March 26, 2015
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.
Carola Dibbell's debut The Only Ones is a stunning post-apocalyptic novel.
NPR Books wrote of the book:
"Breathtaking. [Dibbell has] delivered a debut novel on par with some of the best speculative fiction of the past 30 years; The Only Ones deserves to be shelved alongside Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, and P. D. James' The Children of Men. It's that good, and that important, and that heartbreakingly beautiful."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The Only Ones is a dystopian novel about a reproductive experiment and its consequences, told by a spunky, grammatically challenged young woman from Queens. I think a lot about overlaps between fiction and music, about the things music can do that I wish prose could. An actual human voice—that would be good. Hard to get an actual human voice into words. And then there is rhythm, texture, layering, and, at least in the semi-pop I listen to, a kind of attitude that I rarely if ever find in even the novels I most love. But written narrative has its own seductions. In this playlist I've constructed a narrative of songs based loosely on the novel's plot and themes. These songs didn't inspire the story, but they say something about how I heard it.
1. Aaliyah, "Are You That Somebody?" This enigmatic single sounds more wistful than ever since the death of the singer. Its hook, of course, is the repeated baby coo, tweaked for rhythm, always interrupted before you've had enough. I can't think of a better use of baby sample, not even on Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely?" While the sample's on the track as a nod to Aaliyah's nickname, Baby Girl, it takes on its own life, burbling between Timbaland's gruff rap boasts and the singer's anxiety about a risky affair, like a vague awareness that whatever you think is going on, when a baby starts making a noise you can't hear anything else. And if love sometimes makes babies, this teenaged girl needs to know are you responsible? Are you that somebody? Whether or not all that is really in the song, it is a haunting and provocative piece of work that I'm claiming for an approximation of a first chapter where you don't really know what's going on and won't for quite a while. It also goes to some of the themes, like the reality of a baby, responsibility, and who you or anybody is or are. It even shares some formal devices like circularity, repetitions. But it leaves out the humor and noise. So let's fix things in the mix with:
2."Bodies," the Sex Pistols. In 1977, punk feminists like me struggled to justify Johnny Rotten's snarly howl, "I'm not an abortion!" Bloke didn't seem that concerned about a woman's right to choose. He identified with the fetus. Here you could say he sings from the point of view of body tissue. Sloppy mess! No logic, just inchoate rage. Ow! Not a funny song, but the voice is funny. As the funny-voiced narrator Inez Fardo matter-of-factly does her job of being prodded and scraped and shot up to make babies, she keeps any need to howl tightly trapped under a droll deadpan. No pushover, she understands that this is a way to earn a living—better than any other job she's had—and, it turns out, with fringe benefits. "You are going to hear what people say about the girls like me, how we are exploited," she tells us. "They never say it's interesting." She has no idea, of course, how interesting this new job will turn out to be.
3. Sonny Rollins, "St. Thomas." Spoiler alert: alcoholic veterinarian Rauden Sachs uses Inez's super-hardy genes to clone her. (He insists on using the term "Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer.") Here he has just performed the procedure in a lab, watched by an awestruck Inez, and is now smoking a cigarette in the sun, blissfully listening to Sonny Rollins. "I always like Sonny Rollins, after I do nuclear Transfer," he confides. "That's with an O." I was getting into "St. Thomas" around the time I was plotting this part—a rare case where a piece of music actually influenced a particular scene. So exuberant, so life affirming. So sunny.
4. M.I.A., "Mango Pickle Down River." The embryos Rauden makes—he calls them "viables"—are put to gestate in a surrogate womb, a tank shaped like an orange. I had a few musical candidates for this chapter, including DJ Shadow's "Stem," which moves like a slow-blooming plant, gradually and methodically coming to perky and ecstatic life. But I chose M.I.A.'s down-to-earth sampling of the five jolly voices of the Australian aboriginal group Wilcannia Mob, who keep fishing and jumping in the river, reminding me of the five floating viables that the bereaved client Rini Jaffur has named, somewhat prematurely, Ani, Berthe, Chi-chi, Lily, and Madhur.
5. David Byrne, "Stay Up Late." I once read that this slightly mean song is about Byrne's own older sister making him stay up all night. But because I listened to it while my new daughter was making me stay up all night, I hear it that way and include it to honor the universal up all night parenting experience, for which Inez, who takes one of the viables home (buy the book and find out which) is totally unprepared.
6. Aretha Franklin, "You Send Me." This is for the scene when Inez, who not only has no love for herself but has never seen an infant till she's entrusted with this one, abruptly falls in love with the baby, who at two months has just woken from a long sleep making a little popping noise, followed by a new smile, and a wink. This actually happened to me with my own daughter, a few weeks before the adoption papers cleared, but I was already attached. For Inez's attachment moment I've chosen what may well be my favorite love song, coming in after a churchy keyboard intro so long and unrelated you almost forget what's coming—Aretha's lean and oblique Sam Cooke cover, from Aretha Now. (Not the live version.) Understated and savoring at first, the vocal eventually busts loose, and the accompaniment fills out too but the sound remains old school, basic, like something you can trust. If you're playing these songs as you read, you may have trouble moving on to anything else after this one, and that wouldn't necessarily be your loss. What a track.
7. The Ramones, "We're a Happy Family." My Ramones question wasn't whether, but which. For the childhood chapters, I've chosen this because it's funny and mentions Queens, where Inez and her daughter live and Joey once sat eating refried beans. But "Blitzkrieg Bop" could have worked here, and "Pinhead" could have worked earlier, when Inez, like the pinhead who doesn't "wanna be a pinhead no more," decides to change her life. The "Pinhead" rhythm is so interesting, too. The Ramones' rhythms influenced me more than any specific music, though it was more about me saying, "My rhythms are too jerky," and then "So what? The Ramones had jerky rhythms." Joey's also is one of the funny voices that may have made me want to write in a funny voice.
8. The Shangri-Las, "I Can Never Go Home Any More." Here we enter the trickiest and most dangerous chapter of childrearing: adolescence. After Bette Midler's groundbreaking deconstruction of "Leader of the Pack," I worried that this teen girl group from Queens might sound campy. But as a voice for a daughter's teenaged drama, it proved just melancholy and hyperserious enough. And for the narrative of this playlist, it slows things down, in preparation for the climactic denouement. But I don't want to give that away, so I'll just move on to a related topic, the love between a mother and her grownup child.
9. Ghostface Killah, "All That I Got is You." I remembered the sound but couldn't pin the artist down until Google dumped me on a site called called "Ten Best Rap Songs about Mothers." My daughter was sure I had Tupac in mind, but from the first bars I knew this was the one. Rapped over a sample from the Jackson 5's "Maybe Tomorrow," with Mary J. Blige killing a cameo and Ghostface detailing painful memories of grinding poverty, this tearjerker of a hip-hop tribute to a struggling single mother is gritty and tender, wholly credible, and concludes with its own credible take on old clichés about knowing who you are.
10. The Only Ones, "Another Girl, Another Planet." Of course I knew this late punk English band got my novel's name before me. Although adenoidal Paul Perrett does have one of those funny voices I go for, the reason I borrowed their name wasn't musical. It was more in the spirit that Tom Verlaine grabbed a Hitchcock title for "Torn Curtain"—to play around with images and ideas. It's a recurring motif in the novel, means a bunch of different things, and is on the edge of oxymoron: only ones, plural. I liked that as a way to think about how the clones in the story are one in many, the same but truly different, and more particularly, how love proves that. I called the final chapter of the book "The Only Ones" as a sort of parting chorus, and bringing the band in for this last track is another version of the same idea. But it also happens that "Another Girl" works with the way the story ends, in a grand if wrenching finale, where life goes on in another way in another girl, although this planet is the only one we get.
Carola Dibbell and The Only Ones links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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