Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: Stranger Fiction

by Dan Froid

Yesterday I ate some chocolate, Dove-brand dark chocolate with almonds. I opened the purple foil and popped it into my mouth; beneath the chocolate lay a secret inscription. “Feed your sense of anticipation,” it read. What? Feed my what? Feed my sense of anticipation. Presumably the chocolate wrapper urges me to give myself something exciting, or, better, something both exciting and vaguely luxurious to which to look forward, like, presumably, more Dove chocolate. Or feed, indeed, my already anxiety-prone mind with…more anxiety? Sounds terrific. I’ll accidentally send a gossipy message to the subject of the gossip. I’ll delay working on a paper until the night before it’s due. I’ll take the wrong exit off the highway a half-hour before I’m due to arrive somewhere. And then I’ll think: How do I get out of this mess? I’ll certainly anticipate something.

I was musing over Dove’s deeply silly message when I listened to Aubrey Hirsch’s story “Pinocchio” on episode 38 of Air Schooner, “Stranger Fiction”. Hirsch’s story what she calls a counterfactual biography. It picks up where the original left off: “Now that Pinocchio is finally a real boy, he understands that what he really wants to be is a woman. He knows he has to tell his father, Geppetto, who spent his whole life longing for a son.”

Now that Pinocchio’s a real boy, he may join the ranks of the anxious living. He may feed his sense of anticipation by agonizing over the imminent talk. He says

“Dad, I need to tell you something . . . You know what you always say about making the puppets? That you can tell what’s inside the chunk of pine even before you start carving it? That you just know?” . . . He tells Gepetto that although he gave him the features of a boy and a boy’s name, he guessed wrong when he picked up this particular piece of pine.

As co-host Stacey Waite points out, “The story itself highlights what’s actually weird: that there’s such a thing as a real boy or a real girl in the first place.” Waite and Hirsch are right. It’s the world that’s weird, not Pinocchio. The world accepts, in the words of John Cale, “hanky panky nohow.” Hanky panky in a broad sense: misbehavior, anything considered a little too strange. He sings, “I never answer panic knocking, falling / Down the stairs upon the law / What law?” What law indeed. For all that the song defies sense—for all its weirdness—it’s strangely moving, and a little cathartic. So too is Hirsch’s story: the underlying assumptions in the world of Pinocchio were always there, and Hirsch simply, effectively, draws them out.

Listening to Hirsch’s tale, thinking about Pinocchio and his anxieties and my anxieties and how I got some slight satisfaction from crumpling up the purple chocolate foil and throwing it away—not to be flippant about Pinocchio’s plight, rather, to be as flippant as possible about Dove’s cloying and deeply annoying imperatives—I thought then of St. Vincent’s “Just the Same but Brand New.” It opens dreamily and synth-ily. I’ve read that this song’s album was partly inspired by Disney movies, and it shows: as with many of her songs, St. Vincent tries to lull you with a sense of sonic drowsiness. But then, you might say, she feeds your sense of anticipation with a somewhat threatening bass-drum undertone. The somewhat cryptic lyrics likewise penetrate the dreaminess:

And anything you wrote I checked for codes and clues
The letters stopped unceremoniously in June

So I changed my I’s
And A’s to yours
I'm just the same
But brand new

And I do my best impression of weightlessness, now too
And I might be wrong, I might be wrong, I might be wrong
But honey I believed I could

Float away
Dangling
I’m just the same
But brand new to you

At this point the song explodes, and St. Vincent herself does float away—she disappears as the instrumentation takes over. Those drums!

Look at little Pinocchio himself, who is indeed just the same but brand new: he’s a real boy. And if he wants to please Gepetto, he wants also to please himself—how to decide which path to take? Better to float off and away, if you could.

Apropos of nothing, it seemed, I turned to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s very weird “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” This comes from one of the first albums to experiment with electronics—in 1969. The song opens with Sainte-Marie’s echoing, staccato repetitions of the title before shifting into what sounds like a spell or a prayer. Magic has vanished from the world, we’re told, and yet—

The naked God did live
This I mean to whisper to my mind
This I mean to laugh within my mind
This I mean my mind to serve
Til’ service is but magic
Moving through the world
And mind itself is magic
Coursing through the flesh
And flesh itself is magic
Dancing on a clock
And time itself
The magic length of God

Sainte-Marie’s voice is strange, its vibrato a sort of churning, robotic pulse. As we get to this point she gets ever more urgent, forcefully chanting the words. I love this witchy incantation. And it’s perhaps as good an introduction as any to another bizarre and magical tale: “a queer epic about a little girl who accidentally feeds [that word again!] her mother to an albino tiger and grows up to become a domestic terrorist.” Chavisa Woods talks to Stacey Waite about her novel in verse, The Albino Album. Woods thinks her work is “batshit crazy . . . it’s definitely weird, and I’m proud of that.” Own your weirdness! That’s the imperative. I think if I must feed myself any “sense” at all I would do well to feed my sense of weirdness: I could do so by listening to Woods, who reads from her novel. Like Hirsch’s “Pinocchio,” The Albino Album deals with the discomforts of gender conformity. The hero encounters a repugnant character who snidely refers to her as a princess. She thinks, “The word ‘princess’ cut me to the core. The muscles in my face went invisibly to war with each other. I did not turn to look at her for fear of giving something away that I could not afford to give.” Maybe the idea of giving something up made me think of “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” What I enjoy about all of these songs, and about the passages we hear in this episode of Air Schooner, is the undercurrent of disquiet. The writers as well as the musicians develop some pretty weird art, and that weirdness often involves exploring various anxieties. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I guess I can explain my ceaseless mockery of the Dove chocolate foil by suggesting two options. I can accept Dove’s platitudes at face value (does anybody really do that?), or I can find art that would, figuratively speaking—as I literally destroyed my little purple wrapper—rip those platitudes in half.