March 17, 2014
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.
Maud Casey's novel The Man Who Walked Away is brilliantly understated and lyrically told, one of the year's most remarkable books.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Lyrical in its style and fascinating in its psychology, Casey’s narrative provokes a host of intriguing questions."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The Man Who Walked Away is loosely based on a French psychiatric case study from 1886, which involved a man named, incredibly, Albert Dadas. Dadas walked in a trance-like state, throughout Europe. He would find himself in this town or that one, sometimes in a different country entirely, and he wouldn't know where he was or how he got there. This was, as you can imagine, pretty exhausting. Anguished, he took himself to a Bordeaux asylum. When I first read about Dadas in Ian Hacking's amazing book, Mad Travelers: On Transient Mental Illness, I was immediately struck by the musical quality in his descriptions of his travels. Among other things, he repeated certain phrases: I woke up, I discovered myself, I found myself. The doctor who treated Dadas gave him an original diagnosis—fugueur—that eventually disappeared but it was the origin of fugue state. That fugue is also a musical term, involving repetition and counterpoint, seemed relevant to the way Dadas talked about his mysterious journeys and to the way his doctor joined in his efforts to recreate the story of his lost life. Playing hooky from writing the book, I once stumbled across a Lawrence Weschler essay that made reference to Geographical Fugue by Weschler's grandfather, the composer, Ernst Toch. A spoken chorus recites a list of places in fugal form. It's really odd and kind of wonderful and worth listening to (here is the Lasovoric Choir performing it in Ankara, Turkey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euHKyt5hT_0). Figuring out how to capture the music of Albert Dadas' geographical fugue, or, rather, that of my imagined Albert (in an effort to unhitch him from the "real" Dadas, my character goes only by his first name), that's what I wanted to do. Or, to put it more precisely, because I'd been to the novel-writing rodeo before, I just wanted to do the best I could before I got bucked off and rescued by a rodeo clown.
One of my Albert's fellow inmates at the asylum plays the piano (instructed by the frog she believes is living inside of her) and, thanks to friends with expertise in classical music, I was able to fill the novel with era-appropriate classical pieces for piano (Schumann's dizzying Kresleriana, for example). These were a part of the soundtrack I listened to while writing the book. But there was a lot of contemporary music that accompanied my contemplation from my contemporary perch of this strange nineteenth-century man, his wandering, and his intimate relationship with his doctor. Like most books, mine was a lot of years in the making. What follows is some of the music that guided my own wanderings, and for whose company I'm very grateful.
"Helium" Tin Hat Trio
I came to Tin Hat Trio through their fifth album, Sad Machinery of Spring, because I'd heard it was inspired by Bruno Schulz (speaking of relationships between books and music). But it was their fourth album, Helium, and, in particular, the title track, that became a big part of the soundtrack of the Albert I was inventing. Full of whimsy, this eccentric chamber music group sounds the way I imagine Albert to be: rich with melancholy, occasionally discordant, playful, haunting, heartbreaking. Tin Hat (as I think they're called now that they're no longer a trio) transcend genre and exist in a kind of in-between land where I imagine Albert to exist as he walks. Not quite here and not quite there, always on the way to.
"What Condition My Condition Was In" Betty La Vette
I like the Kenny Rogers and The First Edition version too, but La Vette's takes it into another realm, where tearing your "mind on a jagged sky" or pushing your "soul into a deep dark hole and then…follow[ing] it in" might be because you dropped acid or it might be because that's just the way life feels sometimes. When you're Albert Dadas, for example. Or me, trying to write this novel.
"Sycamore" Bill Callahan
There's a mesmerizing, mystical quality to Callahan's deep voice, which seems appropriate since there's hypnosis (one of the medical interventions du jour of 19th century psychiatrists) in my novel. "When all you want to do is be a part of the fire/all you want to do is be the fire part of fire." I mean, don't we all? One of the things I found so moving about the real Albert Dadas' wanderings is the way his constant walking out on his life seemed like an effort (conscious, unconscious, who knows) to shake off the ordinary and plunge into the extraordinary. Which is only extraordinary if it doesn't last. There's the rub.
"Spectacular Views" Rilo Kiley
This song has such urgency and my version of Albert (and I think it's safe to say, the real Albert too) is all about urge and impulse and hurling himself into the world, regardless of the consequences, and maybe even in order to create consequences. The breadth of this song always kills me. It's got its arms wide open. There's such a hunger for the world. It's like Jenny Lewis wants to bite the beauty of it. And that's what I wanted the passages of Albert walking to feel like, an overwhelming and impossible urge in the midst of impermanence.
"Tightrope" Janelle Monáe
This has partly to do with the video for the song, which takes place in an asylum where dancing is forbidden ("for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices"). Monáe and her fellow dancers are decked out in tuxes and they engage in some seriously fantabulous magical practices. The asylum where Albert takes himself in my novel is a place of refuge. He doesn't dance, but I don't think he would be forbidden if he gave it a try.
"Love Comes to Me" Bonnie "Prince" Billy
I've always thought of my novel as a love story of sorts. A clinical love story set during the early days of psychiatry: A patient who hungers to be understood and a doctor who hungers to understand him. There's always that unbridgeable gap between people, but then there are moments when something happens and—a miracle!—for a moment, two people seem to fuse. Love, or whatever you want to call it, blows you into close, terrifying, glorious proximity to another person. If you wait after the end of this achingly beautiful song, there's a silence and then a rustling and then Dawn McCarthy who has been singing surreally wind-like vocals along with Will Oldham says, "Hey, is that the wind? And Will Oldham says, "Yeah." There's a wind in my novel too, blowing people around and into each other.
"You Are Not Alone" Mavis Staples
This is, in essence, what the doctor in my novel says to Albert and what Albert says to the Doctor, and for a moment, neither of them is.
"From the Rivers to the Ocean" Bill Callahan
Callahan's Woke on a Whaleheart was a bit of a kooky spirit guide during this book. "Have faith in wordless knowledge/Well I can tell you about the river/or we can just get in." One of the peculiar aspects of the apartment building where I live is mixed-use floors—residences and offices exist side-by-side. When I first moved in, my friendly next-door neighbor extended his hand in introduction. "Dr___, psychotherapist," he said and I thought, I have arrived. I write at a table on the other side of our shared wall. I can't hear words (even if I lie on the couch with my ear pressed to the wall, not that I ever do that) but I can hear tone. Theodor Reik, a psychoanalyst and a student of Freud's in Vienna, in his book Listening with the Third Ear, emphasized the importance of hearing what was "whispered between sentences," in the course of analysis.
"This Must be the Place (Naïve Melody) Talking Heads
How much do I love that parenthetical "naïve melody"? There's sweetness in the naïve. A capacity for wonder, or at least that's how I read it. And this meditation on the concept of home is so sweet, so open. Writing this novel, I spent a lot of time thinking about how you can take home on the road ("Home is where I want to be/but I guess I'm already there") and how you can discover home in the presence of another person. For my Albert, home is never more home than when he is leaving and he is always leaving.
"These Boots Were Made for Walkin" Nancy Sinatra
Albert's aren't so much (he often stuffs the holes with moss and leaves) but he is.
Maud Casey and The Man Who Walked Away links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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