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June 7, 2022

Robert McGill's Playlist for His Novel "A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life"

A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life by Robert McGill

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.

Robert McGill's inventive dystopian novel A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.

Ian Williams wrote of the book:

"Gripping from the first page, Robert McGill’s A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life is a dark, speculative novel with echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, set against the backdrop of a plague. Some of us would do anything to survive, down to flatpacking ourselves like IKEA furniture, while others would do anything to make our miserable lives end. This is timely, provocative, ethically challenging fiction that asks whether the drive to survive is stronger than the inevitability of death."

In his own words, here is Robert McGill's Book Notes music playlist for his novel A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life:

A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life is the first novel for which I wasn’t listening to music as I wrote it. I needed silence to fully immerse myself in the weird version of reality I was creating: one where some people undergo a process called “flatpacking” to save themselves from a pandemic involving a deadly parasite, and where others take a drug that makes them believe they can read people’s minds. But there’s music in the novel: for one thing, the father of the protagonist, a depression-prone young woman named Regan, is a musician. And as I told Regan’s story, I found certain songs playing in my head.

Janelle Monáe – “Many Moons”

The uncanny return of a song from Sesame Street as the opening melodic riff is one among many highlights of “Many Moons.” An early entry in Metropolis, Monáe’s Afrofuturist series of songs about a dystopian society, “Many Moons” evades generic classification, evoking swing, hip-hop, soul, and funk, while combining social critique with a raucous energy that gets you feeling wildly different emotions – wonder, anger, disquiet, exhilaration – all at once. The song’s refusal to be or mean just one thing is something I value in novels, too.

Leonard Cohen – “Going Home”

Released when Cohen was seventy-seven, “Going Home” is about mortality: about growing resigned to “going home to where it’s better than before.” It’s also a song of deep humility, as Cohen acknowledges “he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube.” That description of the human body has haunted me, and it undergirds the idea of “flatpacking” in my novel, a process whereby people are squished down almost to two dimensions to be saved from a parasite referred to only as “the worm.” It’s an absurdist idea, but Cohen’s song reminds us that even in the real world, none of us is so distant from worms as we might like.

Gillian Welch – “Dark Turn of Mind”

If it’s a cliché that Welch’s songs sound timeless, like old standards of Americana rather than the twenty-first-century creations they are, then it’s partly due to the themes that Welch explores, including persistent qualities of the human condition. As Welch sings of “the shadows a-calling,” I think about the many people I know who have struggled with depression. Welch ends the song by seeming to accentuate the positive, singing that “some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind,” but there’s ample irony in the line. It’s ironic, too, that such “blessings” can engender songs with the melancholy beauty of this one.

Gordon Lightfoot – “If You Could Read My Mind”

The only song on this list that gets a shout-out in A Suitable Companion, it’s one in which Lightfoot explores our desire for interpersonal connection: our wish not to be trapped, alone, in our own psychical apparatuses. You might say that Lightfoot’s emphasizing the promise of music in this respect: its ability to create bonds beyond what can we can forge with only words. Yet he also nods to fiction as another place for establishing such bonds, singing: “If I could read your mind, love, / what a tale your thoughts could tell. / Just like a paperback novel, / the kind the drugstores sell.” The drugstore line may carry a note of condescension, but I choose to read it as also ascribing to the written word a more salutary, quasi-pharmacological power.

Jane Siberry – “Temple”

Another song about mind-reading. At least, that’s one way of understanding Siberry’s repeated assertion, “Let me into your temple,” which, for me, evokes not just a place of worship (and, yes, the human body) but also the fleshly coral of the brain. As the persona assumed by Siberry mocks another’s suffering – “You call that hard? / You call this cold? / That’s nothing” – her demands to be admitted to the other person’s “temple” make me wonder if she’d be a healthy presence there. This song played in my own brain as I wrote a scene in A Suitable Companion where one character coercively, desperately demands that another read his thoughts.

Regina Spektor – “Better”

“If I kiss you where it’s sore / will you feel better, better, better?” The parental act of pretending to magically heal one’s young child with a kiss is the catalyst for Spektor to meditate on how, as adults, we look to intimate relationships to help fix us and others, and how we end up disappointed when those relationships fall short of being cure-alls. Such hopes and failures likewise play out in A Suitable Companion, as flatpacked people are called on to fulfil parental, filial, and even romantic roles for those who “adopt” them.

Belle and Sebastian – “Stars of Track and Field”

In my novel, Regan’s an aspiring track star sidelined by injury. I was pretty serious about track in my day, too. Because songs about the sport are thin on the ground, I’ve listened to this one more than is probably reasonable. I admire its attention to how elite athletes can create bubbles around themselves, prioritizing training over all else. Addressing such an athlete, the singer wonders: “Could I write a piece about you, now that you’ve made it, / about the hours spent, the wilderness in your training?” In A Suitable Companion, it’s Regan’s injury that leaves her feeling like she’s in a wilderness, abandoned by her coach and teammates, but it’s clear that even before she stopped running, her training regimen made for a self-isolating life.

MorMor – “Outside”

“Outside” was released in 2019; the next year, when the COVID lockdowns came, the opening lines of the song’s chorus, “Looking outside, / I’m scared to die,” gained a new resonance. Something similar happened with A Suitable Companion, as I settled on its pandemic premise well before COVID hit. Likewise, the novel’s opening scenario, in which Regan condemns herself to living out her final days while sealed in her house, ended up feeling more relevant to contemporary life than I ever expected.

MorMor took his name from a Scandinavian word meaning “grandmother.” My love of his music was an inspiration for me to give the same name to a character in my novel – one who, in her case, also happens to be a literal grandparent.

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill – “Port Na bPucai”

This haunting Irish folk tune, “The Fairy’s Lament” in English, is said to have its origins in a fiddler in the Blasket Islands waking one night to the sounds of unworldly music coming from the sea. He listened until it faded, then grabbed his fiddle and replicated the tune as best he could. There’s also speculation that “Port Na bPucai” is actually inspired by whale song, given how the high notes stretch and fall. The tune itself inspired a moment in A Suitable Companion where Regan’s father sings to her a lullaby from her childhood. Regan remembers loving “its longest, highest note, and then the waxing and waning across the bottom of his range.”

Robert McGill's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines including The Atlantic, The Dublin Review, Hazlitt, and The Walrus. He teaches at the University of Toronto. His previous books include two novels, The Mysteries and Once We Had a Country, and two nonfiction books, The Treacherous Imagination and War Is Here. Visit him at

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