February 18, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jared Joseph's A Book About Myself Called Hell is a poignant, funny, and thoroughly modern retelling of Dante’s Inferno.
Brandon Brown wrote of the book:
"Jared Joseph’s wild A Book About Myself Called Hell dispenses with the pregnant deferrals and cunning allegories of Dante’s poem, finding eternal platitudes alongside changeless torments and ecstasies right here in the present tense. Joseph identifies a canon of substitutable dads, excoriating them for their dadliness, even as he follows the path to paradise they proscribe—and takes us with him. 'The funniest things in life,' this very funny book reminds us, “are also hell.” It’s a pleasure to be here, I mean there, howling alongside our hero in the flames."
There are 9 circles in Dante’s Hell, and there are 9 songs representing my A Book About Myself Called Hell, and since Dante’s Hell is concentric, my recommended method for listening would be to record onto 9 blank records each song so you have one song per record, then configure a setup where 9 record players are stacked one on top of another, then fit each record to each record player and set them all spinning, and hire a DJ or, say, The Devil, to reset the needle every time a record reaches full revolution in order to loop it back to its beginning and, if i’ve done my math correctly, which i haven’t, i was a creative writing major, anyway, since this is a 29 minute and 37 second long playlist, and since i multiplied the length of each song together to figure this, then it should take 12,670 minutes, or about 9 days, a measure of time made concentric with a larger measure of time, anyway, 9 days before all the tracks reset to zero, and you will hear a moment of silence, a silent revolution, and heaven is silent because heaven is perfect, you will not even hear the circulations of your blood nor the revolutions of your heartbeat because – if performed correctly, if performed perfectly, which it won’t be, because perfection doesn’t exist, because heaven doesn’t exist, Heaven is a perfect place, it is not a place on earth, Belinda Carlisle has no place on this playlist – your glucose levels should be pretty ghoulish by then, low enough to simulate the dead who lack blood and who lack heartbeats and so now you’re a silent Sims character on a broken-speakered computer (my grandma recently had to be reminded of the word for “computer,” she forgot it, she said “what’s it called, it’s something everyone uses to get by, it’s a box”), and so the silence will remind of heaven, and that’s the definition of hell, a bad translation or adaptation of heaven, or A Book About Myself Called Hell, which i’ve written as a sort of pseudo CliffsNotes of Dante’s Inferno.
1. “Your Touch,” Saâda Bonaire
“I need your touch so much, it’s not enough.” That’s more or less a description of hell. “I need a man or a cigarette,” Bonaire sings, and in Dante’s hell there’s neither, just ghosts with pain receptors and nicotine patches on fire. The one weird exception to this rule is in the circle that ought prove the rule, Circle 2 for the Lustful, where the in-life adulterous lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are “punished” in death by being blown ceaselessly around in the sky like erotically entangled balloons strung together in one another’s arms, buffeted by the wind the way honeymoon lovers are buffeted by their passions. It’s easy to imagine the sexually frustrated dead singing in unison this song while ogling the pair and waving their useless lighters (no smoking).
2. “Milk N’ Honey,” Anderson .Paak
“And now I'm swimming in milk n' honey, I'm swimming in milk n' honey, swi-swimming in milk n' honey, swimming in milk n' honey, I'm swimming in milk n' honey, swi-swimming in milk n' honey.”
The narrator meets a woman with a ton of money and an expensive car and she says “it’s yours babe,” and she makes him swear fidelity and he does and they get fucked up on fun drugs and then fuck and then she makes him swear fidelity and he says “it’s yours babe, i put your name on this dick,” so she gives him the keys to the whip and then he drives it to pick up other women and says “it’s yours babe,” meaning his dick, he thinks it’s all milk and honey now that he’s absorbed her money and he thinks he’s played her, but the police pull him over for her car whose glovebox is full of snow and outstanding warrants and that’s what the first “it’s yours babe “ meant all along, the car is his and its criminal record is his, now, and on his phone a message from her saying “i’ve sent you to hell.” The Inferno is full of stories exactly like this where sinners confess to Dante the errant path they’d taken in life that led them to hell, they all thought they could cheat the world and cheat god for money, or they read Exodus and thought Israel was the land of milk and honey, but then they got there and discovered Israel is really the Palestine-occupied land of US-funded blood money.
3. “Crocodile Gena,” Sergey Barionov
The actual human historical model for Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” is rumored to be Dante Alighieri himself, and when i see that bronze brow all i can think The Thinker is thinking is “let the pedestrians run clumsily over puddles,” which is the actual title of this song from a Soviet-era stop-motion animation called “Cheburashka.” i can’t directly or logically justify choosing this song for my playlist Hell, but Dante’s Hell is rife with the unjustifiable and the personal, hell is characterized by personal stories of strife. When i was a kid i remember reading the YA series Aliens Ate My Homework and in the final installment the evil villain is an intergalactic thug who’s developed a time bomb that will freeze the entire universe in that current moment forever. Why is this bad, asks the protagonist, an idiot human kid like myself, the reader. The protagonist’s guide, a nice and wise alien whose role is almost identical to Virgil’s role as guide to the protagonist Dante in the Inferno, says Because most creatures in most moments are suffering.
4. “Are ‘Friends' Electric?,” Tubeway Army
i like how much punctuation there is in the title. If you say My “Friend” about someone and do air quotes with your fingers, it means either the relationship with that someone is more complicated than a friendship, or less complicated, but either way that someone is not a friend. Dante placed a lot of his friends in hell, and i bet when those friends were asked about Dante, they were like “Oh yes, my ‘friend’ placed me in hell.” But a lot of those friends of Dante’s were dead already, which i guess made things less socially awkward. Betrayal is hell, and in fact in the Inferno the deepest and most serious circle of hell, the 9th, is reserved for Traitors, Judas being the superlative one. If justice existed and Dante were sent to the deepest circle, i think he’d like this live version best, and the whole crowd cheering: “But, are 'friends' electric? / Mine's broke down.”
5. “Seinfeld Theme,” Jonathan Wolff
The Divine Comedy.
6. “I Knew You’d Remember,” Michael Yonkers
This song is actually in the book. i spent a lot of time really loudly not crying to this song early Covid walking around the cliff path that overlooks the beach at night worrying about my friend who i thought was going to die, and the song at one point sings “I re-lived you close to me,” so i think i was imagining that my friend had died but i still had the memory of that friend and i was able to re-live that friend, and i think that very thought made me feel guilty, as if i was savoring a new Experience Opportunity for myself, how grief might enrich my world experience more, and then i was miserable, and then a month later a different friend died whereas that other friend is fortunately now doing very well, and this song was suddenly pure torture. It strikes me that the dead in hell must be required to have all their memories, because good memories are painful there and painful memories are painful there so both are useful to the whole Eternal Suffering ethos of hell, whereas in heaven a certain level of forgetfulness seems crucial, insofar as painful memories compromise bliss whereas good memories sweeten bliss.
7. “Never Relaxed,” Daniel Johnston
“Now the devil said ‘This ain’t fair. Most people who come here have had their share of comfort.’ So he sat Sid in a reclining chair. But it was an electric chair.” When i think of Daniel Johnston i think of the obsession with the autobiographical, it’s kind of a cliché by now, how we read a work of fiction and say it’s thinly veiled autobiography or we see a movie and wonder which character represents the director, for example in Ridley Scott’s hellish “Alien” the ship that betrays the director Ridley, i mean the protagonist Ripley, is named Mother, and in Ridley Scott’s most recent series “Raised by Wolves” the fearful/fearsome protagonist/antagonist is named Mother and after 40 years between the two releases you’re like “tell me how you really feel, Ridley,” and even if we’re probably right it still stands that we’re trying to psychologize an unreal character and read into a work of fiction a hidden autobiographical disclosure, like our ears are rubbernecking for a cry for help. With Daniel Johnston it’s different: the cry for help is called “cry for help,” basically, e.g. his first album is entitled “Songs of Pain,” and then two years later he released More Songs of Pain. For me with Daniel Johnston it’s more about reading the autobiographical out of it, about reading into a work of autobiography a hidden fictional disclosure, and a lot of people call Daniel Johnston’s work innocent and childlike etc., but sometimes I think the canniest thing about him is that he’s making songs about our appetite for songs about pain: “Now without any further ado I’m gonna do a little soft shoe and a little boogaloo, for you. If you want me to. I will.”
8. “oui,” Jeremih
“There’s no oui without u and i.” This is the other song in the playlist that’s actually in the book. Dante and Virgil happen upon the giant Nimrod, who’d built the tower of Babel because, like all architects, he aspired to be god. God was very upset by this, and Jenga’ed the tower to rubble and in its stead created languages, in the plural, in an effort to verbally alienate people from one another and to preserve the primacy of his hierarchical relationship to them. “There’s no we without you and I” encapsulates the whole history of god begging people to please let him be their boyfriend.
9. “Assault on Precinct 13,” John Carpenter
4 years ago i drove 9 hours overnight to see a total solar eclipse within the “band of totality” at Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne (Beautiful Land), Oregon. i was surrounded by people in lawn chairs gazing up at the sky with plastic eclipse glasses, like the 3-D ones people use in movies, and the sky went out and everyone began howling like parodies of wolves, and there was the sun-eclipsing moon totally visible, and i was ready for the spectacle to not be a spectacle, i wasn’t wearing spectacles, and, in the end, the total solar eclipse resembled a campy clay moon from a Tim Burton movie, and i cried because my own brain was so glitchy and kitschy and incapable of experiencing anything unmediated or new. i don’t even like movies. i write a lot about movies in the book and i think it’s because The Inferno is so visual, it’s so visual that the famous fascist Ezra Pound created the literary movement “Imagism” in his attempt to systematically synthesize from the medieval work all of the powerful visuality of Dante’s metaphors. The eclipse looked like the protagonist of John Carpenter’s Christine falling in love with his car. i like warm synth sounds because they’re both akin and inverse to eclipses. Eclipses generally can’t be seen because they’re too intense and violent upon the unaided human eye; synths generate electronic signals that can’t be heard by the human ear without the aid of amplifiers. Synths sound like angel song filtered through mechanical ventilation machines. The eclipse looked like Meg Ryan beside a life support monitor in City of Angels. i don’t even like movies. i love the music John Carpenter makes for his movies, the emotional atmosphere the music creates is almost always the same, sinister synth-based descent-into-hell music, synthesized piano, synthesized strings, it’s an almost literal version of deus ex machina, where here god is made out of machinery, the artifice has to feel real, and in the same way Dante, who fell in love with the Inferno’s real-life muse Beatrice when she was the age of 9, had to invent the 9 circles of hell in order to render this experience visual and audible to others. Atmospheres are portable, you have hospitable atmospheres and you have inhospitable atmospheres, which means life is conditioned by and subject to atmosphere, and John Carpenter soundscapes transform the landscape into the unknown, or the foreign, or the underworld, or hell, it creates a hell-on-earth environment, and this is why i can believe in hell. Dante was a sad normcore pervert. The eclipse looked like a brave little toaster. The eclipse looked like my description of the eclipse. The eclipse looked like A Book About Myself Called Hell. i’ve never seen Assault on Precinct 13.