The Coney Island Boardwalk, The End of a Wedding & a Witch in a Tracksuit: A Literary Mixtape by Helen Phillips
The art critic Walter Pater’s famous claim that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” has long resonated with me (who wouldn’t take being a rock star over being a fiction writer?). His words were on my mind as I put together this playlist for you. In writing each of the stories in Some Possible Solutions, I labored to make the words conjure a particular mood; a song can achieve mood with a single chord.
Because each story in Some Possible Solutions takes place in a different reality, from a faraway planet to a nursing home to a post-apocalyptic farmhouse, I wanted a wide variety of songs that could evoke a series of distinct worlds and keep pace with the leaps in time and space.
There are eighteen stories in the collection, featuring: (1) an ATM machine that dispenses death dates, (2) a life-sized male sex doll, (3) a town filled with identical new mothers, (4) a frozen dinner party, (5) a woolly mammoth, (6) alien hermaphrodites, (7) a city of skin-less people, (8) a tsunami at Coney Island, (9) a disappearing wife, (10) a throne room, (11) a leprechaun scaling a wall of ivy, (12) futuristic strippers, (13) children with gooey green blood, (14) a cathedral, (15) soccer-playing zombies, (16) vanishing bees, (17) the Laundromat of life, and (18) a magic pebble.
So: eighteen songs to fill the white spaces on the page.
1. Kenji Kawai, “Making of Cyborg,” a track for “The Knowers”
The doom of the drumbeat, the death date. But also, a life lived with magnificence and melancholy and a chiming bell.
[ed. note — Read “The Knowers” on EL’s Recommended Reading, with an intro by Benjamin Samuel.]
2. Petite Noir, “Chess,” a track for “Some Possible Solutions”
It’s possible, it’s possible, it’s possible, it’s possible — but is it? Think you’re going to find the right kind of love?
3. Joanna Newsom, “Sprout and the Bean,” a track for “The Döppelgangers”
Silence punctuated by the distant sound of the ice cream truck. Sublime devastating solitude of early motherhood. An exhausted witch mesmerizes herself into a trance. I slept as though dead. What is the difference between one mother and another? Dare we go outside? Danger! Danger!
[ed. note — Read “The Döppelgangers” on EL’s Recommended Reading, with an intro by Lauren Groff.]
4. Björk, “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a track for “The Messy Joy of the Final Throes of the Dinner Party”
Hush vs. explosion, loneliness vs. company, alienation vs. harmony, reservation vs. romp, glumness vs. glee.
5. The Mountain Goats, “Mole,” a track for “Life Care Center”
I came to see you up there in intensive care … And they said, “Lights out,” and it was lights out … Out in the desert we’ll have no worries, out in the desert just you and me.
6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “The Origin of Love,” a track for “The Joined,”
The best (only?) song about the story of Zeus splitting the hermaphrodites. So we wrapped our arms around each other, trying to sew ourselves back together.
7. Purity Ring, “Fineshrine,” a track for “Flesh and Blood”
Sternum, ribs, blood, lungs, the rungs of me: a song for the woman who can see through your skin.
8. A Flying Dodo Society, “We Ate the Sun,” a track for “When the Tsunami Came”
How I hate the sun, roasting my roller coaster. It burns the birds … There’s an animal balloon for everyone. A Flying Dodo Society (may they become wildly famous) was playing on the boardwalk at Coney Island and then everything was dazzling. Ferocious love & indifference to anyone else & defiance of death … even if the Coney Island roller coaster just got dismantled by a tsunami wave and is heading straight toward you.
9. Pavement, “Gold Soundz,” a track for “Game”
My in-laws have a red Corolla from 1994, and Pavement’s Crooked Rain is one of the four or so CDs that lingers around the car season to season. If you could take only one album to a Corolla island … anyway, so drunk in the August sun, and you’re the kind of girl I like, because you’re empty, and I’m empty, and you can never quarantine the past — do you remember, in December?
10. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major Op. 35, First Movement, a track for “One of us will be happy; it’s just a matter of which one”
The tension between the transcendent, triumphant refrain & the almost cruel withholding of it = the back-and-forth dynamic of this marriage.
11. Chuck Criss, “I Want the Real Thing,” a track for “Things We Do”
A song for drinking too many $3 gin & tonics in the afternoon in the backyard of your local bar (wall of ivy, wind, sun, etc.) with the person you’re trying to love.
12. Cat Power, “He War,” a track for “R”
The rage of losing your twin sister to a man with features as sharp as pencils.
13. Dan Friel, “Ghost Town (Pt. 1),” a track for “Children”
Music to accompany an alien insemination. When you turn out to be really glad that the aliens chose you.
14. Grimes, “Circumambient,” a track for “The Worst”
“Loud, confusing music … music designed to alter the electricity that dictates your desires.”
15. The Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1,” a track for “How I Began to Bleed Again After Six Alarming Months Without”
In this case, not pink robots but instead blue zombies, a wolf in a uniform, and a witch in a tracksuit.
16. Hadja Soumano, “N’teri Diaba,” a track for “The Beekeeper”
Music to accompany being quarantined with your (unrequited) love at the edge of a disintegrating civilization for a few perfect moments before the bees vanish.
17. The Clearwings, “Nothing to Say,” a track for “The Wedding Stairs”
(Courtesy my own brother’s alt-folk duo.) The end of the wedding, when the candles are blown out and the fluorescents come on. Now it is a part of you.
18. tUnE-yArDs, “Water Fountain,” a track for “Contamination Generation”
No water, no wood, just steel and a blood-soaked dollar. Only a five-year-old girl with glitter and glue is trying to do something about it.
About the Author
Helen Phillips is the author of four books, including the recently released short story collection Some Possible Solutions, the novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat (a New York Times Notable Book of 2015 and a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Award) and the collection And Yet They Were Happy (named a notable book by The Story Prize). She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the Italo Calvino Prize. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times and Tin House, and on Selected Shorts.