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September 24, 2016

Book Notes - Tobias Carroll "Transitory"


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.

Tobias Carroll's Transitory impresses with its range and poignancy, and is one of the year's finest short story collections.

Carroll's debut novel Reel will be published next month.

Laura van den Berg wrote of the book:

"Ingenious and mysterious, the stories of Tobias Carroll are spun with quiet loneliness and wild surprise. Transitory is that rare kind of collection where each story stands shining alone and, in the end, forms a beautifully melancholic whole. Tobias Carroll is an original and deeply exciting talent."

In his own words, here is Tobias Carroll's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Transitory:

The stories in my collection Transitory were written over the course of about ten years. In them, you'll find unearthly creatures walking down a city's streets at night, low-budget films of unknown origin, and a group dedicated to reversing time for an easier daily commute; you'll also find subdued conversations in train station bars, several years in the life of a man obsessed with a painting hanging in his parents' house, and one man's search to right the wrongs of his younger self. Alternately: some of the stories are grounded in the everyday; others are more surreal or fantastical.

Putting together a short story collection, for me, wasn't too different from assembling a mix for someone. Balance was critical: shorter stories versus longer ones, realistic ones in tandem with weirder fiction. So putting together a playlist for the book is a kind of meta-mix, at least in my mind. It seemed fitting to do one song for each story—some of the choices innate to the stories, others less so.

"Winter Montage, Hoboken Station": Carissa's Wierd, "Low Budget Slow Motion Soundtrack Song For The Leaving Scene"
Songs used to score montages in films and television are pretty much ubiquitous at this point; you could start a new genre around them. The great Carissa's Wierd understood this years before most, and gave this sad and beautiful song a title that was more than a little self-aware. Admittedly, if someone ever wanted to turn this story into a short film, this would fit perfectly at the very end–on both an emotional and an intellectual level.

"The Wenceslas Men": Pale Sketcher, "Playgrounds Are Empty (Slumber Mix)"
I'd been tempted to put Protomartyr's "Feast of Stephen" here for the sake of symmetry, but as much as I'd have liked to have done that, the mood of the story and the mood of the song don't really line up. So instead, I'll go with music from Justin K. Broadrick's Pale Sketcher project. Specifically, a song that's uncanny, monumental, and just a bit ominous–all qualities that suit this story well.

"Airport Hotel Ghost Tour": King Midas Sound, "Earth A Kill Ya"
One of the key things, for me, as I worked on "Airport Hotel Ghost Tour" was creating a sense of sustained tension and a fundamental wrongness as the tour builds towards its conclusion. I wanted there to be a stillness and a sense of the familiar juxtaposed with something lurking in the background. Thus King Midas Sound: booming, textured, and quietly intimate, with a sense of the unearthly running throughout.

"A Record Called ‘American Woodworking'": Policy of 3, "Canyon"
This should probably be this band's "Nine Years Old," but this is already off to a very sad start, so instead, this more upbeat number will do. Both of them can be found on a seven inch by this New Jersey band called, well, American Woodworking. It's a record that's eternally associated in my mind with the period of my life that ended up inspiring this story; it's also a record that's held up quite well in the nearly twenty years since I first heard it.

"Yannick's Swiss Army": John Cale, "Pablo Picasso"
Writing "Yannick's Swiss Army" was a strange process, in part because I threw in a couple of conceptual jokes and references that approximately three people would find funny. Among the conceptual jokes: there are quite a few references to the Modern Lovers song "Pablo Picasso" in this story, along with my circa-2013/14 habit of showing up late to watch Tottenham Hotspur games. The first time I heard "Pablo Picasso" was via John Cale's cover of it, and thus, that's why it's here.

"You In Reverse": Built to Spill, "Goin' Against Your Mind"
This one was an easy choice: I borrowed the title of a Built to Spill album for this story, so it seemed fitting to use the first song on that record right here. Also, it's a really good song.

"An Old Songwriter's Trick": dälek, "Megaton (Deadverse Remix)"
For a story that deals with a long-running friendship, I wanted to choose a song from an artist whose music I've followed for many years. That would be the experimental hip-hop group dälek, whose music I've been listening to for nearly 20 years. It doesn't hurt that the line "I pray for the day of the megaton" is one of my favorite lyrics in any song, ever. And the sense of frustration and growing discontent imparted by this song mirrors the tension that grows over the course of the story.

"Party Able Model": Joan of Arc, "A Party Able Model Of"
This is one of two stories in here originally written for THE2NDHAND's Mixtape series of readings of stories inspired by songs. Reading this in Chicago in 2007 while the band Big Time played a variation of the Joan of Arc song behind me was probably the closest I'll come to singing for a rock band, and it was pretty cool. I still have very warm feelings about this song, too.

"Dulcimers Played, Strings Played": Labradford, "Dulcimers Played By Peter Neff, Strings Played"
I was listening to this song a lot as I worked on this story of one man's return to Asheville and the personal drama that hasn't entirely died down. And for a story with an abundant sense of place, the slightly skewed ambience of this song seemed very appropriate.

"Why I Was Not In New Jersey For Christmas In 1997": Olivia Tremor Control, "A Sleepy Company"
This story was inspired in part by a vivid dream I had one night, and in part on an experience that I had when I had a particularly bad 24-hour bug in college. (The first half of this story is, for all intents and purposes, nonfiction.) And this Olivia Tremor Control song evokes a similar sort of delirium for me–a kind of primal pop classic that abruptly shatters its template.

"Western Bridges": Spinanes, "Winter On Ice"
This would be the other story written for a THE2NDHAND Mixtape event—this one held in Brooklyn, at the first location of a record store called Sound Fix, which hosted some amazing events in its day. (One of which was an acoustic Scritti Politti set, which I really wish I had a recording from.) In the back of Transitory, there are short pieces of writing about each of the stories; for this song, it's basically me talking about how the second Spinanes album Strand is one of a very small number of records that I'd call "life-changing." This was also, I believe, the first time I wrote something set in the Pacific Northwest; maybe it was a dry run for my novel Reel. Maybe not.

"Twenty Minutes' Road": No Age, "Every Artist Needs a Tragedy"
This story let me channel a whole lot of images and scenes that had been rattling around inside my head for a long time–and it let me poke at the idea of what happens when your inspiration for something major in life turns out to be thoroughly flawed. (I have a drawer novel that also deals with this at length.) The title of this No Age song struck me as a good counterpoint to that.

"Spencer Hangs Over Newark": Boo Radleys, "I Hang Suspended"
To a large extent, the music of Brian Eno served as a stylistic inspiration for this story: Music for Airports for the first half, and his work with Talking Heads for the second. But I think my inspiration for the title goes even further back–to the mid-90s, when I was listening to a whole lot of shoegaze on WHTG and buying nearly everything English with ecstatic guitars at the local record stores. The Boo Radleys didn't quite fit into the same template that a lot of other groups of the era did, but their album Giant Steps has improved for me with age—a wonderfully strange exploration of sounds that sounds like something out of time. Which, in its own way, seems very appropriate for the themes of this story.

"Stanton Stands, Sees, Stares": The Gun Club, "My Dreams"
It's a Los Angeles story, so throwing a great song by the Gun Club in here seemed entirely appropriate. And it also lets me confirm my theory that this song and "Goin' Against Your Mind" are secretly the same song.

"The Independence Shipping Company": Múm, "The Land Between Solar Systems"
Sometime between 2000 and 2002, I went to the Brooklyn Lyceum to see the Icelandic band Múm perform a live soundtrack to Battleship Potemkin. And, like a baby duck seeing the first adult animal near it and believing it to be its mother, I found myself associating the band's music with scenes set on the water from that point onwards.

"Some Things I Botched": Collections of Colonies of Bees, "Flocks III"
This seemed like a good song to end things on–a surreal and bittersweet song to partner with a surreal and bittersweet story. Do I find pairing an eleven-minute song with one of the shortest stories in the collection to be odd? Maybe. But strange connections are half the fun (for me, anyway) of writing fiction.

Tobias Carroll and Transitory links:

the author's website
the author's blog

San Diego CityBeat review

The Catapult interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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