Largehearted Boy - Book Notes - Christopher Beha “What Happened to Sophie Wilder”
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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable debut novel, one that showcases the author’s gift for storytelling.
Commentary wrote of the book:
“What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable first novel, which should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature. Along with handing them something good to read, it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.”
I don’t generally listen to music while I write. For a long time this only applied to music with lyrics, since I find it tough to put words together while listening to someone else’s words, though I could still listen to instrumental stuff. But through some effort over the past few years I’ve become a marginally more sophisticated music listener, which is generally to the good, as it means that I’m able to understand a little bit better how music conveys ideas. I don’t want to overstate this ability on my part, but I’ve developed it enough that I now have the same problem listening to instrumental music while I work that I do listening to lyrics, which is that it puts some other person’s thoughts into my head. Right now, I’m writing in an apartment without air conditioning, and summer has come early to New York, so I’m mostly listening to the fan. If that starts conveying ideas to me, I’m in trouble on all sorts of fronts.
That said, I love listening to music when I’m not actively writing. And my experience writing a novel is that one is always working on it, every waking moment (most sleeping moments, too), so there were plenty of times while I was writing What Happened to Sophie Wilder when the work was affected by my listening to something or other. And I do use music in my writing in a more conscious sense. If there’s a mood I’m trying to capture, I might think about how a piece of music I admire conveys that mood. If I’m trying to make a character come alive in my own mind, I might think about what kind of music he or she listens to, although I try to avoid writing that explicitly into the book. So, what follows are mostly not songs I listened to while writing the book, or songs I recommend that you listen to while reading it, but some songs that played a part in the book’s composition.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder takes place mostly in lower Manhattan in the summer of 2003. The big blackout that struck the northeast that summer is described, but otherwise it is less grounded to that one year than to the general period after 9/11. There was a particular feel the city had in those years, one that passed surprisingly quickly. Certainly, it was gone by the time I started writing the book in 2008, and I was conscious of that fact. That is, I knew that even though only five years had past and most of the buildings and even the people were the same, I couldn’t capture the New York of that time simply by looking around me.
One thing that had changed in those five years was the music: the years after 9/11 were the years of the post-punk revival. For the first time in a generation, downtown New York was the place where the coolest music in the world was getting made. At every party you heard The Strokes’s Is This Itand Interpol’s Turn On the Bright Lights. It was easy to believe that these bands would be the bands of the next decade. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen, but in a certain way what did happen was better: these bands became entirely emblematic of a moment. The quickest means I know to recapture the feeling of being young in New York a decade ago is to put one of these albums on. So I could have included just about any song off of either of them. I picked Interpol’s “NYC” for perhaps obvious reasons. If someone were to ask me to convey what the summer of 2003 in New York, the world of my book, felt like in as few words as possible, my answer would be: The subway is a porno/the pavements, they are a mess/I know you’ve supported me for a long time/Somehow I’m not impressed.
Wilco “Jesus, Etc.”
Here is another song from around that time that conveys that mood to me. In my first two years of college, I wore out Wilco’s double disc, Being There, until my roommates told me I had to stop playing it. After my sophomore year, I took time off and moved to France. I was feeling fairly adrift in ways that aren’t strictly relevant to the matter at hand, and I spent a lot of time reading (in English) and writing (also in English), which wasn’t particularly good for the language-learning plan that was the ostensible reason for the move, but which made those months as important for my development as a writer as any period in my life so far. I wrote a few stories that held together as stories for more than a page or two, which I’d never done before. They weren’t good stories, mind you, but they were stories, which was a big step for me. I’d been there for a few weeks when my sister, Alice, sent me a care package that included Wilco’s new album, Summerteeth. This meant a lot to me as a gesture, but I wasn’t sure how much I’d actually like the album. I’d grown a bit tired of the alt-country sound of Being There. I’d moved on, I thought. But so had the band, it turned out. I remember the first time I listened toSummerteeth, with its Beach Boys harmonies and the beautiful abstraction of its lyrics. I had the odd feeling that a band I loved was growing in ways that anticipated my own growth, making the music I needed it to make at that moment.
I was back at school when rumors started to circulate about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was said to be some kind of masterpiece, but a masterpiece so infuriating that the band’s label refused to put it out. All of that business has since become legend, but what I knew at the time was that Wilco had a new album and that I couldn’t listen to it. I understood that it represented another major departure, and I supposed it would be too much to ask that this departure should coincide again with my own personal progression. In late September of my senior year, just about a week after the city where I grew up was attacked, Wilco streamed the album on its website, and I listened to it for the first time. I was somewhat apprehensive, but within the first minute of the first track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” I knew they’d done it again. When “Jesus, Etc.” came on, with those beautiful strings and that opening—Jesus, don’t cry/You can rely on me, honey—I felt myself exhale for what seemed the first time in about ten minutes. Then I heard those lines, Tall buildings shake/Voices escape singing sad, sad songs, and I started to cry. This song was of course written and recorded long before, had been famously in limbo for months, but it felt like one of those cases, like Neil Young getting “Ohio” on the airwaves within a week of the Kent State massacre, where a song speaks in an incredibly immediate way to a moment we are all living through. By the time I got to the part about the skyscrapers scraping together, I understood that I was in the presence of something eerie, almost magical. It was a sad feeling, of course, but there was a hint of joy in it, the first I’d felt since before the buildings had collapsed.
Neko Case, “Star Witness”
Neko Case’s wonderful album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood came out after the period when my book is set, so it’s a bit anachronistic to include one of its songs here. But I listened to it constantly during the period when I was writing the book, and there is a certain attitude Case expresses in almost everything she does, what I want to call a humane fierceness, that I wanted my character Sophie to have. Why this particular song? Well, listen to it.
Bob Dylan “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”
Despite the proceeding, my musical tastes are not, in general, grounded in time, or if they are that time is the time spent on the floor of my baby boomer parents’ bedroom at the age of ten or eleven, listening to their record collection. My father’s taste ran toward folk, while my mother’s ran toward rock with a hint of the psychedelic, but they met at Dylan, Neil Young, The Beatles of Rubber Soul and Revolver, The Stones of Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers (my mom had the original, Warhol-designed album cover, complete with working zipper), and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, all of which I listened to with great devotion and exhilaration when growing up. Listening to my parents’ albums throughout my childhood affected me in lots of ways. To begin with, I have a rather old-fashioned idea about the album rather than the song being the primary unit of meaning for popular music, which can be seen above. In addition I occasionally still have a feeling best expressed by one of my heroes from that era, Brian Wilson: I guess I just wasn’t made for these times. Maybe everyone feels this way to some degree. In any case, it is a feeling shared by Charlie Blakeman and Sophie Wilder, the two main characters in my novel.
In the book, I quote Schiller to the effect that a man is a citizen of his age as well as his state, which I take to mean that it is incumbent upon us to make our peace with, and even show some loyalty to, our own time. But, man, it seemed to me that this music was my music, even if it was made a decade before I was born; I wanted to make something like it. So I started playing guitar and started writing songs, which is the first writing I did. When I discovered that I wasn’t good enough at writing songs, I gave it up for writing poetry. When I discovered that I wasn’t good enough at writing poetry, I gave it up for writing prose. A shadow of a shadow. But I try to remember Ezra Pound’s dictum that music begins to atrophy when it strays too far from dance, and poetry begins to atrophy when it strays to far from music, adding to it that prose begins to atrophy when it strays too far from poetry. This very long last track from Blonde on Blonde exemplifies this idea for me. I remember a few years ago, in a review of Christopher Ricks’s Dylan book, Jonathan Lethem took Ricks to task for treating Dylan like a poet, which is to say, for ignoring the music in favor of close readings of the words. Case in point, this song, whose lyrics are just nonsense on the page. On the album they are heartbreaking nonsense. While writing What Happened to Sophie Wilder, I often pictured Charlie saying to Sophie, “Sad-eyed lady, should I wait?”
Paul Simon “Mother and Child Reunion”
It would tell too much to explain the connection of this song to my book. I will only say that it’s the nicest song about death that I know.
The Sisters of the Abbey of Regina Laudis “Assumpta est Maria”
I said above that I don’t listen to music while writing, but this is one exception. I also said that most of What Happened to Sophie Wilder takes place in lower Manhattan, but some parts of it take place at Regina Laudis, an abbey for Benedictine nuns in Connecticut. This is a real place, to which I have been a few times. The lives of the nuns who live there is structured around the liturgy, and if you go to visit, you can hear them chant the mass, an incredibly moving experience even if you don’t share their belief. On one of my visits, I bought a CD of their chants, and I listened to it while writing the parts of the book that take place at the Abbey. Assumpta est Maria in coelum, this particular chant begins. Mary is assumed into heaven. Which is to say that it’s another song about the mother and child reunion.
Christopher Beha and What Happened to Sophie Wilder links: