In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Caroline Louise Walker’s novel Man of the Year is an engaging and suspenseful debut.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“Searing . . . There are more than a few surprising twists in store in this smart, subtly menacing novel of suspense. Walker is a writer to watch.”
Man of the Year is about an ego-driven man (Dr. Robert Hart) who suspects his wife (Elizabeth) of having an affair with a much younger man (Nick, friend of Robert’s son, Jonah) — but it’s also the story of how hard that man will work to avoid feeling uncomfortable. It’s about seeing and being seen, and the ways we unwittingly keep ugliness afloat, simply by virtue of hiding ourselves or letting a hard truth stay hidden.
Image vs. Intimacy.
A sides = songs that appear on the page
B sides = music not in the novel but very much aligned with it, in my heart and head
“Pull Out the Pin” – Kate Bush
Comparing a fancy man’s marital woes to the horrors of war is absurd, but it may well be Dr. Hart’s anthem. He defends his ego like a soldier holding ground: his house, his family, his wife, his legacy. His zero-sum mentality.
Kate Bush says she wrote this song after seeing a documentary about Vietnamese soldiers tracking Americans in Vietnam. The song’s narrator holds a grenade, finger on the pin, staring at another young man with another life back home in another world, whittling it all down to this: “Just one thing in it: me or him. / And I love life! / So I pull out the pin.” The way Bush roars, “I love life,” rubbing an otherwise earnest phrase raw, sounds the way burning celluloid looks: a lovely image bubbling, curdling, melting away. Which suits the novel well.
“I Met Up with the King” – First Aid Kit
A lot of characters in the book grapple with time, getting older, getting old. I remember seeing First Aid Kit as an opening act in 2011, being struck by their winter-spring sound and by this song, in which the king begs for his spirit to be seen, even as his flesh rots on the bone: “Don’t think less of me / I’m still the same man I used to be.” The pretty girl whose soul is stripped bare, but who would believe her? She looks so good. To my ear, this song captures the confusion and isolation of man experiencing mortality as the plot hole in his own mythology. Bodies as burdens. But also: How can we be believed (or believed in) if we aren’t truly seen?
As with the Kate Bush song above, Klara and Johanna give feral delivery to a civilized line, growling, “Well, thank God,” as though purging the lyric—relief via active nihilism: “Well, I don’t know anything at all / and we mean nothing to history. / Well, thank God.”
“Three Little Birds” – Bob Marley and the Wailers
I needed a song that would be familiar to readers and characters, spanning generations, something bright to clash with the drip of darkness, and I liked the reference to three: a trio, triangle (love triangle, or not?). I also needed a song that would work for a particular scene with Jonah and Nick.
LA Weekly ran a story a while back called “Legend in the Making: How Bob Marley Was Sold to the Suburbs,” outlining the calculated marketing strategy designed to sell Legend to white, suburban, American consumers following Marley’s death. Apparently, the researcher’s focus groups preferred not to hear about injustice and politics: topics they found uncomfortable and off-putting. In a separate piece, journalist Jeremy Helligar writes: “You’re more likely to hear his 1984 compilation Legend playing in a Delta Chi frat house (as I have) … than at an all-black party in New York City (dream on).” These perspectives crossed my mind when choosing this song and album for this scene.
“I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open” – Dolly Parton
I love Dolly too much to leave her off of any playlist. Despite the cognitive consequences of sleep deprivation, Robert would surely nod his head to: “You’ve been stepping, so they say, / between midnight and day, / so I’m gonna sleep with one eye open from now on.”
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, Op. 95, B. 178 – Antonín Dvořák
There’s a niche joke here, alluding to John Williams alluding to Dvořák in the Jaws and Star Wars scores—a hint of highbrow-lowbrow tension between Robert and Nick. Mostly, though, this work aligns with the novel’s themes of identity and observation. Dvořák was a homesick visitor in a foreign land when he came to the U.S, tasked with writing the definitive American symphony (weird). The resulting work had a funhouse mirror effect for many American aristocrats, reflecting things that made them uncomfortable. Perspectives they didn’t want to see. Ways they didn’t want to be seen. Not unlike Robert’s experience with Nick. But Dvořák was uncomfortable, too, despite everyone telling him how lucky he was to be in such an impressive place—not unlike Nick’s experience in Robert’s home.
It’s worth noting that of American “enthusiasm,” Dvořák wrote (in Harper’s Magazine: February 1895, pp. 429-434): “It is the essence of what is called ‘push’—American push. Every day I meet with this quality in my pupils. They are unwilling to stop at anything. … they want to go to the bottom of all things at once. It is as if a boy wished to dive before he could swim.”
“All the Girls Hate Her” (and “Over It”) – Tori Amos
Like countless humans and woodland creatures, Tori’s songs-as-psychopomps ushered me through my formative years and beyond. Her lyrics were/are portals to other worlds—the mythological, the historical, the ephemeral (and now, temporal)—and her liner notes worked like treasure hunt clues, but this piano suite tells a story so well without words. It had been ages since I’d heard them, but they lived in my head while writing this book.
“The Lady in Red” – Chris de Burgh
This song appears early in the novel, when the narrator’s world is still rose-tinted. He is the star of his own melodrama, laying claim to the crown jewel, which happens to be a woman who is also his wife—as was also the case for Chris de Burgh, who wrote “The Lady in Red.” De Burgh’s wife, Diane, has said she was mortified by [the song].” Also mortifying, I’d imagine, was the time she broke her neck and de Burgh sought comfort (for the trauma of his wife’s broken neck) in the arms of their 19-year-old nanny.
So there are cheating and red dress parallels, but there’s also the fact that de Burgh, like Robert, doesn’t take kindly to criticism and ego-threats. In 2009, the Irish singer responded to an unsatisfactory review in The Irish Times, writing:
“How it must have galled you to hear the rapturous welcome I received at the start of the show; how you must have writhed at every standing ovation; how you must have cringed at every call of ‘Chris, we love you’; how you must have felt isolated as the audience rose to their feet as one, singing, dancing and shouting out for more …”
among other things. I’ll assume the parallels between de Burgh and Robert end here, and I know these connections are well-sunk, but details like these pull me under while writing.
“Norwegian Wood” – The Beatles
This was the clear choice for a contemporary song in ¾ time, what with its opening lyric suggesting people as possessions (“I once had a girl, / or should I say, she once had me.”) and its drastic take on unmet expectations. The girl invites the narrator to her home. The narrator assumes it’s an invitation into her bed. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he sets her room on fire.
“Scarlet Begonias” – The Grateful Dead
Another narrator observing another enchanting woman! This time, the narrator doesn’t try claim to her (or burn her). This time, he moves through the fantasy and emerges on the other side, with bittersweet acknowledgement that the woman isn’t his to claim or even know—that she is, in fact, her own being, separate from him—and to “let her pass by” is to accesses a sort of transcendent understanding that actually, no, we are all one unified body, man, and “everybody is playing in the heart of gold band.”
To me, it says: we’re alone, but we’re all alone, so we’re all our own, and we’re in it together. It appears in a critical scene in the book, so I’ll hold the details, but it fits on a number of levels in this scene.
“It Ain’t Me Babe” – (written by Bob Dylan) as sung by Johnny Cash and June Carter
At one point, a character notes, “Johnny Cash and June Carter are singing Bob Dylan’s song,” on the radio. The only such recording I am aware of, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” is almost campy in this scene, in my mind. There’s a hint of “not it!” There’s also this weird layer of self-awareness, by way of the lyrics, floating over a zero-self-awareness situation. More burnt celluloid.
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47: 1. Allegro Moderato – Jean Sibelius
Nothing textual or contextual here, but I listened to the concerto (in full) so much while writing the novel, it feels wrong to neglect it. When I got antsy at my desk, a YouTube video of Vilde Frang playing the hell out of the end of the first movement, Allegro Moderato, worked like a shot of fire to my brain.
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord” — Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey (lyrics and melody adaptation)
This song is so beautiful, but the beauty caves in on a particular character in the scene in which it appears. There’s no escaping this character’s associations with the song, no escaping the space. There’s new gravity in hearing, “I am tired. / I am weak. / I am worn.”
“Hyperballad” – Björk
Good lord, the places we’ll go in our heads to make reality more palatable. This song is so perfect in so many ways. I’ll never not love it, and I’m fairly certain at least one character would say the same.
Caroline Louise Walker and Man of the Year links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 – ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 – 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 – 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film’s soundtracks)
weekly music release lists