything magical that happens in real life is more likely to involve a curse than a blessing.

The Cure, "Killing an Arab"

Maybe the most famous rock song based on a famous novel (or would that be the Libertines' "Narcissist"?), this song perfectly sets the tone for a book about how the books we read influence our choices and lead to outcomes as dramatic as life and death.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, "Just Like Honey"

There must be a million songs about the power of charismatic and destructive women, but this one especially strongly reminds me of my character Anna, the stranger who comes to town and fascinates almost everyone she meets.

Thea Gilmore, "Razor Valentine"

My favorite crackly ghostlike love song. The refrain of includes the line "I love you like the last shot at the bottom of the bottle": alcohol (it is the legacy of Dionysus) makes life tolerable and makes life miserable for many of my characters, and another thing the book's interested in is how hard it is to tell love apart from addiction.

Manu Chao, "La vie à 2"

Another song about the ways people in couples can cause one another pain. The line I'm obsessed with: "J'espère plus jamais faire souffrir quelqu'un /comme je t'ai fait souffir."

P. J. Harvey, "You Said Something"

This song itself reminds me of a novel: it's brief, barely more than three minutes, but the way the past haunts the present is perfectly captured in both the sound of the song and the meaning of the lyrics. (Two other songs that have the richness and complexity of a novel despite their brevity: The Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil" and Prince, "Sign O' The Times.")

The Smiths, "Cemetry Gates"

Only after I immersed myself in books about gaming did my thinking about this song, which I have always loved, crystallize into the notion that it really is about a live-action role-playing game! That claim may be controversial, but I can't think of a song that illustrates better how a place and a certain kind of weather and the whole history of all the books you've read and loved can actually precipitate a moment of transport and take you somewhere else.

Van Morrison, "Madame George"

Games of chance on the sofa, dominos in drag – what more is there to say for a playlist about gaming? Seriously, though, the haunted melancholy of this particular song lies beyond rational explanation. How did Van Morrison make something that conveys such strong feeling? It is what I aspire to do, but I don't think I will ever match this particular achievement in any medium.

Robyn Hitchcock, "My Wife and My Dead Wife"

Edgar Allan Poe famously said that there is no more poetical subject in the world than the death of a beautiful woman. This song is jauntier than most songs about dead wives. Another one that shows us how much the past haunts the present and suggests one way of coming to terms with that fact.

Elliott Smith, "The White Lady Loves You More"

It probably says more about me than I should be willing to reveal in public that I have always found the desperate desire to have sex almost indistinguishable from the desperate desire to be dead. I have less experience with heroin than I do with sex or indeed with death, but almost all of Elliott Smith's songs speak to the way I feel quite a bit of the time: it is a sort of pained lyrical adolescent anomie that I should have outgrown long since, I am sure, but that seems to me one of the essential constitutive feelings of adult life.

Lou Reed, "Caroline Says II"

Berlin tells a different story than I do about its doomed heroine, but the album's mood very much captures how I feel about my character Anna.

The Roots, "Adrenaline"

It was easier for me to think of songs that convey the feeling of despair one might experience in an addictive but doomed relationship than to think of songs that express something of the excitement and menace of the public confrontation between Dionysus and Pentheus as staged in my characters' reenactment of The Bacchae. A great song of rivalries and reversals of fortune with an especially haunting chorus.

Gillian Welch, "Everything is Free"

What happens to the person who's left standing after the tragedy's over? The one who was neither protagonist or antagonist but simply an observer? "I can get a straight job / I've done it before": it's not a survivor's anthem, just a quiet lament about living through the aftermath.

Jenny Davidson and The Magic Circle links:

the author's blog

Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Times review

Reddit interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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