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December 1, 2014

Book Notes - Nicholas Rombes "The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing"

The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing

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.

Nichola Rombes' novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is both ambitious and haunting, a masterfully told allegorical tale.

Brian Evenson wrote of the book:

"Like a cross between Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions and Janice Lee's Damnation, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is at once smart and slyly unsettling. It is expert at creating a quietly building sense of dread while claiming to do something as straightforward as describe lost films—like those conversations you have in which you realize only too late that what you actually are talking about and what you think you are talking about are not the same thing at all."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Nicholas Rombes' Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing:

In the mid-'90s a rare-film librarian at a state university in Pennsylvania mysteriously burned his entire stockpile of film canisters and disappeared. Roberto Acestes Laing was highly regarded by acclaimed directors around the globe for his keen eye, appreciation for eccentricity, and creativity in interpretation.

Unsure at first whether Laing is a pseudonym or some sort of Hollywood boogeyman, a journalist manages to track the forgotten man down to a motel on the fringe of the Wisconsin wilds. Laing agrees to speak with the journalist, but only through the lens of the cinema. What ensues is an atmospheric, cryptic extrapolation of movies and how they intertwine with life, and the forgotten films that curse the lost librarian still.

The movies that the Laing and the narrator discuss are all made up, but they feel very real to me, and I hope to the reader, too. I wanted the book to be an immersive experience, like the feeling of falling, helplessly, into the world of a film. They're movies—ranging in genre from historical drama to sci-fi to conspiracy thriller to horror—that I wish existed. Who knows, maybe someone will read the novel and bring one of the films to life.

The playlist is not songs per se, but rather soundtracks to films that were integral in shaping the tone and atmosphere of the book over the twenty-plus years I spent writing and re-writing it.

"Main Title" from Blue Velvet, by Angelo Badalamenti
The drums at the very beginning announce a special form of evil. Although the song most closely associated with Blue Velvet is probably Bernie Wayne's and Lee Morris's "Blue Velvet"—the Bobby Vinton version—more remarkable and disturbing is Badalamenti's score, which was influenced by Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15. By turns harsh and almost heartbreaking in its swoopyness, Badalamenti's "Main Title" feels undated. As it plays over the film's opening credits we wonder where we are. What world is this? Or more precisely: when is this world?

"Wanna Fight" from Only God Forgives, by Cliff Martinez
The fight sequence in Only God Forgives is like an entire film unto itself, the sort of film that you wish would go on and on forever. It's pure cinema, powered by Martinez's mad, baroque, cold fury score, which he says was influenced by Bernard Hermann's score for The Day The Earth Stood Still, John Carpenter's score for his film Halloween, as well as the work of Brian Eno and Philip Glass.

"The Rocky Mountains" from The Shining, by Wendy Carlos
The whole back story regarding how Wendy Carlos created an extensive soundtrack for The Shining, only to have a fraction of it appear in the final film, is fascinating in itself. This song, used as the Torrance's make their way in their little VW Bug through the immense, blank fact of the American West, tells you everything you need to know about how the film will end. I listened to this a lot during final edits on the novel; it helped me understand how to transition from loud to soft in several thorny patches in the book.

The soundtrack for Enemy, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans
Enemy came and went quietly. It's a sparse, sad film whose soundtrack—minimalist and sharp and bright—plays almost continuously throughout the movie. In truth, it could be a movie with no dialog; the images and music tell us everything we need to know. I saw the film while doing final proofs on the book and I can't account for how or why, but its music gave me the idea to quote from Lucy Snowe's description of an enormous garden in Charlotte Brontë's novel Villette.

Sounds from Raiders of the Lost Ark
I'm not sure how else to put it. For some reason it's the sounds—the sounds of the propeller of a plane, the wind, the blowing sand, the sound Jones writing on the chalkboard—it's these things that come to mind when I think of the film. There's one moment, in particular, that stands out. It's in Nepal, right after Marion wins the drinking contest. She's cleaning up and the door opens, casting Jones's shadow on the wall. "Indiana Jones," Marion says, "I always knew someday you'd come walking back through my door." Then she sucker punches him. There's no music. But the sound has gone from the clatter and raucous overlapping dialog of the drinking scene to the still, still quietness of Jones's entrance. I tried to build into the novel such open, quiet spaces where the reader could simply wander.

"Nostromo Alarm," from Alien
Near the end of Alien as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) tries to abort the ship's self-destruct, the Nostromo's alarm rings out, filling the soundtrack. The alarm is relentless during this remarkable, long, dialog free stretch of the film, seemingly emanating from everywhere and nowhere. "The Insurgent" portion of the novel was directly influenced by Ripley's journey in Alien and existential dread of that alarm.

"The Museum," from Dressed to Kill, by Pino Donaggio
This is the music that accompanies the wordless ten-minute sequence in Brian De Palma's best film, as Kate (Angie Dickinson) flirts with, is pursued by, and in turn pursues an unnamed man. So much happens between them, and yet not a word is spoken. Donaggio's music reaches such dramatic heights that the sequence reaches—almost, but not quite—a sort of exaggerated absurdity. It's as if Kate's neurosis has actually infected the film's very apparatus. Of all the music that helped shape the novel, Donaggio's graceful, menacing, mysterious score had the most direct impact, as some of the paragraphs, I hope, have that syrupy, long-take feel of this sequence.

Nicholas Rombes and The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing links:

the author's website
the book's Tumblr
annotated excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book
video trailer for the book

Paris Review review
Some Came Running review

Ann Arbor News profile of the author
BOMB interview with the author
Electric Literature interview with the author
Necessary Fiction essay 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

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists

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)
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guest book reviews
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musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists