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August 23, 2017

Book Notes - Alistair McCartney "The Disintegrations"

The Disintegrations

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.

Alistair McCartney's The Disintegrations is an inventive and compelling novel.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A novel that reads like a journal—with all entries meditations on the theme of death. Outré and disturbingly engaging."

In his own words, here is Alistair McCartney's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Disintegrations:

The Disintegrations is a novel about a guy who can’t stop thinking about death and is trying to get to the bottom of it. I spent around 9 years writing the book, slowly whittling down a monstrous draft to something more realized. The process was pretty excruciating, partly because of the subject, partly because of the 2nd book blues many authors are confronted with, but also because of the formal challenges. Music, which is as important an influence to me as literature--perhaps more important-- was a constant guiding light, as I figured out these challenges, pieced together my stories and essays and aphorisms and prose poems and even scraps of song lyrics I’d written into an organic whole. This will sound pretentious, but I often felt more like a composer constructing a weird symphony than an author. Here are some songs that guided me through this difficult process, providing me equal doses of inspiration and relief.

Atlas Sound - “Coffin Trick”

This song was a major influence. In an earlier, much longer draft I had a lot of epigraphs, kind of like the “Extracts” section in Moby Dick, including these lines from “Coffin Trick”:

Sing to the coffin, that awaits you
Sing to the coffin, in your mind

Ultimately, as I compressed the book, I decided to use only one epigraph, but Bradford Cox’s genius continued to inform my writing, in particular the chapter “My Coffin.” I like how the song is playful and dark and folksy and pretty and then gets distorted. I hope this is what The Disintegrations does throughout.

Smog - “Hangman Blues”

It was hard to choose one song from Smog’s The Doctor Came at Dawn, because that album, and so much of Bill Callahan’s body of work fed this book. I listened to The Doctor repeatedly, striving for the atmosphere Callahan creates in songs like “Spread Your Bloody Wings” and “You Moved In.” But I’m going to single out “Hangman Blues.” I love the sense of space in this song, the gaps, the mordant restraint. My book is filled with pauses and empty space. Music can do things literature can’t, but I’d be content if The Disintegrations had even a fragment of the beauty of this song.

The Velvet Underground -“The Black Angel’s Death Song”

One of my older sisters had The Velvet Underground and Nico LP, and turned me onto it when I was a kid, like in 4th or 5th grade. It’s still probably my favorite album ever, the range of emotion and intensity, its gentleness, its violence. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” is irresistible, a warped folk song, as if Bob Dylan had gone electric in the bowels of the underworld. The song’s atonal quality, its use of repetition and feedback informed the shape of many of the longer stories, like “The Dancing Corpse of Jill Yip”, but it’s a short song, and so I like to think that some of the more compact chapters, say, “Death Dream # 1” are my own version.

Nico -“Eulogy to Lenny Bruce”

Nico’s Chelsea Girls is another of my favorite albums. The influence of this mournful song, written by Tim Hardin, can be seen directly in a story like “Robert”. My narrator has a similar sense of dumbstruck disbelief about Robert’s death by overdose and death in general. But this song influenced every one of the 13 longer chapters, which I think of not so much as essays or short stories about the dead, but fictional eulogies. Nico’s song is delicate, hesitant, repetitive, and monotone, all important facets to the book’s narrative structure.

Iceage -“Jackie”

Iceage are one of my favorite bands, and I was listening obsessively to Plowing into the Field of Love and lead singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt’s other band Var while I was writing this book. But their majestic cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Jackie” is the song that I kept going back to. It’s a song about a wife waiting for her husband to return, although he’s died at sea:

And I've been waiting all this time

For my man to come

Take his hand in mine

And lead me away

To unseen shores

Elias’s singing the lyrics, infusing them with a homoerotic quality, makes this rendition impossibly good. It’s one of the rare times that the cover is better than the original. My narrator is similarly besotted with (or erotically fixated on) the dead, the idea that they will return.

Television -“Marquee Moon”

Of all the songs listed here, perhaps this one had the largest influence on The Disintegrations. I listened to it over and over, especially when I was struggling with the tone, the difficulty of hitting the right notes when writing about a subject as overdetermined as death. It’s a long song, 10 minutes and 40 seconds, it has an incredible arc, a series of highs and lows, and I strived to recreate that tonality in individual stories like “Erin’s Trip”, but also in the overall narrative.
For a while I had a verse from the song as an epigraph:

Well a Cadillac
It pulled out of the graveyard
Pulled up to me
All they said ‘get in’, get in
Then the Cadillac
It puttered back into the graveyard,
Me, I got out again.

I cut it, but that verse has its fingerprints all over the book, in terms of plot and theme and the motif of the automobile. I don’t think the last chapter “The Hearses” could have existed without this song.

Bauhaus -“Bela Lugosi’s Dead”

The narrator of this book spends too much time at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, seeing if he can learn anything about death. Holy Cross is home to many old time Hollywood stars, including Bela Lugosi, whose grave makes an appearance in the chapter “A Tour”. In an earlier draft, I had a whole chapter about Lugosi’s grave and Bauhaus’s ode to him. I ended up cutting most of it, but writing it reintroduced me to the Bauhaus song. I loved post-punk as a teenager, but I was a bit skeptical of straight- up Goth music. Listening to the song again though, which I always thought was cheesy, I was struck by how amazing it is, spare and restrained, elegant Goth minimalism--that’s what I wanted my sentences to sound like. My narrator dresses like a “white collar worker with a buried Goth past.” This book’s Gothness cannot be denied, especially by its author.

The Germs -“Land of Treason”

Darby Crash, the lead singer of The Germs is another person buried at Holy Cross. Like Bela, he initially got a much longer chapter, one in which I wrote way too much about my crush on him, but Crash still makes an appearance in the final version, and his fucked-up beauty haunts the book, manifested in the physical presence of other characters. Although I was interested in turning the volume down throughout the narrative, the Germs song “Land of Treason” was a key source of inspiration. The awesome couplet “And with the scent of death/We find that we are not so very awed” is a major philosophical theme of the book. I like to think “A Hole in the World” could be one of Darby’s songs.

Leonard Cohen -“Famous Blue Raincoat”

How could you write a book about death, how could you strive to capture the right tone to do this, and not turn to the work of Leonard Cohen? Even though this song isn’t directly about death, it’s so funereal. I listened to “Famous Blue Raincoat” so much, as I thought about the shape of my fictional eulogies, for instance in the drifting, splintering curve of “Mike Hazelwood and The Floor of the Dead.” Looking back, I think Cohen’s handling of really personal material also helped me write the passages that were more explicitly autobiographical, get the tone I wanted without feeling embarrassed by the confessional.

The Go-Betweens - “When People are Dead”

Robert Forster claimed that the lyrics to this incredible song were written by an Irish poet, Marian Stout, but there seems to be some dispute as to whether or not this poet existed or was a fictional persona of Forster’s. Regardless, the lyrics are sublime. Listening to it again, I was amazed by the song’s droll, deadpan depiction of death in a Catholic family, of children relating to death and the rituals of mourning. It’s only in retrospect I see how a chapter like “My Grandma’s Resurrection” draws on the song’s point of view.

The Beach Boys - “Til I die”

Joyelle McSweeney described The Disintegrations as “A book of the dead --and a book of California.” Much of the narrative takes place in Venice and Santa Monica. The Beach Boys were of course the archetypal California sun and surf band, until they started putting out songs like this one that evoke the sunny specter of California darkness. My narrator is haunted by death and a sense of impermanence, but unlike Brian Wilson, who in this gorgeous, melancholy song comes off like a Romantic poet, Keats transported to the late 1960’s, my narrator can’t articulate his feelings. Still, his yearning oozes out occasionally. I hope the interplay of each chapter has this song’s melodic, psychedelic drone.

Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Muller - “Der Wegweiser”

Speaking of Romanticism, Schubert’s song-cycle of poems by Wilhelm Muller, the death-haunted Winterreise was indispensable. It’s the ultimate work of beautiful bleakness. Although the narrator of The Disintegrations is wandering around a sunny cemetery in Southern California, not a wintry German forest, he’s similarly fatalistic, cut off from other humans. In “Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost) the protagonist knows he’s being foolish, he should follow the roads regular humans take, but he simultaneously knows he has to follow the sign that points to the road “no wander can retrace.” My fictional avatar is also caught in that tension.

Patti Smith - “Death Singing”

Patti Smith wrote this song about Benjamin Smoke, the legendary Queer musician from Atlanta who died before he turned 40. I love the tune’s propulsive, raw emotiveness. Although in terms of voice I did everything I could to avoid such emotion, I think “Death Singing” seeped its way into the book, especially in the form and tone of “The Ballad of Sandra Golvin.” One could argue that this story is actually a song; like Patti’s song it’s a dirge, a lamentation.

Deafheaven -“Gifts for the Earth”

When the pressure of writing would get too much, I’d listen to Deafheaven. “Gifts for the Earth” is bleak and romantic; read the lyrics and they could be from Winterreise! I love Blackgaze music, how its heavy and dreamy, and I think The Disintegrations shares many of the same preoccupations. I also think sections of my novel are sonically aligned with the genre, especially “Eun Kang and the Ocean” and the swirling structure of “An Encounter.” If you wanted to categorize the genre of The Disintegrations you could call it a Blackgaze book.

PJ Harvey - “Dear Darkness”

This song, where PJ sings about her complex, reciprocal relationship with darkness is so lovely, like an old English folk song. The protagonist of The Disintegrations bears my name, but like the persona rock musicians construct in their songs, he’s both me and not-me. I worked hard on the tone of this book, wanting it to be as delicate as “Dear Darkness.” When I was feeling like I’d never finish or I couldn’t bear to go on writing, I’d play this song and feel justified in my necessary pursuit.

Felt - “All The People I Like Are Those That Are Dead”

My narrator’s predicament is expressed succinctly in the title of this perfect song. What’s great about the tune is how upbeat and poppy it is, in contrast to the misanthropic, nihilistic lyrics. The singer Lawrence’s conversational tone and black comedic edge can be heard in a chapter like “How to Dispose of Me.” In a parallel universe Felt would have been a huge pop band, as big as the Beatles.

Salem -“Killer”

I guess all of the tracks I’ve listed are guitar based, which is weird because I listened to a lot of electronic music while figuring out The Disintegrations. I should include one here. Salem was another band that was there from the beginning. The narcotic, gauzy pulse of Witch-House—what a genius name for a genre—was really inspiring aesthetically and I think reading this book with King Night playing would be a good immersive experience. The fuzzy, repetitive drone of “Killer” sounds more like Shoe-Gaze music to me, or Dark Wave; it informed the fuzzy drone of stories like “Erin’s Trip” and “The Dancing Corpse of Jill Yip.”

Joy Division - “Disorder”

Just like “Jackie”, this song opens with Ian Curtis singing about waiting for a guide to take him by the hand. My narrator is also waiting for someone to guide him, to help him discover the secret of death. He wants to feel something, anything, and he thinks death will help him feel, but this proves to be elusive. At the end of the song, Curtis announces “I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.” Lines that could come from the mouth of my narrator. “Disorder” was on my playlist when the book was just a bunch of notes, an idea. My hope would be that like this song, spare and angular, The Disintegrations is bleak but within that bleakness, the reader is surprised to find themselves uplifted, even for a moment.

Alistair McCartney and The Disintegrations links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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