March 19, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mary South's impressive debut collection You Will Never Be Forgotten examines loneliness through the lens of interactions with technology.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Playful, astute . . . South’s stories are both funny and profound, often on the same page, but perhaps her best skill is plumbing the intricacies of loneliness, expertly dissecting what that term means in a technology-driven world. This is an electric jolt from a very talented writer."
All of the characters in You Will Never Be Forgotten, my debut short story collection, use technology to palliate their negative emotions of rage, despair, or grief. A neurosurgeon, writing the Frequently Asked Questions Page for her hospital’s website, loses control of her answers and begins to reflect upon the guilt she feels over her husband’s suicide. Elderly men in a nursing home dial phone-sex hotlines as a way of soothing their loneliness. And a mother, refusing to accept that her daughter has been taken from her too soon, re-creates the memories of that daughter for her identical second child. Many of these fictional people are just doing the best they can while working dystopian, late-capitalist jobs—as nurses to babies raised for organ harvest, all of whom are named Keith, or as content moderators for “the world’s most popular search engine,” tasked with eliminating the worst horrors of humanity. Of course, technology is only able to do so much to numb their painful feelings. Yet after a while, something unexpected happens: many of these characters, after being broken open, are able to discover a connection to others or a vulnerability they didn’t know was possible.
Listening to music is one way that technology has helped me to relate to my characters. I often find myself reflecting on what songs would be on loop in their minds at any given time. Music is so good at bringing out subliminal moods and images, too, that listening to the right tunes can help me keep my momentum going while writing. Below is a playlist of ten songs, one for each story in my collection.
The Beta Band
This song darkly captures the dissociation of my nurse protagonist, stuck in her depressing warehouse job tending to Keiths. All of her charges are intended to be replaceable—doomed to be harvested for body parts—so she knows she shouldn’t get attached to any of them. (Although, naturally, there is one special Keith...) But this mandate to not care while caring makes her feel replaceable, too. The lines “So, miles and miles of squares / where’s the feeling there? / Still nobody cares / For miles and miles of squares” remind me of commuting past rows of apartments filled with anonymous tenants to a place of employment that does not value your contribution. “They tried to reach me but I lay upon the ground” and the repetition of “daydream” could easily refer to either her or her Keiths kept in a perpetual chemical sleep.
A grand, symphonic track to explore private devastation in the aftermath of a toxic relationship—or at least a relationship where the two people involved couldn’t establish a mutual understanding despite their powerful attraction. At the end of “The Age of Love,” my unnamed protagonist, who is unable to bridge the distance between him and his girlfriend, would very much relate to the lyrics “If only we could start again, pretending we don’t know each other.” He sabotages his last chances of healthy partnership with her out of jealousy, over the connection she’s able to enjoy with a much older man in tune with his emotions. When she rightly leaves this protagonist, he can no longer avoid looking at the damage he’s caused. “Hate can’t live in this heart here forever / Have to learn how to make it together.”
“On the Sea”
One of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard about loss and regret but also acceptance and moving on. I’ve often thought the lyrics here point to an unexpected death or a suicide of someone deeply cherished. “Would you rather go unwilling? / The heart is full and now it’s spilling” feels directed to someone overwhelmed, struggling to stay tethered to life, while “Gentle ‘til the end / Any way in a name / She takes shape just the same” indicates for me that this person has been irrevocably lost even as they are still very much remembered by those left behind. The neurosurgeon in “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy” feels very raw from her grief over her husband’s suicide, even as she’s able to achieve a kind of catharsis with her sons at the close of the story. She would listen to this song on repeat when it didn’t hurt so much to do so.
“Heaven or Las Vegas”
The glossolalia of the Cocteau Twins’s Elizabeth Fraser is legendary and somehow perfectly fitting for perhaps the most ambitious story in my collection. In “Architecture for Monsters,” a megalomaniacal starchitect, Helen Dannenforth, designs buildings that wouldn’t be out-of-place in the body horror genre—towers like torsos cut open during surgery, eerily cochlear concert halls. She’s also the first in this collection’s roster of bad mothers, dubiously taking advantage of her daughter for inspiration. Then again, familial relationships are never quite what they appear to be in this plot. The climax also occurs in Las Vegas. But Elizabeth Fraser’s voice could effortlessly soar through any built space, real or imagined.
“No One’s Easy to Love”
Sharon Van Etten
A good writer friend recently posited that my fiction is concerned with emotional maturity, and that is especially true in “The Promised Hostel.” This story, set in an out-of-the-way hostel during the off-season, follows a group of wayward backpackers who are acting like literal manchildren. Their insatiable emotional need is grotesque and unsustainable, but comes from intensely wanting to be loved—and never really getting such unconditional acceptance in their youth. The lyrics “There was a question you asked: Is your father a man? / No, but I think you should do ask of yourself the same” could be directed at any one of these characters. The protagonist is also trying to rekindle a romance from his teenage years, but it’s not meant to be, which I can see reflected in, “Don’t look back, my dear, just say you tried.” An appropriately wistful song for lost boys who really need to figure out how to grow up.
“Running Up That Hill”
In the title story of my collection, a woman working at “the world’s most popular search engine” as a content moderator—screening hate speech, gore, and other horrifying videos—starts following her rapist, first online, then in the real world. She’s suffering from debilitating PTSD from her rape as well as her what she sees on the job. As a result, she is filled with rage, which she has, regrettably, directed inward. I can hear her rhetorically asking, in pain, “Do you want to know how it feels? / Do you want to know, know that it doesn’t hurt me?” She is making no forward progress in recovery or in her life, constantly running. By the end of the story, she’ll realize she can’t run anymore. Alas, it is up to her to really take charge of her own healing.
I like the meandering feel to this track, which nicely accompanies a story about the playful search for an escapee from a summer camp for recovering teenage internet trolls. Most of these campers are kids of privilege, yet nonetheless “drifting along in the same stale shoes.” Though their counselors don’t come from quite the same economic background, they’ve found themselves similarly drifting. In searching for Rex, the escapee, they have a chance for a small moment of redemption and connection.
“home with you”
The eighth story in my collection, “To Save the Universe, We Must Also Save Ourselves,” is about how fandoms can turn rabid and toxic. It’s also an examination of the strangely predictable life cycles of internet controversies. In this story, the collective “we” fans of a fictional Star Trek-like television show end up tearing apart the very thing they claim to love—as well as causing extreme emotional distress to its star who has to live much of her life in public. Immediately, I thought of her when I heard the lyrics, “How come the more you have the more that people want from you? / The more you burn away the more people earn from you / The more you pull away the more that they depend on you / I’ve never seen a hero like me in a sci-fi.” She may portray an extremely bold and courageous character on the show, but unfortunately her fans demand she be this way in her personal life, too. Vulnerability and mistakes and flaws are not allowed.
Cigarettes After Sex
“Realtor to the Damned” is a nontraditional ghost story inspired by a news article I read that described how bereaved people text the numbers of their deceased loved ones out of nostalgia or to say goodbye—and sometimes get a text back. Turns out that phone companies reassign the numbers of deactivated accounts to new users. The protagonist, working as a realtor in Florida, texts his wife who died in a car accident and begins a relationship with the woman who responds, her “ghost.” (Of course—spoiler alert—he is ultimately ghosted by the ghost.) He and his former wife also shared an interest in the lore of hauntings and would make up whimsical ghost stories about the properties he was trying to sell. And it features a grand piano that may or may not be possessed, which I find represented in the lyrics, “You’ve been hiding them in hollowed out pianos left in the dark.” I can hear him plaintively urging his absent wife, “Come out and haunt me, I know you want me / Come out and haunt me.”
“Not Setsuko” has a grieving mother who refuses to move out of denial and thus re-creates the memories of her tragically lost first daughter for her clone (or, as she calls it, “incarnation”), the dissolution of a marriage, horror movies, and the re-creation of scenes while making a film, over and over again. That’s a lot for a short story to encompass, and it’s deserving of an epic song like this one. “So, where do I go / To make an offering? / To mourn our miraculous triangle? / Father, mother, child.” At the end of this story, the mother, Karen, certainly would relate to such a sentiment, as well as the lines, “How will I sing us / Out of this sorrow? / Build a safe bridge / For the child out of this danger, danger.” She has finally reached acceptance and learned that she must embrace the daughter she has, not try to force her to become the daughter she has lost. She must feel her extraordinary aching pain in order to have a family at all.
Mary South is a graduate of Northwestern University and the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University, where she was a chosen for a Henfield scholarship. For many years, she has worked with Diane Williams as an editor at the literary journal NOON. She is also a former intern in The New Yorker’s fiction department and a Bread Loaf work-study fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Electric Literature, NewYorker.com, NOON, and Words Without Borders. The writer Maile Meloy awarded her story “Not Setsuko” an honorable mention in the Zoetrope: All Story fiction contest. She lives in New York.
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)
Flash Dancers (authors pair original flash fiction with a song
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