November 14, 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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Elizabeth Kadetsky's collection The Poison that Purifies You features captivating stories set around the world that masterfully build apprehension.
I wrote and honed the stories in The Poison that Purifies You in the aftermath of a random, violent assault that took place in Manhattan one night in 2005. During that time, I often composed fiction in my head while I walked the city attached to my headset. The more driving the pitch of the music, the more its rhythms matched my stuttered, lacey heartbeat. There was something about the way it answered my mood that made me feel in synch, that put me back together.
I was diagnosed with PTSD. My assault triggered thoughts of earlier traumas I'd experienced: living in downtown Manhattan during the September 11 crisis; covering the wars in central America and Mexico as a journalist in the 1990s; surviving the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California while living in close radius to its epicenter. These traumatic spikes became the reference points for the story collection: a story based on reporting I'd done in Guatemala about a suspicious murder/suicide; a story set in the aftermath of an earthquake and fire in downtown Manhattan, which actually used notes from my journals about lower Manhattan during the days following September 11. All told, the story collection came to include two earthquakes; a stress induced skin disorder; a returning female Iraq vet suffering from PTSD after an assault by a fellow soldier; a political kidnapping by Kashmiri nationalists that stops short of a beheading.
Each story has its own song, and each song, in turn, its moments of high anxiety followed by calm euphoria. Explosion, release, calm: that was the mix for the collection.
1. "The Wind," PJ Harvey, 1997 (to be played alongside "An Incident at the Plaza")
In "An Incident at the Plaza." Maria wants… needs… a baby, and puts her body through countless penances before taking more extreme measures. She's an unreliable third person. She lives entirely inside the logic of her experience, a claustrophobic complex of obsessions and desires. PJ Harvey's St. Catherine, the holy anorexic, is a whispery, haunting presence in this song. Oh Mother, can't we give / A husband to our Catherine? Its instrumentation has the relentless cyclic drive of the hip-hop–inspired electronica of that musical moment. The listener becomes caught inside St. Catherine's ominous-sounding compulsions. It's a song about mood; the listener can't break free from it.
2. "Four Strong Winds," Ian & Sylvia, 1964 (to be played alongside "Loup Garou")
In "Loup Garou," Cecile and her soon-to-be ex are visited by a pack of bobcats. Because Cecile is Canadian and has Native American ancestry, she sees the bobcats as a presentiment, though of what she's not sure. This song by the Canadian folk duo is rich with Native American imagery: "Four strong winds that that blow lonely / seven seas that run high." With its beautiful harmonies in classic fifths and sweet melody, it seems at first to be a love song, but its narrator is ambivalent toward his lover and ultimately cruel. He asks her to accompany him on his journey to Alberta—I wish you'd change your mind / If I asked you one more time—but then in a dismissive manner not unlike that of Cecile's antagonist, Morey, the narrator points out that the woman in the song probably wouldn't like it. "Loup Garou" is the anti–"Four Strong Winds." What would have happened if the love interest had taken up the speaker on his offer and followed him. Cecile makes the foolhardy decision to accompany her boyfriend on his journey; not surprisingly, bad things transpire.
3. "Fountain and Fairfax," The Afghan Whigs, 1993 (to be played alongside "Men More than Mortal")
A whirring grunge guitar track, slightly nauseating, propels the listener into a feeling of thrill and recklessness, as if she has flung herself inside a mosh pit. The song's narrator is hooked on booze and heroin; he gets himself clean, then gets hooked on an unrequited love. This is the song for "Men More than Mortal"'s narrator Allison, who has just been dumped by her husband. She bicycles through Manhattan at high speeds without a helmet while simultaneously imagining herself with a former lover in India with whom she took a high-stakes motorcycle journey. Allison crashes her bike, gets trapped inside her bicycle chain, submits to a high-temperature torch flame to get herself released. She stops eating. There is a heady euphoria to her despair. Like that humming guitar track, there is motion and momentum to her narrative. She gives in completely to her mania; it is its own kind of drug.
4. "The Lioness," Songs: Ohia, 2000 (to be played alongside "The Poison that Purifies You")
Jason Molina's heartbreak ode echoes Jack's selfless and self-destructive love: Whether you save me / whether you savage me. Jack is ensnared in a political kidnapping after being lured by a love interest, Rohit—a Muslim impersonating a high caste Hindu. The song's Egyptian lioness, described in a whining, implacable vocal track, evokes the stalking quality of Rohit's suiting of Jack and Jack's ultimate betrayal by Rohit. Finally Jack reconciles that, ultimately, Rohit will murder him. Want my heart to break / If it must break / In your jaws / Want you to lick my blood / Off your paws.
5."Dear God," Monsters of Folk, 2009 (to be played alongside "Il Negro")
"Il Negro," treats the classic problem of religion versus spirituality. One of its three protagonists, Milo, sees Krishna in a racist toy bank from turn-of-the-century America. Its other two protagonists see the toy bank as, respectively, an opportunity for financial advancement and the pure unadulterated spirit—Brahman. The story is set in India, destination for so many god-seeking Westerners who came before. In the "My Sweet Lord" tradition, Jim James's Monsters of Folk takes up the essential question Does god exist? Dear god / I wish that I could touch you. This kind of religious and spiritual questioning seems to me to ultimately arise from the collision of Eastern and Western conceptions of the numinous.
6. "Aïcha," Cheb Khaled, 1996 (to be played alongside "The Indian Friend")
This guttural love song by the Rai legend Khaled, with lyrics in French and Algerian Arabic derrija, portrays a man admiring a queen-of-Sheba like woman from afar and offering her pearls and jewels in exchange for her love. She scorns him, saying she is a queen and not so easily bought. You could say it's a post-colonial gloss on Western imperialism. Aïcha, the Ethiopian queen with her pearls and gems, represents the riches of the East. The lover sees her value as primarily material, but her essential spirit is so much grander than that. "The Indian Friend" treats the theme of imperialism and the interface of East and West in the context of an impossible power dynamic. Set in India, it shows the Indian Rajesh in an encounter with Western yoga students who are either aggressive or passive aggressive as they tumble over themselves trying to balance respectfulness with their ultimate scorn, mistrust, condescension, and misguided good intentions. The Westerners find themselves in an impossible bind, inheritors of a colonial contract not so easily broken by yoga philosophies or the grand task of showing up as witnesses to misery and economic disparity. In the ebony and ivory countries, promises Aïcha's admirer, I will erase your tears, your sorrows.
7. "Cherokee," Cat Power, 2012 (to be played alongside "It Was Only Clay")
In the Mesoamerican highlands of Guatemala, Joseph, a would-be archaeologist from New York City, ineffectually tries to interpret Maya cosmology and aphorisms. In broken Indian–Spanish, his host warns him: Cuando temblor, los animals, ahogarse—when the earth shakes, the animals, to suffocate. Then the host points to the sky while impersonating, mystifyingly, either an airplane or a bird. Bury me / marry me to the sky, sings Cat Power. These could almost be Joseph's words. "Cherokee" uses a meditative and ethereal rhythm to create a trance-like state in the listener. Its hypnotic quality reminds me of the way Joseph loses his grip on reality. He has quit his meds for bipolar disorder while also navigating chaos and ruin in the aftermath of the cataclysmic 1976 Guatemala earthquake. Ultimately, as he tries to read signs that there are forces more dangerous at play than Maya curses and natural disaster, he is completely unable to sift reality from a paranoid, delusional mind frame. It is hinted that he will die. "Bury me upside down," I think of Cat Power's words, when I contemplate poor Joseph's inescapable predicament.
8. "Because the Night," Patti Smith Group, 1978 (to be played alongside "Dermagraphia")
Love is an angel disguised as lust: Naomi is confused about her desires, and so is her body—it erupts in histamine skin lesions so fine they can spell out words. Her attachment to her ex of seven years makes no sense to her. They share a mutual lust, reminiscing on the telephone about their former exploits, each compelled irrationally to seek out the other to work out their irreconcilable past. But Hank is married—gone forever to Naomi. Her world is populated by figments from the past and angels and ghosts—emotions and desires given palpable form. Patti Smith's howl-of-love anthem is about the inability to make our desires literal. Under cover of night we indulge them. The language of love is inarticulate and unrefined. Without you I cannot live / Forgive, the yearning burning / I believe it's time, too real to feel.
9. "Days of Fire," Nitin Sawhney, 2008 (to be played alongside "What We Saw")
Natalie's story takes place in the aftermath of a fire in downtown Manhattan, but the fire was in my mind a stand-in for the completely unrooted sensory experience of living in downtown Manhattan after the September 11 attacks. Nitin Sawhney's hip-hop DJ track uses repetition, a present-tense narration, and a railroad train-like repetition of words and syllables to create an ominous, numbed, and traumatized experience for the listener: Now it's all gone slow motion / everything slow motion / The lights gone out / I feel no more emotion / I'm all out of emotion / I'm out of emotion. Sawhney's story of walking outside to discover the aftermath of the coordinated suicide bombings in London in July 2005 gets it for me, what it's like to wander dazed-faced in the rubble after a collective emergency on the scale of September 11.
10. "Tom Traubert's Blues," Tom Waits, 1976 (to be played alongside "Geography")
Tom Waits's ballad calls to mind an injured World War II returnee; it is for me a war-trauma narrative, with its maudlin repetitive stanzas and European evocations. "Geography" portrays a modern-day war trauma, that of a female soldier returned from Iraq after a sexual assault by a fellow soldier. In group therapy at the Vet's Center, she meets other PTSD sufferers, including one sad case still unrecovered from Vietnam. Tom Waits growls, I begged you to stab me / you tore my shirt open / And I'm down on my knees tonight / On Bushmill's I staggered / you'd bury the dagger. I see a battlefield; I sense the irrational, non-linear memories of a survivor. A lot they can do for me, Waits's narrator says angrily. I don't want your sympathy. A resentful alcoholic, Tom Traubert is a symbol for how war still lives on in the psyche decades afterwards.
11. Bonus Track: "Adagio in G Minor for Organ and Strings," Tomaso Albinoni, circa 1708
Used on countless film tracks, the most searing evocation of this emotional and thrilling faux-Baroque epic occurs in Peter Weir's Gallipoli, about the suicidal Gallipoli campaign in World War I resulting in the deaths of scores of Australian soldiers. The final scene of the film, set to this track, depicts our hero running into battle with arms splayed above. He knowingly catapults his body forward into death. It is the ultimate trauma soundtrack, and one with a curious history. Attributed to the Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni, it has been the subject of musicological investigations asserting that its real composer, Remo Giazotto, arranged it based on recovered notes of Albinoni's in the twentieth century. These notes were discovered in the ruins of the Saxon State Library in Dresden after the bombings of 1945. It's meta, this piece, a war narrative composed of an earlier war narrative. With its passionate and building violin melodies, it is the theme for the collection.
Elizabeth Kadetsky and The Poison that Purifies You links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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