Try pinning yourself to the page; you’re a moving target. As much as I love some of my parenting essays on HuffPo and Prospect Heights Patch, they are so anchored to particular parenthood moments that looking back on them I feel displaced from the internal struggles they document, like how when I calm down from being furious or jubiliant about something I have trouble understanding what got me so fired up in the first place. These essays provide glimpses onto a constantly changing set of relationships, between me and my son, and my wife, and my understanding of fatherhood, and sense of identity. (You know, the little things in life.) As a fiction writer, a lover of narrative, I find them frustrating, because they don’t have any sharp end–life goes on! Perhaps years from now, I’ll have a clear idea of where my story as a stay-at-home dad goes, and be better able to tell it. Right now, I’m too in the thick. Hence my hiatus from parenting writing.
It’s been a while since I’ve produced works that strike me as in some way conclusive, but it just happened with three pieces on Jonathan Lethem’s excellent new book about the Talking Heads album Fear of Music.
For a while in high school, Talking Heads was about all I listened to. Through them, I discovered their contemporaries – Television, Blondie, Patti Smith – and then delved into The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, funk. Even Al Green came to me through the band’s cover of “Take Me to the River.” All I had to do was work backwards, to find what influenced David, Chris, Jerry, and Tina – and this is a band who wears its influences on its sleeve – and there would be something I dug too. The sensibilities of the band’s sound – aggressive but clean, bottom heavy and percussive, thick and layered – still predicts the kind of music I like and don’t like.
Strangely, I sometimes hold my work on the page up to their example, though music and writing are so fundamentally different artforms. Writing must go first through the mind before it hits the heart; music goes right for the jugular. Still, I insist upon thinking, if I could somehow get something similar to the energy and fun and clarity of the early Talking Heads albums on the page, I’d be all set.
Some of my favorite authors achieve this, I think, with work that raises my pulse and echoes after I put it down, not unlike a great song. Jonathan Lethem is one. I discovered his work not long after moving to Brooklyn in 1999, a transitional point in my life on-par with my teenage days. When his novel Motherless Brooklyn came out, it was the talk of the web development studio where I worked. I loved the book so much – the sharp playfullness of the language, the neighborhood locales spun cockeye with noir tropes – that I checked out everything I could find by him. (As a sci-fi fan, As She Climbed Across the Table continues to be my favorite of his early novels.)
One of the highlights of my MFA experience was interviewing Lethem for my thesis project about how his reading influenced his writing. Lethem, like Talking Heads, who he’s a big fan of, sometimes deliberately allows other artists’ work to impact his own, and again like the band, he has no qualms discussing this. When the interview concluded, I asked him about Talking Heads. Lethem told me how he saw the expanded ten-piece line-up of The Name of this Band is Talking Heads and heard “Swamp” played live well-before Speaking in Tongues came out. I experienced a moment of geek fan bliss.
I had the opportunity to talk with him again about his book on Fear of Music, during which Lethem said, “I write to enter into a conversation that books on shelves are having.” Writing about his book, I found myself proud to have something interesting to add to the dialogue — a bit of expertise from having spent years mulling over and being inspired by both Talking Heads and Jonathan Lethem — a satisfaction I rarely feel when penning pieces about parenting.
You can find my review of the book – The Strange, Tense Power of Talking Heads ‘Fear of Music’ – on The Atlantic. An interview with Lethem about the project – Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Perfect’ Album – appears on Salon. Our conversation also led to an article – Jonathan Lethem on the Power of Talking Heads’ ‘Fear of Music’ – on The Daily Beast.
Note: I originally published this post before The Daily Beast piece went live, but updated it to include that link.