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October 3, 2017

Book Notes - Josh Weil "The Age of Perpetual Light"

The Age of Perpetual Light

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.

Josh Weil's once again proves himself a master storyteller in his brilliant short fiction collection The Age of Perpetual Light.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A rich, often dazzling collection of short stories linked by themes while ranging widely in style from Babel-like fables to gritty noir and sci-fi.... engrossing, persuasively detailed and written with a deep affection for the way language can, in masterful hands, convey us to marvelous new worlds."

In his own words, here is Josh Weil's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection The Age of Perpetual Light:

I've always thought a story collection was similar to an album, so putting this together felt completely natural. Maybe it's just showing my age, but I first turned into music—my brother's at first, and then my own—in the late '80s and early '90s, and back then you'd buy a cassette tape and there was no skipping around from song to song, no picking out a single song (you listened to the album and you listened to it in order, and that was how it was made to be experienced) and I still prefer to listen to entire albums that way. I prefer to read story collections that way, too. The Age of Perpetual Light certainly works best that way—honestly, almost requires being read that way. The first and last story are linked, but in ways that are most powerful if experienced as bookends. And the rest of the stories move through over a century in chronological order but, more importantly, build the themes of the book and complicate them as we move on s that they begin to take on different tones, different angles, different meanings. Much as an album, created out of some concern in the artist's life at the time, will churn through a theme, an idea, a feeling, getting at it in ways that are both distinct and create a more complete whole.

For this book—this album of stories—the animating idea was the way that humankind has tried, throughout its history, to decrease the amount of darkness in the world and increase the amount of light, both metaphorically (our pursuit of progress and knowledge) and actually. Beginning at the dawn of the past century, in the early days of electrification, and moving into an imagined future in which the world is lit day and night, each tale in The Age of Perpetual Light follows its characters through a different era in American history: from a Jewish dry goods peddler who falls in love with an Amish woman while showing her the wonders of an Edison Lamp to a 1940 farmers' uprising against the unfair practices of a power company; from a Serbian immigrant teenage boy in 1990's Vermont desperate to catch a glimpse of an experimental satellite to a back-to-the-land couple forced to grapple with their daughter's autism during winter's longest night. Through it all, I try to explore our most complex and fraught desires, focusing on the all-too-human aspiration for advancement and the struggle of wounded hearts to find a salve, no matter what the cost.

1.) "Gypsy Hora and Sirba" from Doyres (Generations): traditional Klezmer Recordings 1979-1994 by Zev Feldman and Andy Statman

"No Flies, No Folly" is set in rural Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century, but its heart is back in Russia, in the Pale of Settlement, because that's where it's protagonists' heart still lies—much as he tries to pry it away. He's a Jewish peddler—first on foot, then on horseback, then in a cart—and there's a repetitive, driving, almost plodding rhythm to this song that just seems to fit his life to me, his wandering all day, every day, for months on end, from farm to farm.

2.) "Sail on, Little Girl, Sail On" from Blues in my Bottle by Lightnin' Hopkins

This might seem an odd choice for "Long Bright Line", a story about a girl (she's a child when it starts) who becomes a woman (she's in her seventies by the time it ends) who rebels against the constraints society places on her, primarily through her determination to push at the boundaries of what's acceptable for a woman to do—especially in terms of the selfishness and focus it takes to be an artist. But the rolling quality here, the ceaseless slide of it forward and forward, the sail on repeated over and over: it all fits the feeling of the story. There's a kind of headlong plunge the story takes through the years that, I hope, feels drive by the world turning as by what the protagonist, Clara, does. But what she does also drives her away from family and love, and so the lyrics here feel right too:

Sail on, sail on little girl sail on
Well you know you gonna keep on sailing
Till you lose your happy home

3.) "Which Side Are You On?" from The House Carpenter's Daughter by Natalie Merchant

"The Essential Constituent of Modern Living Standards" isn't a union story so much as a commune story, it isn't industrial and manufacturing, but, instead, about farming. Still, it's wholly about the collective, and a community's attempt to stand up the bullying of big business (in this case a power company), and it's set in the 40s, when unions were coming into their own. Finally, it's a story about a battle, a story full of fight, and I know no better song for that than this.

4.) "Dear Mrs. Touma" from Field Day by Dag Nasty.

We shift gears here—and leap ahead in time. "Angle of Reflection" is set some 50 years after "Essential Constituent", but it has a communal aspect, too—if a smaller community. It's about four boys, high school friends, who hang out together at night at an abandoned concrete mixing plant out in rural Vermont, smoking pot and dreaming of escape from their quiet lives. Except that one of the boys has already escaped from a much worse, more violent past than any of the other three have ever known. And what he does, at their urging, changes his life—and theirs—forever. In the end, the story, told from the point of view of one of the boys who feels the most guilt, is about the loss of someone, the collapse of a cluster of friends and a time of innocence. And for that reason this story, about the death of a friend, feels right. That and, way back when I was in high school, hanging out at an old concrete plant and night with my buddies, this is exactly what I was listening to.

5.) "Even if Love" from Master and Everyone by Bonnie Prince Billy

I just love the mixture of emotions that this songs captures: there's a darkness and sense of foreboding in it, a near creepiness, and yet a tenderness, too, a love-filled feeling—just amazing, haunting. Everything I wanted "The Point of Roughness" to be. And this stanza fits the story so perfectly:

And love will protect you

To the edge of the wood

Then a monster will get you

And love does no good

6.) "Blue Miss Sunday" from If You Forget Me by Devics

I'm just a sad girl

Some say a blue girl

I wanna be a new girl

Is that so bad

The main character in "Beautiful Ground" seems to be asking this the whole story; it's what drives the story—her need to break the malaise that has settled over her and her marriage, to push it (her, them) into a new place, to shift them into new people. There's a dangerousness to this story that is driven by sadness, a risk-taking that is all about trying to break away from what daily life has become. Not to mention a sexiness, a sultriness. Of which this song has plenty.

7.) "Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing" from Forever Blue by Chris Isaac

But the previous story doesn't hold a candle to "The First Bad Thing" when it comes to sexiness (at least according to my wife). This is probably the most sex-driven, heat-propelled story I've ever written and there's good reason for it: I wrote it when I was living alone in the western desert of Egypt, in a little town, wholly isolated for half a year. Also, it was inspired by my first serious relationship, when I was still a teen, with a woman who blew open my world. So it's rooted in a kind of wildness, in an embrace of that, and in an insistence in clinging to badness in ourselves, to the things we can't know and maybe shouldn't, to the dark corners of our hearts and pasts that might just also be the things that kindle the biggest flames between us. There's no subtlety here when it comes to that. No more than Chris Isaac brings to this. But there is fun, a lot of it. And that's the other thing Isaac brings to his ballads, a sense of sheer pleasure in the crooning, in the full-out "come to me" call of it.

8.) "Forn Forstu Fun Mir Avek (You leave to travel far from me)" from Ashkenaz Songs II: Work and Revolution by Zahava Seewald & Psamim

Just the title of this song would be enough to make it fit "Hello from Here", a story that brings us back around to the Jewish-Russian peddler in the first story, but before he leaves for America, when he is fresh from abandoning his family and everything about life he's ever known, waiting for a ship to take him even farther away. But add to it the specifics of this line—"You go, and I pray heaven that you will not be drafted into the Tsar's army"—and there could just be no other song to fit the story. Especially since the tone is so spot on, the low, eerie, notes rumbling beneath the wistful, yearning voice: it's everything I want from the story and, in the end, the entire book, wrapped up in this sad, beautiful, somehow tense and dramatic and yet sweetly soft piece of music. I can only hope the collection might leave a reader in as mesmerized and thoughtful a place as this song always leaves me.

Josh Weil and The Age of Perpetual Light links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for his novel The Great Glass Sea
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The New Valley

also at Largehearted Boy:

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