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September 27, 2016

Book Notes - Steve Toutonghi "Join"


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.

Steve Toutonghi's dystopian novel Join is a powerful and imaginative debut.

NPR Books wrote of the book:

"[Toutonghi] combines smart, imaginative extrapolation about technology and a deep curiosity about civilization and the human condition. Along the way, he brings up head-spinning questions about individuality, society, ecology, euthanasia, aging, death, immortality, tech industry politics, class, polyamory, and gender identity... It's a chilling observation about the nature of the individual verses the nature of the group, and it lends Join a compelling urgency."

In his own words, here is Steve Toutonghi's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Join:

I was working full time in the software industry when I wrote the first draft of my first novel, Join. I wanted the world that the story is set in to feel big, but would go into the office in the early morning and get back in the evening without a lot of energy to go out, to talk with people, to explore. Music helped keep me open and responsive to the world beyond what I encountered from day to day. It challenged me to keep bringing energy to the story.

Join is about an alternate future in which a new technology allows small collectives to form permanent “joins,” individuals with one mind and multiple bodies. I wanted the story to begin with a close focus on the experience of people who had undergone the join procedure, and then open into speculation on how these changes to human identity might affect other things in the world. Music is important in the book. There's no limit to the potential lifespan of a “join”; I’d like to listen to music for at least a few more centuries.

"Chedy-Khan/Seven Kings" - Huun Huur Tu
Huun Huur Tu is a group known for their mastery of traditional Tuvan throat singing. This song is a collaboration with the Russian group Malerija that transforms one of their staples--the folk song "Aa-Shuu Dekei-Oo" into a modern dance mix. The harmonies of the throat singing--multiple voices retaining their individual character in a densely textured unity--lift the track into a sprint that uses modern instrumentation like perfectly fitted cybernetic enhancements.

"Way Down In The Hole" - The Blind Boys of Alabama
Brooding, ominous instrumentation and the urgency of full throated gospel vocals, plus lyrics by Tom Waits. This was the theme for the The Wire, with each season serving up a new cover. Each version was fantastic, and each leaves echoes when I hear any version of the song now. The theme of temptation is important in Join, but that multiplicity of perspectives--the combination of every version sounding in memory as you listen--is a big part of why I picked this song for the list.

"Hung My Head" - Johnny Cash
Actions as small as the twitch of a single finger can have terrible consequences. In this Johnny Cash cover of a Sting song, the heartbreak of lives broken and lost is laid as bare as the merciless lyrics. How many of us are comfortable with "the power of death over life" that we assume casually as a consequence of our place in the world? Cash's voice invests the song with a courage that connects one terrible moment to a universal experience.

"Nardis" - Bill Evans
Nardis was a signature piece for Bill Evans, who died young in 1980. I think Chance, (a character in the book), would have been hooked on hearing the cool, precise and relaxed 1961 recording of Evans interpreting this Miles Davis composition. Chance would have read about the song's history, its innovative moment in jazz history, and over time would have begun to investigate Evans' later interpretations, and I think Chance would have been as enthralled as I am by the wealth of Evans’ irresistible variations.

"The Candy Man" - Cibo Matto
I think Leap (another character), would love Cibo Matto. I chose this track because the Japanese duo transformed it utterly while somehow leaving its soul intact. They shape the melody with electronic instruments and the distancing wonder of their sensitive, psychedelic vocals, then strain out sentimentality in favor of a hypnotic beat. Theirs isn't the version that was sung live at Disneyland for decades, but it would have sounded really great there.

"Innocent When You Dream" - Tom Waits
What a beautiful idea. Dreaming is an integral part of the book, where it ultimately results in some less than innocent behavior. Tom Waits assures us with a broken and discordant wisdom that no matter its consequences, the dreaming at least--if not the actions that follow--will always be okay. I'm tempted to just quote lyrics here. If Rope (who knows a thing or two about dreaming) were a lyricist, it might have come up with verses very close to these, and certainly would have known and admired them.

"Wall of Death" - Richard and Linda Thompson
In Join, people achieve something close to immortality by both experiencing and paradoxically avoiding death. In this song, death is cast as a carnival ride. Decades ago, when I first heard it, the exuberant refrain terrified me. "Let me ride on the Wall of Death/One more time/You can waste your time on the other rides/this is the nearest to being alive." The fear of death is as deeply automatic as the need for air. But what is it we fear? I may not share his certainty, but I still take some solace from the words of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who writes, "And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well."

"Oh! You Pretty Things" — David Bowie
Unbelievably, I almost didn’t include a Bowie song on this list. I was focused on finding songs that resonated with specific feelings or ideas, whereas, it seems to me that Bowie was offering something bigger, his vision of the future. I listened to Hunky Dory, Station to Station and his greatest hits a lot while writing Join. Prophecy and warning, I love the song’s ability to stretch from conversational, piano bar interludes to a rousing, vatic chorus.

Steve Toutonghi and Join links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Library Journal review
NPR Books review review

The Qwillery interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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