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January 16, 2015

Book Notes - Monica McFawn "Bright Shards of Someplace Else"

Bright Shards of Someplace Else

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.

The stories in Monica McFawn's auspicious debut collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else are ambitious and diverse, and all written with a keen intelligence.

Booklist wrote of the collection:

"In 11 short stories, McFawn explores the contradictions of varied characters and their skewed perspectives toward one another and themselves. . . . McFawn's tales shine when characters, both resolute and misguided, brace for the flawed truths of their predicaments."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Monica McFawn's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else:

"Thru' These Architect's Eyes" by David Bowie

This song, from Bowie's Outside album (which had some scary liner notes and images related to "art murder" whatever that is) is a favorite of mine. As far as I can tell, the song is about an aesthete (architect) simultaneously thrilled by his inner artistic visions and frustrated by the bland ugliness of the world he must move through. Bowie sounds alternately exhilarated, angry, and conniving. Many of the characters in Bright Shards of Someplace Else, particularly an arsonist minimalist in "Ornament and Crime" are uplifted and tormented by the demands of their own aesthetic standards. "Thru' These Architects Eyes" is like being in the head of an artist over the course of a walk through a city—the cycle of euphoria, alienation, and plotting that is the artist's lot.

"I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" by Beach Boys

Such a beautiful song, and the sentiment is both common and haunting. Who hasn't entertained the thought that they would fit in better in another time? I've always identified with the movie Midnight in Paris, which is about a writer who believes that he would have fit in better in another epoch, hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali rather than his own diminished generation. He's granted the ability to move through time, but finds that this feeling that the good times ended before one's birth is universal—even the past artists he meets dream of an earlier golden age. That feeling of being permanently, irrevocably displaced drives a lot of the characters in Bright Shards, an illusion though it may be.

"Cracklin' Rosie" by Neil Diamond

One evening, this song came on in a dark, struggling bar, close to last call. I noticed the taciturn regulars stirring, and the silence of the forsaken bar overtaken by a din of cheerful mumbling. The song grabs you wherever you are—either sunk in your private thoughts or blustering for all the room to hear—and moves you along its own addicting ride of lows and highs. The song is both smooth and sloppy, like a person on the edge of drunkenness, when their wits are sharpened before all reason shatters. The inebriated nanny from "Out of the Mouths of Babes," would probably love the song. Lore has it that "Cracklin' Rosie" is some kind of cheap sparking wine. She'd probably like that, too.

"Can't Keep it In" by Cat Stevens

Usually when people talk about outsiders, they talk about people who are too subversive, cynical or dark to fit in. Less commonly considered are people who are too exuberant. "Can't Keep it In" is a manic song, the voice of someone singing in the midst of a great high, a wild epiphany. Yet Steven's vocals, for all the uplifting lyrics, have an edge of impatience. It's as if those around him can't—or won't—keep pace with his joy. I've always thought that a joy that can't be shared can be as ruinous as a private sadness. The world doesn't really reward exuberance, and a few of the characters from Bright Shards suffer from too much life.

"Daniel" by Elton John

I've always been intrigued by the relationship between Elton John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. Taupin writes all the lyrics, and John sings, yet John's vocal delivery is always so passionate, knowing, and invested that it is hard to imagine that he had no part in writing the words. I've always gotten the impression—perhaps from interviews or maybe it's just my own notion—that Elton John doesn't really understand the lyrics. He makes words that have no meaning for him sound meaningful. Even a song like "Daniel," which is basically nonsensical—Daniel is going to Spain on a plane, and for some reason this is sad. But who is Daniel? What's in Spain? These questions seem not to matter; John's performance of the song insists that you care.

I liked the idea of a lyricist working with a performer who is transported easily by art, but lacks intellectual understanding. There must be a kind of artistic or spiritual jealousy in this arrangement. A writer wishes for the intuitiveness of a performer, a performer wishes for the clarity of a writer. That's one of the premises of "The Chautauqua Sessions," the last story in Bright Shards. Danny (the lyricist) can't help but be baffled by his old partner (Levi), even after all these years.

Levi, for all his sophistication as a performer and musician, is a strangely guileless man, the kind of person whose brilliance comes from that ability to be seduced, to emotionally connect with anyone and anything....I've always seen him as a kind of idiot savant, a brilliant, complex performer unburdened by actually being brilliant or complex.

"Blowin' Smoke," Kacey Musgraves

Writers always hear the advice that a novel or short story should catch a character at a pivotal moment in his or her life. A character should change over the course of the story; the story should be some kind of reckoning or interruption.

I believed this until I read "The Nurse" by Ben Ames Williams. I stumbled on "The Nurse" in an old book titled A Treasury of Doctor Stories by The World's Greatest Authors. I didn't recognize half the "great authors," including Ben Ames Williams, but I was intrigued by this old anthology's oddly specific focus. But "The Nurse" is a good story, one that isn't at all about a pivotal, life-changing moment in the lead character's life. Instead, the story (which about a nanny who works only with infants) shows the main character in the midst of a cycle of behavior that has defined her life.

The story begins with nurse being hired to take care of a baby. She's an exemplary caretaker, and her employers, the parents, love her. Then, she slowly becomes overzealous about the baby's care, and starts acting unreasonably. The parents are finally forced to fire her. No one can be clearly faulted in the story—the nurse had irreproachable intentions, and the parents are fair. The tragedy is that a quirk in the nurse's temperament—her compulsion to make the baby's life perfect at all costs—is both what drives her to be a baby nurse and also what makes it impossible for her to remain one for long. At both the beginning and end of the story, she is waiting to meet a new baby.

The story, then, is not about a change at all. It's a window into a cycle. Like Ames, I believe a compelling story can be made by showcasing the patterns of thought and behavior that rule characters' lives. The drama in Bright Shards of Someplace Else is based as much on the characters' cyclical thoughts as it is on their epiphanies.

Kacey Musgraves' "Blowin' Smoke," is a witty song about people's patterns and ruts. The premise of the song is a group of waitresses chatting about how they'll soon quit smoking, live better, leave a bad boyfriend, etc etc. But, as Musgraves sings, they're all "blowin' smoke," i.e. full of shit. They won't change, and they all know it. I like the song's bleak sass, and its understanding that realizations and epiphanies are often reduced to cheap talk in the face of the greater power of habit.

Monica McFawn and Bright Shards of Someplace Else links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus review
Necessary Fiction review
NPR Books review
Open Letters Monthly review
Ploughshares review
Publishers Weekly review

American Short Fiction interview with the author
Christine Sneed interview with the author
Grand Rapids Press profile of the author
WMUK interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End Music 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)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)