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July 19, 2019

Peg Alford Pursell's Playlist for Her Short Story Collection "A Girl Goes Into the Forest"

A Girl Goes Into the Forest

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.

Peg Alford Pursell's collection A Girl Goes Into the Forest is filled with powerful, inventive, and masterfully surreal short stories.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Pursell is a master of the atmospheric moment. Precise, delicate, yet bloody-minded in their refusal to look away from the most painful moments of our tender lives ... Tiny tales that resonate far beyond their borders."

In her own words, here is Peg Alford Pursell's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection A Girl Goes Into the Forest:

A Girl Goes Into the Forest is a collection of flash stories and other hybrids and stories of traditional length. Music is integral to this book and includes direct callouts to specific songs within the stories themselves. So there are those songs, as well as others that go unnamed but serve as subtext and undergird the writing. And then there’s the music I listened to while writing.

Because there are 78 stories in the collection, and one story may call out more than one song, and another offers a constellation of songs, it’s been a joyfully painstaking adventure to pare the list down to a manageable number. But this girl’s quest had to end somewhere. Making this playlist has been an absorbing expedition in discovery. I hope listeners will encounter their own surprises, insights, and revelations. Or, at least enjoy the music.

I begin with what I listened to while writing A Girl Goes Into the Forest.

Six Evolutions - Bach: Cello Suites played by Yo-Yo Ma. While I usually prefer silence when writing, that’s not always easy to come by, and when it’s not, I put on my headphones and turn to these suites, which I came to after reading a review that said they send the listener into a process of soul-searching and discovery.

Tommy Petty’s “American Girl” receives a direct call out in the book’s epigraph: “Well she was an American Girl / Raised on promises.” “A Girl Goes” investigates the mythos of the American girl, many of whom “couldn’t help thinking there’s a little more life somewhere else.” The desire for the unknown that promises to be better and the belief that it may exist elsewhere (“after all it was a great big world”), inform many of the characters in these stories.

“Do You Love Me?” by Nick Cave. Have I mentioned darkness? This song evokes the darkness in several male characters with their masks of the masculine, “hairy and mad,” who demand “love” from the girls and women in their lives. The lines in this song about a narrator who “made every effort not to abuse her” and “While the bells in the chapel go jingle jangle,” are a particularly apt fit for the story “Wedding Gift.”

Janis Joplin is invoked in two stories. First, in “My Father and his Slim Beautiful Brunettes,” the narrator who later becomes a vocalist herself, as a teen, sees Joplin as a role model. I selected “Cry Baby” for this story because of that electrifying opening, one that couldn’t help but to affect the narrator the first time she heard it.

In “Goodbye, Roller Coaster,” the unnamed “we,” children who narrate the story, speak of hearing Joplin sing an old blues song about a ball and a chain on a record their father played. “Ball and Chain,” written by Big Mama Thornton, sung by Janis Joplin, sheds some insight on the father who leaves his kids who wonder about the unworn bathrobe he left behind.

“My Father and his Slim Beautiful Brunettes” presents a father who’s an avid fan of watching female country music stars perform on TV. He decides his new daughter-in-law smiles “a hell of a lot like June Carter Cash.” June Carter Cash’s duet with husband Johnny, “Jackson,” captures getting married “in a fever,” sparring back and forth, and the subsequent period when the fire goes out, an arc recognizable to that father—and to other characters in “A Girl Goes.”

This same story lends itself to “Almost Cut my Hair” by David Crosby, set as it is in a time period when young males made statements by wearing their hair long, statements that older males of “the establishment” did not approve of—a similar conflict that plays out in this story between the father and son characters. “I’m not giving in an inch to fear” could be their mantras.

This story has yet two more songs—that is to say, I’ll limit the playlist to only two more that correspond to this story. The narrator, newly signed to a record label with her band, faces a long road ahead of her, one that will take place off the page. “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” from Nico and Velvet Underground possibly foretells a little of what that journey may be like.

“Going to California” by Led Zeppelin is essential, not simply because I can’t conceive of a playlist for this book without Led Zeppelin. And not only due to the fact that this song parallels “going into the forest,” but also because I see our girl going to California on tour with the band “with an aching in [her] heart.” Will “someone throw [her] a line” and will she “reach it in time”? She, like so many other characters in this book, tells herself “it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems.”

Because many of the relationships in “A Girl Goes” are about a yearning for connection, one based on characters’ naïve ideas of how romantic relationships are supposed to work (placed front and center), the Pretenders’ “Message of Love,” fits. “Now the reason we're here / As man and woman / Is to love each other / Take care of each other.”

Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” epitomizes that longing for sublime connection, one that arises from leaving a self behind. Reed heartbreakingly sings, “You made me forget myself / I thought I was / Someone else, someone good.” The eerie ending “You’re going to reap just what you sow” could easily have been words spoken by characters in “A Girl Goes.”

As a kind of sugar flower on the air cake of false promises, Born Ruffian’s “Little Garcon” captures this idea about the insisted-upon easy nature of romantic relationships including a treacle-coated possessiveness: “Don’t care where you go / as long as it’s with me.” The manic clapping and near-shouting as the song concludes makes me think of how invested some characters are in believing what they know to be untrue about the reality of love and connection.

The result of false promises, betrayals, and abuses can result in anger and in depression (anger turned inward). Option one is healthier, no? Butt Trumpet’s “I’ve Been So Mad Lately” is an example of the art of catharsis, a song that neither asks for or makes apologies.

Alicia Keys’ “Pawn It All” is a song about a desperate wish to start life over again and a willingness to give up everything to make that happen. Keys invokes the stakes common to women in dead-end or abusive relationships, who while so ready to make such sacrifices also must ask themselves, “How we gonna feed the babies now?”

“Sail” by Awolnation. With lyrics like, “This is how an angel dies / I blame it on my own sick pride” and “Maybe I should cry for help / Maybe I should kill myself,” and a refrain that’s screamed, this song captures the desperation to escape. If characters are going to be of any interest at all, they’re necessarily characters facing troubles they long to shake off.

Need and desire to belong, rue and redemption are thematic threads woven through the stories. The haunting “On the Sea” by Beach House with Victoria Legrand’s voice singing “Out on the sea we’d be forgiven” can make a listener believe that to be true. The lines, “Somebody’s child / Nobody made you / It’s not what you stole / It’s what they gave you,” could well have been an epigraph in A Girl Goes Into the Forest.

One of the epigraphs I did use, from the fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” refers to Kay: “Now his games were very different from what they used to be.” The line invokes Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” especially these words: “I was always thinking / of games that I was playing / Trying to make / the best of my time.”

“An Incident with the Brother” is another one of the longer stories and one that contains several passages with music, including a scene in which Anna, the narrator, meets the man she subsequently lives with, at a dance party in the local park. “Cantaloop” epitomizes the “horns and rhythm” music she and James dance to the night they meet.

Once they’re living together, Santana’s “Everything’s Coming Our Way,” captures the ease and optimism the couple seems to experience—at least for a nanosecond.

Another pivotal scene has Anna and Jack’s brother out together in a bar while Jack is away on business. Jonathan tries to breakdance. It’s easy to picture the subversive character getting down to The Beasties’ “Sabotage”—exactly what he’s up to with Anna and his brother—and also, with his Peter Pan personality, to “Fight for Your Right.”

Because Jonathan would only be warming up at that point, and because he would likely feel a deep alliance with this song, let’s add in Prince’s “Sexy MF.”

The story “The Radio Played a Song” references John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” but there’s a more fitting Lennon song for this playlist. With the many mother-child dyads navigating the complexities of this primary relationship that populate the pages of this book, “Mother,” with the Plastic Ono Band, is the obvious choice.

A playlist for “A Girl Goes” wouldn’t be complete without a song from iconic Patti Smith, who’s been reporting back from within the woods since she first began making art. I’ll select her cover of U2’s “Until the End of the World” a song that really belongs to her. “Waves of regret and waves of joy / I reached out for the one I tried to destroy”—the MO of many of the book’s characters straight up.

The story “You Can Do Anything” presents another musician, an aspiring folk singer. Cecilia is driven by an artistic authenticity and purity, qualities I’ve always attributed to Joni Mitchell. So, first I think of “The Last Time I Saw Richard” with its lyrics like “These dark cafe days”—crucial scenes of this story take place in a café—and “all romantics meet the same fate” and “get my gorgeous wings and fly away.” These last words are relevant for many characters’ outcomes and motivations, the desire for a kind of unencumbered leaving, on the wings of an angelic bird sort of hybrid creature.

Or there’s Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” These lines “Oh, I could drink a case of you darling / And I would still be on my feet” invokes Cecilia’s thirst that can’t be satisfied by her soon to be ex-husband, the far-from-intoxicating narrator. Or “Constantly in the darkness / where’s that at?” as our narrator certainly is very much in the dark—until he ends up in the ER on New Year’s Eve.

Perhaps the best song from Mitchell’s oeuvre for A Girl Goes Into the Forest overall is “Little Green,” a song about the birth of a daughter, about the “children who made her.” Mitchell sings: “Have a happy ending.” How deeply the characters in my book wish for that.

Peg Alford Pursell and A Girl Goes Into the Forest links:

the author's website

Barrelhouse review
Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review

The Rumpus interview with the author
Work-In-Progress interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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