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October 23, 2017

Book Notes - Hernan Diaz "In the Distance"

In the Distance

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.

Hernan Diaz's engaging and thought-provoking literary Western has earned him comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"As Diaz, who delights in playful language, lists, and stream-of-consciousness prose, reconstructs [Hawk's] adventures, he evokes the multicultural nature of westward expansion, in which immigrants did the bulk of the hard labor and suffered the gravest ambitious and thoroughly realized work of revisionist historical fiction."

In his own words, here is Hernan Diaz's Book Notes music playlist for his novel In the Distance:

In the Distance is the story of Håkan, a young Swedish boy traveling on foot from San Francisco to New York in the second half of the nineteenth century. He walks east in a sort of reverse Manifest Destiny, against the wave of pioneers, trappers, religious exiles, and prospectors without having a clear idea of the size and nature of this country. After being forced to commit an act of violence, he spends most of his life alone in what, at the time, was known as the unorganized territories.

Almost the entire novel was written in cafés and libraries, and since I can't stand noise (or baristas with a playlist) I would always wear noise-cancelling headphones. Often, this whole list would be playing on repeat. If there is an emphasis on American composers, from Charles Ives to James Murphy, it is for the obvious reason that I was trying to inhabit and feel an American space. Most of these pieces have to do with openness, repetition, and variation, which are crucial elements in my book. Some of this music was more influential than any of the books I read during the writing process.

Here are some notes on a few of the pieces in the list:

John Cage: "Wheeler's Point"

Early on, I knew that I wanted several sections of the novel to feel like this piece. It sounds like a broken popular song from a half-forgotten culture. The music, with its hesitant pauses, seems to be trying to remember something about itself. John Cage is the genius of silence, and I learned a lot from the blanks in this particular piece.

John Adams: Shaker Loops, "Hymning Slews"
Repetition is quite important in my book, and here John Adams manages the impossible: reiteration without a real motive, without a clear theme—only that half step glissando. The rich instrumental color he draws from the strings is remarkable: those whistling violins are heartbreaking. With very limited materials, this piece manages to show us how boundless solitude can be.

Brian Eno: Discreet Music: "Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel: 1. Fullness of Wind"

I found many aspects of this piece immensely inspiring. As a musical form, the canon is, of course, about finding harmonic depth and change through the repetition and superimposition of a melodic line. This change through repetition—and this sort of vertical horizontality—was something I very consciously strove for. But because it is a variation on a seventeenth-century piece, this almost feels like a canon through history—Eno picks up the theme 300 years later, adding another layer to the canon. In a similar way, building something new on a tradition by manipulating its legacy is a crucial part of In the Distance.

What initially drew me to this piece is the intense feeling of longing it conveys—dangerously close to that kind of near-kitsch, morbid sadness that sometimes makes us proud of how intense our emotions can be. I also love that vertigo-inducing pedal note, zooming back and forth from left to right. It makes you experience this music with your whole body. I sometimes imagined that Håkan's perception of the void would feel a bit like that.

Anton Webern: 5 Pieces for Orchestra: 4. Langsame Viertel

Webern is the master of subatomic music. Most of his pieces are under three minutes long, and yet they contain a universe, by which I mean not only that they are incredibly vast and spacious, but also that they are ruled by the strictest laws imaginable.

I was extremely interested in writing about the relationship between confinement and vastness in this book. And I also set pretty strict constraints for myself—nothing compared to Webern, of course, but his discipline and humanity were something I aspired to at all times.

Bela Bartók: Sonata for Violin Solo Sz. 117 in G minor: 3. Melodia

Bartók is at an intersection between Romanticism and Modernism that I find fascinating. He traveled the Hungarian countryside collecting and recording folk songs. But he wasn't just an ethnomusicologist: eventually, all this material was rearticulated in a language all of his own—an imaginary folklore.

This movement of his Sonata for Violin Solo is a lovely, poignant monologue. In this version by the amazing Isabelle Faust, the wood of the instrument is so audible that you are reminded of nature and the elements at all times—which only stresses the loneliness of this lost voice.

Christopher Tye: In Nomine à 5: "Free from All"

Born around 1505, Cristopher Tye seems to have been somewhat successful in life, despite being largely forgotten today. More than his choral music he is mostly known for, I am drawn to his polyphonic pieces for strings—consorts of viols, early forms of chamber ensembles. In a strange, personal, and surely mistaken way, I see a line going from Tye to Feldman. Their music doesn't seem to go in any direction; it doesn't seem to have an exit or a resolution. This speaks to what I was trying to do in my book. Also, in both cases, there is a mild feeling of suffocation, as if air were slowly liquefying into a new, viscous element.

Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring: 1. Very Slowly

Aaron Copland is, of course, unavoidable in a list like this. Copland gave us the soundtrack for the American vastness and the frontier experience—from his Billy the Kid to the obvious influence he had over so many scores for Western films. Håkan seldom experiences the sort of generous peace one senses in the first movement of Appalachian Spring, but I imagine his few moments of joy had this texture.

Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quintet

Without question, this was the single most important piece of music for the book. Morton Feldman is the composer of the present, of duration— his music remains in a drawn-out "now" that challenges the very idea of development, crucial in music history. Oddly enough, Feldman's slowness resembles light. As we perceive it, light doesn't really travel. It is here or it is not. We never see its journey. Feldman's music achieves the same effect but in reverse. His music can be so slow that it renders movement imperceptible—we don't hear the harmony changing or the patterns transforming. Suddenly, we just notice a change of state. We have been displaced. This does not mean "now we are here; then we are there" (that, in fact, would be the very definition of development). It means, rather, "now we are here; now we are here"—different nows, with no then in between. I tried to convey this kind of temporal disorientation in my prose.

Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question

This could very well be an aural synopsis of the book. The strings play a limitless, desertic chorale over which the trumpet, like a lost wanderer, keeps asking the same question that the woodwinds only paraphrase, disfigure, and ultimately mock. Over and over again. And through it all, in the background, the vast inorganic expanse of the chorale remains unperturbed.

Like two of my favorite writers, Franz Kafka and Wallace Stevens, Charles Ives worked in insurance. I find this both meaningless and remarkable.

LCD Soundsystem: LCD Soundsystem: "The Great Release"

I always hoped the book would feel like this after the final sentence, once the reader put it down. I won't try to paraphrase or gloss this song, but its epic intimacy is overwhelming. You feel space and someone—loving, lonely, longing—breathing in it. It is simultaneously an ending and a beginning, an arrival and a departure.

Hernan Diaz and In the Distance links:

Foreword review
Kirkus review
Paste review
Publishers Weekly review

Fiction Advocate essay by the author
Paris Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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