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Lucy Biederman on Andrew Mister

Andy Mister’s Liner Notes

Station Hill, 2013

 

In an interview at BOMBlog, Andy Mister describes how he wrote Liner Notes by combining two separate projects, “trying to allow as much disparate information in as possible.” One of the book’s greatest strengths is the way it organizes its jumble of details—many of them music- and suicide-related—into a coherent psychological reality. The book is composed of little prose paragraphs, each no more than an inch or two thick, separated by plenty of white space. This form suggests isolated thoughts, or maybe breaths; the speaker seems to live within his mind: “A refrain repeating as I walk home in that post-work mindlessness: Now I have to start thinking again.” Even in his “mindlessness,” the speaker’s interiority is where the heat is in this book. Many of the paragraphs, maybe even the book’s very structure, can be seen as the speaker’s oblique, stunted movements toward and away from the fact of his father’s suicide attempt, which he does not directly address until the book’s final pages.

 

Even in lyric moments, Liner Notes maintains an emotional and linguistic flatness, like someone who is too depressed to get drunk, no matter how much they drink: “Something fell through my field of vision. My eyes like the sky, endless. Someone fell through the plot. Faye Dunaway, left out of focus, smolders.” Mister uses words that evoke the Romantic lyric: eyes, sky, endless, even field; but this passage resists any imagery at all—it’s all about what cannot be seen, what’s out of focus, falling through.

 

The book doesn’t have any formal relation to its title, but reading it gave me the almost fearful feeling I used to get when I read the booklets in CDs or records, like I was getting the backstage information behind scary rock n roll lives I didn’t want to know about, but I couldn’t stop. That liner notes are now more or less defunct Mister never mentions. There’s a rock n roll timelessness about the book, like the time/space in which most pop song are set, the kind of songs that Mister quotes throughout the book: “Under the moonlight, the serious moonlight.” Most of these quotations are not distinguished in any way from Mister’s own writing—not even by quotation marks. There are multiple effects that this creates. Stripped of the passionate intensity of their rock context and placed in this book’s dull emotional landscape, these lyrics seem gruesome, nonsensical, off-key: “Each day is a mistake that you are tying around my neck. And we’re coming to the chorus now.” Another effect of these imbedded rock-song quotations is to compliment the reader—a pat on the back for every Elliott Smith, Modern Lovers, or Belle and Sebastian you spy. You’re one of the cool kids.

 

Mister uses drugs as cultural markers in a similar way, placing speaker and reader in cahoots. “Once in workshop a friend of mine turned in a poem about selling microdots at a Sonic Youth concert. … No one in the class knew what microdots were. I felt really lonely as I described what one looks like. No, it’s much smaller than a sweet tart.” Conveniently, a paragraph on the previous page has already subtly alerted the reader that microdots are acid tabs, thus bringing us into collusion with the speaker. It’s like being slipped the answer under the table. Who is the intended audience for this book, I wonder. This scene also assumes the reader knows that one of the major rules of “workshop” is that the author of a poem cannot speak while their poem is being discussed—this is the only explanation I can think of for why Mister, rather than the author of the microdot poem, describes microdots to the class. Given the extreme cultural specificity of the MFA workshop setting,  Mister’s subsequent broad panning out to the “really lonely” feeling (where was the author of the microdot poem then?) feels nearly absurd —“unearned,” workshoppers might say.

 

Mister conducts a strange and unsettling procession of rock suicides throughout the book. I never knew when another one was coming, so I was always on guard for potentially gross or sad or slightly funny or terrible details. I became obsessed in the way the speaker is obsessed, on guard. However, almost to a person, all of these suicides are men. When we hear of a female suicide, she is defined by her relationship to a man—she often doesn’t get a name. Here is one particularly blatant example: “David Bowie’s ex-wife attempted suicide. His brother, Terry Jones, was successful.” Bowie’s brother is named and his ex-wife is not, as if being his ex-wife is enough of an identity. The only woman who garners repeated mentions in this male-centric book is Nico, who “viewed her beauty as a curse.” She, like “David Bowie’s ex-wife,” is defined through her relationship to men: “Lou Reed and John Cale both had affairs with Nico. Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne wrote songs for her.” Because almost every person in Liner Notes is male, it almost seems as though Mister is justifying Nico’s presence in the book by saying she was important to these more-important male rock stars. The paragraphs that describe suicides begin with their names, like little obituaries (“Johnny Thunders died of methadone…”), except when the suicide is a woman: “Graham Nash heard rumors of [Judee] Sill’s death as early as 1974.” Sill’s death is presented through Nash’s eyes, as something he has heard about, rather than on its own terms.

 

The male-centric viewpoint of Liner Notes and its perhaps myopic sense of audience both in some sense serve its extreme interiority: the speaker lives inside himself, and his attempts to reach out are rigged to fail. Mister says this, throughout, better than I can: “An appeal to rock and roll will tell almost nothing worth knowing.” Elsewhere, “You keep insisting that I have something to tell you. Each channel is a reflection of someone’s thoughts. I can’t understand a thing.” Moments like these are the book’s strongest, where the speaker seems absolutely directed toward conveying nothing—its sound and sense, its rock n roll timelessness.

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