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August 9, 2017

Book Notes - Jardine Libaire "White Fur"

White Fur

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.

Jardine Libaire's novel White Fur is a compelling literary thriller convincingly set in the New York City of the mid-1980s.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Writing with all the senses, Libaire demonstrates an ability to evoke vivid moods and places, drawing a stark and realistic depiction of ’80s Manhattan. She also succeeds at giving equal weight and attention to both her protagonists, elegantly toggling between their perspectives. The most lively, memorable, and convincing character in the novel is the setting itself.Writing with all the senses, Libaire demonstrates an ability to evoke vivid moods and places, drawing a stark and realistic depiction of '80s Manhattan. She also succeeds at giving equal weight and attention to both her protagonists, elegantly toggling between their perspectives. The most lively, memorable, and convincing character in the novel is the setting itself."

In her own words, here is Jardine Libaire's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel White Fur:

White Fur is tucked right into the time period of 1986 and 1987—the ultimate pawn shop for music, full of illicit, used, glittering, irresistible stuff.

The story unfolds in New Haven, CT and then mostly in New York City, bouncing from SoHo to the Upper East Side to Alphabet City. The stars are Elise—who grew up in Bridgeport public housing without a dad, didn't finish high school, and who has the drive and power of a seeker, and Jamey—the "child king" of a New York banking family, a virgin in a sense, with ideas of revolt "fermenting" in him. They meet as neighbors—she's practically squatting in one building and he's a Yale junior living next door.

White Fur is a subversion of Romeo and Juliet, a dark and hopeful tale about two lovers transcending their assigned roles in society, and battling family expectations; it's a story about who we're allowed to love, and what it looks like to break those rules. But it's not a roses-and-rainbows romance, as has been noted in many a review (sometimes bitterly, if the reader was looking for roses and rainbows), but rather a raw, psychedelic, ecstatic, quasi-pornographic fable—not unlike Siddhartha redone by Bret Easton Ellis, or a punk version of Pretty Woman where he ends up going home with her, not the other way around.

All of which invites a schizophrenic soundtrack! White Fur just landed in development as an Amazon Studios TV series, too, so I've been thinking about its musical DNA a lot lately, and rifling through what I was listening to and revering and ruminating on when I was writing the book. I adore the playlists on this site, and love the various ways other writers have organized songs. I tried to figure out a method to structure mine but I'm afraid it works best like a junk store, treasures jammed in with trash, no distinction between high and low, pretty stuff on the shelf next to ugly stuff—perhaps like the book itself.

"Girls and Boys" by Prince
Prince is Elise's guardian angel. We learn on page 2 of the book what's above her bed: "Taped to her wall, where someone else might hang a crucifix, is a page torn from Rolling Stone: Prince in a misty lavender paradise." "Girls and Boys" is quintessential Prince, goofy and raunchy and groovy and wickedly perfect—with the gold sparkly chimes as punctuation and the French proposal for exotica. But the main reason the song is important to the book is this line: "Meet me in another world."

"I Against I" by Bad Brains
Jamey is a mess. He just is. In his psychology class, the students try the exercise of not thinking about a white bear for five minutes, and he of course is haunted by the white bear, unable to avoid thinking about the yellow-toothed killer for a second, and even bringing him home in his mind where the bear will stay for weeks. Jamey is living an "I Against I" life, he's a portrait of "I Against I".

"Fascinated" by Company B
It's masochistic to listen to this one, like sticking a golden pin into your eye over and over. Those high synths, good god—like holy acupuncture. And it goes on and on. Never ending. Like the line to the ladies room at a nightclub circa 1986, everyone emerging with white rings around their nostrils. The book is about obsession, and this relentless, measured, ghostly voice wanting to play with you tonight definitely doesn't sound like she's gonna give up anytime soon.

"We've Got a Bigger Problem Now" by Dead Kennedys
The book is largely about class in America, and it seemed like a good way to look at that topic was by writing about Reagan-era Manhattan and its diamonds at Tiffany's and burning buildings in Bed-Stuy and martinis at Odeon and welfare cuts and families living in their cars. This song is a cathartic and angry diatribe against the hypocritical denial of disparity during these years. The deranged bartender drawls along to lounge-guitar music, calmly saying: "last call for freedom of speech", and it's halfway into the song that all hell breaks loose.

"I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz
This song equals a white mesh shirt. It's like a TV jingle for sex itself. It stands for the parts of the book that are terribly beautiful, dirty, sticky.

"Sex and Dying in High Society" by X
Oh, escalating and jubilant disaster!...this could be the subtitle to White Fur. I love hearing equal power between John Doe and Exene when they play, and hopefully that balance is true of the lovers in White Fur. But I always imagine this as Jamey's theme song, and it plays while he walks out of his family's life, coming down some staircase. Not even sure what staircase, but it's a coming-down-a-staircase-for-the-last-time song.

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by Elton John (1974 cover)
This cut is so dopey and clang-y, so shirt-on-backwards! I don't want to give everything away, but there might be an acid trip that might take place in Trump Tower, and this song—with its kaleidoscope eyes and cellophane flowers—is a good track for that scene.

"Starfish and Coffee" by Prince
If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you'll understand. I was thirteen, obsessing over "Starfish and Coffee", in the year this book takes place, and Prince's lifelong effect on me makes him the patron saint of the entire book, not just of Elise. A song like this one, innocent and fantastical, was a continuation of my favorite storybooks and poems, and the fact that it was wedged into an album that hit a bunch of other notes—from dark to sexual to mystical—pushed forward this notion that maybe just maybe I'm allowed to do whatever I want as a writer. From the book: "Elise was raised on the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Isley Brothers—[her mom] Denise played records, night and day. Prince is the son of Motown, born early and underweight, an over-incubated child raised in a bedroom with a white grand piano. / Anemic genius. / He summons Haitian spirits, Pentecostal virgins, drowned witches. If James Brown and Baudelaire had a hermaphroditic bastard, babysat by Mister Rogers, who grew up to wear lilac matador pants—it would be Prince."

"Spooky" by Lydia Lunch
The original by Classic IV is about a spooky little girl, of course, and the gender switch in this version matches the shifting power dynamic between Elise and Jamey—and between men and women in the 80s. I also think this song is a celebration of relishing the freak, the shy one, the weirdo. In the Broadway musical version of White Fur, Elise would sing this to Jamey, starting with this one's for you, and channeling all of Lydia's exquisite downtown energy.

"Modern Dance" by Pere Ubu
There's a subliminal Peter-Pan spirit to this song; I feel like I'm being called into a new world—coaxed—following even as the floor tilts under my feet. Jamey and Elise are headed to an unknown place, and this song represents that stage of their journey. It's the sound of punk being turned into something finer, with a razor's edge that cuts open a beautiful measure of disobedience.

"Love is the Drug" by Grace Jones
This song represents the vein of desperation that runs through the whole story. Diabolical plinks start fifteen seconds into the track and then run rampant. Her voice is mellifluous, and so definite, leaving no room for doubt. To say she has authority is to downplay things, but she also sounds far away, like the drug of love can be.

"All This and More" by the Dead Boys
I'm just a dead boy… I can't resist including this song because it belongs to the book in an almost ridiculous way. The grind-and-clap setup is so perfect for the proposition: I'll die for you if you want me to. It's the ultimate pickup line.

"The Good Life" by Frank Sinatra
This is the country-club war chant of Bats and Binkie, Jamey's grandparents, who use power like other people use food and liquor and sex. They were born to rule. Binkie is an Astor, a debutante, a gravelly-voiced Palm Beach hostess who remembers you like your Manhattan stirred. Even now, in his mid-60s, hands covered with sunspots, Bats is the object of longing looks from Sacred Heart girls on the subway. As a couple, they represent the establishment, in all its charm, glamour, and corruption. Who better than Frank to speak for them, to claim, in mellow bitterness: You won't really fall in love / Because you can't take the chance?

Love theme from "Romeo and Juliet" by Henry Mancini
This is the pastel-silk version of Romeo and Juliet's affair, the marzipan version, the chandelier hanging in the story, the sad lullaby, the elegant and polite version. That original structure is in White Fur, like antique gold chairs set up in neat rows in a ballroom, and it does come to use.

"Romeo" by The Wipers
But this song is more the heart of the book. It's a stealthy narrative, hormonal to be sure, and truer to what really happens between two kids in crazy love. Roam, Romeo…Romeo, roam! This song is an incitement to and endorsement of infatuation, and it's conducted so methodically, it always makes me smile. With its puppy yelps of lust and all.

"Boom I Got your Boyfriend" by MC Luscious
The early hip-hop women—like MC Luscious and MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté—were deadpan, brave, rude, and funny as hell when they wanted to be—like Elise, whose sexuality doesn't rely on pleasing men as much as on being real. These ladies didn't get naked onstage, but looked badass in tight tomboy jeans and sneakers and bucket hats. I imagine Elise addressing this song to all the madras-skirt gin-and-tonic Camel-Lights girls at Dorrian's uptown.

"Dirty Mind" by Prince
I'll end with Prince, since two-thirds into White Fur, Jamey buys Elise tickets to his Madison Square Garden show. An excerpt from that scene: "Madison Square Garden is ready too. The city (and Jersey and Long Island) launches an army of pilgrims to meet their lord, him with the rolled curls and beauty mark and white dance shoes. / Everyone surges to the stage, pushing. Dark hearts, kids ready to sing their brains out. / Girls with shirts smaller than bras, pouts, and violent stars in their eyes; guys with combs in pocket and little street spats and minty gum. All eyes are tilted up, waiting for the moon to rise into the black sky. / Like a unicorn on a rampage, he emerges. He slumps into every cherry-red note and electric piano chord and lightning streak of guitar. / 'I'm in heaven!' she yells at Jamey. / She dances like a demon took hold. / She signs with her fingers: You…I would die for you…" Music here opens things up between them, at the concert, in a way that will seriously impact the story. But when they leave, pushing through Penn Station with the crowd, getting onto the train, everyone closes back up, because we can't stay as open as music makes us. "She's blind and happy as they make their way with other dazed boys and girls out the doors, and they're part of the mob of vulnerable freaks. On the subway, kids—whose silk shirts are drying—light one more joint. That was a dope show. Slowly, their snakeskins grow back, and everyone is strangers again."

Jardine Libaire and White Fur links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia page

Kirkus review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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