February 19, 2019
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
J.S. Breukelaar's short fiction collection Collision is filled with stories complex and defiant of genre, each one guaranteed to shock and amaze.
Breach Magazine wrote of the book:
"The stories are ruthless, nothing is safe—even the child who offers a lollipop and loses a wrist to the Clint Eastwood dog. Breukelaar experiments with the Gothic and queries the queer. Bedded within the tales is a voluptuous energy that turns pages. Tables pirouette in a blink and, before you know it, the story is eleven shades grimmer."
I can point to three things that got me writing.
These are the death of a friend, the birth of my children, and music. When my best friend died I locked myself in a room and listened to Abbey Road, which I’d stolen from the parents of the kid I babysat, because at that time I hated the Beatles. I specifically hated the song, “Here Comes the Sun,” which I played on repeat until finally a guy who would become my husband introduced me to the Clash. When my kids were born I played music to them constantly, hugely inappropriate music like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” which for some reason was the only song that would get my daughter to sleep. My first novel was a reworking of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo with the title role played by a dead DJ.
All of the stories in Collision are either selected or written in the shadow of the 2016 US election. Some of them reference it directly. Hundreds of albums and soundtracks kept me going through the process, and this is the abridged playlist in the order of each story’s appearance.
1. “Union Falls”
a. “Bat out of Hell,” Meatloaf. I picked this tack for the piano intro that I needed my armless character to play with her feet. I wrongly assumed that it was a 1980s song because of a misspent youth airmicing the bejesus out of the line about the flying heart (still beating, beeeeting) and by the time I realized my mistake it was already essential to the story. But also, Meatloaf’s out-of-this-world voice, and how those chilling lines “nothing really rocks and nothing really rolls/and nothing’s ever worth the cost,” come back, especially now, like a bat out of hell to haunt us all.
b. “Bette Davis Eyes,” Kim Carnes. I needed an '80s hit, and this came out on top, mainly because, despite the overproduced pop vibe, Carnes’ vocals are as brittle and broken as something the armless Ame brings in with her from the woods. But the best thing about the song was how my son got together with a musician friend of his to perform it on stage as a surprise for me, and how my husband was so moved to tears that he forgot to press the Record button.
2. “Raining Street”
a. “Mountain at My Gates,” The Foals. This lush, percussive track invokes facing the insurmountable. My story is about a woman bested by grief. She journeys to an underworld to bring back her beloved but the underworld has other ideas. The song had me standing up at my desk like I was pounding out music instead of words: “Gimme my, gimme my, gimme my, gimme my…”
b. “Save Me,” Queen. This is The Song. The Me track. Every story I have every written or will write comes from this place and in this voice. Freddy’s voice. I have sampled the line, “I’m naked and I’m far from home,” in my work and even managed—true story—to work it into my emails when I was pitching agents! What was I thinking? Oh my gosh. The lines “I have no heart, I am cold inside/I have no real intent,” nail how loss makes revenants of us all.
c. “Stay Awake,” London Grammar. With its slow strumming chords and a hushed, urgent beat, it’s perfect. The lyrics, too: “I live and breathe under the moon/And when you cross the bridge/I’ll come find you.” I can assign a London Grammar song to every story in the collection and I had the album, If You Wait, on a loop while doing the edits.
3. “The Box”
a. “Love on the Brain,” Rihanna. Like so much of Rihanna’s material, this song is about the collision between romantic fixation and female virtuosity. In one song, she is Aretha, Amy, Billie and herself—an old soul dressed up in a new dress—and she is also both of my characters, the strong and independent girl in the box and the lonely boy keeping her there.
a. “Dry and Dusty,” Fever Ray. I played Karin Dreijer’s 2009 solo album constantly while writing this story of an Icelandic girl left dry and dusty in Podunk, New South Wales.
b. “Flame Trees,” Cold Chisel. “Oh the flame trees will blind the weary driver/and there’s nothing else could set fire to this town.” No voice opens the wound of place like Barnesy’s gravelly tenor, a feeling of small-town blues—with its savage hierarchies, complacencies and lies, of life having passed you by—that is uniquely Australian.
a. “When the River Runs Dry,” Hunters and Collectors. Because home is where the dark heart is, and in trying to run from the scene of his talking dog’s crime, my character Turner must inevitably return to his own. ’Cos that’s how destiny works, child.
b. “Downbound Train,” Bruce Springsteen. Because New Jersey, where Turner runs from, and how he once “had something going, mister, in this world.” And because in 1984, when the song was written, everything was going to hell. So, this is, in my mind, one of the most prescient, but also one of the saddest songs ever written, and Turner is one of my saddest characters. And that is saying something.
6. “Fairy Tale”
a. “Some things Never Seem to Fucking Work,” Solange. When the runaway Aisha isn’t listening to the Tangled soundtrack, she’s playing Solange. This song especially, because it’s just so reckless and helpless.
b. “Higher Ground,” Red Hot Chili Peppers, because Stevie Wonder’s song (and his own unflinching performance of it) is as critical now as ever. I tried listening to a bunch of war movie soundtracks but Dan, the wheel-chaired veteran who takes Aisha in and keeps waiting for her to kill him, isn’t all that. Before Dan enlisted he was just a regular 90s alt-rock kind of guy on a collision course with fate. He played state soccer when he still had legs, and he had Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers in his ears when he was Over There, just trying to get to higher ground.
a. “Gloria” Part I: “In Excelsis Deo”; Part II: “Gloria (Version),” Patti Smith. I named my character’s wolf-dog Gloria because Patti Smith makes a cameo in every book I write. This story is adapted from a chapter in American Monster, about a man who goes home to rescue the farm from his addict aunt. While Van Morrison’s song nails desire as the ultimate rebellion, Patti, weaving her own poem, Oath, into the lyrics, teases a Whitman-esque howl from it that is just right: “My sins my own, they belong to me” speaks to total defiance, the secret care, and in the end, a plea for forgiveness from the only one who matters. Gloria.
8. "Rogues Bay 3013"
a. “Spanish Sahara,” The Foals. This story is about a creator having his creation turn the tables on him, because that is how Fury rolls. The Furies, self-generated from the spilled blood of Uranus’ genitals when his son Cronus castrates him, haunt the piece although I did not consciously set out to do that. Philippakis’ sweetly menacing vocals underscore how some things, once created, can never be uncreated—perfect for my tale of dark desire on a collision course with the rage of ages.
b. “Metal Heart,” Cat Power. Esme Black is an astronaut at the top of her game brought low when she rescues a Metal Heart who thinks with his dick. “How selfish of you to believe in the meaning of all the bad dreaming…” Chan Marshal sings. Ouch.
a. “Godless,” The Dandy Warhols. This is a historical fiction about a boyhood friendship that blooms and withers in a godless place. I tried listening to WWII music but that blocked me. The Dandies’ psychedelic garage sounds got the juices flowing as they often do, and the lines, “Hey I said you’re godless, then, hey and you’re a soulless friend,” are an example of how the best use of the second person in lyrics, at least for me, is when it’s like that scene in Taxi Driver where De Niro pulls a gun on his own reflection and asks the man in the mirror “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”
b. “Per un pugno di dollari (Titoli),” Ennio Morricone. This whole album worked perfectly to keep me in the weird, contested cowboy country of Jack and Dickie’s boyhood.
a. “Gett Off,” Prince. I could write something here about how as artists all we want is to get off, to get to the end of our story, and that just like there are 23 positions in a one-night stand (and in this playlist), there are as many ways into process as there are hours in the endless night, and that we ignore the muse’s booty call at our peril. Or I could admit that this story was so hard to write for me that the only thing that got me through was thinking about sex. And that dancing alone in my office was good for my soul. And that Prince kept me going through this story of the collision of worlds that led to the 2016 election, and he keeps me going still.
a. “We the People… ” A Tribe Called Quest. Because their pioneering political hip hop pulled no punches, even at the end. Because in 2016, in the lead-up to the election, which is the setting for my story, they warn: “All you black folks you must go/All you Mexicans you must go/And all you poor folks you must go/Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.” That is all.
b. “Love,” Lana Del Rey. Because “Glow” is a story about collision of love with hate, and because this song is much a dirge as a celebration, a call to arms. “It doesn’t matter if I’m not enough for the future or the things to come…Don’t worry baby.” Mmmmm.
12. “Like Ripples on a Blank Shore”
a. “White Wedding,” Billy Idol. At the heart of my Zombie-ish novella is a nightmare wedding that buries the main character alive, just like Billy said it would.
b. “Reckoner,” Radiohead. The title of the story come from this song, which nails for me how being human is a matter of ebbs and flows. As you listen, the track decomposes, like the Hosts in the story, and then recomposes, like the character Clare who was once Clay; and then it be-comes something else, like my bride who was lost and now is found. An infinity of ripples.
J.S. Breukelaar and Collision links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists