Matching Music to a Novel

It’s normal to listen to some music while reading. Something in the background, drowning out ambient noise.

I found a few years ago that just “listening to music” isn’t a good policy while reading. Music can distract from the story, even detract from it. It can draw the reader out of the book.

But if music can draw a reader out of a book, then it can also draw me in.

Since then, I’ve been very careful about matching music to my novels. I’ve got playlists for certain authors and genres, sometimes even for individual novels. I wander around international radio stations for some good culturally-matched novels.

What happens when music is matched to a novel is magic. The emotions that were once understated are cutting in their subtle beauty. Climaxes that were once exciting can be explosive with some rock music. Middle Eastern epics can come alive with classical Farsi lyrics playing in the background.

There’s nothing like it.

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“Persuasion” and the Enduring Similarities of the Human Heart

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For such a little book, “Persuasion” has endless layers. Social commentary and satire, pre-Victorian gender dynamics, class mobility, and a host of others.

But gendered interactions aren’t what I’m going to remember about “Persuasion.” What I’m going to remember are the descriptions of the human heart. The feeling of your heart tearing out, just when you think you’re going to see him again soon. The desperate need to convince yourself that you’ve moved on, that you’ve forgotten. The words running through your head, the rationalizations, even as you feel like you can’t breathe. The infuriating and inescapable fact of your inability to think about anything else, to focus on any conversation, when he’s in the room.

People say things like “the past is a foreign country,” but sometimes that’s not true. Love is something that doesn’t change as much as we might think. Our hearts are the same across the centuries. Our pains and our joys do not change.

The Sound and the Fury: Life Bleeding All Over A Page

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It’s difficult to enjoy reading Faulkner. It’s not that the words aren’t beautiful, or that the story doesn’t have that ring of truth binding it to the reader’s life. It’s just that Faulkner’s really hard to read. His narrators are unreliable, his sentence structures are uniformly insane, and his characters overwhelm. Who what where how why are all unclear.

But the words are just so beautiful. There’s an aching truth in Faulkner’s prose. Reading a Faulkner novel is a bit like what watching a suicide must be like: seeing characters slitting the wrists of their souls. Faulkner’s characters expose themselves on the page, tear their own hearts out and poke at them, tear one another’s hearts out and beg for help, for some ability to understand.

That said, “The Sound and the Fury” isn’t his best. I know it’s the one that makes all the lists, but really Faulkner can do better.

Sound and Fury is about how individuals live in the context of one another. It’s not about the tides of history, like “Absalom, Absalom,” or dealing with death, like “As I Lay Dying.” It’s about how lives intersect and ricochet off one another. It’s about the things love does to us and makes us do.

Faulkner once said that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart at war with itself. And no one could ever spill out the innards of a human heart quite like Faulkner.

But much as I love Faulkner, no one can dispute the truth in this cartoon:

imageskijNo high school student should have to read this book. I’m a grown-up and I barely understood half of it.

What is an Object of Beauty?

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Like most people, I really don’t know much about art. I know when I look at a painting if it moves me, and that’s the extent of it.

I do know that there are people who will pay millions of dollars for particular images, images which I”m just as happy to take a snapshot of. So I don’t know why pieces of art can be worth so much.

There’s a place where objects of beauty become something else, and that place and the culture it spawns are what Steve Martin explored in his fantastic novel “An Object of Beauty.” I actually thought the author was another Steve Martin, not the famous comedian. Finding out that Martin also writes novels made me hesitant about the book, but the casual beauty of the title meant that I was willing to give it a chance, and I’m glad I did.

The novel is a snapshot of a particular time and place: the New York art world in the mid-90s to 2008. An unreliable narrator tells the story of a woman he slept with once and remained friends with,  as she ricochets upwards in a world where a piece of canvas can fetch millions.

Art dealers, collectors, and writers all have their own reasons for getting into the art world, but in the end art is about beauty. Value is, in theory, determined by beauty. That’s how it is for us laymen, at least. For people in the art scene, beauty and value have a much more complicated relationship.

Beauty is what everyone craves. We want it in our homes, our relationships, our mirrors. So what does it mean, to sell beauty? What does it matter?

I dunno. Martin doesn’t know. And the characters in “An Object of Beauty” come up with all sorts of answers.

The Inheritance of Loss

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What does anyone want? To live their life. To love and be loved in return. To be happy. To live a good life.

That’s what each of us wants, and so often we wonder why we can’t be allowed to have it. Why does love always fail us? Why do the people we care about betray us? Why does the world get in the way of our happiness so often?

In Kiran Desai’s novel “The Inheritance of Loss,” history is always getting in the way of happiness. Every man and woman has an elaborate history of class, money, caste, and ethnicity. Their faces and languages define them far more than their selves ever could.

Some of them are aware of this. A retired judge loathed his wife for years because she represented everything he hated in the history of his self. She was Indian, and impoverished. And he adored his Irish Setter devotedly because in her he saw reflected all that he had ever wanted to be, the simplicity of civilization.

A young girl, orphaned by Soviet-Indo politics and a bus, fell in love for the first time and discovered that the world does not let happiness alone.

It’s fascinating to watch the intersection of history, of life, and of love in a few characters. To see how loss and love and hate can be inherited from nameless and faceless ancestors. To understand the presence of time, past present and future, in every moment of our lives.

Raw Power of Emotions Distilled vs. a Torrent of Words

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Novels are about emotion. That’s the basic principle behind all art. It’s reason for existence is to capture the human experience, and to create in the reader some sort of emotional reaction.

There the basic similarity ends. No two novels deliver their emotions with the same punch. Some creep up behind you, wheedle themselves into your consciousness. Some hit you over the head and drag you away.

There are novels where every word on the page is about emotion. Every line, sentence, and punctuation mark is about connecting with the reader and delivering an experience. I’m not talking about Hemingway vs. Faulkner here, about simplicity vs. complexity. In fact, I’d say Faulkner definitely aims to deliver emotional baggage with every paragraph.

Maybe it’s a plot thing. Or characters. Or something indefinable about writing styles. But there are novels that are all about making a visceral contact with the reader. Tennessee Williams in his short stories did this. So did Arundhati Roy in her one-hit wonder of a novel.

And then there are novels like the last one I read, “A Fine Balance.” It actually reminded me of “Anna Karenina,” sometimes very forcefully. Those novels, some of which are realist, are about pouring out endless words. Words, words, words. Information fills every single page, familiarizing the patient reader with every single aspect of a life, or two lives, or three.

It’s hard to say if one of these approaches is better. Neither is easy. One starts with emotions and then uses them to move to character, the other establishes character and plot and then moves to emotions.

A Fine Balance Between Hope and Despair

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If the universe doesn’t care if you survive or not, if you suffer or rejoice, then what do you do?

“A Fine Balance”‘s answer is that you seek a balance between hope and despair. You try to adapt to the misfortunes that inevitably befall you. And you keep reaching for the future, for whatever’s next. You don’t allow despair to consume you.

That’s the idea, at least. It’s a good idea, and by reaching out to one another the characters in the novel learn to hold off their despair. They learn about the strength that comes from caring about other people, from facing the world together. Traditional families and tradition in general have failed them, so they fashion their own family, their own support to hold at bay the universe and the despair it threatens.

Maybe the balance between hope and despair is just an illusion, a way of getting through the day. If everyone just tried to balance hope and despair, nothing would ever change. If everyone accepted the world rather than making it accept them, how would the world change? But maybe that’s a very American thing to say.

“A Fine Balance” is what every novel should be: a study in humanity, of the human heart at war with itself, of people living their lives.