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February 2, 2018

Book Notes - Michael A. Ferro "TITLE 13"

Furnishing Eternity

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.

Michael A. Ferro's novel TITLE 13 is an impressive debut filled with dark humor and satire.

The Coil wrote of the book:

"Rich in dialogue and description with a delicate balance of foreboding and satirical humor, TITLE 13 serves to caution all of us in the trust of our hearts, our memories, and the supposed security guaranteed by government and technology in the hands of fallible citizens."

In his own words, here is Michael A. Ferro's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel TITLE 13:

Much like Heald Brown, the capricious protagonist of my debut novel, TITLE 13, the music that inspired many moments within the story is an obnoxiously eclectic mixture of indie rock, classical, and just plain absurd-sounding music. Many of the songs included in this list represent underlying themes within the plot, echoing Heald's growing mental instability, soul-crushing alcoholism, and, perhaps more than anything, his oftentimes devil-may-care devotion to a sense of pure absurdity and illogicality. But like many who dabble in the often-fruitless fields of irony, Heald is a hopeless romantic at his vodka-soaked core, striving to nurture that quixotic young person he once was.

Another reason the music selected here seems so jarringly diverse is the structure of the novel itself, which begins with the aforementioned tone of farcical satire. As the story progresses and Heald's addiction becomes more prevalent, though, the real crux of the thing is exposed; the book takes a stroll down a dark and emotionally raw path that eventually culminates in a fever pitch of farcicality, unrequited love, and meditations on sentimentality and loss.
But don't worry: there's plenty of jokes and stuff, too.

"Weird Al" Yankovic – "Theme from Spy Hard" is really the only way to introduce this list. Who is better at song parody than Weird Al? No one, that's who. The beginning of TITLE 13 focuses on Heald's job working as a federal employee in Chicago at the Department of Commerce and the strange and humorously surreal experiences that come with being a civil servant. After some secret TITLE 13 documents go missing from the office, Heald copes by imagining himself as a hapless G-Man—a cunning, yet dim-witted spy of the Leslie Nielsen variety—and proceeds to beg everyone (including the reader) to ask: Just what the hell is going on here?

Green Day – "Holiday" captures Heald's then-soon apparent feeling of disenchantment with the world his generation has inherited, all while simultaneously admitting that he's basically on an extended "holiday" of binge drinking, self-destruction, and being angry and sad at the same time, like much of the Green Day fan base. Heald moved to Chicago from his hometown of Detroit shortly after college to find work and start a new life during the recent recession; instead, what he discovered was newfound financial independence and a city that effortlessly caters to easily awed and hopelessly afflicted.

Modest Mouse – "Missed the Boat" refers to the overarching sense of being left behind that Heald struggles with throughout the novel, but becomes obvious once the extent of Heald's drinking and depression is realized. Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock perfectly captures that ironic sense of duality between sincere lamentation and a brusque feeling of "meh."

The Fratelli's – "Chelsea Dagger" was heard everywhere in Chicago during the summer of 2010 when the book is set. The city's NHL team, the Blackhawks, adopted it as their unofficial anthem that year and won the team's first Stanley Cup in 49 years. The song also perfectly captures that wild sense of abandon and joyful ecstasy that Heald sometimes feels as he inexplicably jettisons from black emotions to feelings of pure bliss as he drinks in the stunning architecture and sights of the impressive city around him—often while drinking.

The Fratelli's – "Whistle for the Choir" captures the "comedown" from the exuberant high Heald feels once he's drunk more than he should of. Within the novel, when Heald gets blackout drunk, the story takes the perspective of a philosophical meditation on a wide range of subjects including the nature of evil, the constitution of love, and the meaning of death and dying, because who doesn't think about and often (regrettably) pontificate at length about these things after they've had one too many? Heald is desperately in love with his co-worker at the office, Janice, whom he is close to but seems to be growing more distant from as his drinking worsens, all the meanwhile he continues to hide behind sarcasm and absurdity. "Whistle for the Choir" isn't strictly a sad song, but not exactly a happy one either. From its jingle-jangle opening to its bouncy, dreamy chorus, it perfectly encapsulates a sense of youthful and idealistic romantic melancholy that we all can relate to. Plus, the following lyrics alone seemed to me to have been written with Heald's personal story of lost love in the big city in mind:

Well it's a big big city and the lights are all out

But it's as much as I can do you know to figure you out

And I must confess, my heart's in broken pieces

And my head's a mess

And it's four in the morning, and I'm walking along

Beside the ghost of every drinker here who has ever done wrong

And it's you, woo hoo, that's got me going crazy for the things you do

Warren Zevon – "Desperados Under the Eaves," much like "Whistle for the Choir," depicts a broken man, dried out from a bender, hoping to find a woman who could possibly love the shell he's become and help heal him. The line "Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands, and I'm trying to find a girl who understands me" resonates with the story not only because Heald himself physically experiences withdrawal throughout the book when he's not drinking, but also because he too is under the common misconception possessed by addicts that one person can fix them, ignoring the role of the self in the equation.

Tchaikovsky – "Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23" is the music that Heald hears within his head during a flashback upon first arriving within the city of Chicago for a short trip before his move. Unemployed and miserable in Detroit, he takes a vacation for the weekend to Chicago one day and sees the massive, gleaming skyline in the distance. He steps off his bus and walks to the city center, all the meanwhile Tchaikovsky's most beautiful work (especially the lush opening) momentarily clouds his heart from the demons that lie in wait.

Pink Martini – "Dosvedanya, Mio Bombino" is an incredibly fun and delightfully surreal song that meanders between boisterous marches and breathy lounge singing that culminates with a stirring rendition of the classic tune, "The Happy Wanderer." The very nature of "Dosvedanya, Mio Bombino" seems to be the search for a reconciliation between two confused polar opposites: A sunny, optimistic Italian and the dark, brooding Russian. I feel like Heald, with his warring characteristics of black humor and romantic idealism, would be a fan. Also, who can ignore the infectious positivity of "The Happy Wanderer"?

Wilco – "Via Chicago" captures some of the growing darker elements in Heald's mindset concerning his life in the Windy City. Much of Wilco's dreamscape of a song describes a man bent on black thoughts, blown back home via "the winds of Chicago," so it's no surprise that while Heald often thinks back to his hometown of Detroit, always "searching for home" as the song states, thus he could easily be listening to this moody, haunting tune at any time once things go sour.

John Lee Hooker – "The Motor City is Burning" reflects Heald's mindset about the collapse of his hometown that led him to leave the city after college and flee to Chicago to find a job. Though the song is about the 1967 Detroit riots that would spark the Motor City's long and painful decline, the recession of 2008-09 was another particularly bad period for the city and much of the young workforce that had graduated from college during this time and couldn't find work in Detroit. Heald is regularly despondent about his haphazard move, often drunkenly daydreaming about the burnt and broken landscape of the Motor City and leaving his family. And on a personal note: The main reason I chose John Lee Hooker's original version of this song is that it's more subdued, more wracked with anguish than MC5's version, which is much more raucous—though I love the MC5 version.

Johnny Cash – "I See a Darkness" examines a man who is confessing that he is fundamentally haunted and frightened by some unknowable dark energy inside of him. This person feels this thing in them and struggles to be good, to love and beat this thing and allow their good to prevail, but understands that they are mostly powerless to stop it because it is in their blood. This song, mournful and pleading, represents Heald and his battle with addiction quite well.

Ludwig van Beethoven – "Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 — Fourth Movement" is a work of music that plays quite prominently within the story of TITLE 13 itself. Upon moving to Chicago, Heald goes to the library and checks out as many books on Beethoven as he can find, listening to the classical genius's oeuvre over and over, especially the 9th. (And no, Heald is not a droog… or perhaps he is?) For Heald, the 9th can capture every emotion throughout the nightmare that is his roller-coaster of alcoholism, from the scared and dreadful, to the exuberant and joyful. (It is an "Ode to Joy" after all!) Near the book's conclusion, the 9th returns and rears its head in quite an ugly fashion, as well, and highlights a certain madness.

Lege Artis Chamber Choir – "Song of Cherubim for Mixed Choir (1986)" can chill anyone to their bones in the right circumstances with its gorgeous and woeful complexity. In one particular scene late in the novel, Heald spends a Sunday in a dangerous state of mind. He reflects on the absence of religion in his life and how the subway has become a sort of makeshift church for him in ways further described within the book. I imagine the "Song of Cherubim for Mixed Choir" was likely the type of ethereal sounds he heard humming throughout his head on this day.

Monty Python – "Meaning of Life" tries to ask the "big questions" when it comes to our existence, our genesis, and just what the hell we're supposed to be doing here before we die. One of the predominant themes within the novel is Heald's constant struggle to understand the truth behind these antediluvian uncertainties; like the Pythons, Heald does this with sarcasm, wit, and generally questionable behavior, often to the annoyance of the other characters. To sit and ponder these questions over and over can be maddening, thus these neurotic characters who focus on them day and night, intoxicated and sober, tend to be a little… cracked. TITLE 13 is a satiric dive into the dark recesses of our culture and our minds, and let's face it: No one has done this better than Monty Python.

Talking Heads – "Road to Nowhere" is another one of those oddly jaunty songs that captures not only Heald's mind frame, but a large part of the essence of TITLE 13: I know what's going on but I have no idea what's going on. The lyrics of "Road to Nowhere" state "Well we know where we're going, but we don't know where we've been. And we know what we're knowing, but we can't say what we've seen." At times, Heald will attempt to drown his mounting paranoia and claim que sera, sera, wandering into the Chicago night, "taking that ride to nowhere," but he always circles back to his anxieties, because in the end, as David Byrne says in the song, "There's a city in my mind, come along and take that ride."

Lou Christie – "Beyond the Blue Horizon" rises from a quiet whimper to a boisterous, clamoring ruckus much in the same way the novel's story progresses and reaches a crescendo. "Beyond the Blue Horizon" is a song about the future and, perhaps, death. It's odd, delightful, and infectious with its simple repetitiveness in a way that could almost be described as maddening. A wild trip into surreal, if you listen to it under the right circumstances.

The Avett Brothers – "Life" is an incredibly beautiful song about the true meaning of love, its constant battle with darkness and hate, and the ultimate redemption that awaits all who embrace the goodness inside of us—no matter how depressed, dejected, or determined to self-destruct we might be. Heald's love for his family is only matched by the amount of guilt he feels knowing how his family would react if something terrible happened to him. When all is said and done, if Heald is ever going to maintain his sanity and survive, it's going to come down to love—love for himself, for his family, and the unrequited love he wants so desperately to share with someone else.

Michael A. Ferro and TITLE 13 links:

author website
excerpt from the book

The Coil review
Kirkus review

Crack the Spine interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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