Twitter Facebook Tumblr Pinterest Instagram

« older | Main Largehearted Boy Page | newer »

April 18, 2022

Maud Casey's Playlist for Her Novel "City of Incurable Women"

City of Incurable Women by Maud Casey

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Maud Casey's novel City of Incurable Women is as inventively told and provocative a book as I have read in a long time. Smart, powerful, and necessary.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"[City of Incurable Women] is poetic rather than polemic, elegantly written and filled with resonant imagery. . . . Affirmative and inspiring, a powerful demonstration of Maud Casey’s artistry."

In her own words, here is Maud Casey's Book Notes music playlist for her novel City of Incurable Women:

City of Incurable Women is an assemblage of fiction, archival photographs, medical documents both real and invented, that circles the stories of the women and girls diagnosed with hysteria in the mid- to late-19th century and confined to Paris’s Salpêtrière hospital. I say circle because it was never my intention to speak on behalf of these women; they’re long gone. What I hoped to do is feature an effort to create an impossible connection across the centuries, one that honors the mystery—and the music—of these women. They eluded the doctors and they elude me too. The book grew, in part, out of a collaboration with the photographer, Laura Larson, whose own City of Incurable Women, a book of her photographs and writing is forthcoming from St. Lucy’s Press. The link between the invention of the diagnosis of hysteria by Jean-Martin Charcot, a renowned neurologist in the mid-19th century, and medical/forensic photography is something Georges Didi-Huberman considers in his book The Invention of Hysteria. The book includes archival photographs of women in various stages of hysteria. I first read Didi-Huberman’s book for a class in college. What struck me was how staged and still the photographs were, these photographs meant to depict women in the throes of a disease that involved a lot of shaking and contorting. 19th-century photography required time, which meant the women needed to hold the poses. The performative aspect of the photographs—terrifying, staged, heartbreaking—stayed with me for decades, as did the question of what was going on outside the frame.

Incurable is a word Charcot used. “The great asylum,” he wrote, “as you are surely aware, contains a population of over 5,000 people, including a great number of incurables who are admitted for life…In other words, we are in possession of a kind of living pathological museum, the resources of which are considerable.” That word incurable has a flip side—as in, aren’t we all incurable when it comes to mortality? When it comes to desire?

Here’s a playlist of music by women who are that flipside of incurable in their music, and often in their lives—brave, renegade, spilling over. Inevitably, there’s some Great Men context, same as for the women in my book. Betty Davis was married, if briefly, to Miles; Dory Previn was married, for a time, to André; Ronnie Spector was married, for a time, to Phil. The context matters some, same as it did with the women in my book, but the music does what music does—it transcends context. It lives outside the frame.

“Credit in the Straight World” Young Marble Giants

Courtney Love’s version of this song made explicit what was lurking in this minimalist gem from the post-punk Welsh band, turning a song about scoring drugs into a delicious middle finger to conformity in its badly fitting sheep’s clothing. All of Hole’s Live Through This would fit nicely on this playlist, but Alison Statton’s deceptively sweet voice is a perfect foil for the guitar’s chugging dread. “I lost a leg/I lost an eye.” The straight world is vicious.

“Nasty Gal” Betty Davis

Gilles de la Tourette, a doctor at the Salpêtrière wrote, “With an essentially perverse nature, the hysteric seeks to fool those around her, in the same way that she has impulses that push her to steal, to falsely accuse, to set things on fire.” Betty Davis, a woman of interstellar style and talent, offers a good response. She sets things on fire. I am really late to this party (as I am to most parties, if I even go at all), but Mike Judge’s Tales from the Tour Bus has a great episode devoted to Davis.

“Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister?” Dory Previn

Where to begin with the glory that is Dory? The good news is there’s a documentary in the works, co-directed by Dianna Dilworth and Julia Greenberg. A sister to Virginia Woolf’s song, A Room of One’s Own, in which she imagines Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, Previn’s song is a series of questions—Was she bitter? Was she sweet? Did she wind up in a convent? Did she end up on the street? On the run? On the stage? Did she dance? Atmospheric rather than corrective, really asking rather than fake asking, steering into the curve of the absurd.

“She Talks to Rainbows” Ronnie Spector

Spector’s version of Joey Ramone’s spooky song about a little lost girl in her own little world, in Spector’s inimitably sexy croak, becomes a song of vulnerability, badassery, and solidarity. It makes me want to lie down on the floor, in a good way.

“Followed the Ocean” Grouper

The segue from Spector to Grouper is the sea (that little lost girl, who isn’t lost so much as elsewhere, talks to, among many other things, the seas), which figures prominently in City of Incurable Women. It offers solace, as an entity of vastness and mystery, and as, simply, its unselfconscious self. There is something beautifully underwater about Liz Harris’s music—the barely audible vocals, the shadowy blur of distortion and reverb.

“Sleep to Dream” Bettye Lavette

All of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters would fit nicely on this playlist, but Bettye Lavette’s fierce version of this fierce song from her album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (and she raises it), is its own city.

“I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” Ann Peebles

Maybe a good solution to the straight world, and the hysterical legacies of the diagnosis of hysteria. In the meantime, there is Peebles’ enormous voice and her carefully modulated restraint. Plus, horns.

“It Ain’t Necessarily So” Mary Lou Williams

I have been listening obsessively to Mary Lou Williams ever since Oxford American’s Up South music issue, which includes Harmony Holiday’s essential essay about Williams in which she calls Williams’ version of this tune “a tone poem for rebels and worshipers to share.” Williams was one of two women in the frame of Art Kane’s famous 1958 photograph “A Great Day in Harlem.” Her music, shape-shifting over decades, creates its own frame.

“Take Care” Yo La Tengo

I named one of my cats after Georgia Hubley, I love her (and my cat) that much. This heartbreaker written by Alex Chilton is tenderer still than the Big Star version (how is that even possible?) when sung by Hubley. I listen to it often. It’s the impossible, futile wish across the centuries.

“Happy Woman Blues” Lucinda Williams

The photo of Williams laughing and hanging out that door on the album cover of Happy Woman Blues! Paul Regnard, a doctor and photographer at the Salpêtrière wrote of the women diagnosed with hysteria, “We can cut them, prick them, and burn them, and they feel nothing.” The lyrics of this song are about scraping by (“Trying hard to be a happy woman/But sometimes life just overcomes me”); the rollick of the guitar is the feeling of the very opposite of nothing—the deep pleasure of laughing and hanging out of a door, cowgirl hat in hand.

Maud Casey is the author of five books of fiction, including City of Incurable Women, and a work of nonfiction, The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions. A Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the St. Francis College Literary Prize, she teaches at the University of Maryland and lives in Washington, DC.

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider making a donation.