In a move it’s hard not to read as both sentient and shade-throwing, YouTube recently “recommended” I check out Art Garfunkel’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).” It had been years, but big data knows all—I actually do adore this cover, originally due to a combination of adolescent love for both Art’s solo career and High Fidelity. (If you had better taste than I did as a teenager, congratulations. And you clearly didn’t help me out at the time, so zip it.) Anyway, right or wrong, I found myself grooving as hard as ever. It’s a good match for Art’s voice, and for the nostalgic (would you say "overproduced"? Well go say it over there) reverb and syrupy instrumental mix arranged behind it. I like the strange sentiment of “I Believe,” which is sort of a paradoxically hopeful torch song—its easy-listening groove, if you’re not into it, makes it easy to scoff right past the poignant ache of a singer hoping against hope to break a pattern. It gets me to a quiet, literary kind of big-picture hopeful sadness, something that's maybe not unusual per se, but always special, to find in pop music. Listening this time, I heard the early DNA of what would make me respond so deeply and immediately to the Mountain Goats, years after I first liked this. I believe when I fall in love—with you—this time—it will be forever. Singers alleging that everything is just about to be lovely, no matter bad it is right now—gets me, man. Every time.
Generally songs, fiction, all stories are divided between acute tension—will this risk pay off; will that terrible thing occur—and a slower, chronic, lived-in tension—will this pattern finally break; will that disappointment ever let up. Both types play on reader hopes and fears and associations, but the formulas are mixed and concentrated very differently, and I think a big part of individual taste in fiction comes down to how we each like our cocktails. By chance this month I've been reading many books salted with acute edge-of-your-seat tension, and of course it's easy to make a case for it. The diving scenes in Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach had me biting my nails to stubs. But they also had me disappearing maybe too fully into the emergency of the moment, washing out with an overexposure of terror the more nuanced emotional landscape Egan builds up in the rest of the novel. The mental calculus to get back to Anna's land-bound concerns after a dive was sometimes a challenge. This isn't necessarily a problem with the book—after all, that's precisely why Anna loves diving. It helps—forces—her to forget her woes. The reader's experience simply mimics hers, which is maybe profound, maybe frustrating, maybe both.
Most literary fiction leans, sometimes too hard, in favor of chronic tension, broken-pattern tension. Stories of passive characters hoping something changes are too numerous to catalog. But I think most of us love best those stories that blend the two. That's something I just saw working beautifully, concentrically, in Julie Buntin's Marlena—a novel full of acute and physical danger, but whose most profound beats are quiet, internal. Regrets; recognitions of patterns; intentions set to break those patterns. When it's done well, no matter what else happens in a piece of writing—a deadly addiction; a low-tech dive to the bottom of New York Harbor; a soft-rock riff—the most moving and climactic moment can be a character's quiet decision to believe that this time happiness will be forever.
Let's listen! (Don't @ me):