Almost as soon as I learned to talk, I learned to harmonize. Like crossing the street or telling time, harmony was, in my family, essential, foundational knowledge. Singing was a big deal. In the living room, in the car, waiting for a flight to board, lying around on my parents’ big bed on an indolent summer afternoon, we sang. My dad would always chime in with his semi-ironic, half-operatic croon, but my mother was a serious student of music and she was not kidding around. She was determined that her daughters would know how to harmonize.
I was bad at it. I could begin a third higher than whoever was carrying the tune — my mother or one of my sisters — but soon my confident interval would waver and create a jarring sound that would sour expressions. Everyone would soldier on until they couldn’t stand it any longer, at which point the song would dribble off into disappointed silence. As with much else — early reading acumen and effortless handsprings — my older sister was excellent at harmonizing. She could swing up to a high third, open out to a fifth, then, like her deft gymnastic moves, drop down and sing the third below the melodic line. I was relegated to carrying the tune.
To sing in harmony was not only a means by which to create something beautiful, but also a way to assert the solidity of our family unit: we were stronger together than we were apart. Listening to the Everly Brothers, or the Kossoy Sisters, or the Beach Boys, my mother would always remind us that the most beautiful harmonies were those made by people who shared the same DNA. Family was everything, even in song.
All the time I was worrying about staying on pitch, I failed to fully understand the lyrics of the songs my mother taught us.
One bright morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away.
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
I thought it was a song about flying, and as I sang it, I always envisioned myself soaring over our house in Ohio, across the field of daffodils my mother and father planted, out over the woods I spent my days exploring. I had no idea it was a song about dying and the joyful anticipation of the hearafter. (A great version is available here
Who’s gonna shoe your pretty little foot? Who’s gonna glove your hand?
Who’s gonna kiss your red, ruby lips? Who’s gonna be your man?
Was this not an ode to new shoes and gloves?
The songs got more inscrutable when my mother taught us the murder ballads she loved. I thought “In the Pines
” was about a little girl standing in a pretty dress among some pine trees, but it turns out to be a song about sex, betrayal, and possibly murder.
I think I understood that “Banks of the Ohio
” was about a killing, but I was more titillated by the phrase “I held a knife against her breast.” I was seven years old, excited to be singing the word “breast” out loud.
These were the songs of my childhood: hauntingly beautiful music paired with plainspoken lyrics about death, deliverance, and people being driven to madness and murder by thwarted love.
I was thinking about the dissonance between the lyrics and the music of my childhood when I was writing my novel, Little Nothing
. In order to write a book that hews to some of the tropes of fable and folktale, I spent a lot of time reading that literature, something I didn’t do much when I was a kid. I was struck by the discrepancy between the violence of many of the tales and the affectless way it is reported. Children are abandoned in the woods to die. Beautiful maidens are turned into lumpy, scrofulous crones. Newborns are stolen and replaced by devious changelings. Limbs are chopped off, eyeballs gouged out. Yet all of this brutality is invariably recounted in the written equivalent of a straightforward, harmonically pleasurable melody. There are rarely instances of the kinds of figures of speech that create the escape hatch of association. There is no attempt to provide emotional back-story or psychological motivation. Horrible things happen because... they happen. "I killed a girl, my love you see, because she would not marry me,"
sings the narrator of “Banks of the Ohio.” No therapy required.
What’s compelling about the narrative style of the murder ballad and the folktale is that the way they evade explanation allows a territory to open up in which the listener or reader begins to embroider and invent. It’s counterintuitive, but their transparency makes them into abstractions, and the way they resist causality and definitive meaning makes their relationship to the real tantalizing. Their elusiveness might well be what makes them so enduring. They are unsolvable mysteries. We look and look again, trying to decipher their codes and figure out what they tell us about who we are.
The stories allowed me to trust that I could imagine extraordinary events, and by describing them as simple fact and by making sure that within the realm of the surreal, a logic and emotional reality prevailed, something would emerge that would not be wholly real or wholly fantastic but would exist in the in-between place, the one we occupy when we emerge from sleep and we have the sense that we have just been in a world somehow truer than the one we have woken to.
The protagonist of Little Nothing
undergoes a series of startling, unimaginable transformations in and out of human form, and I could simply allow this to happen because... it happened. The resonance that would allow these events to have meaning would emerge as a result of the disjunction between the improbable event and the forthrightness of tone. If I could succeed, a reader might be carried away, just as I was when I sang those songs with my family, holding onto the melody by my fingernails, imagining gloves, and shoes, and flights over a field of yellow flowers, and a girl wearing a pretty dress in the pines where the sun never shines, transported by our harmonizing voices to somewhere other, somewhere else.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels The God of War
(a Los Angeles Times
Book Prize finalist) and No Direction Home
; and two story collections, Alone With You
and Babe in Paradise
(a New York Times
Notable Book and Los Angeles Times
Best Book of the Year). Her most recent novel is Little Nothing
. She lives in Los Angeles.