The name on my favorite chapbook of 2007, Hotels, is Andrew Mister. For his first full-length collection, Liner Notes, 165 brief paragraphs about music and suicide, Mister has chosen to shorten his name to sound more like another visual artist who wrote a little. I don’t know how I feel about Liner Notes but I know I feel a lot. It is the best book of short prose I know of since Susan Barnes’s Earthquake. That book is an order of magnitude better, but Andy Mister’s book is an order of magnitude more enjoyable than most recent books filed under poetry. It is also a book length work about music and suicide.
WHEN I WAS in junior high a girl I had a crush on told me about a song that actually made you feel like you were on heroin when you listened to it. That evening I asked my father if he knew the name of this song.
“‘Heroin’ is all right,” he said. “But you should really listen to ‘Sister Ray.'”
(note #10, page 6)
Graham Foust helpfully mentions David Markson in his blurb for the book; it’s accurate to say Mister gets something here of the feel of Markson’s later books, novel-length commonplace books interspersed with narrative. With Markson, though, I feel some distance from the narrator, and I register a distinction between the personae in Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Reader’s Block and the authorial presence. I didn’t worry for David Markson’s person while he was alive. Not every paragraph in Liner Notes encourages an alarmist reading either. Most of them have a tender side:
MY FATHER PLAYING “Femme Fatale” for me on the way to school one morning. I don’t know if I realized that the same band—without Nico—had created the impenetrable funk cacophony of “Sister Ray.”
After seeing Oliver Stone’s movie about the Doors at a friend’s house, I asked my father why he hadn’t told me that Nico was so hot.
“Oh,” he shrugged, “Was she?”
(note #19, page 9)
In themselves, Andy Mister’s personal notes are mostly like these—funny, bleak, cool, vulnerable. He has created an endearing persona: a little down but decent, into some messed up things but not obviously self-destructive, not showing off but he knows what’s what. His note about 9/11 (#18, right before asking his father about Nico’s hotness) tactfully avoids talking about the airplanes, the fall of the towers, everything but the reaction of kids watching CNN. It’s spooky but not morbid. His note about the first time he dropped acid (#20, right after asking about Nico’s hotness) ends with him vomiting Robitussin out a streetcar window and someone yelling, “That kid’s puking blood!” He gets gravity and intensity into the work, then steps back to show how it’s no big thing.
The problem for me is when he starts piling up the overdoses, hangings, shootings, drownings and jumpings of the rich and famous. Those are big things, even if there are ways to create distance from them.
DAVID BOWIE’S EX-WIFE attempted suicide. His brother, Terry Jones, was successful. In an interview, Bowie spoke of his brother’s tragic hanging. He was actually hit by a train.
(note #17, page 8).
The narcotic quality of these images of self-destruction compels feelings of dread and excitement. I was reminded of the films of Alan Clarke, such as Christine or Elephant. In Christine, the title character is a plain teenage girl who happens to be full service heroin dealer (she administers the dose). The camera follows her on her rounds. The numbing repetition of brief death narratives in Andy Mister’s book has a similar effect, even when the death is from what we call “natural causes.”
NICO DIED ON July 18, 1988 of a cerebral brain hemorrhage at the Cannes Nisto Hospital in Ibiza. She was taken to the hospital after being found lying unconscious beside her bicycle. She had quit using heroin two years earlier.
(note #33, page 14)
The feeling grows, as with a good song, that Mister is going somewhere with these short scenes of fame and death. The sentences have the brevity and clarity, and this is meant as praise, of the writing in long form public radio pieces. Real fame and its real consequences are worthy subjects for poetry, despite the prevailing attitude of the last forty years that poetry is supposed to be above supermarket tabloids and BuzzFeed; I can’t think of any other serious treatment of the subject by a poet aside from Gillian McCain’s coauthor/editorship of Please Kill Me. I like that Mister took these risks—to speak clearly, to talk about subjects everybody recognizes. It is a good book. It does not give me a good feeling.
MY CHILDHOOD IS a song I can barely remember the words to. They only come back to me when I’m thinking of something else. I could never write a memoir. My father bought me a purple Nerf frisbee made of soft rubber, the size of a personal pizza, limp as dough. My sister, Sarah, was upset because she wanted him to buy something too, but he didn’t have any money left. I didn’t see him as much because I lived with our mother, and I think he just wanted to do something nice for me. I don’t know why this makes me sad, now, almost 15 years later. The mind keeps its memories under glass.
(note #34, page 14)
Almost every entry in the book includes a verbal marker of depression: a negation (no, not, never, don’t, can’t, won’t etc), a qualifier (maybe, seems) or an outright mention of death or suicide. Many entries include proper names, mostly famous people, some family and friends. The narrator doesn’t come right out and say he is as angry at famous suicides as he is at his father, but that’s the feeling that comes through, along with some tenderness and admiration. It never shades into rehearsal or emulation, but I can only imagine sensitive readers feeling concerned for the writer’s person after about the tenth mention of death—and there are so many more than ten mentions of death.
Subjects come up in waves, are discussed for an entry or two, then go away for an entry or two, then come back, sometimes interwoven with other continued topics, sometimes just peppered with random downers. What gets to me is that the going away sometimes involves coming back, sometimes not. This instability is even harder on the feelings than if painful subjects were brought up once and dropped. For example, the story of the art-folk singer Nick Drake is told in four panels. In the seventh entry in the book, Drake delivers his masterpiece Pink Moon to his record label, which doesn’t understand that they’ve taken delivery until he’s left—he’s so withdrawn he’s barely even present at his crowning achievement. This entry is followed by what appears to be a placeholder description of an “impersonal landscape: some trees, a boat cutting a path across the lake.” Then in the entry after that, Mister presents Drake’s suicide, giving the date, the method (overdose of antidepressants), and that there was no note. The next entry is the first one quoted in this review, in which Mister’s father recommends “Sister Ray.” This is followed by another impersonal landscape, this time a city. And then in the twelfth entry, Mister recalls reading about Drake in Entertainment Weekly after the song “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen ad. Mister mentions that he was fond of the commercial (I liked it too), then deadpans, “The article was mostly about the commercial, not Drake’s life.” There’s nothing more about Nick Drake for more than 50 entries, when Mister mentions that the singer’s family believed that his family thought his death was accidental—that he often took an extra antidepressant as a sleep aid. This is hard to take as it is, and even harder coming twelve entries after Mister mentions a day at work when he’d “accidentally taken an extra antidepressant.”
One measure of writing is whether it gives the reader feelings, time and again. On that measure, Liner Notes has to be counted a success. And yet it feels barbaric to review this book, as if debating the aesthetics of cries of pain. The aesthetics are good, though—the writing is clear, direct, with details that stay startling even as the cumulative effect should be bringing on numbness. I don’t see a lot of middle ground for Liner Notes; you’ll either love it or decide instantly it’s not for you. Come to think of it, that all-or-nothing feeling, having to be the best or not exist at all, may well be what led so many of the casualties Mister lists to their ends. It’s painful.