June 6, 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.
Joshua Corey's Beautiful Soul is an impressive postmodern noir debut, imaginative and beautiful in its prose.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Writing a novel after many years of writing mostly poems was like falling into a dream or fugue-like state that tied together, in a kind of river of sentences, many different places and times and genres, not all of which made it into the final manuscript. Beautiful Soul is a kind of existential noir about Ruth, a bored and frustrated Chicago housewife who is haunted by letters that she receives from her mother, who's been dead for several years. (What is noir? A kind of karma: what is coming at you is coming from you.) She hires a private eye named Lamb, and the sometimes entirely mental territories crossed in the course of their investigation include the Chicago lakefront, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Weimar Berlin, a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, May '68 in Paris, the Biennale in Venice, and the castle near Trieste where Rilke wrote The Duino Elegies. Film, and the tension between the cinematic and novelistic, is also important to a kind of storytelling that borrows any number of noir tropes, from the femme fatale to the doomed detective. I often visualized scenes as though they were being directed by the likes of Godard and Truffaut, Jarmusch and Antonioni, Wenders and Herzog, as I was writing it.
I don't often listen to music when I write, at least not music with words, but here is a small galaxy of songs that either make appearances in the book, reference plot points, or otherwise invoke the novel's mood; or as the Germans would have it, its Stimmung, a word that can also mean spirit, vein, temper, humor, and tuning.
"Shag Tobacco," Gavin Friday
This song's lyrics, which suggest a form of domesticity turned rotten and sinister, are matched by a darkly operatic melody and a chiaroscuro beat that has everything to do, for me, with the feeling of psychological noir. The outsized persona of the Irish singer, and his play with gender, resonates somehow with the impersonation at the heart of the novel: I am a man writing about a woman's obsession with her mother, a woman who hires or imagines a man to resolve that obsession.
"An Eye for Optical Theory," Michael Nyman
In 2008 I saw the documentary Man on Wire about acrobat Philippe Petit's 1974 walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. What I found so deeply moving about the film was how it in effect operated as an elegy not only for the towers, but for the world that had built them, even though—or because—the events of 9/11 were never mentioned. I wanted my novel to operate the same way, to have a living but unrevealed heart of loss: the narrative is a precarious line strung over a void. This track, originally composed for Peter Greenaway's sardonic film The Draughtsman's Contract, has a quality of precise and cumulative hysteria without climax that suits my novel completely.
"Dig, Lazarus, Dig," Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
"Dig yourself!" is Nick Cave's clever update of the command of Oracle at Delphi, uniting sex, death, and self-knowledge in a single verb. The most literary of songwriters (and a sometime novelist—And the Ass Saw the Angel made a big impression on me back in my twenties), in this song Nick Cave here unfolds the tale of hapless Larry, a kind of holy fool zigazagging between New York and Los Angeles on a perishing arc. "But what do we know of the dead / And who actually cares?" Those questions are central to my novel.
"Gloomy Sunday," Billie Holiday/Bjork
Nicknamed "the Hungarian Suicide Song," this jazz standard has had many interpreters in Hungarian and English, with Billie Holliday's being perhaps the best known. But Björk sang a live version at a memorial service for the designer Alexander McQueen that is absolutely haunting. The song's lyrics were written by a Hungarian poet named László Jávor in 1932; during World War II he rewrote them under a new title, "End of the World." That doubleness of the personal and the political resonates with the novel's themes; and Ruth's mother, like mine, was born during World War II in Hungary.
"I Only Have Eyes for You," The Flamingos
Part of the novel is set in Paris during the student rebellions of May '68, during which Gustave, an awkward young art student, falls in blind love with a mysterious young American who may become Ruth's vanished mother. This incredibly eerie song, with its wordless reverb filling in the space between the lyrics, conjures for me the pressure that politics puts upon love, and vice-versa: —"Maybe millions of people go by / But they all disappear from view / And I only have eyes for you."
"Don't Dream It's Over," Crowded House
My protagonist listens to this song during a flashback to when she is fifteen years old, like I was the year this song was released. It became part of the melancholy wallpaper of that time, along with Tears for Fears and Pretty in Pink and my first encounter with The Great Gatsby: "compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." These objects together evoke the dreamy, poignant atmosphere of adolescence, while this particular song has a slightly apocalyptic quality, amplified in my mind by its use in a scene from the miniseries version of Stephen King's The Stand, in which it evoked voices calling from a lost world.
"Misty," Johnny Mathis
In a seedy working-class bar Gustave's young American girl dances dreamily, provocatively to this song as a hostile audience of Parisian cabbies and casual laborers looks on. "I get misty," that is, vaporous. Like the ghost she is destined to become; like the beautiful soul of Hegel that "lives in dread of besmirching the splendor of its inner being by action and an existence."
"Bonnie and Clyde," Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot
An homage to Sam Peckinpah's film that was very much in the air in France in 1968, with lyrics based upon a poem written by Bonnie Parker shortly before she and Clyde were gunned down by a posse of lawmen. It's been covered many times, recently by Gainsbourg's son Lulu and Scarlett Johansson, but nothing can compare with the languid intensity of the original: there's a wonderfully bizarre video from a 1968 episode of The Brigitte Bardot Show (!) showing the singers' lethargic impersonations of Warren Beatty-Clyde Barrow and Faye Dunaway-Bonnie Parker. My young lovers watch the film during a lull in les évenéments, which was interpreted by a number of the soixante huitards as an allegory of the Vietnam War, with Bonnie and Clyde representing the glory of sacrificed youth.
"Teddy Bears' Picnic," Henry Hall and His Orchestra
A weirdly sinister song, especially as lip-synced by Michael Gambon in the great British TV series The Singing Detective, from which I developed my fondly held notions of operatically self-aware Freudian noir storytelling. One of the pop songs of the Thirties and Forties along with "Accentuate the Positive" and "I Can't Begin to Tell You" that Ruth's mother learns to sing as a young girl in a displaced persons' camp immediately after WWII.
"Winterreise," Franz Schubert
Ruth's mother also sings German lieder, in spite or because of the fact that her parents are Holocaust survivors; in an early draft of the novel we see her transcribing the key of this somberly masculine late cycle from baritone to mezzo-soprano. These songs narrate the winter journey of a wounded lover. Lyrically, they are filled with surreal discontinuities, reflecting how the senses of the mourner are simultaneously sharpened and dulled. The music itself is achingly beautiful. The cycle, among the last pieces that Schubert ever composed, coheres without closure, as I hope my novel does.
Joshua Corey and Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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