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January 10, 2018

Book Notes - Alan Michael Parker "Christmas in July"

Christmas in July

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.

Alan Michael Parker's novel Christmas in July is imaginatively told by ten different narrators.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A complex, absorbing, and occasionally moving read."

In his own words, here is Alan Michael Parker's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Christmas in July:

Music nearly killed me in 2015 and 2016. When writing my new novel, Christmas in July, I needed my favorite tunes for my own edification and entertainment and pleasure, my writing music, at the same time as I needed to learn the music of my characters, most of whom I liked but with whom I share so little taste. In writing a novel narrated by ten different narrators of varying stripes, plaids, and sizes—through which a thirteen-year-old girl dying of cancer moves unpredictably, the most important character of all—taste could not be mine. Taste had to be learned. So how to listen to the songs in someone else’s head, tunes I might even loathe? Geez, Louise, as I tend to say.

What songs matter to me, inspire or calm me, or allow me to jump about in my imagination as I pogo in my living room, barked at by my dogs? Such a playlist seems relatively easy to identify: here’s my iPod, press SHUFFLE. What songs matter to an anxious street kid who feels responsible for the death of her former landlord; or a forty-two year-old, newly divorced expert on The Wizard of Oz; or a twenty-six year-old MiniMart manager devoted to MineCraft and revenge fantasies? These are a few of my ten people, my projections, my faltered egos. How can I stand to listen to their terrible music—in the same way I can stand to love them, as their author and benefactor and second-harshest critic?

Also, it’s fiction. As a novelist, no matter that I want my stories to read true, I tend to invent the worlds my characters occupy, both interior and exterior: the town in which my novel’s mostly set, for example, is an invention; the cult that we encounter twice is an invention, if not perilously close to reality, as it turns out. There’s a fictional music festival in the novel, the line-up featuring six fictional bands (although one of them apparently played SXSW, if not a fictional version of SXSW). Do I need to know all the lyrics of all of the songs by all of the bands I made up? Maybe one of the goals in writing fiction is not to know everything about your characters on the front end, to learn from them as you go. And then there are aspects of them I know well, to which they’re not privy, via dramatic irony. I believe, for example, that Evie should get over her love of Suptertramp, as it’s in the way of her coming out. Evie isn’t so sure.

Then there’s the question of syntax and music, and the relationship between the two in Christmas in July. I write a lot of poetry, and the sounds of language matter to me; I scan sentences for metrical effects, hear iambs in everyday dialogue. I am a constant victim of syntax: it moves me despite myself. But of course a novel isn’t a poem, and the sounds of prose—its music—must be heard as a function of the art form, the long breathing of a novel specific to that book’s life, and the shorter bursts of music in scene and dialogue and exposition specific to the demands of prose. Times ten: ten stories, each told differently, each in a different register. Added to this dilemma is Christmas herself, my protagonist, whose literal voice needs to be consistent throughout, her situation sad (she’s dying) without being saccharine (I want to feel, and want my reader to feel, but neither of us appreciates being emoted upon). The music of the words needs to exist independent of any literal music the characters might cherish.

So here we go, ten songs, nine of which exist; some are mine, some are theirs, some are waiting to be written and recorded by the The Decemberists, and all are with my compliments. And for those of you reading the novel, my thanks, I hope you like it—and please note that the ten songs below correspond in order to the ten stories that constitute Christmas in July.

Otis Redding, “The Happy Song (Dum-Dum-De-De-De-Dum-Dum)”

What’s the R&B anthem for the first beer on a hot July evening, the kids chasing one another in the back yard, Spotify cranked past distortion, the windows open and the box fans set to crazy? You’re in your housedress, you’re alone and shaking your thing, the sad husband has finally moved on, your lover’s yet to arrive, and the light goes golden…. To me, and to Angela, the middle-school registrar who narrates the opening story, “Hello. This Is Your Mother.,” the singer has to be Otis Redding. That he was one of the sexiest men to sing matters to Angela; that he died young matters to me.

D’Banj, “If U Dey Crase (featuring K-Switch)”

“War,” the second story in the novel, is set in a hardware store and narrated by a long-time employee, a widower who’s a Civil War buff, and who doesn’t like to talk. Richie is at his register when Christmas arrives; meanwhile, snacking in the break room at the back of the store, a young employee, an African immigrant named Hakim, munches Cheez Doodles, crumbs on his vest. Something bad may well happen. “If U Dey Crase (featuring K-Switch)” is one of Hakim’s favorite songs. In this track, the ubiquitous D’Banj, Fela’s protegée, features his own younger brother, K-Switch, in a zippy dance ditty. I like it too.

Grimes, “Kill V. Maim”

Nineteen-year-old Sarah Wasserman, a.k.a. “Nerd-Ass,” has been living on the streets for three years. She’s removed from schoolgirl culture, never to partake in the kinds of earbud-sharing bartered commerce that teen girls deploy to define their circles of taste. But “Grimes” is a musician Nerd-Ass has heard, and understands, and “Kill V. Maim” has just the kind of smart style to speak to this street kid. It helps that Grimes “is a real kick-drum person,” (and reports in the same interview that “Kill V. Maim” was written to be a mixture of The Godfather: Part II and Twilight), not that Nerd-Ass would let herself care too much about any of that. Not caring is a thing she’s practicing.

D’Angelo and The Vanguard, “Sugah Daddy”

Oh my god, what a song. My narrator, Markus, waited fourteen years for D’Angelo to make another record, and this track alone justifies the wait. Check out the version on YouTube, live at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam in 2015: “Sugah Daddy” is a snazzy tapestry of big band, hip-hop, Tower of Power, and D’Angelo’s smooth. I also recommend groove-cooking to “Sugah Daddy”—a term you’ve heard here first, “groove-cooking”—which is what Markus does toward the end of “My Beauty,” serving up a little pasta.

Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash, “Jackson”

Grandmother, softball aficionado, and busybody Meg of “Meg’s Team” claims that she’s an artist, and on occasion, she’s right. She sees the world differently, that’s for sure, and her maternal response to Christmas allows the young teen to express some of her accumulated pain. Meg is also a Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash fan, and she especially loves June’s growling rejoinders in “Jackson,” the classic that begins with the hollered lines, “We got married in a fever / hotter than a pepper sprout.” Not surprisingly, so did Meg, pregnant at eighteen. Also not surprisingly, as the song goes, pushy Meg’s ambitions include to “teach ‘em what they don’t know how.”

The Flaming Lips, “Any Colour You Like”

This one’s mine. Little Sammy, who tells our tale in “Fireworks,” has to be a Pink Floyd fan. But I like this cover version more.

Judy Garland, “Over the Rainbow”

Dorothy Kim, the narrator of this story, is an expert on The Wizard of Oz. Named after Dorothy Gayle, an orphan herself raised by an aunt and uncle, our Dorothy has a dream of a place somewhere—and so she builds a website,, to monetize her mastery of the film’s trivia. But she’s a person of opinions, and of substance (to her surprise), and despite a fanatical relationship to the movie, she actually prefers Judy Garland’s 1943 rendition of “Over the Rainbow” to the film version. Here, performing on Bob Hope’s “Strictly G.I.” show as part of the Command Performance U.S.A. series, Garland’s alto has matured, five years after recording the film score; there’s a darker timbre (the vocal chords thicken as we age), and the quality of what the singers call “underpinning” is noticeably different. Garland’s little lisped attack—prominent in the film version—seems to have been schooled out, here, too although that Mid-Atlantic accent persists in her vowels. You might not agree: perhaps the film’s version is the only one for you. Notwithstanding, Dorothy the narrator favors Garland the singer’s rendition for the troops, and I couldn’t agree more. The number begins at the 8:00 minute mark.

Brian Eno, “I’ll Come Running”

The most eccentric of my narrators—that’s saying a lot—may be Snow Joe, the bee keeping hermit who gives us “Blue the Dog.” Committed to a life of purity, and to prevent the “reabsorption” of his body’s toxins, Snow Joe lives alone in the woods, where he meets Christmas, who shows up one day in a heap of sick. His companion, Blue the Dog, finds the dying girl: Blue the Dog chooses Christmas for a friend, and brings the two mismatched characters together. There’s grace in Snow Joe, and fear; there’s fear in Christmas, and grace. My song for Snow Joe, and for the oddity of this friendship, is “I’ll Come Running,” from Eno’s 1975 classic, Another Green World, a lyrical enigma elevated by a spectacular Robert Fripp solo. For an excellent take on that astonishing album, here’s Mike Powell, writing in Pitchfork.

The Sad Huns, “Leif, Leif, Ericson”

At the first annual GlitterFest in Saxon Hills, Maryland, in the novel Christmas in July, a band named “The Sad Huns” debuts what will certainly be their hit single, “Leif, Leif Ericson.” Fortunately, the narrator of that moment, Evie Glitter, films the performance. Here are the lyrics:

I want to be discovered oh
floating on the ice oooh
I’m floating on the ice
and you’re not here
oh, oh, oh

bang the bones on the bow
bang, bang, bang
uh, uh

Leif, Leif Ericson
no one can remember
when you and I were lovers
in Greenland

in Greenland
in Greenland

bang the bones on the bow
bang, bang, bang
uh, uh

Seal meat, whale meat, woman, man
Leif, Leif Ericson
no one can remember
when you and I were lovers
in Greenland

bang, bang, bang
uh, uh

Seal meat, whale meat, woman, man
Leif, Leif Ericson
no one can remember
no one can remember
no one can remember

Dark Dark Dark, “Daydreaming”

I want Nikki Danzig, the narrator of my novel’s final story, to have encountered the band Dark Dark Dark by chance in 2008, when she still lived in New York. Here came the band, collaborating with the street artist Swoon, on a flotilla of seven hand-made rafts sailed down the Hudson River from Troy, New York, to Long Island City, a project called, “Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea.” I see Nikki—the novel’s Aunt Nikki—standing on a pier and watching the rafts float by like her own memories. That encounter would have inspired profound affection for the band’s music, naturally, and for the deep sadness she owns when listening to their best-known track, “Daydreaming,” a song Nikki can hear once Christmas has gone, and I can still hear, even now that my novel has ended.

With thanks to Tevi Eber, Jeff Jackson, Felicia van Bork, and Michael Waters, for their professional assistance.

Alan Michael Parker and Christmas in July links:

Kirkus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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