February 16, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kristopher Jansma's Why We Came to the City is a smart and moving novel about youth and mortality, and one of the finest books about living in New York City I have ever read.
David, thanks so much for asking me back to talk about my new novel, Why We Came to the City. I so enjoyed doing the previous essay for you, and since at the time I was already hard at work on this new novel, I started keeping a playlist right then and there, just in case!
Last time, in the Book Notes for The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, I wrote about my (limited) childhood exposure to music, and how that developed alongside my desire to be a writer in high school and college. My taste was and continues to be fairly mainstream and un-ironic, which last time earned me some good mockery at the hands of my students. This time I fear I'll meet the same fate, but I can promise that every song is a genuine favorite and one that I listened to repeatedly as I wrote Why We Came to the City.
As I mentioned, the book was something I had started around the same time as I began my first novel, but I knew right away that this one would take a lot longer to write. For one thing, while Leopards was filled with fun smoke and mirrors around what's real and what isn't, Why We Came deals a lot more nakedly with some personal things from my life. Mainly, my own early years in the city, living with my then-fiancé as we and everyone we knew chased our own particular dreams and tried not to be swallowed up or spit back out by this city that we loved and feared. But also the loss of my younger sister, Jennifer, to cancer during this same rough period in my life. I knew that if I hoped to do justice to her life and to this great city, I'd need to give it everything I've got. But that, thank God, is exactly what the city teaches us how to do so well.
Some of these songs refer to particular moments or characters in the novel, and others are more generally connected to those bigger themes of aspiration and grief. But I like to think that all of them have a certain generous and earnest pulse that helped me to write towards that same power through every chapter in Why We Came to the City.
1) "First of the Gang to Die" – Zee Avi
I heard Avi playing this haunting and beautiful song on her ukulele at an event at Housing Works Bookstore, a wonderful non-profit store in SoHo, where, I'm happy to say, I got married late in 2008. That is always my association now when I'm there. I can't remember why I was there to hear Avi, but I do remember being totally captivated by her cover of this Morrissey song. The title, "First of the Gang to Die" has some literal connection to the novel, and though in the song she's singing about a boy named Hector, I love the way she sings in the first person plural, "we are the pretty petty thieves… and you are standing on our streets." Why We Came to the City is also about a young "gang", though in this case they are college buddies who've come to New York City together, but that line really resonated with the way that young people exist in this city, and beyond. You get the sense that you're stealing everything you're experiencing, and at the same time that you own everything around you. These are our streets.
2) "The World Has Turned (And Left Me Here)" – Weezer
Here comes my 90s nostalgia, but I never listened to Weezer until after the 90s. Actually that isn't true. I can remember being in a car with my then-girlfriend in 1998 and listening to a song from this album (likely "The Sweater Song") and not knowing who was singing, much to her horror. But whenever I came to it, I enjoyed this one, and there was something about the feeling they're singing about—though I think they're talking about a break up-- that really resonated with the way I grieved the loss of my sister Jennifer to cancer in 2008, one of the things that eventually moved me to write this novel. I was struck, afterwards, by how everyone in my family and all of her friends were grieving the same loss, but in frustratingly different ways that made it so hard to connect with them. Some felt lost and others angry. Some were in blithe denial and others were suffering from something close to trauma. I was sort of in the middle of all of that, and the best I can describe the feeling is the way they do in the song. Like the world had turned and left me behind. In the novel, this is closest to the way that one character, William, experiences grief, and I listened to it a lot while writing his sections.
3) "What Ever Happened?" – The Strokes
Back in 2006, this song was in the constantly-running promos for Sophia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette. I realize I could have included almost every track off The Strokes' first album Is This It? on this list, and partly I went with this one because I couldn't pick. But also because the movie was one of my sister's favorites, with all the elaborate costuming and decadence that I think also resonates with how it can feel to be young and living in Manhattan. But I love the song itself, even apart from its connection to the film. "I want to be forgotten, and I don't want to be reminded." That's a demand that never fails to catch me and make me think of my early days in the city, where I wanted nothing more than to become lost inside of it.
4) "Swallowed" – Bush
OK, angst-central. I know. And I'll cop to not really knowing Bush well until about 1999, and even then I couldn't tell Gavin Rossdale from Scott Weiland or Eddie Vedder. But this one is another song that, for me, gets to the howling, loud core of what it's like to lose someone special in your life. Of course it's probably all really about heroin, but setting that aside... the part where he goes from singing "I'm with everyone and yet not," in the chorus to, "I'm with everyone and you're gone." It might be the opposite, actually, of the Weezer situation. Life goes on and there's just something fundamental missing, and you have moments where, just crossing a street corner somewhere, it strikes you that this person is gone. Won't ever cross this street or any other street. And that leaves you there, with everyone else, and yet— not.
5) "NYC" – Interpol
This one might be a little obvious, but I have a nice story behind it. I'd never really listened to Interpol, but I had this song because it came by default on some mp3 player or phone that I had in the early days. It's from 2003, the year I first moved to New York, and there weren't smartphones at all yet. The iPhone wouldn't be out until 2007. Which seems almost impossible, but there it is. Anyway, I had bought this Palm Pilot phone, with a little stylus and everything, because I was imagining that very soon I'd be needing to check my email constantly while on the go, to respond to all kinds of magazines and agents interested in my work. That didn't happen, of course, but I was 21 and it seemed very possible.
I remember I never took the phone out in public because it was so expensive and I was sure it would get stolen. I think this song was on there, because it was released in 2003. Anyway, it had followed me from phone to phone over the years, and one night in 2011, I was riding home in the back of a cab when I heard that Steve Jobs had died. I was never a big Apple fan, and I never ended up owning an iPhone even. But it struck me as I was riding across Midtown that he might have done more to change the day-to-day experience of life, in the city or anywhere, than almost anyone.
And then this song came on my headphones and it seemed like the perfect tribute. It was one of the first times I really felt like I'd begun to be part of a different time and a different generation, and these are big themes in the novel.
6) "If I Ever Leave This World Alive" – Flogging Molly
Everyone has that one song they want played at their funeral someday, and this is mine. There's something so sweet and reassuring about it. "If I ever leave this world alive, I'll thank you for the things you did in my life. / If I ever leave this world alive, I'll come back down and sit beside your feet tonight." Man that gets me teary-eyed even just typing it out. And yet it is that perfect mixture of sadness and triumph. What a simple, beautiful thought: "I'll be here when it all gets weird." Of course it reminds me a little of my sister, and of the way that the characters in the book experience ghostly memories of their lost friend.
I remember teaching a lesson recently in a nonfiction course, about the difference between a eulogy and an elegy. They have completely different roots in the Greek. The first is a sad lament to mourn someone's passing. But the latter is a commemoration, a song that takes the life of someone ordinary and elevates it to the legendary. This is a little of both, in the best way.
7) "Gone For Good" (Alternative off So Says I) – The Shins
This is another really light, sweet, sad one, at least as they perform it here on So Says I. One of the main romantic relationships in Why We Came to the City is between a girl named Irene and a guy named William, and he doesn't entirely understand what she sees in him. She's not a manic pixie anything, I promise, but she's somewhat inscrutable to him and to everyone. At several points in the novel this theme emerges that "she's always leaving" and this song reminds me of that feeling, of loving someone who you know won't be around forever. "You love a sinking stone / That will never elope… Don't leave me no phone number there."
8) "Better (Piano and Voice)" – Regina Spektor
Yeah, I know this one was way overplayed and is too obvious, but I love it to the point where that doesn't matter to me at all. It's all so sad and sweet – her voice and that piano alone… but there's also something so remarkable about its simple plea to make the listener "feel better." Too often I find that books, and songs, are great at tearing us all apart emotionally. I know mine has left a few readers in tears already, but hopefully it also answers that pain and sorrow with something that, in my experience, is much rarer to find. "Happiness," as Jacob, a poet, says to a young girl in the second half of the book, "is one of the hardest things to describe." There's something about the way Spektor builds momentum in this one that approaches a description of real happiness to me.
9) "Mistaken for Strangers" – The National
This, to me, is the quintessential new millennium city song. "You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends / When you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights." That, to me, evokes so many blurry and blurred-together evenings, walking through the streets of Manhattan – yes, in my case, often "showered and blue blazered" – and looking at the strangers around me and wondering how many of them I actually might know, or how many maybe know someone I know. There's this weird feeling you can get, when someone passes you where you know you aren't so different. And "another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults." If this novel didn't already have two epigraphs, this would be there on page one.
10) "Out of the Blue" – Julian Casablancas
OK, so I'm cheating here with a song by the frontman of The Strokes, but again I have a good story to tell. For about five years I lived on the Lower East Side in the part of Manhattan called Stuyvesant Town. It is this strange oasis, originally designed as subsidized housing for returning WWII veterans, and every once in a while we'd run into some 80-year old guy who was still paying $400 a month for his three-bedroom apartment. But mostly it was full of young families, and young people like my wife and I. By the time we left, NYU had begun dorming students there and there was a big scandal going on about the illegal deregulation of some of the apartments.
Anyway, towards the end, when we were realizing we couldn't stay there another year, we had an upstairs neighbor who used to listen to this song, "Out of the Blue", on loop… five or more times every single day. But the thing was I kind of liked the song, so we let it slide, figuring they'd get bored of it eventually. Only it went on for months. And still I always kind of liked it. I liked wondering what kind of life they were living up there that this song so strongly resonated with them. And then one day I came home and they had switched it to "Back in the New York Groove." I made it about three times through and then finally went up and demanded they turn it down. Of course it was a pair of very stoned, very sorry NYU students… and I felt really old.
11) "Light Years" – Pearl Jam
This song was on their album Binaural from 2000, and I remember listening to it a lot in those years when I was in college and after. There's a character in the novel, George, who is an astronomer, and he has been studying this supposedly very-stable protostar called 237 Lyrae V, that turns out to be about to collapse, which is one way that new stars are born. I think I had this song in my head as I was working out the details of that. Funny enough, it was based on some research that a friend of a friend was doing, in real life, where his own roommate disproved his theory about this interstellar body. That comes into the story too.
12) "Videotape" – Radiohead
This one is mega-sad. Fully in eulogy territory, and I can best describe the piano here as dirge-like. But I love the idea here, of coming to the Pearly Gates and seeing your life replayed "in red blue green" on a videotape. I don't know how he does it, but Tom Yorke makes this so vivid. There's even this background drum sound that grows and begins to sound like the flutter of a videotape in a VCR. It's haunting. "This is my way of saying goodbye / Because I can't do it face to face / So I'm talking to you before it's too late." Even with the volume up all the way, I can't hear the end of that final line, but you know what it is anyway.
13) "Hope" – R.E.M.
I think I had a song from Up in my last Book Notes essay and I spoke there about how much I love this album and am always sad to see it listed among R.E.M.'s all-time worst. This song especially, is impressive, maybe because it riffs off a Leonard Cohen tune. But the lyrics are wonderful. There's a story there, which starts out so real. "You want to go out Friday / and you want to go forever" and then… "You want to trust the doctors /their procedure is the best / but the last try was a failure / and the intern was a mess." And then it goes into this surreal stuff about alligators and spaceships, but it all feels very lucid. There's something about it that really hits the nail on the head of what it's like to lose someone in a hospital, as the characters in the novel do, who may be off on their own strange trip already.
14) "Like a Friend" – Pulp
In a novel I wrote years ago and scrapped for parts, there was a scene where I had the protagonist's love interest accidentally singing this song on his answering machine, and I've never quite forgotten that. It's a great song of course, and before anyone asks, yes, I know it exclusively from the 1998 soundtrack to Great Expectations (which I never liked, aside from its soundtrack.)
Anyway, it's been pointed out to me recently that both this book and my earlier novel, are focused on the theme of friendship – which when you think about it, most books are not. Most are primarily about either romantic or familial relationships, with friends often serving as either sidekicks or sounding boards. But there ought to be more of them, because in real life, our friends are the ones who are there for us throughout everything else. Many times they'll outlast our lovers in our lives, and grow into a kind of a new family. The writer Hanya Yanigara, whose stunning novel from last year, A Little Life is also really deeply about friendship, recently told a crowd at St. Joseph's College that she thinks "it remains the one relation not bound by law, blood, or money—but an unspoken agreement of love." I can't think of anything else that we need to explore more in our literature.
Kristopher Jansma and Why We Came to the City 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
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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)