January 11, 2023
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
The stories in Jen Michalski's collection The Company of Strangers are impressively varied in genre and strongly connected in themes of community. Michalski once again proves herself one of our most talented and surprising writers.
Sequoia Nagamatsu wrote of the book:
"A kaleidoscopic and candid exploration of the gritty corners of our desires and all that is left unsaid. By turns irreverent and deeply heartbreaking, Michalski masterfully constructs a collage of sexuality, belonging, and a search for what is possible atop strip malls, parking lots, and bowling alleys. Reminiscent, in some ways, of the genre-pushing work of Zach Doss, Etgar Keret, and Kim Chinquee, Michalski unequivocally carves out a space that is all her own—daring, deeply human, and often gut-wrenching."
My third collection of fiction, The Company of Strangers, reads just like it sounds—tales of alienation, of people yearning for connection (and sometimes finding it against impossible odds). In some ways, the collection is a song of myself—I always feel slightly left of center, looking in on things, and I find my characters are sort of Trojan horses who allow me to get closer to the person or the thing I want to examine. I suppose these feelings of isolation could be why I’m a writer, or maybe it’s because I’m a writer that I’m on the sidelines, observing.
Speaking of songs, I love music, and would want to be in a band if I wasn’t a writer. As a compromise, I can’t resist sneaking lyrics into my stories. The songs to follow are all found in stories in this collection, and they run the gamut of genre, just like the stories in this collection.
“Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
At one point, I imagined writing an entire collection of stories based on songs by Lloyd Cole—is there a richer storyteller than Lloyd? However, his detailed lyricism became a problem, as it was hard to deviate from the images he so vividly spun. Still, I got one story out of it, imaging Julia as one of Cole’s flamboyant, dramatic heroines. In fact, the narrator Jonah says to Julia, back when she’s a precocious girl who’s inherited her brother’s old Cure tapes, that “you should listen to Lloyd Cole [instead]. He writes songs for girls like you.” And, like Jonah, Lloyd Cole probably fell in love with them, too.
“Melissa” by The Allman Brothers Band
The lyric Crossroads, seem to come and go, yeah from “Melissa” can be found in the aptly titled story “Each a Peach.” There’s a little bit of a gypsy nature in Lynn, the protagonist, in that she literally runs across the country away from her grief and, predictably, it catches up with her. I discovered The Allman Brothers Band’s “Eat a Peach” in college, which was my second renaissance of musical touchstones and, like Lynn, I also mistook the peach on the cover of the record for an orange! I still listen to the Allman Brothers Band. I hate that a lot of people equate them with say, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sure, they’re both from Jacksonville, Florida, but The Allman Brothers are a much bluesier jam band, more in the vein of Little Feat and even the Grateful Dead. And the song is quite tender, with its gypsy man always coming home to Melissa after his long sojourn on the road. It doesn’t elaborate whether he’s been faithful to Melissa, but he does get back to her every time. “Melissa” was also one of first songs written by Gregg Allman that the band actually recorded (he admittedly wrote a bunch of terrible ones before it).
“Cool Slut” By Chastity Belt
I am a huge fan of these grungy ladies from the Pacific Northwest. The hit me like Sleater-Kinney hit me back in the 90s, and it bugs me that they haven’t achieved similar fameyet. I can’t say this song directly inspired the story “I’m Such a Slut and I Don’t Give a Fuck,” but I can see some similarities, I mean, the lyrics alone“Ladies it's okay to be/It's okay to be slutty.” You listen to Chastity Belt if (1) you live in the Portland, (2) you just broke up with your douchy bro boyfriend, (3) you have many memories of driving around aimlessly with your friends, listening to mix tapes, (4) you are a catastrophizing insomniac. In other words, perfect music to write sad stories to.
“Scheherazade” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite was inspired by the collection of Middle-Eastern folk tales that comprise One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights). Music about a collection of stories seems fitting for a collection of stories, yes? Although, I usually don’t listen to classical music while I write, I made an exception while working on the novella “Scheherazade,” which closes this collection. My favorite treatment symphonic treatment of “Scheherazade” is Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1959. I found a copy of the album in a used record store for fifty cents, and it sounds amazing.
“After Hours” by The Velvet Underground
An earlier iteration of this story collection was called After Hours. I think I shelved the title because it sounded too similar to Haruki Murakami’s After Dark (not that anyone would confuse the two). In an unusual move, drummer Maureen Tucker is the vocalist here, not Lou Reed, and her thin, childlike voice sounds as pleadingly lonely as its lyrics (“But if you close the door/I'd never have to see the day again”). The placement of the song at the end of the album, right after the climatic “The Murder Mystery,” gives the record a quiet little denouement. As sad as the song might sound, it’s really not. It’s more a manifesto of a person who’s perfectly happy in the dark, quiet hours before the world has yet to wake, where possibilities are infinite and tomorrow never comes.
“Teenage Riot” by Sonic Youth
Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon get a name check in “The Bowling Story.” I spent most of my high school and college years listening to the Sonic Youth albums Daydream Nation, Sister, and Goo. It was the holy trilogy of super fucking good music, and the song “Teenage Riot,” the opening song on Daydream Nation, was my anthem of disaffected, closeted youth, the churning guitar play between Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo filling with me conviction, making me shake my fist and want to do something, even if it was just crowding in a circle with half-a-dozen other college freshman in my dorm room getting high and listening to Sonic Youth CDs.
“Panama” by Van Halen
This song makes an appearance in the story “Your Second Left Fielder,” and it’s a microcosm of my youth—growing up in working-class East Baltimore during the eighties, when Van Halen and AC/DC ruled the radio before the glam metal hair bands rolled in. Despite the muscle riffs, juvenile lyrics, and its ability to induce slight PTSD of my prepubescent years, it’s catchy and I’ve reclaimed it for good as an adult. I often include it in my running playlists. It’s a bit of a parallel to the crux of “Your Second Left Fielder,” that you can never escape your past. That and snorting coke with your childhood crush is probably not a good idea.
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, three short story collections, and a couplet of novellas. Her latest novel, You'll Be Fine, was a 2021 Buzzfeed "Best Small Press Book," a 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards Finalist, and was selected as one of the "Best Books We Read This Year" by the Independent Press Review. She's the editor of the weekly online literary weekly jmww and currently lives in Southern California, although she will always be a Baltimore girl by heart. Visit her at jenmichalski.com