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August 3, 2017

Book Notes - Augustus Rose "The Readymade Thief"

The Readymade Thief

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.

Augustus Rose's debut novel The Readymade Thief is an ambitious and cleverly plotted literary thriller.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Complex on many intellectual levels, drawing heavily on theories of art history and physics, and the mystery is deep and satisfying in both its unpredictability and its culmination. The sheer scope is impressive, as are Rose's evocative descriptions of underground and abandoned places, reminiscent of David Lynch's films."

In his own words, here is Augustus Rose's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Readymade Thief:

The Readymade Thief follows 18-year-old Lee Cuddy, alone on the streets of Philadelphia after having escaped a juvenile detention facility and trying to unravel a mystery she finds herself enmeshed in. She's felt invisible her whole life, but slowly realizes that she's being tracked by a mysterious group of men and is very much at the center of their spotlight. At the center of the mystery is the work of early 20th Century Artist Marcel Duchamp, and the key to solving is tied in with decoding Duchamp's very cryptic, possibly encoded oeuvre.

Lee gets assistance from Tomi, a young urban explorer who helps her go underground and who teaches her to navigate the abandoned buildings and off-limits areas of Philly, how to break into and squat the homes of vacationing families. Tomi is in love with Lee, but Lee is done trusting people for a while and keeps her walls up.

This playlist is what I think of as an accompanying soundtrack. Some of it is what I listened to while writing the book, some of it is songs I connect to the story in various ways. Much of the novel takes place in empty, gutted buildings and Lee feels lost and desperate through a lot of the book, yearning for something else. I wanted a soundtrack that reflected this.

"Transgender" and "Air War" — Crystal Castles

I discovered Crystal Castles after giving my students a writing assignment: "Describe a live music show that you've been to. You have one goal: make me wish that I'd been there." The student who described a Crystal Castles show was the only one who succeeded in that respect. I watched some of their videos and immediately bought all of their albums. Alice Glass is, to me, the truest expression of punk rock I've seen since the early 1980s. And they're a techno band! Lee's quiet and shy, self-conscious and insular, but she's a badass inside and strong as fuck. Alice Glass is Lee's spirit animal. If there was an anthem to the book, it would be "Transgender"—it's hallucinatory, hopeful, full of rage and loss and frustration, all at the same time. "Air War" is, simply put, the closest I think a song has ever gotten to approximating the feeling of being on hallucinogens.

"Heroes" — David Bowie

There's a scene in the 1981 German film Christian F. where the protagonist, a teenage girl who's soon to be a junkie, runs through an empty mall after-hours with a group of other kids as "Heroes" plays on the soundtrack (Bowie scored the whole movie). The scene is a perfect expression of the song, and of what it's like to be young and careless and feeling free. I re-watched the movie as I was writing the book, and afterward cut out a scene with Lee and Tomi creeping the rooftop of a corporate skyscraper together after-hours. It had already been done perfectly in this film, so why would I fuck with that?

"Shayla" — Blondie

Lee, alone and invisible, yearns for something else, she doesn't know what. Maybe just to get away. This song is so beautiful, so ethereal and full of that same yearning, of being on the edge of disappearing.

"Throw it Away" — African Head Charge

African Head Charge was a favorite band from college. I started listening to them again as I was writing the book, because I needed music without recognizable lyrics. There's a character in the novel known as The Undertaker. He's one of the founders of Société Anonyme, the group stalking Lee. One of the things the S.A. does is to throw re-enactments of early 20th Century art events, and The Undertaker takes his role very seriously: his room is full of vintage paraphernalia, its walls adorned with African tribal objects, fetishized in the same way as did his heroes, the Surrealists. Any vestiges of technology have been wiped clean. And yet his room is in a defunct Atlas IV missile silo, where he manufactures designer hallucinogens and throws underground raves for teenagers. African Head Charge shows a similar push-pull between new technologies and pre-tech aesthetics, with a haze of psychedelia thrown in for good measure. Plus, I can't help but bob my head when I listen to them.

"Tanz mit Laibach" — Laibach

I think of Société Anonyme as being kind of like Neue Slowenishe Kunst (the art collective behind the Slovenian Industrial band Laibach), but without the sense of humor. Both are obsessed with uniforms and imagery of a certain era, both appreciate a good bit of theater, but one sees the joke behind it, the other does not. I know they're winking, but when Laibach commands me to dance with them, I fucking dance.

"Organ Donor" — DJ Shadow

I listened to a lot of electronic music when I wrote the novel. In part because it was what many of my characters were listening to, and in part because it's writing-friendly for me in that it's generally repetitive and there are no lyrics to distract. Anyway, "Organ Donor" has long been one of my favorite electronic songs, and I just discovered the video, which is pretty cool and very Société Anonyme.

"Waltz #2 (X/O)" — Elliott Smith

Lee's father abandons her and her mother when Lee is young. He's a heel, a liar, and lives in bad faith, but like Lee he's a lost soul. He's mostly just a ghost in the book, but when Lee was young he was in a band and everyone thought he "could have been another Elliott Smith, if only his life had gone a little differently." In one of those standard injustices of life, Lee aches for him after he's gone, forgiving him while resenting her hollowed-out mother.

"Fuck Motel" — Fuck

Late in the book Tomi and Lee hide out in a shitty little motel. The novel takes place in Philadelphia, but there's a motel in my neighborhood that I modeled the one in the book after, with a wonderful old neon sign that probably casts a sordid red glow over all the rooms, and I always think of this song whenever I pass it. "Fuck Motel" is just great, hard-driving rock & roll by an under-recognized 90s band from Oakland, California.

"Hospital" — The Modern Lovers

There's a point late in the book where Lee is shut up in an abandoned hospital, wandering the halls night after night, driven crazy by, but also badly needing, a voice in her head that keeps haunting her. I imagine that voice is a little like Jonathan Richman's in "Hospital." This song always breaks my heart.

"Girl U Want" — Devo

Marcel Duchamp is at the center of The Readymade Thief, and central to his work (and to the book) is his mixed-media sculpture The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. It's a complex work, capturing a frozen moment in time in an unrequited courtship between the Bride (at the top of the work) and a group of nine Bachelors, at the bottom. The Bride (described by Duchamp as a kind of "engine"), aroused by the overtures of the Bachelors, rains down on them a mist of her "love gasoline," which gets them all hot and bothered and clamoring for her attentions. They are beside themselves, hopped up desire for her, but the Bride remains always unreachable. Here are the lyrics to "Girl U Want":

She sings from somewhere you can't see

She sits in the top of the greenest tree

She sends out an aroma of undefined love

It drips on down in a mist from above

She's just the girl, she's just the girl

The girl you want

She's just the girl, she's just the girl

The girl you want

I doubt Devo had The Bride Stripped Bare in mind when they wrote the song, but that's what I love about Duchamp's work—there are so many dots to connect if you just look hard enough.

"Love Love Love" — Of Monsters and Men

There are probably as many songs about unrequited love as there are songs about sex. But they are almost always from the perspective of the lovelorn, not so many are from the perspective of the, um, un-requiter. I wouldn't expect this perspective to contain such yearning, such regret, such resigned hopelessness, but here it does. I ache like a teenager whenever I hear it. Plus, this video, fuck. This is Lee and Tomi's song.

"Flugufrelsarinn" — Sigur Rós

After Lee first meets Tomi, he takes her to his apartment and puts Sigur Rós on and they drink beers and get high. I listened to their albums on repeat as I wrote the book (Sigur Rós contains lyrics, but they are a combination of Icelandic and some made-up language imagined by boggy wetland faeries, so they don't distract). If I was 24 and brought a girl back to my apartment and wanted to impress her with what a deep and thoughtful guy I was, kind of removed and sad but with a vivid inner life worth getting to know, I'd probably put Sigur Rós on, too.

"Deceptacon" — Le Tigre

Kathleen Hannah is just plain rad, and, like Alice Glass, another model for Lee's inner badass. Though I prefer bouncy, poppy Le Tigre over punk rock Bikini Kill.

"She's Lost Control" — Joy Division

I thought about this song a lot when Lee is locked up in solitary in a juvenile detention facility, tunneling deeper and deeper into herself. It's a song about total helplessness, both on the part of the singer and the subject.

"Drivin' on 9" — The Breeders

This song is so sweet and dreamy and hopeful, and all stories and playlists, no matter how dark, need a bit of sweetness and light. Throughout the novel Lee fantasizes about escape, leaving the city and going somewhere she's never been, where she isn't known, where she can start again. It's a fantasy, and at closer inspection so is the song. Beneath all the honey of Kim Deal singing about driving across open highways, she's actually just sitting there, staring out her window sill, alone and dreaming.

Augustus Rose and The Readymade Thief links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Publishers Weekly review
Seattle Times review

ABA interview with the author
Speaking of Mysteries interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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