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Listen to This, Listen to That: Facts and Fictions

by Dan Froid

“I wanted to write a beach read for smart people,” Joy Castro says of her novel Hell or High Water. She explains in “Facts and Fictions,” Episode 17 of Air Schooner, her intent to create a book that’s not only fun to read but intellectually stimulating, full of complexity. Her novel takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans, centering on a reporter who investigates sex offenders who went off the grid after the hurricane. Castro tells us, “I did a lot of historical research about the city of New Orleans. The stolen Africans who lived under the different regimes [which] all had slavery norms.” She also investigated issues of rehabilitation and recidivism for sex-offenders. She engaged in research both experiential—visiting the city and accompanying an elementary-school tour—and scholarly—reading about the city’s history. 

Laura Marling’s recent song “Gurdjieff’s Daughter” seems to embody a similar approach. Apparently, she was inspired by the writings of mystical spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, as well as Alejandro Jodorowsky, a filmmaker, and his meeting with Gurdjieff’s daughter. That all sounds esoteric, deep, heady—but the song that results is just amazing, full of energy, a sort of ‘70s-ish pop song, as if Marling’s been studying up on her Linda Thompson. 

Castro reads a section in which she muses on T.S. Eliot’s well-known line: “April is the cruelest month.”: “Whatever T.S. Eliot might say, April is not the cruelest month—not in New Orleans. It’s full of sweetness . . . . April is the cruelest month, Eliot wrote, because spring reawakens yearning, mixing memory and desire . . . . Here memory and desire are always mixed, and desire stays awake.” This is something I love in literature, or song: when artists riff on well-known works of literature, taking well-known lines and twisting them or playing with them. Keeping with T.S. Eliot, PJ Harvey plays with “East Coker,” from the Four Quartets, in her song “When Under Ether.” Eliot writes, “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God.” He continues, later:  Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing— / I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.” As Castro pulls apart Eliot’s line, modifying it to the shape of New Orleans, Harvey reconfigures the sense of quiet unease or anticipation to in her song about a mysterious operation:   

The ceiling is moving  
Moving in time  
Like a conveyor belt  
Above my eyes

When under ether  
The mind comes alive  
But conscious of nothing  
But the will to survive  

Harvey’s voice is unnaturally high-pitched, giving the song an eerie quality. Decidedly not beach-ready, White Chalk is lovely but dark, disconcerting. I can’t decide if it suits better a Gothic novel or the bizarre sort-of sequel to The Wizard of Oz film, Return to Oz. (I’m not the first person to notice that Harvey’s promotional artwork resembles the creepy asylum nurse. And if you’re unfamiliar with both album and film, skip the research and know that “creepy asylum nurse” is a good indication of the feel of White Chalk.) 

Castro says of her research that ultimately the knowledge one gains must be soaked in, so that the ensuing work of art is seamless, not full of information dumps. She notes, “I think it’s really important to feel it with your body.” And I think her statement is true not only of her fantastic prose, but of these songs as well. I’m going to end with an “adaptation” of a passage from the Bible, a way of drawing out a beautiful passage from literature to make it feel fresh, to let the reader experience the words not just intellectually but sensorily—check out Joni Mitchell’s “Love.”