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May 25, 2016

Book Notes - Sean Carswell "The Metaphysical Ukulele"

The Metaphysical Ukulele

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.

Sean Carswell's collection The Metaphysical Ukulele is filled with clever and insightful homages to his favorite authors.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:

"Carswell excels at composing compelling, whimsical tales that reveal the human side of canonized authors, gently bringing them down from their pedestals."

In his own words, here is Sean Carswell's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection The Metaphysical Ukulele:

I'm fascinated by the parts of writers' biographies that run counter to their public personas. Take Herman Melville, for instance. The guy lived with a tribe of cannibals in the Marquesas. He was a sex symbol after his first two novels came out. There's good reason to think he had an affair with Nathanial Hawthorne. If you carry all of this into Moby-Dick with you, the novel comes off its pedestal and becomes a fun book written by a sailor in his thirties. I think all of this context helps me understand how he writes so well, blending together genres, being funny and heartbreaking while asking the biggest questions. So for The Metaphysical Ukulele, I started with Melville. I wrote a story about him that borrowed several of the tools from his writer's toolbox. The story seemed to make the most sense when Melville had a ukulele to play. So I gave him one.

After writing my Melville story, I established a pattern. I searched out unlikely events in writers' lives—Flannery O'Connor's love affair with a textbook salesman, Chester Himes's years of exile in France and Spain, Leigh Brackett writing Star Wars II (later retitled The Empire Strikes Back) as she died from cancer, Pam Houston releasing a hitchhiking ghost in the mountains of northern Arizona—and I used those events as the springboard to write my paeans to several of my favorite authors. Each story took me a few months to write. I did ridiculous amounts of research, read a half-dozen books for each story, sampled actual passages from the authors' works, and tried to get to know their work better by writing about them.

I gave them all ukuleles, too. Ukuleles are funny instruments. They come loaded with symbolic value. They can be the toys of hipsters, trinkets tourists bring back from the Islands, real artifacts of a colonized Hawaiian culture, nostalgia for the Roaring Twenties, whatever. For me, they're personal. I married a girl who grew up in Hawaii. My brothers-in-law taught me to play the uke fifteen years ago. Since then, ukuleles have been part of the fabric of spending time with loved ones. When I wrote about the writers I loved, the uke had to be there.

When I crafted this playlist, the uke didn't have to be there. Instead, I picked songs that matched the writers I wrote about.

George Formby, "Leaning on a Lamp Post"
The first story in the collection is about Herman Melville. It's the farthest back in time that the stories go, so I wanted to pair it with an old-timey song. George Formby would've been born right around the time when Melville died. Formby was a vaudevillian and a big British movie star in the between-World-War years. Almost all of his songs are goofy jokes played on a banjo ukulele. "Leaning on a Lamp Post" breaks from his pattern. Initially, it's a simple, sweet song. I'm pretty sure he's only playing three chords (though with some ornamental notes), which pleases my inner punk rocker. Starting with that split stroke about two minutes in, the song becomes paradoxically simple and complex. Like Melville. Like the ukulele itself. And, hopefully, like my short story collection.

The Sugar Stems "Baby Teeth"
The second story in the collection is about Leigh Brackett. Brackett was a pulp writer, mostly known for her sci-fi, but she also wrote some pretty powerful noir. When William Faulkner was struggling with the screenplay for The Big Sleep, director Howard Hawkes brought in Brackett to fix the script. Brackett became known as the woman Hollywood called when they needed someone to write like a man. There's a toughness and a sadness to Brackett's writing and life story that fits well with The Sugar Stems. Something about the end of the chorus, when Betsy Heibler sings "But you've gone away somehow and know your all I think about. I had you once but not now," haunts me like Brackett.

Banner Pilot "Wired Wrong"
I know that when I pair music with Jack Kerouac, who's the protagonist of my third story, I should play jazz. I just don't know jazz very well. I grew up on punk rock. It still informs all my musical choices. So here's Banner Pilot, writing about drinking in Minneapolis in the early aughts, missing bars called Moby Dicks, and, midway through the song, sampling Kerouac reading from The Subterraneans. Kerouac calls someone a "hip pretending weasel." I'd like to read the novel with that title.

Pink Mink "Hidden Beach"
I'm staying with Minneapolis bands here. This time, it's Pink Mink. I went with "Hidden Beach" because it matches the author who stars in my next ukulele story, Patricia Geary. In the song, the narrator goes to a haunted place and runs into ghosts she's familiar with. You're invited to the party. This matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural echoes Geary's novels, especially her favorite one of mine, Guru Cigarettes, which lures us into a world adjacent to ours so seamlessly that the world we live in feels askew once we put the book down.

Dillinger Four "Doublewhiskeycokenoice"
I guess this is the Minneapolis part of my playlist. Here's the city's second favorite sons, Dillinger Four. "Doublewhiskeycokenoice" captures that frustration of an artist—musician, writer, whomever—when his work is overshadowed or dismissed by dilettantes. Paddy namedrops Nelson Algren and Otis Redding in the song. Chester Himes, who I wrote my next short story about, would fit in that group well. Paddy Costello sings about these guys being on "the beat-up side of a thing called pride," and that's where I'll always see Himes.

Martha "Dust, Bones, Juice, and Hair"
I have to put Martha in the middle of the playlist because their songs are too catchy. If I play their record once and don't play anything immediately afterward, the songs keep running on an endless loop in my head. I feel the same way when I read a Richard Brautigan book. His writing style is infectious. Everyone who reads Brautigan tries to write like Brautigan, at least for a couple of days. Martha and Brautigan also both share the knack of being entertaining and feeling light initially, but there's a deep, sad vein running through all their stuff.

The Pine Hill Haints "When You Fall"
My next story tells about Flannery O'Connor's brief love affair with a textbook salesman. To me, every Flannery O'Connor story is both a love story and a ghost story. The love is complicated and flawed and almost never romantic. The ghosts are all internal. This makes her a great match for a band named after ghosts singing a love song.

The Marked Men "A Little Time"
Raymond Chandler is the protagonist in my next story. In 1944, he essentially held Paramount hostage, refusing to write the end of a mystery no one else could solve. And the biggest problem with him not writing the ending: the rest of the film was already shot, the cast and crew were waiting for the last ten pages of the screenplay, and the star had been drafted into the army. I reimagined this event for my collection. The Marked Men's "A Little Time" sets just the right mood.

The Gateway District "Go Home"
I namedrop a few songs in my Pam Houston story, but they're all songs that Houston namedrops in her books. They're not songs I particularly like. As a compromise, I picked "Go Home." Like Houston's characters, the narrator of the song is a strong woman who's helping her friend out of a bad relationship. I could hear a Houston character singing along to the song: "Girl, don't you waste no more lipstick on him."

The Sonics "Skinny Minnie"
I've done a lot of scholarship (several essays, a book that's coming out next year) on power, resistance, and economics in Thomas Pynchon's novels. I've written a lot less about just how fun his books are. I wanted to pay homage to that in my Thomas Pynchon story in this collection. And this is why I pick The Sonics to accompany Pynchon. They're straight ahead rock and roll. As pure and fun as it can be. There's also a scene in Pynchon's Vineland where college students take over a university, secede from the US, and form The People's Republic of Rock and Roll. They appoint Weed Atman as their leader. Weed tells them that he's not a leader, that he's "tall, that's all." I'm convinced that Pynchon is alluding not only to this song, but to The Sonics' version of it.

The Blue Hearts "Linda Linda"
The Blue Hearts are one of my all-time favorite bands. "Linda Linda" is my favorite Blue Hearts song. I don't speak Japanese, but I know every word. If you catch me in the right mood, I might play it for you on the ukulele. A Japanese friend of mine told me the song was about a rat, but not any rat. She pointed at a ditch. "Like one of those," she told me. What could match my short story about Yoko Ogawa better than a beautiful and absurd song about a gutter rat?

Stevie Wonder "I Wish"
After writing eleven stories about my favorite writers, I decided to finish the collection with a sendup of my own work. I wrote a story about being a mischievous kid. When I was a mischievous kid in real life, "I Wish" was in high rotation around my neighborhood. I remember being six years old and thinking the farting trumpet in the song was the funniest thing. Now I'm sentimental about the whole song. I used to play "I Wish" on the ukulele, too, but my wife banned me from playing it when she was around. She was right to do so.

Sean Carswell and The Metaphysical Ukulele links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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