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July 17, 2018

Vanessa Blakeslee's Playlist for Her Short Story Collection "Perfect Conditions"

Perfect Conditions

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Vanessa Blakeslee's impressive short story collection Perfect Conditions is filled with characters finding the way through their darknesses.

In her own words, here is Vanessa Blakeslee's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Perfect Conditions:

Over the years in which I drafted and revised the stories for my second collection, Perfect Conditions, my exposure to more innovative and eclectic music, and thus my “ear,” changed. This was solely due to my falling in love with a composer of jazz and classical music, Mark Piszczek, my partner. I also worked for two years at a performing arts venue where I listened to some of the best talent, established and emerging, in these fields today. Did I even have an “ear” before? I’m not sure, but the songs that evoke Perfect Conditions range from iconic and familiar artists of the ‘80’s to the more obscure “musician’s musicians” I’ve come to know and admire. Although I’ve found myself listening to music while writing novels, perhaps because I’m immersing myself deeply in a single world, I don’t follow this habit while working in the shorter form, and prefer silence. These songs were assembled after I handed in the final proofs, sought after in the spirit of creating a soundtrack for a film (or short films, in this case). Perfect Conditions is about a world undergoing the early stages of breakdown—ecologically, economically—and how a cross-section of characters encounter the different facets of collapse. Finding one’s way through to what lies on “the other side of hope” is very much the spirit of the book, captured in these songs.

Robbie Robertson, “Breakin’ The Rules” (Storyville, 1991)
The foreign places where I first traveled in my late teens and early twenties—Australia, Hawaii, Bali, Costa Rica— made an indelible impression upon me, and thus my writing. Robertson’s soulful, “Breakin’ the Rules,” not only encompasses that carefree time in my life, but for some of my characters as well. “Splitting the Peak” straddles time zones, mainly Florida and the Pacific, as the story follows two young rising stars of pro-surfing who connect but can’t quite figure out how to stay that way, and realize, too late, they have likely missed their chance. But “Breakin’ the Rules” is also a nod to humankind, and the larger themes of the book—“breakin’ the rules of the game” being very much where we find ourselves as our plastic pollution chokes the rivers and oceans, deforestation speeds up, and our toxic emissions rise every year, rather than fall. Some listeners may recognize the song from Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, the 1991 film which is in fact about a doomsday scenario, starring William Hurt and Sam Neill; Robertson’s song plays throughout the final credits. Interestingly enough, the film features love affairs in flux, and the characters find themselves—not kidding—in Australia.

Ralph Towner, “Blue Sun” (Blue Sun, 1982)
This song and album by the same name evokes, for me, a cold Northern sun over the ocean. Water plays a dominant role in the collection and may be considered its own character. What’s funny is that I don’t like “being on the water” in terms of boating and the ocean; I get terribly, almost instantly, seasick. Yet I wrote about a young man wrestling with the work contract he signed on a fishing boat in Alaska in, “Stand by to Disembark.” The story is about the unlikely friendships forged between crew members in some of the harshest working conditions on earth, the economic pressures which compel individuals to undertake such labor, and moments of eerie beauty and terror on the Arctic seas. “Blue Sun” especially brings to mind the walrus graveyard the ship encounters one day, and the protagonist’s uneasy dreams.

Angelo Santoro, “Psychedelic Surf” (Psychedelic Surf, 1988)
This fun “surf jazz” track from 1988 perfectly suits the one tale of magical realism in the book, “Jesus Surfs.” What if Jesus returned not to redeem the world the way everyone expects, but instead just hangs out, surfs, and lives peaceably among his neighbors? What if he only occasionally saves someone? The question came to me one day while watching the surfers on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula some years ago. The mood of the story was inspired by the classic tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”; the “Rasta Jesus” as he comes to be known is mysterious and whimsical, sometimes maddening but always well-intentioned.

The Police, “Walking in Your Footsteps” (Synchronicity, 1983)
I’ve only recently discovered this song by The Police from their album Synchronicity (1983), and it quickly became a favorite, although the power of its hook remains somewhat of a puzzle. Is it the playful approach in which Sting and The Police approach the subject of mankind’s extinction? Awe at the prescience of artists and thinkers to have such a clear view of the end game, decades ago? Maybe both. In particular, “Walking in Your Footsteps” connects me to the story, “Sustainable Practices,” in which a well-intentioned, left-leaning Millennial ecotourist named Nina insists she and her new husband take their honeymoon to Tahiti and visit the bottling site of her beloved “Tahiti Water.” Sting’s vocals are directed toward the dinosaurs, and I can’t help but picture the creatures strutting atop the volcanic aquifer that supplies the water whose much-advertised purity Nina and her husband argue over. That the protagonist does not recognize her own carbon footprint in flying thousands of miles to a “sustainable” resort makes the lyrics all the more resonant.

Peter Gabriel, “The Washing Of The Water” (Us, 1992)
Water is again revisited in this song from Peter Gabriel’s 1992 album, Us. I love to write about friendship and the lesser-explored (in fiction, anyway) realm of “brotherly love.” How we take care of one another, or are called to, in this age of extraordinary loneliness brought on by multimedia distractions, economic pressures, and the eradication of community, is a preoccupation of my fiction, not only in “Stand by to Disembark,” but in “Arthur and George: the Voyage Begins.” In the latter, two aging Gen Xers and line cooks, one a misfit and the other an anxiety-ridden recluse, find themselves at a crossroads in their lifelong friendship. What does it mean to age alone for those who are unmarried, with little to no kin, and unstable job situations? What might taking care of one another, being responsible for one another, even those who don’t share our bed or our blood, look like? “Arthur and George” is an attempt to envision just that.

Carpenters, “The End Of The World” (Now and Then, 1973)
For the singer of this song, her world crumbles when her lover rejects her; it is literally, “the end of the world.” Which comes first, the breakdown of one’s personal world, or the larger systems? How might one reinforce the other? This hypnotic vocal, and its singer, Karen Carpenter, make for an uncanny echo of the protagonist of “The Perfect Pantry.” Martha, a formerly well-to-do housewife, finds herself unmoored after her husband leaves her, and, thanks to a neurotic streak, becomes obsessed with building “the perfect pantry”—only her list-making leads her onto survivalist websites for preppers. The tone is darkly comedic, but I can easily imagine Boomer Martha listening to Karen Carpenter in the sunnier days of her bell-bottomed youth. Hint: Martha also meets a singularly tragic fate, born of her own emotionally-misplaced neurosis.

Caldera, “Rainforest” (Dreamer, 1979)
Too many songs to pick from Caldera, but when pressed I chose, “Rainforest.” I love the rousing, earthy percussion interspersed with the guitar. To me it feels like the gringo meeting the jungle—and several of my characters are transplants from the north to either Costa Rica or Guatemala. This clash of not so much cultures, but creatures of different habitats, especially arises in the title story, “Perfect Conditions,” where an expat father living in Costa Rica struggles to understand the rift between he and his now-twentysomething son, Sebastian, now a gajin in Japan. This tension is also present for the anonymous Americanized protagonist of “Clinica Tikal” as she returns to her grandmother’s village in Guatemala, and soon finds herself at a strange medical clinic near the ancient Mayan ruins.

Jan Garbarek Group, “Twelve Moons” (Twelve Moons, 1993)
I couldn’t not include “Twelve Moons,” for the song contains the otherworldly current that runs through some of the stories in Perfect Conditions. In “Jesus Surfs” and “Clinica Tikal,” there is the question of the paranormal and the interdimensional, if not extraterrestrial—to what extent do such powers impact our lives? Are we being helped, quietly? In “Clinica Tikal” the protagonist first visits a psychic, then journeys to a clinic deep in the jungle. Here, the medical procedures are unconventional and mysterious, and doctors claim to have be given knowledge from the stars. Even if benevolent, how will this procedure haunt her for the rest of her life? Why is the clinic so secret? When I listen to this, I can see the clinic and hear the music among the insects and the trees; the song is just the right blend of ethereal and eerie. Norwegian jazz saxophonist Garbarek is a master.

The Weepies, “The World Spins Madly On” (Say I Am You, 2006)
A more recent neo-folk song, “The World Spins Madly On,” brings to mind the younger characters in these stories: Russell and Heidi, the jet-set, confused pro-athletes from “Splitting the Peak,” Sebastian from “Perfect Conditions,” Quentin and Jason from “Stand by to Disembark,” Eduardo from “Jesus Surfs,” and the unnamed narrators of “Traps” and “Clinica Tikal,” who are facing shortened futures of unfathomable uncertainty and hardship. While the older characters of the Generation X and Baby Boomer generations grapple with regret and anxiety, the younger do so with anger and bewilderment. This may have been a song from their high school or college days, one that they feel nostalgic about already, as the world buckles under the strain of resource depletion, pollution, debt, and ecocide.

Zero-7, “In The Waiting Line” (Simple Things, 2001)
These hallucinatory vocals coupled with electronics fit the mood of the last story in the book, “Exalted Warrior.” When the protagonist, Tasha, living in a dystopian, near-future Orlando, discovers Liam, her lover, is kidnapped for his role in the Second Resistance, she agrees to donate her eggs to obtain the money to pay his bond. Becoming a “Donor Angel” is a waiting game, just as much as waiting for Liam. Meanwhile she must do her best to outsmart the biotech company that is tracking her every move. Much like the story, the song builds a slow suspense, until we learn Tasha’s fate. Perhaps this is where all the characters, and readers, find ourselves at the end of Perfect Conditions—holding our breath for what happens next, nerves quivering beneath our skin.

Vanessa Blakeslee and Perfect Conditions links:

the author's website

American MIcroreviews review

The Drunken Odyssey interview with the author
Last Born in the Wilderness interview with the author
Moving Forward interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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