September 21, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Carmiel Banasky's The Suicide of Claire Bishop is one of the year's most striking and ambitious debut novels.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"With its dancing time frames, recurring motifs, glimpses of history, and shifting realities, all united by striking prose, the novel is both an intellectual tour de force and a moving reflection on the ways we try to save ourselves and others."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Music is a form of immersive research. My novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, spans many years—from 1959 to 2004. To capture the tone of these decades on the page, especially the years I wasn’t alive for, I listened to music my characters would have listened to. These songs often overlapped with and informed the emotional tone of a scene. One of the narrators in my novel is a man who believes he can time travel if he can just piece together the correct tableau of images from his past. Music was my own means of time travel. Maybe these songs will also transport you to the atmosphere of the day, the angst of a generation crammed into 3 minutes.
The following playlist is fairly evenly split between the worlds and minds of the two narrators in my novel: West Butler, a data miner with schizophrenia, and Claire Bishop, a housewife whose world inverts when an artist paints an image of her potential suicide. Despite their disparate time- and plotlines, there are musical overlaps, highlighting their thematic entanglement.
Philip Glass, “Floe” (1981)
Welcome to the mind of West, a man who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, who has a thing for Stephan Hawking, and who happens to have schizophrenia. “Floe” is the second track on Philip Glass’s Glassworks, his studio album attempt at being more “accessible” to listeners. “Floe” begins serenely but we do not rest there long. At the thirty-second mark, we fly full swing into something so alive it is off putting. So much is happening it is difficult to know where we are. There is a clear logic at play, but the progression won’t slow down enough for the listener to grasp what it is. After two minutes of complicated back and forths, horns interrupting horns--we cut the crazy as quickly as it began. Suddenly we are back into manageable territory; the listener takes a breath—until the incessant flutes enter again. But we still have the slow horn to hold onto in the background. It is an anchor. Is it reality? The complexity will not quit--but do we want it to? That’s what makes it beautiful: we cannot do the math, we cannot figure out all the answers to how the world works, how our brains work, yet they work anyway. And then the anchor slips away.
Simon and Garfunkel, “The Only Living Boy in New York” (1970)
I grew up on Simon and Garfunkel, but their music became mine (as opposed to my parent’s) while writing my novel. I often can’t write to music with lyrics--the words distract me from my own. But I know the words to this song by heart, so much so that they are no longer words, more like percussion in the background. Maybe that’s why the words slip into West’s thoughts, informing his uniquely-New York, hectic loneliness. When I do step into the song and listen to the lyrics, I see how it ties my two narrators together. “Half of the time we’re gone and we don’t know where, and we don’t know where.” It speaks to West and Claire’s (and my) shared struggle to be present. But there is hope at the end of the song, an invitation to resettle into oneself with a mantra that traverses time: “Here I am.”
The National, “Secret Meeting” (2005)
I don’t know if it was the songwriter’s intention, but I take these lyrics literally. Hearing this song and connecting with it was the first time I thought I might have a chance at understanding West’s frightening paranoia. “I think this place is full of spies, I think they’re on to me….Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?” The whole album, Alligator, within the context of my novel, is about madness and its consequences, the people watching from the sidelines, and the inevitable loss felt along the way: “I’m sorry I missed you, I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain.” The background vocals seem to fluctuate between yelling at the singer and rooting him on as if the song were an anthem. There is a din of stories behind this one.
Elvis Presley, “Don’t be Cruel” (1956)
Throughout the novel, Claire is a bit out of touch. Her friend, Mary, tries to help, but “cool” doesn’t register with Claire. She doesn’t connect to current trends because she isn’t fully present for them. She is proud of herself for even knowing who Elvis is in the 50’s, and she continues listening to him through the following decades, long after his hip factor fades. It’s easy to search online for music that would have been trending in a particular year, but it was an interesting challenge to figure out what a less hip person like Claire would have listened to. (Even though Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” was released the year the book opens, she wouldn’t have been exposed to it yet.) The lyrics to “Don’t be Cruel” aren’t far from the lack of agency Claire feels at the start of the book, before she escapes. Elvis captures the height of desperation with cheery timbre: “You know I can be found sitting home all alone. If you can't come around, at least please telephone.”
John Coltrane, “Giant Steps” (1959)
If Glass captures the energy of West’s mind, then Coltrane captures what he thinks his mind should be: a jazz standard most can get behind, self-possessed, but still a bit wild. The tempo of this song is contained but seemingly about to swing out of control. It feels like it’s going to slip out of the drummer’s grasp, but it never does. People talk about “fury” when they talk about Coltrane. I would use the word rage. Fury and rage—these abstract demons—get such a bad rap. But these states are essential to the artist, the writer, the musician; they are essential to West and Claire. West’s problem is letting his rage take control of him. Claire’s problem is concealing it with good manners. Neither character is able to embrace and accept that part of themselves.
There is a scene in which West is walking around Manhattan at dusk in a light rain, feeling connected to everyone and everything, including a design on a vase in a storefront window. A song is coming from the shop, a jazz standard—of course the same song I was listening to while I wrote it. But for the life of me I cannot remember what it was. I have listened to hours of music trying to track it down. But perhaps it’s best to not be able to replay it, allowing the song to be as ephemeral as that moment was for West. (However, if you do read that scene and have a song-thought, let me know!)
During the Vietnam War, Claire ends up housing an anti-war collective in the fancy apartment she once shared with her husband. These four boys change her life for better or worse. While researching this period, music offered me a glimpse of the rage and confusion my anarchist characters must have felt about the war. I chose this song for its satire. Phil Ochs lists various health reasons that might prevent a young man from serving: “I've got a dislocated disc and a wracked up back, I'm allergic to flowers and bugs, and when the bombshell hits, I get epileptic fits, and I'm addicted to a thousand drugs.” His song shines a light on the humor that had to grow from that anger if anyone was to sustain any hope.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “Tracks of My Tears” (1965)
While the activist boys are listening to Ochs or The Fugs and mussing up the carpet with their marijuana cigarettes, Claire might have stolen away to her room to listen to R&B—as soon as it seemed acceptable. She may have preferred something a little more upbeat, but I love this song. It directly states themes I indirectly write about: the cheerful facades we put up so as not offend anyone with our dark innards. But baby, “it’s easy to trace the tracks of my tears.”
Of Montreal, “I felt like smashing my head through a clear glass window” (lyrics originally by Yoko Ono) (1997)
This is an angsty, lonely, fun-to-bounce-to anthem. Again—here’s rage translated into destruction. But this time the lyrics about smashing things and hating your parents are sung in a cute way, which implies an acceptance: this is just the way it is—we inherit misery. The characters in my book struggle to get out from under the shadow of their families, to cast their own shadows as it were. West’s sister, for instance, converts to Hasidism in an attempt to forge her own identity in a family that long ago left Judaism behind. She is extreme in the opposite direction. A companion piece to this song could be Philip Larkin’s poem, “This be the verse.”
Marlene Dietrich, “Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind” (1962)
Marlene Dietrich heartbreakingly translates Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” into German. In the live version I’ve listened to, her voice deepens and breaks, becomes ugly in the most moving way. The studio version is a little strange to me—her voice is sultry and sexy, which seems at odds with the content of the song, but it is beautiful nonetheless, and is the voice she was known for.
Though this song was recorded in 1962, it appears in my novel two decades later. This song allows Claire’s mother, Elsa, to time travel as she descends deeper into her Alzheimer’s in 1982. Elsa listens to this record on loop. The iconic German-American actress meant more to her than a pretty face and voice: she represented someone who shared roots and the struggle of being of two places. In her native-tongue, the songs transport Elsa and bring to life her late husband with whom she’d shared a crush on Ms. Dietrich. This particular song also references the war that Claire protested and works as a symbol of the era that mother and daughter spent apart.
Unicef performance, 1962: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AybZIw8BRIM
Moon Dog, “Symphonique #6 (Good for Goodie)” (1969)
I started listening to Moon Dog only during my last round of revisions. It is so expansive, wild but controlled, and at times funny. It swoops you up and takes you along for a ride into a disconcerting place with princesses and ogres and skyscrapers. You immediately trust the composer even though he looks like a mad man.
Here is the whole album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aK0yv9ME-h8 (this song comes in at the 11:04 mark). “Good for Goodie” and “Birds Lament” are my favorites individual pieces on it. But as a whole, the album is cohesive yet sweeping, telling a grand story. It is triumphant and weird and contains a nonverbal truth. This became my power music.
Carmiel Banasky and The Suicide of Claire Bishop links:
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
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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