Things I find myself failing to do at the moment: explaining why Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler is just so magical. It is my book of the year, so far, and I’ve read some really good stuff this year - I’ve read it twice in three months, each time in about two days - but I’m not sure that I can do it justice without typing out half the book and making you listen to some songs.
So, let’s start here, with the New York Times review of the book, which is what made me give in and buy the hardback, after @kloklo and @knives_chau had already ensured it was on my, ‘pick that up in paperback’ list:
The end of this clip features Nickolas Butler reading a part of it for you to a snippet of Bon Iver. So when I read the book, because I knew about the Justin Vernon - Lee link, I whacked all my Bon Iver and Volcano Choir albums into one playlist and played it while I read, just to see what happened.
And it works. It brings the magic - not all of it, because a story that relies on that kind of synergy between the text and some music doesn’t, on it’s own, make for a beautiful novel, not over 300 page - but it enhances what is there already. It is in the air of the novel, and then in the air as you read.
Try this - hit play, wait for the song to start, and read the paragraph below:
When I had nowhere else to go, I came back here. When I had nothing, I came back here. I came back here and made something out of nothing. I could live here on next to nothing; there is nothing to spend money on, no one to impress. No one here cares about anything other than your work ethic and your kindness and your competence. I came back here and I found my voice, like something that had fallen out of my pocket, like a souvenir long forgotten… Here I can hear things, the world throbs differently, silence thrums like a chord strummed eons ago…
How do you explain that to someone? How do you explain that to someone you love? What if they don’t understand.
I first started reading Shotgun Lovesongs on the train to Cornwall for Easter. Going home. It wasn’t exactly the greatest Easter. A lot of the time it didn’t really feel like Easter. But when I would pick up my book and start reading, I went somewhere else: somewhere really different, but so so familiar.
It’s about home. The home that’s always home, that you refer to when someone asks you where you’re going on your holiday, and you say, ‘Oh, I’m going home.’ It’s about space and light and seasons, about a place and some people, and the kind of friends that are family. It’s heartfelt and sincere, and emotional without being sentimental or cloying. It’s sweet without being too sweet. It’s agápē. The love that loves even when it hurts, and when you can’t be there but you can’t be anywhere else. It knows who it is and what it is and where it belongs.
It was about Cornwall. If, y’know, Cornwall was in the American mid-west and had really heavy winters. It was about how I feel about Cornwall. It wasn’t like any of the characters pains and choices overlapped directly with my life, but that they made their lives in the awareness that this place was their centre of gravity and that being away too long would leave a hollow that would ache.
In some ways, I could probably play Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs as a soundtrack to the book, and it would work for me, because it’s also an album of memory and home and roots. I’ve not tried it: I might next time. At the moment, when I hear Bon Iver, passages of Shotgun Lovesongs flicker behind my eyes, and I fall a tiny bit more in love with the character of Lee (which would be a daft idea even if he weren’t fictional).
There’s nothing I can tell you about the story or the characters, really. They’re real. They feel real. I love them - even when I don’t. But on their own they don’t make the whole novel work. They’re just in the right place.
"I relaxed, felt my shoulders loosen, my eyes widen. I hadn’t fel that way in months Hadn’t felt healthy. Home… Here, time unspools itself slowly, moments divvied out like some truly decadent dessert that we savor… Late-night softball games at rural diamonds behind crossroads taverns… Leave your door open in the big city and you’ll wake up with no furniture and clothing. Leave your door open here and a coyote comes in looking for a handout…