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September 23, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Meghan Lamb’s novel Coward is inventively sinuous, a powerful book that gravely impresses with both its form and content.
Masque, her band Killscene’s new album, is out today and is a must-listen.
Vi Khi Nao wrote of the book:
“Meghan Lamb has given the world something tantalizingly lurid and explicit and gay. Zombiesque & homoerotic: this chatroom friendly, graphic and pornographic book will teach recreational or parttime lesbians how to give blowjobs in the most pithy, dastardly, post-suicidal ways. Beware. Be ready.”
Coward is the book I wish I’d had when I was a dark and emotionally overwhelmed teenager. Instead of this book, I had the plays of Sarah Kane, the art of Egon Schiele, repeated masochistic and increasingly self-projecting viewings of The Talented Mr. Ripley, music (see below), AOL Instant Messenger, and hook-up chatrooms.
Coward is about being young, lonely, sexually frustrated, and reaching out for human connection through the very inhuman (and nonhuman, perhaps even dehumanizing) vessel of the internet. It’s either a diptych or a triptych—depending on how you read it and how you measure “humanity,” by the book’s descriptions—that follows an adolescent girl pretending to be a gay man online (to impress the other adolescent girl she’s secretly in love with), a young man who’s in a long-distance relationship with a woman he’s never seen or met (and who may or may not be dead), and a vagrant “zombie” who wanders in search of some amorphous light and meaning. The whole thing is set within a run-down post-industrial Northwestern city (modeled loosely after my own experiences living in Spokane, WA) where the wildfires have created a “black sky summer” (“Black Sky Summer” was an early/alternate title for the book, but I went with “COWARD” for reasons that will maybe/soon reveal themselves). In the atmospheric landscape of this book: everyone either has to stay inside—amidst stifling heat—and wait for the fires to pass, or risk being intoxicated by the black sky, the dark clouds, the fogs of death.
Most of these songs thus channel some aspect of deep (impotent) longing within a state of entrapment, self-punishing, inwardly-twisting youthful aggression, weird fracturing of the self (and disassociation from the self), and primal screams from within (buried deep in the mundane movements of chat-typing, job-searching, and standing in the lonely blue-drone glows of a depressing fridge). Most of these songs—like the book itself—are also deeply connected to my own youthful frustrations: void-howling desires to enact my desires, the terror of never being loved.
This title-defining track—from which I’ve also derived one of my epigraphs, I’m a coward/Put your knife in me/Put your knife in me—feels like an obvious place to begin. This track is from the album Holy Money, from the early period of Swans where pretty much everything was a slow-building, brutal onslaught of the senses. Michael Gira said something I really liked—in the documentary, Where Does a Body End?—about trying to channel the deceptively simple language of advertising in his lyrics: pared-down lines that speak to some deep, deep longing, perhaps the most sharply-boring lines in their animal stupidity.
I feel like both the main (unnamed) female character and main (unnamed) male character in Coward are deeply enmeshed in that kind of animal stupidity: that the internet is infusing their perspectives, thought processes, and sense of identity in the manner of those deceptively simple ads Gira was channeling. Both of them also feel—and, I think, perform—a certain seemingly contradictory duality embodied by those lines. They’re both cowards. They’re both afraid to be or become something. Both afraid of rejection by those they’re attracted to…or maybe some even more incipient rejection by life itself. But they’re also brave. Violently, ferociously brave. I don’t want to over-interpret the line “Put your knife in me” (in part because I have so many ever-shifting feelings about it myself), but I think there’s a distinct sensibility of, “Okay, fuck you. I’ve put myself through so, so much. I’m fucking ready. Put your knife in me,” and that’s a big part of the feeling what I want to open the book with (and push further and further and further and further and further).
“Coward,” Vic Chesnutt
This “Coward” did not make its way into my epigraphs, but it’s still very much part of the book’s conscience. It’s another song that builds from a kind of quiet, shivering intensity to a more explosive, overwhelming intensity. The lyrics that most resonate with my COWARD (within my book’s cowards) are: Courage born of despair and impotence/Submissive dogs can/Lash out in fear and be/Very, very dangerous. The characters of this book are essentially “submissive dogs” who have been brought to the brink of becoming “very, very dangerous” due to their loneliness, their confusion, the blend of bewildering mixed messages and emptiness they encounter in their day-to-day interactions (or non-interactions…or, maybe even more aptly, their interactions with nothing and nothingness).
This song is the origin of another epigraph that appears in the beginning of the book: I just made you up to hurt myself. The whole song speaks not only to a kind of imagined creation (and absenting/disassociation from the self via this creation), but a kind of emotional masochism which fuels that creation, which I find very interesting (and certainly true to my own experience!).
When the unnamed female character crafts this imaginary gay male persona as a kind of guise (or capsule) for her girl/girl longings, she experiences a lot of that emotional masochism, measuring herself, at turns, against this thing that she has made up “to hurt herself.” In some ways, this male identity she cultivates (to masquerade as a fake person in AOL chatrooms) can be perceived like the weird masochistic drawing Jane Eyre makes of Blanche Ingram (before she has ever even met Blanche Ingram). It’s a self-created projection she uses to measure herself—and all her failings—against her imagination of what her beloved wants. I think we do this a lot without thinking about it. And when I think about it…this is probably something I’m doing hundreds of times every day, making up little idealized projections just to hurt myself.
But the song has an amazing dark sense of humor about the bizarre inanity of this act. Right after the line I just made you up to hurt myself, Trent Reznor sings—in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek way: And it worked…Yes it did! That’s definitely the sense of humor I try to cultivate in this book (and I can only hope it works).
Uniform is not the kind of band I listened to or had listening access to when I was a teenager, but it’s the kind of band I would have hungrily suckled onto if I had somehow heard it. It was the kind of band I needed, the kind of abrasive intensity and extreme phonic violence I needed. When I was a teenager, I was so eager for any art that dealt with violence, death, sex, and the skin between all three of these things, because I always knew (without knowing) that they were one and the same. My little brother, Caleb, is 16, and he’s similarly (and differently) struggling to find where he fits into the miasma of where and when he’s growing up, and the intense violent self-erasing stupidity of where and when he’s growing up. Caleb, if you’re reading this, listen to Uniform. I love you.
Anyway, this song, “Delco,” features the repeated screaming refrain, You are what you’ve done/You are what’s been done to you, and that’s basically what I imagine cycling over and over again through the unnamed male character’s subconscious as he wanders around naked, smoking Virginia Slims, picking his blisters, eating gross condiments from the fridge, and hating his own guts. Fun/funny fact: when I first saw Uniform live, I hadn’t bothered to look up the lyrics to “Delco,” and my dumb ass ears/brain misheard what Michael Berdan was screaming as, You want me to die/You want me to die for you. Which also works.
“Crank Heart,” Xiu Xiu
I chose this song mostly for the dark, violent, youthful energy it exudes, and the kind of amusing envelope-pushing suggested by the lyric, Your school colors/Black and light black. I’ve always been amused by the idea of an actual imaginary school of goth kids where the actual school colors are black and light black. A place where the silly lugubriousness of the imaginary collides with the silly lugubriousness of an actual thing like “school colors.” Perhaps, as applied to this book: an imaginary “school” where the “school colors” are the black of the sky, the light black of the characters’ inner fogs…a narrative world where there’s only black—and light black—nothing lighter. What’s wrong with me that I find that so hilarious?
“Tomorrow’s Tears,” Cranes
In a lot of Cranes’ songs, there’s this sensation of Alison Shaw’s delicate, beautiful voice being swallowed up by an ever-growing undercurrent of darkness. On the album Wings of Joy, this song feels like a brief cutting-through of the darkness, a brief moment of clarity (probably because it diverges from the thick/caustic guitar layers of previous tracks to a much more stripped-down piano tapestry). And the song uses that moment of clarity to say, Touch me I am numb with you/It makes it so beautiful.
Such a sweet and romantic song…despite this growing feeling of looming/returning darkness from the minor piano part in the chorus. I think of this song as the soundtrack to the moment where my unnamed female character finally summons the courage to perform her feelings for the object of her affection, Marianne Lee.
“Winter,” Tori Amos
I have a story about this song.
When I was…10? I think?…I took guitar lessons, and my guitar teacher (who also taught piano) would host these annual recital events where all of his students congregated and played a particular piece they’d been working on all year. I forget what I played. Who cares. That’s not what matters in this story. What matters is the song “Winter,” which was played and sung beautifully by a piano student who was a few years older than me (and way prettier than me and way, way, way cooler than me). I absolutely fell in love with her and I absolutely fell in love with that song. A spell was cast. I was doomed.
Flash forward a few years, and you would have found me, most nights, sitting in a morose state in the basement of my parents’ house, typing back and forth with the object of my then-affection and adoration on AOL Instant Messenger, sealing the lyrics, When you gonna make up your mind?/When you gonna love you as much as I do? into the core of my being. I think it’s supposed to be a song about Tori Amos’ father, but for me, it was a song about unrequited love. Knowingly unrequited love. And making yourself abject with questions of a “when” that never comes (for said knowingly unrequited love).
“Deeper Understanding,” Kate Bush
The connections between my own book and this song—particularly as it’s presented in the music video—are perhaps a little bit on the nose, so I won’t overstate them, here. But this song does a really wonderful job of melding the synthetic with the deeply earnest and deeply felt in a way that I hope my book does…and brings a sense of pathos to the ludicrous idea of seeking deeper understanding from a robot voice in a little black box.
“Disappointment,” The Cranberries
There’s something so affectingly disturbing about this song. It’s in the simplicity of the lyrics and the stripped-down yet gauzy guitars, the nakedness of Dolores O’Riordan’s voice paired with the weird evasiveness of the lyrics: Disappointment/You shouldn’t have done/You couldn’t have done/You wouldn’t have done/The things you did then/And we could’ve been happy/What a piteous thing, a hideous thing/Was tainted by the rest. What the hell did this person do? What was “the rest” that was tainted? Jesus, these sound like the words of a serial killer.
It’s similar but different from the lyrical simplicity of a Swans song, something that can only come from a pop song with a dark conscience. It’s the same feeling I get from the Beach Boys’ song “God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.” God only knows what I’d be without you? Well, what the hell would I be? A vampire? An axe murderer? A priest? Lyrics like that certainly do leave a lot to the old imagination.
I hope that’s how my book feels.
“Time,” David Bowie
I have another story about this song.
I played it for my partner, Robert Kloss, when I was first drafting these book notes, and he understandably chuckled at the lines, Time, he flexes like a whore/Falls wanking to the floor/His trick is you and me, boy. I think my response was something like, “Haha, yeah, that’s why I chose this song.” And yes, there’s a definite “falls wanking to the floor” lonely/desperate/hilariously pathetic energy to this book. But that isn’t why I chose this song.
When I was 17, on one of the worst nights of my life, I was listening to this song on repeat while having a conversation on AOL Instant Messenger. I won’t tell you what I was talking about or to whom I was talking in this conversation (to be honest, I barely remember—-okay, wait, that’s a fucking lie, I do remember, but it doesn’t matter, and I certainly don’t want to hurt that person if they’re reading this…(please be reading this)/(please don’t be reading this)). The main thing is, this conversation elicited one of my first major, full-body panic attacks I ever had, and my teenage body and brain could not cope. I can say—analytically, as an adult, now, in retrospect—that it was probably a panic attack, that I probably just didn’t have the maturity or experience-based understanding to deduce: “I’m not actually dying. I don’t need to die. I don’t need to kill myself. There’s an end point to this that is not literal death.” But at the time, I did not know this. At the time, it was the beginning of the end. And David Bowie’s “Time” was playing in the background, and it felt—in my weirdly heightened state—like some confirmation of all my distorted dark thoughts.
I did a lot of rash things we won’t get into. I was hospitalized for a week. It was the worst week of my life. It was the worst night of my life. I made my father cry. My father never cries unless it’s 1) death 2) an animal getting hurt. I will live with the shame of that forever.
And I was scared to listen to the song for a few months after that…but I was also craving it. There was something in it that I needed. Something in it that had been just out of reach.
When I finally managed to listen to it again, I became obsessed with it all over again, but in a different way, a way that was simultaneously masochistic and healing.
I imagined myself, as I was, at 17.
I imagined myself, at 27.
I imagined myself, as I am, now, at 37.
A decade removed from the so-called 27 Club, of which I was so convinced I’d be a part.
Sounds funny and juvenile, now, but it wasn’t, then.
I imagined the regurgitating drain of time, the ever-flowing back-flow, the inescapability.
You/Are not a victim/You just scream with boredom/You are not evicting time.
Something in that self-conscious masochism saved me.
Something in the winking, self-mocking honesty of that song saved me.
Knowing I wasn’t alone.
Knowing I wasn’t alone, in being so ridiculous.
Meghan Lamb is the author of COWARD, Failure to Thrive (Apocalypse Party, 2021), All of Your Most Private Places (Spork Press, 2020), and Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace, 2017). She served as the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University in 2018, and has led creative workshops at the University of Chicago, Eötvös Loránd University, Interlochen Center for the Arts, and Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and Passages North, among other publications. She currently serves as the nonfiction editor of Nat. Brut, a Whiting Award-winning journal of art and literature dedicated to advancing inclusivity in all creative fields.