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June 29, 2016

Book Notes - Jeremy P. Bushnell "The Insides"

The Insides

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.

Jeremy Bushnell's novel The Insides is a dark, fun, and fast-paced literary fantasy done well. wrote of the book:

"Like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians...The Insides is a book with magic in it but isn’t actually about magic. A fast-paced quick read with intriguing characters, droll dialogue, and a clever conceit."

In his own words, here is Jeremy P. Bushnell's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Insides:

The Insides tells the story of Olive "Ollie" Krueger, a former teen witch who now works as a butcher at a high-end New York City restaurant.

I was excited to be asked to do a Book Notes piece for The Insides, because the book has a playlist already in it. In the opening chapter Ollie's making her way through a long, exhausting shift, carving up goats and pigs, and as she's working she's also listening to an eight-hour work mix that lives on her old click-wheel iPod. So here are some of my notes on that playlist, as it appears in that chapter. Her playlist kicks off on kind of a heavy note, and I should append a trigger warning for a reference to sexual violence:

Swans "Raping a Slave"

This is the only song from the entire playlist that's mentioned by name. It's an unpleasant piece of music on just about every level, from the repellent title to the disquieting lyrics to the nauseating sonics. The disturbing thematics of the song are brought into even starker focus by songwriter Larkin Grimm's recent Facebook post (of which some Largehearted Boy readers are no doubt aware), in which Grimm recounts having suffered sexual assault at the hands of Swans frontman Michael Gira in 2008, when she was recording for his label. Grimm's report emerged this past February, as my novel was going to press, and so I had time to question whether cultural material this distressing belonged as a point of reference in the novel at all. And, if so, why?

The "why" is important. I don't mention this song by name in the novel just to be cool or "edgy;" I don't mention it just to gain hipster points by showing that I'm conversant in the world of "extreme music." I mention this song in the novel because it has to do with power, and The Insides is in part a novel about power, about the way that vulnerable people can get chewed up by more powerful people. This happens sometimes in ways that are big, dramatic, and scary—someone comes after you with a gun—and sometimes in ways that are more quiet, insidious, so everyday as to be wearisome—someone gives you a leering look; your boss makes a sexual overture towards you. My book is concerned with abuses of power—violence—at all these scales; it's concerned with how all these violences impact us, with how we take those violences inside of us, with how our personalities and behaviors warp under the strain. Ollie specifically is a woman of mixed race who spent much of her childhood and adolescence homeless in New York City: many of her memories of this time are, inevitably, memories of certain forms of violence. Part of what she grapples with as an adult is how to try to make sense of the things that happened to her.

I think anyone who suffered (or suffers) from violence struggles with this question, and I think that, at its best, things like music can help provide a means towards that end. It's a very personal thing. For Ollie, listening to Swans helps. When she can access a version of the violence that happened to her in the form of a song it gives her some degree of control over it. She can keep the song on a battered old click-wheel iPod, dial it up at will, put it on a playlist where it can fulfill a function. Sometimes she wants the song to help her remember: she wants to be reminded, through its repellent nature, that power is real, that violence is real, that the things that happened to her really happened, that there's ugliness in the world as well as beauty. And these are important reminders. But sometimes she wants the song to make her forget: she wants to be overwhelmed by its brute thud and idiot noise, the way that being knocked down by an ocean wave can pummel us into a kind of peacefulness. The song might appear, in this instance, to be overpowering her, but the important thing to remember is that it's doing so at her behest, as a form of service.

Liturgy "Generation"
Deafheaven "Dream House"

Once Swans are out of the way, the novel describes Ollie's playlist as switching over to "black metal shredding," although we're still firmly in the realm of music that can serve the purpose of keeping you "from thinking about yourself too hard." If we're going to talk about bands that really put emphasis on the nearly transcendental ego-destroying aspect of black metal, Liturgy makes a pretty good Exhibit A and Deafheaven makes a pretty good Exhibit B. (Liturgy's Hunter Hunt-Hendrix especially wants to underline this point in interviews: he's gone on record as saying that the "longing for ecstatic annihilation, a perfect void" is central to "the meaning of black metal.")

I'm aware that talking about these two bands is going to irritate black metal purists, who detest both Liturgy and Deafheaven as outsiders crashing a scene that they don't really belong to in an "authentic" sense, faking abjection for easy aesthetic effects. Fair point, maybe, though I'm not sure Ollie herself would care: there are a couple of times in the book where she pointedly says she doesn't follow Internet drama, so if the argument even made it onto her radar I'm pretty sure she would have dismissed it with a powerful eyeroll.

Sutekh Hexen, "Five Faces of Decay"

Up above, when I was writing about Swans, I wrote that I didn't put them in the book just to gain hipster points. An early draft of the first chapter also included reference to Bay Area "black noise" band Sutekh Hexen, which ultimately got cut in revision because I was like "well, that actually is just me trying to seem cool." Which I really didn't want to do in the novel—but in a Book Notes post I can name-drop with relative impunity! In all seriousness, I was always a little bit sad to leave Sutekh Hexen on the cutting room floor not just because they really are cool but also because they indubitably are part of my mental soundtrack for the book. I'm glad I get to give them a shout here.

Kevin Drumm, "The Inferno"

At some point even a eight-hour work mix has to have a climax, and when I ask myself "what is the pinnacle of self-abnegatory annihilatory noise" I think of Kevin Drumm's 2007 masterpiece Sheer Hellish Miasma, which culminates in this unimprovable twenty-five minute track, which begins with about a minute of difficult sputtering before descending into a truly disorienting maelstrom of sound, a cyclone of fire within which no rational thought can survive. When you're imagining Ollie in a blood-smeared apron, with her arms deep inside a goat carcass, cleaving bone, this is the track to imagine corroding the air around her.

Eyehategod, "Crimes Against Skin"

Every long stint of intense work is followed by its bleary comedown, and thus Ollie's mix sputters out into chunks of "Louisiana sludge rock." At the end of her shift she's tired, dirty, exhausted both physically and mentally, and Eyehategod is pretty much the standard-bearer for that kind of filthy, tired vibe.

Bonus track: Liars, "There's Always Room on the Broom"

Did I mention that this book is about witches? Ollie begins the novel with her back turned on that part of her life, so I'm not sure that she'd really have embraced Liars' 2004 concept album about witches (They Were Wrong, So We Drowned), but I can't resist closing out this list with this track, which earned my enduring affection when it was released as a single with what I still believe to be the best witch-themed cover art ever designed.

Jeremy P. Bushnell and The Insides links:

the author's website

LitReactor review
Publishers Weekly review review
Washington Post review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Weirdness
Necessary Fiction essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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