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May 17, 2016

Book Notes - Angela Woodward "Natural Wonders"

Natural Wonders

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, Angela Woodward's novel Natural Wonders is cleverly written, compelling, and thought-provoking.

Stacey Levine wrote of the book:

"Natural Wonders is an amazing work about sentience and biologic magic, its structure built and layered with beautiful rigor. It is full of delicious sentences that will pull readers into its meditation on story making and the awe that seems to be just outside our sight. Woodward’s novel contextualizes our shred of a civilization so vividly readers will see the world with new eyes."

In her own words, here is Angela Woodward's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Natural Wonders:

Natural Wonders concerns geologic time: the ice ages, the movements of the earth's crust, the formation of volcanoes, the interpretation of fossils. Set against a brief marriage in which passion flared and waned, the novel interrogates our belief in certainty against our unequivocal knowledge that everything changes. Music, especially pop music, is tightly tied to time. The music of your 17th year remains the music of that period in our culture and music scene, and of the person you were then. The song you listened to the last night you were with your lover before he told you he'd been cheating on you is forever after unbearable because it's implicated in that moment when you were a fool and still happy. These songs have nothing to do with what happened to you then or ever, but you experience them as having everything to do with who you were.

Natural Wonders is in some sense a deeply musical book. My training in classical music taught me more about writing than the one undergraduate writing course I took. I'm keenly aware of using words for their sounds as well as sense, though this is prose, not poetry. Jenny, the narrator, makes a novel out of her scientist husband's notes, meaning she shapes his material into something aesthetic and wondrous. The precision of her language is probably not what her late husband's department chair expected when he asked her to compile a memorial edition of Jonathan's course on the earth and its prehistory.

I divided the music that relates to the novel into three strands. One category is songs from the early to mid-80s. I set the present of the narrative then for several reasons. There needed to be typewriters, and much of the initial research I did came from a 1982 Time-Life book on the ice ages. I kept discovering new facts and updated theories as I read other sources, and finally decided to take as "true" what was considered true by scientists in the early 1980s. Jenny, as a woman of this era, might have been listening to some wild contemporary tunes while her husband was shut in his study. The second strand is powerful female vocalists. Natural Wonders is very much a woman's take on a man's world, as Jenny retells "stories of men and their adventures" in her own radical way. The third strand is music that embodies the grandeur of the whole earth and our insignificant place in the cosmos.

Theme one: Great 80s Music Jenny Might Have Listened to in Private

Wire's "Heartbeat"
The best band on earth? Clearly. Jenny seems like the uncoolest cool person. She tells us almost nothing about herself, and yet she orchestrates the novel's fantastic flares and erotic energy. Jenny would have loved this song, in its unpretentious pretentiousness, or its opposite, the droning, I-don't-care lethargy of the beat, the searing emotion that makes itself felt for all that it feigns not caring at all.

Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey"
Jenny's coworkers in the typing pool would have found the name of the band baffling if not offensive, but she would have kept it to herself. The huge guitar sound contrasts with the slightly monotonous vocals, transmitting an erotic energy ostentatiously held in check. Jenny married a much older man. She doesn't seem to return his passion for her, and their relationship devolves into awkward civility. This song would appeal to Jenny's thwarted sensuality, which she may unleash only after her husband's passing.

The Social Climbers' "Domestic"
Rough, tinny, grinding, hilarious, and danceable, The Social Climbers had a narrow but passionate following in their brief heyday. Jenny's wide-ranging taste, her mixing of high and low, as in the mish-mash of erotica and geophysics in the chapter on continental drift, would have made her an ideal Social Climbers fan. This track speaks of dreams lost to domesticity, though with wittiness rather than pity.

Theme two: Amazing Female Vocalists and Storytellers

Sarah Jarosz's "Annabelle Lee"
This young singer exudes tremendous confidence as she covers songs by other masters and makes them her own. "The Shankhill Butchers" is probably everyone's favorite Decemberists song, but her cover takes it to another level. She's also known for doing Tom Waits, smoothing out all that gruffness into her own sweet sound. "Annabelle Lee" is her setting of the Edgar Allan Poe poem. She makes a moving tale out of a man's story of his lost love, so that she's somehow both male and female in the singer's persona. This is Jenny's magic too, as she projects herself through Jonathan's stories. The masculine and feminine mix into a divine integrity.

Aimee Mann's "The Scientist"
Mann has range and strength unspent, sitting in the middle of a powerful instrument. A song ostensibly about loss and regret communicates wisdom and endurance, as if she can make us sad and save us from grief simultaneously. I can't quite understand this song, with its chorus: "I'm going back to the stars." This gives it a science fiction zing that doesn't quite compute for me. I'm probably mishearing it drastically. That doesn't stop me from imputing a kind of grounded spirituality to "The Scientist." This is oddly enough a Coldplay cover.

Anna Domino's "In the Land of My Dreams"
Anna Domino is an 80s singer Jenny might have listened to, but I've categorized her here with women storytellers. Her voice and presence have a breathiness that might be read as frail if it weren't so potent. This song is an Aretha Franklin cover. The lyrics are hauntingly sad, as she imagines hearing her lover "telling all the other girls who love you too, you love me the most." It seems like a victim's position, but a victim is mute. The woman voicing this weakness is paradoxically strong. There's a fogginess of fantasy overlaying all Domino's work that continually allures me. She makes a whole world out of her voice.

Theme Three:Music of the Earth, Geologic in Scope

Zoe Keating's "Sun Will Set"
It's hard to pick a track from this gorgeous CD, Keating's first release, which I listened to over and over early in the composition of my novel. A single cello broods expansively, looped and intertwined on top of itself to become a multi-voiced composition. Keating's music makes me think of ribcages, an unseen structure rising and falling around the heart. What she communicates is deep and bony, piercingly solitary and at the same time cosmic.

Brahms's "Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras," from German Requiem
Natural Wonders is a meditation on mortality, on the scope of a human life when seen in geologic scale. A requiem mass is a similar enterprise, connecting the short span between birth and death to an enduring infinity. The German Requiem conveys the splendor and sadness of being alive like no other mass. The image of our flesh as grass, unindividuated, weak, thin, and recklessly mown, never fails to squeeze and startle me. A piece almost unbearable in its strength and beauty.

Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde"
This piece, Mahler's crowning achievement, sets Chinese poems sung by tenor and contralto against a full orchestration. The human voices, with their precise words, duet at times with single instruments, and are in other places supported, eclipsed, or covered over by the whole orchestra. The humanity of the singers seems just one element in a seething whole that extends out to earth and sky, lotuses and apes. The final movement, the farewell, "Abschied," plunges into a depth of depression that almost stalls out. The basses and cellos seem to scrape the bottom of the earth, while the oboe takes up where the contralto has left off. Over its nearly thirty minutes, the "Abschied" develops from this low point into transcendental joy. Mahler's enormous palette and emotional range do justice to the grandeur of his project here, to sing the song of the earth.

Angela Woodward and Natural Wonders links:

the author's website

The Collagist interview with the author
Necessary Fiction essay by the author
Quarterly Conversation interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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