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October 27, 2022

Agustin Maes's Playlist for His Novel "Newborn"

Newborn by Agustin Maes

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.

Agustin Maes's novel Newborn is as unsettling as its writing is hauntingly beautiful.

Gina Ochsner wrote of the book:

"What a gift, what a glorious incantation! Each sentence, each segment in Newborn is a stone dropped in a pond of still, deep water awash in quiet reverberation. Like Chekhov or the legendary German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, Maes writes with uncommon lyricism and precision as he traverses the rugged emotional terrain."

In his own words, here is Agustin Maes's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Newborn:

Music isn’t present when I write. Silence is necessary (ambient sounds are alright). But there are pieces of music that call to mind certain moments in a story or are incidental to the making of those scenes. Newborn is a dark, haunting novella, as is the tone of most of the selected compositions. Although there are hundreds of pieces of music I could have chosen for this playlist—each for their own specific nuance—I’ve kept this list to ten songs. These are the ones I’ve chosen and how they relate to specific portions of the book.

“Ombra mai fu” is the first song on this playlist: when the two little boys find the body of the newborn in the creek bed. Xerxes sings a song of praise to a tree at the beginning of Handel’s eponymous 1738 opera. The boys are dappled with light from the trees above. And then their grim discovery. It seems the perfect music to the opening scene of the novella.

“Headfirst” by Goldfrapp brings to my mind the scene where Bitsy sees Art for the first time at the 7-11. She’s young and ignorant and innocent and neglected, looking for someone to pay attention to her. Attention becomes a substitute for actual love. Her naïve heart swells with a kind of earnest feminine ‘teenagerness.’

“Moving in Stereo” by The Cars: the song I imagine is on the radio during Bitsy’s ride in Art’s Ford Falcon. It rings true of the era when the novella takes place and who Bitsy and Art are and what will happen at the lake. And the exhilaration Bitsy feels at a sense of her own freedom, desirability, and autonomy.

“Carolyn’s Fingers” by the Cocteau Twins conjures Bitsy’s aloneness as she awaits her birthgiving; the comfort she feels from visits to the fire station and its relative peace and amiability: her longing for companionship when none is forthcoming.

“*” by M83 is when Bitsy’s water breaks on the balcony of the crappy apartment where she lives. The feeling of panic and disbelief she experiences are captured perfectly by this song.

“Bela Lugosi is Dead” by Bauhaus recalls Art’s time at the cemetery: the violence and carelessness of his personality and those of his friends. And the cemetery itself. And the creek that flows in its midst.

“Angel” by Massive Attack makes me think of the compassion of the baker towards Bitsy after she emerges at dawn in a traumatized fugue state from her horrifying experience. The woman shows her concern and gives her nourishment and thinks about Bitsy in terms of herself. The baker is a kind of angel. The song’s ‘fuzzed’ quality parallels Bitsy’s exhausted haze.

“The Promise” by Samia, featuring Jelani Aryeh, is an arrangement of a song by the band ‘When in Rome.’ I prefer this one to the original. It is reminiscent of the concern and love shown to Bitsy by her stepfather in a scene toward the end of the novella.

“Oblivion” by Astor Piazzolla is music for the ending of the book when Aaron, now elderly, is overwhelmed by the memories of his discovery at the creek and the ever-present feelings they bring up in him.

“Little Bird” by Goldfrapp (yes, Goldfrapp again) seems to me the essence of Bitsy’s personality and predicament in Newborn. The keystone song.

BONUS TRACK: “Oh Bitsy” by Nashville Honeymoon is a song written and performed by Lynne Maes and Hank Maninger. They told me it was based on Newborn. Humbling. Beautiful.

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