JUNE MIX: “And Yet They Were Happy” by Helen Phillips
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
My book And Yet They Were Happy is divided into 19 sections, each comprised of a series of two-page stories. I’ve given a song to each section. I wish I could be a rockstar; alas, I have no musical talent. This is the closest I can get: May there be some kind of drums or darkness in the white spaces between the words.
1. The Floods: “Do You Realize?” The Flaming Lips. This song goes with Flood #1. Everyone you know someday will die. In the meantime, let’s have a party. I enjoy the science-fictiony laser-beam sounds in the background. (3:33)
2. We?: “The Origin of Love” Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The difficulty — impossibility? — of ever transcending you/me to arrive at we. Blame Zeus. There are actual lightning bolts in this song. (6:03)
3. The Fights: “No Children” The Mountain Goats. Horrific desires are expressed in this song, yet the music rolls along quite blithely. (2:46)
4. The Failures: “Fake Plastic Trees” Radiohead. In Failure #7, a couple visits a museum containing The Hall of Nostalgia for Things We Have Never Seen; this hall is filled with dioramas featuring fake plastic trees. Longing, regret, etc. The surreal world created in the music video is quite freaky. I want to go to the grocery store of life but I’m too scared. (4:53)
5. The Far-Flung Families: “Your Belgian Things” The Mountain Goats. This song goes with Far-Flung Family #7, which originally contained a line stolen from “Your Belgian Things”: My camera groans beneath the weight it bears. I removed the stolen line but it’s still there. (3:49)
6. The Envies: “Heartbeats” The Knife. In Envy #4, the narrator is envious of anyone who achieves even five minutes of perfection, for The world is a humid and difficult place, and we are so often exhausted, and love is strange, and arrives in stops and starts. I think we’re hovering in five such moments in this song, but the joy is under threat from the get-go; we keep flip-flopping from major to minor. Damn. (3:52)
7. The Mistakes: “This Year” The Mountain Goats. I’ll allow myself one last Mountain Goats song (sorry, I’m obsessed with John Darnielle). Mistakes have been made; maybe, just maybe, we’ll make it to Jerusalem for the feasting and dancing. The music video is as urgent as the song. (3:55)
8. The Brides: “By Your Side” Cocorosie. Seems like a tender song about devotion until you realize it’s a feminist critique of marriage. Or maybe it’s somehow both at the same time? (4:02)
9. The Mothers: “Kaval Sviri” Yale Slavic Chorus. This traditional Bulgarian song alternates between dissonance and harmony. I like not knowing the words but just experiencing them as strange, primeval sounds. In this song, a girl tells her mother that she’s going to go and see who’s playing music; if it’s a local boy, she’ll love him for a day, but if it’s a mysterious stranger, she’ll love him for the rest of her life. The age-old mother/daughter tension, going back to Persephone and Demeter, as in Mother #1. (2:03)
10. The Weddings: “Wild About My Loving” Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band. This is the song the men are playing in Wedding #4. A brief moment of folksy respite, the fleeting illusion of an idyllic old-timey world, before everything falls apart. (3:37)
11. The Wives: “Tangled Up in Blue” Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is a recurring character in the book. This is the one of the songs the young wife is listening to in Wife #3 on the night a month after the wedding when I stayed up secretly with the old tapes, listened to him sing about all the vanished girls, began to wonder if I was already dead. When I was an 11-year-old growing up in relative cultural isolation in the mountains west of Denver, I didn’t know Bob Dylan was famous, but I did have a cassette tape of Blood on the Tracks, which I listened to obsessively. I worried about what would happen when the tape snapped; I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear those songs again. Imagine my relief when the tape finally broke and my parents explained to me that we’d have no trouble replacing it.
12. The Offspring: “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” Neutral Milk Hotel. This song is for Offspring #2, about the Anne Frank School for Expectant Mothers. Allegedly the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is about Anne Frank. I aspire to and fall short of the simultaneous unity and variety (military march, 1950s pop, hymn, dirge, etc.) of this most perfect album. (3:22)
13. The Hauntings: “Winter’s Love” Animal Collective. This song is haunted. There are several ghosts and aliens in it, plus some gently falling snow and blowing leaves, and a prehistoric tribe. (4:59)
14. The Monsters: “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” Sufjan Stevens. Otherworldly beings approach — will they terrify or enchant? (2:09)
15. The Regimes: “Holland, 1945” Neutral Milk Hotel. The lyrics are devastating but the music is exuberant, death-defying. Regime #1 is about the anxiety of trying to pack up your whole existence when they come to take you away. (3:13)
16. The Punishments: “Psycho Killer” Talking Heads. The Punishments is about doing bad things, by accident or intentionally, and then living with paranoia. Here’s the musical embodiment of paranoia. (4:25)
17. The Droughts: “Temecula Sunrise” Dirty Projectors. We’re in some kind of wasteland, but redemption may arrive in the form of Gatorade. The “new construction home” appears in Drought #5: I’ve heard rumors of a man who can cut houses cleanly in half with a chainsaw. (5:05)
18. The Apocalypses: “Stillness Is The Move” Dirty Projectors. The music video for this song seems to be set in the exact landscape I was envisioning for Apocalypse #1, sheepskin jacket and all. These people are ready for the end. (5:14)
19. The Helens: “Lay Lady Lay” Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan wrote this song about me, or so it seems. See Helen #2. (3:21)
–Helen Phillips is the author of And Yet They Were Happy and the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, the Meridian Editors Prize, and the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in PEN America, Brooklyn Magazine, Mississippi Review, Sonora Review, Salt Hill, and L Magazine, among others, and in the anthology American Fiction: The Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Authors. A graduate of Yale and the Brooklyn College MFA program, she now teaches undergraduate creative writing at Brooklyn College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.
* * *
May Mix by Benjamin Hale
April Mix by Fiona Maazel
March Mix by J. Robert Lennon
February Mix by EL Staff