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January 2, 2018

Book Notes - Maud Casey "The Art of Mystery"

The Art of Mystery

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.

In her new book The Art of Mystery, Maud Casey astutely breaks down how writers (including Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, and others) infuse elements of mystery into their works.

Like the previous volumes in this Graywolf Press series, The Art of Mystery is an invaluable book for both writers and readers of literature.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"This slim but astute volume is an inducement both to read more deeply and to head for ever more unchartered, frozen, mysterious waters."

In her own words, here is Maud Casey's Book Notes music playlist for her book The Art of Mystery:

James Baldwin wrote, "The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers." If mystery, the genre, is about finding answers, then mystery, the elusive literary quality, is about finding questions. The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions is about this other kind of mystery. It's a kind of mixtape—an associative, meditative wander through books (Deszo Kostalanyi's Skylark, Paul Yoon's Snow Hunters, Barbara Comyn's The Vet's Daughter, Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, to name just a few) that have left their mark on me because of their abiding interest in laying bare hidden questions, and because of their abiding interest in wonder. I recently read Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge for the first time and came across this line about music, which sums up what I'm seeking in music, books, art, landscape, love of all varieties, a walk around the block: "I had noticed that it never dropped me again where it had found me, but lower down, somewhere in the deep unfinished."

I sometimes listen to music while I write—wordless music, which doesn't mean without language. A variety of hypnosis to keep the wolves at bay and to take me someplace deeper. The two albums I listened to almost exclusively while writing The Art of Mystery: a Verve compilation of Lester Young and Sonny Rollins's Way Out West. There was something going on with me and the saxophone apparently.

"On the Sunny Side of the Street," Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio. "On the Sunny Side of the Street" is, of course, a wistful song. Implied is the other, unsunny side of the street. In the famous interview with Francois Positif in Paris in March 1959, not long before Young died, Young said he didn't like a lot of noise, that he was looking for something sweet. Then he goes on to define sweetness. It can be funky, he says. It can be salty, which he totally is in that interview ( It can be all kinds of things, which his sound is, including melancholy with a tinge of the mystical, always chasing that dragon, mystery.

"I Am An Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)," Sonny Rollins. Originally a comic song sung by Bing Crosby in the 1930s movie Rhythm on the Range, Rollins's version starts goofy and heads into the ineffable wide open of the West. I'm more magpie than completest and I got to Way Out West because of the album cover with its William Claxton photograph of Rollins, sporting a Stetson hat and a holster with a saxophone where the pistol should be, standing in a landscape of cactus and cattle skull. The whole thing looks, at first, as if it's being offered up in quotation marks but Rollins said it was in honor of his first trip out west and as the song gets going, goofy is left in the dust, and the song heads out with wild sincerity for untrammeled territory.

And then, a sampling of wordful music that, during the course of writing this book, and lots of other times, dropped me lower down, in the deep unfinished:

"Rejoice," Julien Baker. "I rejoice and complain/I never know what to say" and later, "I rejoice and complain/Lift my voice that I was made" There's a great video of just her and her guitar, standing in the bleachers of Percy Warner Park in Nashville. She starts low and slow and quiet. The song builds and builds and, by the end, she's scream-singing. She's got a fabulous, big mouth to match her fabulous, big voice. Baker often wears a t-shirt that says "Sad Songs Make Me Feel Better." The song reminds me of the 1969 series by On Kawara. Telegrams sent over the course of three days: I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON'T WORRY. I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE WORRY. I AM GOING TO SLEEP FORGET IT. A month later, a telegram that says: I AM STILL ALIVE.

"Map on a Wall," Lucy Dacus. A seven-minute song that travels a great distance. Dacus has a deep, bounteous voice, a little like Erika Wennerstrom from Heartless Bastards, but she's very much her own thing. I love a road trip and this song is my favorite part of road tripping—the getting there. The song is a combination of self-doubt ("Please don't make fun of me") and anticipatory desire, in a constant, delicious state of arrival.

"Acid Tongue," Jenny Lewis. I would be a happier person if I listened to this song every day of my life. "I went to a cobbler/To fix a hole in my shoe/He took one look at my face and said/ "I can fix that hole in you"/I beg your pardon, I'm not looking for a cure." With mystery, no cure.

"Norma," Knife in the Water. I'm still changing my mind about which of their songs to include. There are so many good ones! The harmonies of Aaron Blount and Laura Krauss and the pedal steel haziness is sexy and elegiac. That they made their most recent record twenty years after their last is a comfort to me, a writer who moves slowly. How long art takes to make is a mystery.

"Over the Hills and Far Away," Led Zeppelin. "Many is a word/that only leaves you guessing/guessing ‘bout a thing/you really ought to know." When I was fifteen, I fell asleep to this song every night. I listened to it on cassette, on a tape recorder that looked better suited to a detective movie than getting the Led out. It was pathetic but then I was fifteen and deep into pathos. I recently went to a pizza place whose walls were decorated with pizza album cover paintings. The Parliament mothership made out of pizza, David Bowie's Low with pepperonis floating behind his profile, and Houses of the Holy, with those prepubescent blond girls, mini-Robert Plants, slithering across the rocks toward a slice.

"There's a Break in the Road," Betty Harris. Actually, the entire double album, The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul. Lost suggests she needed to be found but she sure doesn't sound like she needed to be found. She was always most definitely somewhere, reminding us about mystery: "There's a break in the road/a break in every road."

Maud Casey and The Art of Mystery links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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