November 10, 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.
James Tadd Adcox brilliantly melds the personal and political in exacting prose in his debut novel Does Not Love.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Does Not Love, which is about a marriage falling apart and a pharmaceutical conspiracy and post-9/11 paranoia, is set in Indianapolis. Indianapolis is a deeply weird town. It was founded by committee, for the express purpose of being a state capital—it shares in that regard some of the strangeness and artificiality of someplace like Brasilia. Even the names—Indianapolis, Brasilia—are the names of places created ex nihilo.
Rather than going with an already existing city, the committee chose for their capital a mile-square in the dead center of the state, with very little to offer in terms of natural resources, no major rivers, and directly on top of a swamp, no less. Some absurd number of the first settlers died of malaria. There are early accounts that describe the new capital as basically a death-trap.
Even today, it's kind of a blank slate of a town, which artists and writers I've known there say is what attracts them to it—if you want to do something, you can just do it, there's not a saturated market or overrun lit scene or anything like that. There's some pretty decent architecture downtown, some of it by Kurt Vonnegut's grandfather, but the city overall often feels uncanny. It's a little like a hotel room, a presence that signifies absence.
I spent several summers in Indianapolis between 2000 and 2004 while attending college in North Carolina. I didn't know anyone in Indianapolis, and I couldn't find a job there. I went whole days without talking to anyone. Each fall when I returned to North Carolina, after a day or two my jaw would hurt from talking after so much disuse.
What I'm describing is the Indianapolis of my novel, which is not exactly the same as the actual Indianapolis. I have a number of good friends in Indianapolis now, and in recent years I've found parts of the city that I really love. But there still seems to be a blankness about it, a loneliness. This playlist is based on a playlist I made while drafting the book, although I lost the original when the laptop I started Does Not Love on died. I put that playlist together as a way of trying to get at the tone I wanted for the book, but I realize, looking over it now, how much I was trying to get at the tone of the city.
"Broadripple Is Burning," Margot and the Nuclear So-and-Sos
So far as I know, this is the only rock song to name-check specific neighborhoods in Indianapolis, and this is the only band whose lyrics often have a weird, melancholy love for the town. I once spent a night drinking and smoking cigarettes in an underground Greek bar in Broadripple. For a long time it was just me and the bartender, and then, quite suddenly, the bar was full, people were dancing, some sort of loud electronic music was playing. It seemed strange, suddenly, that I was underground in such a flat city—it seemed strange that there was something underneath the town's surface.
"MX Missiles," Andrew Bird
One of my oldest friends is someone I met during our freshman year of college who moved to Boston during our sophomore year. Since then, we've mostly kept up with each other by sending each other packages. Often these packages contain mixtapes, among other things—comics, scraps of writing we found on the ground, zines, photocopied pages from books we particularly liked. Sometimes I would give myself themes for these mixtapes, or set up rules for how I made them. For example: go to the downtown public library in Indianapolis, select twelve CDs (the most you could have out at a time), make a mixtape. I was not allowed, according to the rules I had made for myself, to choose any CDs I had heard before. Half of them must be from artists I had never heard of. I picked Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs because of the painting on the front—a strange mammal standing draped in a blanket against a red background.
"MX Missiles" comes after a short, untitled instrumental interlude, and begins quite softly, the speaker describing the moment he realized that the song's subject—his lover?—could be hurt. Is it always a surprise, the first time you realize that someone you love is as capable of being hurt as you are? Is it always a surprise when you realize that it takes very little, very little at all, for you to hurt someone?
"Urbana's Too Dark," Braid
The first summer I was in Indianapolis, still convinced that any place I had heard of must be a "big city," I spent driving around at night, trying to find something to do, my windows rolled down, Braid loud on the stereo. I didn't realize the Urbana referred to in the song's title was a real place until years later.
"Go Find Your Saint," Frank Black
Pill by pill, a miracle emerged—Pharmaceuticals play a role in the plot of Does Not Love, because they almost have to, given the setting. Indianapolis I think prides itself that it's not a rust-belt town like Detroit or Cleveland, burned-out in the wake of the auto industry, but the truth is that Indianapolis is a company town, one industrial collapse away from its own economic disaster.
And yet, it's not an anti-pharmaceutical novel in any sense, or I don't think of it that way. My concerns, such as they are, don't really have to do with the pharmaceutical industry in particular so much as the dangers of corporate power in general. Control of various types is something I'm interested in in this novel. How we control ourselves. How other things control us. The ways that governments exert control, the ways that corporations do. The very real danger that while we've been concerned about government power and overreach it may come to make very little difference in a "borderless," corporate-control world. I don't know. Perhaps this last point is kind of worn out (although on worn out language, see "Heartless," below).
"No Children," The Mountain Goats
I've seen John Darnielle every time he's played in Chicago since I've been here. I don't think of myself as a rabid Mountain Goats fan or anything, but somehow every time he's in Chicago, I end up at the show. He usually plays "No Children" at some point. And here's the thing about this song: Every time he plays it, every single time, the audience sings along, full throated, every word. It becomes a kind of anthem. People love it. Some of them maybe have been in these kinds of relationships before, and maybe they're just identifying really hard. But the rest of them, I'm convinced, want to be in this kind of relationship, or want to think that they have been. I think a lot of people are really attracted to the idea of being fuck-ups, of being fallen people, of being people who have done bad things and have been badly hurt. It's a narrative we understand, or think we do. We believe that having that much pain in us must make our lives meaningful. And we want, more than anything, to be meaningful.
Tallahassee at times has been the unofficial soundtrack to Does Not Love, and a continuing source of inspiration for how two people can know each other in that deep, special way that allows them to hurt each other more thoroughly than anyone else could. My protagonists, Viola Wilder-St. Clair and her husband Robert, are a little older than Darnielle's Alpha/Omega couple, a little more settled, maybe, but not necessarily better at marriage. A possible motto for Viola and Robert's relationship, to be emblazoned on their family herald if such a thing ever were to exist, might be: The power of codependency to triumph where love could not.
"Oh My Sweet Carolina," Ryan Adams
Viola, like me, is from North Carolina, and like me, has ended up in the Midwest, not entirely sure how she got here. This song, by the former frontman for sons-of-Raleigh band Whiskeytown, found its way on the playlist for her sake. The song's protagonist ends up in Cleveland, but you know, close enough. It's a particular karaoke favorite of mine, too. Southerners love reveling in homesickness, even when we don't especially want to be home, even when we're no longer sure that we'd call where we grew up, so long ago, home. If there's anything decent you can say about southerners, it's this: at our best, we're defined by deep and passionate ambivalences.
"Hey Moon," John Maus
Sometime during the writing of draft two or three, I went to see John Maus perform at a place called Schuba's with a couple of friends of mine. The studio versions of his songs are very slick, very clean sounding. There's a lot of reverb on his voice, and it has a sort of simultaneously affectless and ethereal quality. It sounds like he's singing to you from somewhere very far away. Everything feels very controlled, though. His live performance—possibly you already know this—is something else altogether. A tall, thin, preppy-looking guy gets on a stage, empty except for a microphone and a foot trigger, which he uses to cue up songs. Then to the accompaniment of prerecorded tracks he alternates between singing in the microphone, the same reverb-heavy, affectless voice as on the studio albums, and screaming, holding the microphone far away from his mouth. He gouges at his own eyes, throws himself to the ground, he beats himself with his fists and with the microphone.
After the first song, his pink polo shirt was dark red with sweat. He only performed eight songs. He looked like he wouldn't have survived it if he had attempted an encore. But the thing was, when he screamed you could barely hear it, it was drowned out almost entirely by the clean, controlled music. What did having that scream underneath, barely audible, add to the music?
There's a paragraph that I cut from Does Not Love that I like to think still haunts the book a little bit, still informs the characters and what happens to them. Originally it was a very short chapter by itself. Here it is:
Pain does not make us stronger. It does not ennoble. It does not offer meaning to human existence. There is nothing to be done with pain except avoid it. Which, in the end, is impossible.
Or, to put it maybe a little less pedantically: What doesn't kill us makes us weaker.
"Amazing," Kanye West
A vicious, angry track from a confessional album in which the voice of the unmodified, straightforward, "authentic" voice of the person confessing isn't heard once. A confessional album entirely in autotune. Umberto Eco claims somewhere that irony is a way of regaining access to worn-out yet necessary language: instead of "I love you," one says "As they say in the movies, ‘I love you.'" How does one make an album that says I hate you? There's a doubling throughout this album—Kanye's voice, and the autotune, at once a mask and a commentary.
"Alabama Song," David Bowie
I love how clearly in love with Brecht David Bowie is. He played a reasonably decent Baal for the BBC (you can find the whole thing on YouTube), and he produced a fantastically Brechtian version of "Alabama Song" that, with its discordant notes and strange time signatures, blows the torchsongy Doors version out of the water. (Although can we take a moment to reflect on just how weird it is that one of the Doors' best-known songs is a Brecht/Weill joint?)
Brecht has always been important to me as a writer—his artificiality, his distance, the way that artificiality and distance contribute a power to his work that is absolutely shattering. I know that that's not supposed to be the point. The point is supposed to be that, if you keep the audience at a distance, they have the opportunity to be critical; if you openly display the artificiality of the theater, then the audience can't get too swept up in identifying with the characters. But I took away the opposite lesson—if you hold the audience at arm's length at moments of highest emotional pitch, it can actually make things more overwhelming, more heartbreaking. It's as though not only the characters but also the text is holding up a hand, saying: now isn't the time, Jesus, can't you see that I'm fucking hurting, here?
"I Fall to Pieces," Patsy Cline
There's a bar that some of the characters in Does Not Love end up in at one point called the Black Box, which features pictures of planes in mid-crash on the walls and a drink special called the Hull Loss. There's also, in this bar, a device that allows someone to hear the moment of their own death. The one character in the book who I think of as a villain—who at least in one version of this novel (there have been many versions of this novel) appears in a cloud of sulfur, which, sure, probably a little too on-the-nose—hears the moment of his death, and is shaken by it. He's complicit in some pretty bad things, this character, and so even though he doesn't get his comeuppance in the novel, I like to think that at some point in the future, it's waiting for him.
As for Patsy Cline, it seems she was much more welcoming of what might come. Before boarding the plane, she reassured a friend of hers who offered to drive her instead: "Don't worry about me, Hoss. When it's my time to go, it's my time."
"Let's Get Out of This Country," Camera Obscura
I started writing Does Not Love during the Bush years, when FBI agents were snooping around libraries and people were being renditioned to off-country blacksites and it seemed like the country would be permanently at war. I had a slight crisis in the writing of this book when Obama was elected: was the strange world that Viola and Robert descend into, of national-security paranoia and secret courts and so forth, still in any sense relevant? Luckily, as we found out, in the post-9/11 world we are in a state of constant paranoia, constant war. It's become normalized (which is not to say that it wasn't, to some degree, before).
At one point in the novel Viola's lover, who is possibly spying on her for the government, asks her if she's happy. "The present administration recognizes that sadness runs counter to our way of life," he says. The Obama administration has made it clear, if nothing else, how much simpler things were with Bush—we could simply be against him.
"Straight In at 101," Los Campesinos!
Listening to the first three Los Campesinos! albums is like being witness to the heat-death of pop. Hold On Now, Youngster is full of these wonderful, super-danceable, straight-ahead pop songs, played by a band significantly larger than one would think necessary, with horns and strings that descend, at certain moments in certain songs, into cacophony. By Romance Is Boring, that noise has spread throughout each song—there's always some discord, some racket, always a little too much going on to quite pay attention to it all. But all of it, even this song, the noisiest on the album, is still recognizably pop. I'm really interested in that tension between the order, even the banality, of pop and noisy disorder that Los Campesinos! maintains while stretching almost to the breaking point. I like order—I like formalism—but I want it to be in danger. I want the threat of something spilling over. Occasionally, I want everything in a song (or in a novel) to break.
James Tadd Adcox and Does Not Love links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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