January 9, 2020
In the Book Notes seriaes, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sadie Hoagland's brilliant collection American Grief in Four Stages is filled with stories of loss and its subsequent trauma.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A captivating debut collection probes the trauma of being human."
When I started American Grief in Four Stages, I didn't actually set out to write a book about grief, but rather a few stories that dealt with traumatic losses and the way we have a hard time, or an impossible time, putting a narrative to something like suicide. As I wrote, I became more interested in the lack of support our culture offers the bereaved, and the creative ways in which people try to find a healing story around a traumatic event. But I also didn't want every story to be dark, so while some stories hit those heavy notes of grief, many others conceived of loss as more subtle, or as a slow unfolding over and through time. When it came time to put the collection together, I actually thought of the stories as songs on a mixtape and tried to change up the moods. This is a little funny in that while I never read a collection in order, I was apparently imagining a very dutiful reader.
Here, then, are the songs I would select as theme music of sorts for some of the stories.
Mike Patton, "Snow Angel" for the story "Cavalier Presentations of Heartbreaking News"
This song for me is Edward Scissorhands meets The Virgin Suicides meets Donnie Darko. A dark picture of suburbia, and the surrealism that seems to bleed at the edges of normalcy is hugely important to this collection. The first story, "Cavalier Presentations of Heartbreaking News," in particular, embodies this tension between the way things look, and the way they really are.
Black Sabbath, "Planet Caravan" for the story "Fucking Aztecs"
If there's a funny story in this collection, it's this one. Inspired by Wells Tower's story "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned," I wanted to place someone who thought and spoke in contemporary terms and language in the setting of one of the more fascinating groups in history. At one point in Aztec history, and in my story, the other cultures lived near the Aztecs. My narrator is not an Aztec and shares my own fascination with this poetic and violent culture, and at one point he waits in the dark in the newly built Aztec temple drunk on chocolatl. If it were a movie I would select this song for the soundtrack, to match the "drunken alertness" he feels as he waits to see what the Aztecs will do next.
Cat Power, "Sweedeedee" for the story "In July Flags Are Everywhere"
While there are lots of songs in this story, the one I would pick for the story is this cover of a Michael Hurley song by Cat Power: "I know that everybody has a little hard luck sometimes/I know lately I've been having mine." The simple guitar and Power's vocals give the song a mellow, melancholy feeling apt for a story about a narrator who must take control of her house while her parents mourn the loss of their own parents.
Simon and Garfunkel, “Sound of Silence” for the story "Father/Writer"
This song for me transcends time, and Father/Writer is all about looking up and realizing 18 years have passed by since you last looked up. This song seems both new and old, and the line "Hello darkness my old friend," is so perfect for this story: "He remembered the darkness beyond the warm walls of their house all those nights."
Sacre's version of "Edelwiess" for the story "The Crossword"
There's something simple and haunting about this song that's both timeless and stuck in time. By that I mean I locate this song always elsewhere, in some nostalgia that's not even mine. The eerie version used by the series Man in the High Castle seems to speak to that same kind of simultaneous echo the song produces. "The Crossword" is about an old woman doing a crossword, each clue points to a signifier, a word, but rather than stop there she goes sideways, into other meanings she attaches to the clue. She lives in memory, is steeped in it, even as she sits very still and alive in the present moment. The echoes of the past are everywhere, both haunting and soothing, existing equally with the present moment in her kitchen.
Arcade Fire, "My Body Is a Cage" for the story "Frog Prince"
"My body is a cage, that keeps me from being with the one I love." Not only does this lyric apply to the original tale (until that final kiss), but to both protagonists in my story as well. Best friends, the girl loves her gay best friend, who loves her platonically, and who struggles with his sexuality. She keeps trying to transform him, not into her lover, but into accepting himself. Her final kiss doesn't succeed in this, but rather acknowledges her tragic failure.
Michael Andrews’ version of “Mad World” for the story "American Grief in Four Stages"
"I find it kind of funny/I find it kind of sad/the dreams in which I am dying /are the best I've ever had." The speaker in this song finds the people running in circles to be part of a "mad world." The narrator in this piece tries to process her sister's murder by speaking her way through it, hypothesizing ways in which everything is all right, when it is so clearly not all right. Her madness is only appropriate for the mad world that has put her in this situation where she finally must deal with her grief one day at an IHOP: "and even though it was the kind of day when you couldn't leave a dog or a baby in the car for more than two minutes, I stayed in there for a long time and no one broke the window to save me."
PJ Harvey, "Down by the Water" for the story "Origins"
The punky beat and Harvey's assuredness felt rebelliousness to me as a preteen; it coupled a female voice with an authority that seemed new and raw to me. The main character in this story goes from girlhood to womanhood via engaging in darkness, and by way of a misshapen fairytale. There's something edgy, authoritative, but ultimately infertile in her own search for lost children.
Antlers, "Hospice" for the story "Extra Patriotic"
This story to me is the hardest piece in the collection, and in a book about grief, that might be saying a lot. It's a piece about trauma, trust, and a broken love story between an Iraqi war vet with PTSD and a woman whose parents died violently. This Antlers song, with its relentless chords and sad lyrics implying a struggle between the speaker and the "you," emblemize the mood of the story for me. The song is not redemptive, just sad, but in a way that feels somehow cathartic and when I first heard it, I had the same desire to stay in that song as I did to stay in the story and write through it.
Jenny Lewis, "Bad Man's World" for the story "Dementia, 1692"
The narrator of this story is a child during the Salem witch trials and lives through them, and for many years after. As her mother dies of what we now call early onset dementia, she frames her mother's illness and her own isolation in terms of her guilt. This song by Jenny Lewis seems apt to me-- the Salem witch trials were a real bad man's world, one in which they were killing women that were outsiders. And what my narrator discovers is that she isn't stopping this, she didn't stop it, and so she must indeed be a "bad, bad girl." There is power in that, but the narrator never ceases it, too afraid of her own self.
Daniel Johnston, "Story of an Artist" for "Time Just Isn’t That Simple"
This piece is perhaps the most surreal in the collection; there is a thin line between metaphorical and literal, and time in the piece doesn't make sense, strictly speaking. Johnston's song begins with "Listen up and I'll tell a story/ about an artist growing old." The story begins, "When the kids come by with their research reports, I start by telling them about the excruciatingly long car ride to school." As the narrator tells them an oral history of sorts, the listening children refer to the "artist" down the street whose door they throw coins at. The artist acts as a double for the "writing" narrator, and like in Johnston's song, is some kind of indecipherable but tolerated person. In some sense, I think this song and this story get at some of the complicated feelings, and the doubts, I had in writing this collection about the uneasy place of grief, loss, and trauma in our current culture.
Sadie Hoagland is the author of American Grief in Four Stages, a collection of stories that the explore the inability of our culture to communicate grief, or sympathy, outside of cliché. Her novel, Strange Children, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. She has a PhD in fiction from the University of Utah and an MA in Creative Writing/Fiction from UC Davis. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Alice Blue Review, The Black Herald, Mikrokosmos Journal, South Dakota Review, Sakura Review, Grist Journal, Oyez Review, Passages North, Five Points, The Fabulist, South Carolina Review and elsewhere. She is a former editor of Quarterly West, and currently teaches fiction at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where she also lives with her family, and they do their best to eat beignets whenever they can. You can visit her online at sadiehoagland.com.
Sadie Hoagland and American Grief in Four Stages links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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