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October 17, 2017

Book Notes - C. Morgan Babst "The Floating World"

The Floating World

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.

C. Morgan Babst's powerful novel The Floating World is a nuanced and lyrical debut with New Orleans at its heart.

Ploughshares wrote of the book:

"A soulful inquiry of race, class, and family in the dawn of trauma, The Floating World doesn’t just look into the eye of such a devastating storm. The storm itself becomes the lens through which the Boisdorés begin to see the world more clearly. Through it, we see what loyalty truly looks like—the impossible choice to stay or leave, the terrorizing heartbreak of return—and the cost of what we hold onto, what we must release in order to survive."

In her own words, here is C. Morgan Babst's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Floating World:

I wrote The Floating World during a decade-long fit of intense homesickness following Hurricane Katrina. (After evacuating New Orleans with my family, I found my way to a sofa in Manhattan. Three months later, I met my future husband and found that I was stuck.) In some ways, writing the novel was a way of teleporting myself home—with the Boisdorés, I got to return to the city, haul away its fallen trees, bury its bodies, dance 'til dawn on the tile floors of Frenchman Street. While I wrote, I listened to New Orleans—the funk, blues, jazz, hip-hop, and Indian chants that are the many cadences of the city, suffusing the novel with the sound of mournful horns and tambourines. I think it's probably a good thing that bounce had not yet come into vogue in 2005; if it was as big then as it is now, I have no idea what would have become of my prose.

"When the Saints Go Marching In," performed by Dr. John, feat. Mavis Staples and The Davell Crawford Singers
I open The Floating World with an epigraph taken from this spiritual, which has become a metonym for New Orleans—or at least its football team—since Louis Armstrong popularized it in the 1930s. It's so ubiquitous as to be cliché, one of those songs that's played by baby mobiles and car commercials alike. I've been tuning it out for thirty years. It wasn't until I heard this recording—put out by Dr. John in 2004—that I really listened. Played in a minor key and with a funereal, heavily syncopated rhythm, the standard is stranged, renewed. For the first time, I paid attention to the lyrics: When the wicked cease to roam / I wanna step up with all the saints and angels / 'cause this old earth ain't no place I'm proud to call home. This is a song about apocalypse. About salvation. A metonym for New Orleans, after the flood.

"Only God Can Judge Me," by Master P
In the '90s, my brother and I were fond of driving around New Orleans blasting MP Da Last Don though the open windows of our mom's Suburban. I'm sure we got laughed at from the street corners—two red-headed white kids trying to rap along with a 4x Platinum superstar out of Calliope—but we loved it. So, when Del Boisdoré needed something nostalgic and righteous to listen to as her plane from New York began its initial descent into flood-ravaged New Orleans, I gave her Master P. Del's been trying to escape New Orleans for years—its troubles, the barriers it throws up for her—but, in the aftermath of disaster, she finds it impossible to do anything but come home. I imagined she'd find some resonance in Master P's own story of homecoming, and that the lyrics of this particular song—the bull in me will never give up, he says—would strengthen her for what she's about to face. Later on in the novel, there's a burial scene in which she recites Psalm 23; I think, in her head, she was hearing Master P's voice: The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.

"It's Eleven O'Clock (Do You Know Where Your Love Is?)", by Irma Thomas
This throwback of a song belongs to Tess Boisdoré, née Eshleman—Del and Cora's mother, errant wife of Joe. Her story is one of regression, as she flees the wreckage of her family and her home, running full speed towards the loves and illusions of her past. This Irma Thomas number—self-consciously syrupy and a little bit deluded—is Tess's theme, as she pulls into the Langenstein's parking lot and swoons a little at the sight of her high school flame. You can't see the forest for the trees! Irma sings, and Tess's heart goes pitter-pat.

"When a Cajun Man Gets the Blues," by Tab Benoit
Since college, this has been my homecoming song—Tab's ambling guitar has the highway in it, the sound of longleaf pines flicking past the car windows. This song belongs to Joe Boisdoré who, though not a Cajun man, is heartsick over the collapse of his marriage, among other things. He's not so far from home—just north of the lake, a distance of a mere forty miles—but he stays there, not sure that either he or his father, Vincent, who's losing his memory, will be salved by returning, given the state New Orleans is in. As Tab sings, It's hard to drive with these tears in my eyes.

"Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans," by Kermit Ruffins, feat. Misha Ruffins
Sometimes obvious is the only way to go. When Del goes down to the Blue Nile to drink, hoping to forget something disturbing Cora has told her, she finds her friend and lover, Zack, has tracked her there, all the way from New York. This is the song Kermit plays as they dance together, falling back into rhythm for the space of the song. This scene is the only really autobiographical one in the book. Six months after the storm, my now-husband and I walked down through the Quarter to Frenchman, where Kermit Ruffins was playing at the Blue Nile. We danced for hours, and then, during the second set, Kermit's daughter Misha got on stage and began to sing. I was twirling over the tile floor, feeling myself falling in love, when the room went dark and the speakers died—a blackout leftover from the flood. Misha just kept on singing.

"You'll Never Walk Alone," by Mahalia Jackson
Please play this on your good speakers, loud, so that the room fills up with sound. Close your eyes. Let Mahalia walk with you, as I imagine her walking with Cora, through the flood-ravaged city in the middle of the night. The emptiness of the city after Katrina is terrible, awesome. Night towers in the sky like a cathedral, and under Cora's feet is lakebed, dried into dark scales of desert. All around her are the dead—those that, though she rowed for days in a pirogue under the burning sun, she couldn't save—but somehow she is still walking. The sleeves of her gown glow white under the moon.

"Shallow Water, Oh Mama," by The Golden Eagles
This book almost made it to press without any Mardi Gras Indians in it. I figured Treme got there first—they even got to this song first. They put it up on billboards: "Won't Bow/ Don't Know How." But then Joe had something he had to burn, and the sound of a passionate bonfire is the sound of a tambourine in the hand of a man dressed in bright feathers. Once I began to hear it, Joe remembered looking from the window of his childhood bedroom into the night street at an Indian returning home. Joe needed this music I realized—needed, specifically, this song, which is about defiance, memory, water—as he faced down his hurt, set fire to what had harmed him.

"Hey Pocky A-Way," by the Meters
You know you're in a bad way when this song makes you cry. It made me cry for about five years, and all the while I pretended it didn't. I danced like I was possessed whenever I heard it—around the kitchen counter, around the bar—trying to keep anyone from noticing my tears. It's "feel-good music." It made me homesick as hell. Homesick for Carnival parades—the smell of snap-pops and keg beer in a plastic cup. Homesick for summer afternoons in front of a big cast iron pot watching a roux go from blonde to mahogany. Homesick for parties like the "House-Cooling" Del goes to in Part Three, where she realizes she's been away so long she has but a single friend left in the city, but that it doesn't matter: she's going to have to stay.

"Bluesville," by U.N.L.V.
I have a feeling that Cora played this song on repeat all the way through Mississippi until she hit the Tennessee line. She's running away from everything she can't bear, she's got a bandana wrapped around her brow and a couple orders of onion rings in her lap, and the sun keeps slipping around the edges of her sunshade and burning her retinas. This is exactly the kind of song you want to drive too fast to—upbeat, with this fun kind of disco-vibe to it, but there's something a little desperate about it too. The lyrics "Ain't goin' back to Bluesville/ It's Bluesville" repeat over and over until the end: I think she doth protest too much.

"St. James Infirmary," performed by Louis Armstrong
This is another song ubiquitous in New Orleans; you'll hear it drifting out of people's windows, the tuba line bubbling out from a neighboring school yard, the melody informing improvisation by tired trombonists during the last set before the sun comes up at the Maple Leaf. It's another dirge, a song full of love for the dead, a song about trying to let go of someone still unburied. The unburied are of primary concern to The Floating World—a woman abandoned in a house with a gunshot through her skull, conflicts from the past that have never been resolved—which explain why I listened to "St. James Infirmary" more than any other song while writing the novel. I may be imagining things, but I feel like all of New Orleans began playing it more after Katrina; like the lake mud and the mold, it has always been with us, but now it blooms on our walls, now we track it into our houses on the bottoms of our shoes.

C. Morgan Babst and The Floating World links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Foreword review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review

New Orleans Advocate profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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