Waiting to inhale

Head in his hands, whiskey at the ready, John Finch has a problem. He’s a local employed by an occupying force, tasked with solving a double homicide — one of his, one of theirs. His own regard him as a traitor. The others, expendable. The more he discovers, the closer he gets to the end of the line. What’s more, Finch’s is a city under siege by organic tendrils of fungus strangling the landscape into submission under the direction of the spore-laden bad guys known as gray caps. Right when you’re sure where a clue leads, you’re reminded that here anything is possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Finch, the third entry in Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris trilogy, also has a soundtrack.

“When I was writing the book, I was listening to a lot of Murder by Death stuff, and it just seemed to fit the tone perfectly,” VanderMeer said in a phone interview from the World Fantasy Convention, where he garnered the organization’s top award.

A dystopia laced with noir elements seems an unlikely match for a band whose influences span from rockabilly to Americana, but after reading Finch, the members of Murder by Death — Adam Turla, Sarah Balliet, Dagan Thogerson, and Matt Armstrong — were in.

“They spent five days in the studio,” VanderMeer said. “They picked out the parts that had the most dramatic potential and then the parts that contrasted the most totally.” The segments inspired the varied instrumental tracks the band sent back to VanderMeer, including faithful recreations of music described in the book, down to the trash-can lids the band used for drums.

“I had a smile on my face the whole day,” VanderMeer said. “It was perfect. It’s hard to describe what that feels like. It takes the reality of the book away from you and comes back at you from a different direction.”

The emotional cores of the band’s music and Finch unite the disparate styles of both. Hints of Murder by Death’s usual gritty, dust-in-your throat numbers surface while Balliet’s cello coaxes the pathos from the prose. The whole is reminiscent of cinematic soundtracks composed by Nick Cave, Marco Beltrami, or Clint Mansell.

The soundtrack, VanderMeer said, helps him imagine the book making a transition to graphic novel and film. Cinema has taught him much about writing, after all.

“Nicolas Roeg for how you stretch and condense scenes,” he explained. “Sam Peckinpah for how you manage violence in a scene. Cronenberg in Eastern Promises for how to go against established wisdom by shooting a whole fight scene without a cut.”

The influence is evident in the mechanics that propel Finch through what VanderMeer calls in part an “amalgamation of occupied Paris during the 1940s and … occupied Iraq.” He cautions against forcing parallels to either, however. “It’s just something that goes right through the skein of the imagination, and then also the actual setting changes it.”

With Finch, VanderMeer has crafted a pared-down narrative of emotional rawness that evolves through pages of suspense into occasional pockets of lyrical mastery that feel like luxuriant delayed inhalations — with a soundtrack by Murder by Death to match.

“They can use so little in their songs to create so much,” VanderMeer said. “I really envy them for that. Whereas I’ve got to sit there and word by word by word lure the reader in.”
— Cynthia Hawkins