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September 2, 2014

Book Notes - Justin Taylor "Flings"


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.

Justin Taylor's Flings is filled with stories both strikingly modern and perfectly structured, easily one of the year's finest short fiction collections.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:

"In this luminous collection of short stories, Taylor takes on the theme of constancy of self amid the ephemeral relationships that make up our lives.These stories, by turns witty and piercing, form an uncommon portrait of the human heart."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Justin Taylor's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Flings:

First some hard numbers. Specific songs, albums, or bands are mentioned in ten of the twelve stories in Flings, for a total of forty-six unique references—not including generalizations, a car radio overheard from an apartment window, and one band I made up for the butt of a joke. Several characters have some degree of professional musical aspiration, typically frustrated; several more sing along to things they're listening to; four separate stories feature characters who think of music as the "soundtrack" to their lived experience and therefore attempt to curate to suit. I'm going to forego an exhaustive annotation—for that, you'll have to wait for the Norton Critical Edition, or make your own. This is more like one of those two-disc retrospectives where the b-sides are mixed in with the greatest hits.

Things begin inauspiciously. In the title story, which is also the opener, a college senior named Danny is having an emotional conversation with his lover Rachel. As they discuss their uncertain future he thinks of "a popular song he'd hated in high school, the one with the chorus that went ‘Well I guess this is growing up.'" Danny doesn't identify Blink 182's "Dammit," but if you get the reference you probably remember the song from the late ‘90s (1997 to be exact), which should give you a pretty good sense of how old Danny is as well as when the conversation with Rachel is taking place. "Flings" covers about a dozen years in the life of a group of friends, from the end of college to the cusp of early-middle age in the approximate present, and I wanted to establish this timeline early, but without a fuss.

Later in the story Danny, drunk and upset (his and Rachel's future no more certain than before, but at any rate still unfolding) blasts Rilo Kiley's Take Offs and Landings on his first-generation iPod and sings along with it while he burns some notebooks in a cemetery. Rilo Kiley were a major band for me when I was in college, but I had a roommate who liked them even more. He used to go down to the Barnes & Noble, flip through all the music magazines on the rack, and then buy every single one with a piece about Jenny Lewis, or even just a picture of her. More than a few nights at our house ended with him blackoutedly wailing along to Take Offs or Execution of All Things loud enough for the whole house to hear—and join in or not, as inclination dictated. (To misquote Borges slightly: these stories are not wholly innocent of memoir.) Anyhow, Danny decides to play Take Offs because "Go Ahead" opens with a line about "traveling out West," which he himself has done in the story. He makes it through about the first twenty minutes of the album, before being Tasered by cops during the second crescendo of "Pictures of Success."

In "Sungold," the narrator is a deeply disaffected employee at an organic vegetarian pizza franchise with a hippie theme. He hates his boss, Ethan, and never misses an opportunity to shit on Ethan's taste in music, and the aesthetics of the restaurant in general. He refuses to learn the names of any of the waitresses, preferring instead to refer to them, individually and collectively, as "Melissa/Jessica," a conflation of two cheesy Allman Brothers songs. I'm going to meet my narrator halfway here. "Melissa" isn't a bad song, but there is something a bit pitiful about the way it reaches for its bluesy sturm und drang. This might actually be the problem with the Allman Brothers in general. Now "Jessica," on the other hand, is largely free of forced moodiness, in fact is a breezy, playful seven-and-a-half-minute instrumental, which fact was barely enough to save it from being beaten to death by classic rock radio, though the grocery chain Publix did use it for a TV commercial (picnics! summer! chicken thighs!) that ran for so long while I was growing up that it's still the first thing I think of when I hear this song. If you want to try and enjoy "Jessica" go in prepared to wait out the first couple minutes, the du-du-du du-du-du-du-du part, and keep your ears peeled for the keyboard lead that kicks in around 2:30. That's where the song opens up and gets interesting.

My narrator, of course, doesn't have patience for such things. He likes hip-hop and some metal—anything aggro—but in the one scene where he's given the chance to put on his own music he makes the baffling, borderline-indefensible choice of a Royal Trux album, probably Untitled, though it might be Cats and Dogs. By his own admission, he has "no idea what I want Sungold to think of it, or of me for having put it on." It may be that he wishes to provoke her into thinking about him at all.

"Adon Olam" is the first of two stories that share their titles with songs. "Adon Olam" is a Jewish prayer, Hebrew school mainstay, and traditionally the last song sung before services end, which gives it a special potency to anyone who has ever been an anxious Jewish child in pinching dress shoes (curiously, only my right heel has a scar). Like all the Jewish prayers, "Adon Olam" can be sung in many different ways, and one can't help but have a preference for the tune and intonation one was raised with, which my narrator Adam describes as "swaying or something, but it also had these like, zigzags in it. I mean it felt powerful somehow, significant, almost haunted—if you can be haunted in a good way."

"After Ellen" follows Scott, a minor character in "Flings," from the moment that he exits the action of that story by writing a Dear John to his girlfriend and driving from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco to escape from/destroy/reinvent his life. Scott—unlike his friend Danny—think it's "stupid to soundtrack his own life by picking a ‘song for the moment,'" but on the occasion of this road trip he cannot help himself, and chooses Derek and the Dominos' "Key to the Highway" to play himself out of town. Scott himself is a DJ, and though his own performances are not described in detail, I'll share here that I always imagined Scott's work as frenetic and brainy, intricately organized and filled with referential samples from high and low culture: the kind of music you could just as easily annotate as get fucked up and dance to. (You get a taste of this in another story, "A Night Out," where Scott has a cameo as the DJ at a party in a Soho loft, though that story's protagonists aren't paying close attention to the music, and wouldn't know Scott's name or work even if they were.) Scott's own musical touchstones include RJD2's Deadringer, pretty much anything from the Ninja Tune catalog (especially Let Us Play-era Coldcut, who he worshipped as a teenager but is smart enough now not to namecheck), and DJ /rupture, who Scott regards as a compositional genius, though the politics that inform /rupture's music are uninteresting—or perhaps incomprehensible—to him.

"Mike's Song" is the second story named for a song, and it gave me a hell of a lot of trouble to write. "Mike's Song" is one of the oldest and best-beloved Phish songs, which typically (but not always) appears in tandem with a song called "Weekapaug Groove," sometimes with other songs slipped into the jam between them. This story is about a divorced middle-aged father named Mike Beckstein trying to bribe his grown children into bonding with him by taking them to see their favorite band, whose name he always misremembers as having a definite article in front of it. Having made the decision to set a story largely at a Phish show, it felt like an obvious and necessary choice to choose a real one, rather than invent one for the occasion.

For reasons that will be clear if (or when) you've read it, the plotting of the story further demanded a show where "Mike's Song" appears early in the second set. As it happens, the show I ended up using was one I myself attended, 12/28/09, at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida, but this was a matter of necessity rather than lazy (or obsessive) recourse to autobiography. In earlier drafts, I had my heart set on a particular run of three shows from the summer 2003 tour: July 29, 30, and 31. On the 29th they performed with admirable variety and gusto at Burgettstown, Pennsylvania; the following night, in Camden, New Jersey, they played a show so grim that you can actually hear the audience booing after the encore; then, on the 31st, they played a second night in Camden and blew the fucking roof off the place. "Llama," "Moma Dance," and "The Divided Sky" kick off an explosive 80-minute first set, and set two opens with a glorious twenty-two-minute "Piper" before delivering the "Mike's Song" I was gunning for.

The characters in this story are themselves reprised from a story in my first book called "The New Life," so many facets of their biographies were already a given. Getting all these South Floridians to the South Jersey/Philly area required the contrivance of a family trip to visit an uncle who the story ultimately did not have room for. Like Melville's Bulkington, Uncle Derek survives only in a "six-inch chapter" consisting of one passing reference and an infidelity subplot that became Mike's own. The action of the story was relocated to the Beckstein home, which suggested using 12/28/09 for the concert, which in turn made everybody six years older than they would have been in 2003, and put a full decade between this story and the events depicted in "The New Life." It was all these things together that allowed "Mike's Song," finally, to become writeable.

And let me hasten to add that 12/28/09 is nothing to sneeze at. There's a great "Stash" in the first set, and the second set begins with a solid "Mike's Song"->"Light"->"I Am Hydrogen"->"Weekapaug Groove," followed by standout performances of "Alaska," a relatively new song, and the classic "Harry Hood" (are there any bad versions of "Harry Hood?" I don't think I've ever heard one). The show closes with "First Tube," which Phish severely over-uses as an encore but which nonetheless retains its incredible energy and power—it might be their version of "Jessica," by way of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" and Frank Zappa's Hot Rats.

"Poets" is a story about a brief intense relationship between two aspiring poets, Abigail and Cal, and said relationship's long aftermath in their separate lives. It owes something of its structure and scope to the he/she songs of Blood on the Tracks, especially "Tangled Up In Blue," and also to the late work of Barry Hannah (himself a Dylanist, who wrote a novel called Yonder Stands Your Orphan) though I chose, contra my elders and betters, to anchor the story in the she point of view rather than the he point of view. That said, it must be admitted that "Poets" takes several gratuitous, mean-spirited potshots at Abigail's favorite music, which is metal, especially in its gothier vicissitudes. In a story that one may be tempted to read as confessional or an exorcism, the narrative displays a strong bias toward Abigail—her experience and subjectivity—yet it never misses a chance to betray her on this small but crucial matter. This apparent inconsistency might be excused if interpreted as the ghost of Cal's perspective, the exorcism unfinished after all—another Bulkington, if it's not gauche to claim two in one book. I also offer the general observation that sympathies, and even late apologies, however heartfelt, have their limits. Certain outrages on taste are eternal. Ghosts can be as petty as the lives they lived.

"Gregory's Year" is true to its title, following exactly twelve peripatetic months in the life of its title character, an aspiring rock star, though he is only ever observed playing other people's songs. Another Dylanphile, he plays "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" over Skype to his girlfriend when they are apart from each other, and talks about Dylan to a stranger he meets at a bar in Montreal. Though the stranger is not named, he is in fact my old friend Ari, who did his neuroscience Ph.D. at McGill. Ari is a persuasive and enthusiastic music lover, a good Jewish boy with properly catholic taste. (I wish I could read his version of this essay, but suppose I'll settle for asking him to read mine.) Gregory's meeting with him is a fateful one. Gregory leaves with several recommendations scrawled on a bar napkin, including "Albert Ayler, Funkadelic, any Dead show from the spring of '74." Later on, Gregory speaks knowingly about John Fahey's Of Rivers and Religion, a lost minor classic, and Nathan Salsburg's recent masterpiece, Affirmed. These too may be Ari's suggestions but it seems more likely to me that Gregory has been exploring on his own. He adds a half-dozen Dead songs to his repertoire, though several of these are themselves the Dead's covers of other artists: "Promised Land" is originally by Chuck Berry, "Not Fade Away" by Buddy Holly, "Sitting On Top of the World" by The Mississippi Sheiks. "Chinacat Sunflower," and "Uncle John's Band," are Hunter/Garcia originals. "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" is an American traditional song, authorless, and has been played by everyone.

Justin Taylor and Flings links:

the author's website

Publishers Weekly review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for his short fiction collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Gospel of Anarchy
Prairie Schooner interview with the author
Time Out New York 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

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists