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July 8, 2014

Book Notes - Will Chancellor "A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall"

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

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.

Will Chancellor's A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall is an ambitious and powerful debut, simply one of the year's finest books.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Bracingly rich...the author maintains an almost thrillerlike pace while taking well-aimed shots at academic and art-market fads and helping two lost souls through essential transformations."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Will Chancellor's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall:

When I started Brave Man ten years ago, there were a handful of things--stripping a bronze dome of its patination; facelifts; hair dye--that made me howl. It was the illusion of permanence that drove me up the fucking wall.

I was fascinated by beautiful representations of decay--Tarkovsky's collapsing ceiling, Wong Kar Wai's mercury mirrors and flaking walls, Malick's soldier touching a shrinking plant—and, not coincidentally, those images echo throughout the book.

Music, for me, was always temporal. I grew up with tapes that whirred, caught in the reels of a faulty car cassette player, and, if I couldn't wind them back with a pencil, died. I could play a CD about a hundred times before a skip would tick apart my favorite song. The tapes were never replaced, but the CDs I would still play, holding down FF through the exact moment I knew a skip was coming and, if that didn't work, advance a track and Reverse back until I could catch the undamaged half of the song. I went to a lot of concerts and listened to a lot of damaged albums. Music always had an expiry date.

When I knew that I was going to be dealing explicitly with music and love in this book, I began linking the dialogue in my head. The bravery at the heart of Brave Man is being okay with in-betweenness, imperfections, uncertainty, and knowing that things are going to fall apart.

These ideas horrify me.

My characters, however, are far braver.

Owen and Stevie are lovers on the lam. Stevie has a much stronger connection to music than Owen—she was probably listening to William Basinski's "The Disintegration Loops" at some point the very day Owen met her and thinking about the relationship of memory and music. Whatever made her say it, she tells Owen that their time together is a fantasy, precisely because it has the illusion that it will last forever. She draws a parallel to albums and says that people delude themselves into thinking that music, and the events in life that are significant enough to get a soundtrack, are always accessible and will never decay.

She says this blitheness is irresponsible and asks Owen to face the reality of their situation: they have less than a week together and need to feel a sense of loss and of beauty, she would say true beauty, in the present. Her mnemonic, the way she is sure they will both remember every detail of this encounter, is to choose one record per day—with the understanding that neither of them can ever listen to that record again.

Stevie is putting Owen in a bind. He wants to impress her by choosing something meaningful, but at the same time, fuck!, can you imagine never being able to listen to your favorite album again?

So they go to a record shop when their getaway cruise ship is in port and choose six records, one for each day, with the promise that after that day, they will never listen to any song on that particular album again.

Owen chooses:

Jacques Brel, Olympia '64, because he both loves it and, subconsciously, is still getting over being an Olympian.

Charles Mingus, Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, because he's trying to impress her and it's the only jazz album in the store that he recognizes.

Tom Waits, Closing Time, because it's his all-time favorite record and he figures, fuck it, even if he chose something else, he could never listen to Tom Waits without a crippling sense of regret at holding something back.

Stevie knows more, and so has more difficulty deciding. Even though it's her game, each selection kills her.

First she thinks Björk, then thinks it isn't the right fit.

Then she pulls the band-aid and goes for Transformer.

Now for some music pretty specific to 2004, when the book is set:

Iron & Wine, this one just happened to be in her Discman (seriously). She thought for a second that it might be Bonnie Prince Billy.

She vetoes Jacques Brel while Owen is outside and replaces it with Neutral Milk Hotel, Aeroplane Over The Sea. Subconsciously, she's probably ready to stop listening to this one. The track that she has definitely killed from overexposure is Plastic Bertrand, "Ca Plan Pour Moi."

Stevie comes very close to pulling the trigger on Can's Tago Mago, but ultimately chooses Sigur Ros ( ). When she opted for this record, I was like, "Way to go, Stevie! That totally fits in with the typographical fascinations of liminalism on parade in the rest of the book."

Dlp 1.1, William Basinski

Amsterdam, Jacques Brel

Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, Charles Mingus

Martha, Tom Waits

Joga, Björk

Vicious, Velvet Underground

Promising Light, Iron & Wine

I See a Darkness, Bonnie Prince Billy

Track 1, Sigur Rós

All of the preceding music is explicitly referenced in Brave Man. And, for the most part, I can say that those songs are more theirs than mine. But there are a few songs that I absolutely have to list because of how much I listened to them while writing.

One Too Many Mornings, Chemical Brothers

Alberto Balsam, Aphex Twin

Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), Kate Bush

That's Us / Wild Combination, Arthur Russell

Since I Left You, Avalanches

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, REM

Letters and Drawings, Damien Jurado

Liquid Modernity (You Can Never Go Home)- Noah and the Megafauna

Madness, HITS


The book very nearly ended with Owen and Stevie, together in California, playing Closing Time on a turntable without volume. As the record turns, memories billow in the dust pops.

Want to see my cutting room floor? So play "Martha" again and read this shred:

They stumbled slightly from the winding stone walk and into the grass. Quiet stars in a clear black sky. The Eucalyptus branches heavy and still. Stevie dropped his hand to find the right key. Owen noticed that she had removed the Open House sign from the lawn.

They kissed past the entryway and began backing up the stairs until Stevie stopped him. She disappeared to the den and came back with Closing Time.

--I was about to give this away, then I thought we could put it on the turntable and leave it on a shelf.

--Like bad art.

--I thought you'd say that. So I left it in the den until I had a better plan.

Stevie stood on a chair and grabbed Caroline's phonograph from the top shelf. Owen hefted the record and removed it from its sleeve. She undid the speaker wires from the back of the record player, unplugged the power, and then set it on the floor. She threaded the power cable through a hole in the cabinet and plugged it in.

Owen held the LP at its edges. He was about to voice his objection that it wouldn't work without speakers, but he saw that Stevie was waiting for him to say it. Instead, he sat on the floor at her side, carefully put the spindle through the record and watched as she dropped the arm, stylus tracing grooves.

At first it was scratches. Then faint chords of Martha rose, piano on a ship anchored at sea. Owen leaned in to hear Tom. Stevie stayed him. He put his arm around her shoulder and scooted back. They could fill in the words, because they knew the song, to anyone else the music was too faint to hear.

Will Chancellor and A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall links:

BookPage review
Kirkus review

T Magazine contribution by 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

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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