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"On the Philosophy of the Mountain Goats Infecting my Queer Road Trip Novel" by Jenna Jarvis

Today, Jenna Jarvis returns with a guest article all about how American alternative band the Mountain Goats influenced the characters and story within Jenna's upcoming release, Ride With Me. Dive into this sapphic road trip romance and discover how lyrics and music can serve as inspiration for a great tale!


To learn even more about this lovely emerging author, read our interview with Jenna here.

 

In November 2023, on either the 1st or the 14th depending on where you’re acquiring it, my second novel, Ride With Me, will be out in the world. Though this is the first long-form non-fantasy story I’ve ever attempted, as a road trip novel about crossing the Unites States it still feels intensely fantastical to me. I can't drive, and don't even really like being in cars for any length of time, but there is a strange romantic pull to the American highways anyway, almost because of the historical violence they represent.


Ride With Me is about a woman named Emma trying to run away from a bad marriage. She finally decides she’s leaving when her husband sells her beloved, rusting RV to his sister, Lucy. Unable to let this last part of herself go, Emma sneaks away in the bus, an unplanned intruder on Lucy’s road trip vacation. They learn about each other and they fall in love on their journey to the west coast, where the Mountain Goats promise they “do it different” out there ("We Do It Different On The West Coast").


Everything I write I make playlists for, but in writing a romance between a country music lover and disliker I was more keenly aware of music’s influence on this book: it’s a country breakup song; it’s a queer song about women falling in love where they shouldn’t; it’s a rock anthem meant to be blasted loud through open windows on a summer day of driving. I could have written here about Vienna Teng or Carly Rae Jepson or Tracy Chapman or Muna or Fleetwood Mac or how very specifically Taylor Swift's “You're On Your Own Kid” is about Emma, actually. But most of all with this book I returned again and again to the Mountain Goats. When I think of a road trip an unhappy character is making through the states, I hear John Darnielle’s voice.


I think my introductory song was “This Year” at the end of what had been a particularly hard year for the person sending me it. Now, I’ve finally seen the band live as of last year, a year which Darnielle’s Devil House made my favourite novels list. In trying to name my fantasy series, I very nearly named it after one of their albums. (In League With Dragons, obviously.)




In Sarah McHenry’s wonderful Medium article on the Mountain Goats’ driving songs she says, “The car…may be the ultimate symbol in Mountain Goats songs, because it represents both travel and home. Motion and stasis.”[1] Darnielle writes many of his “personified narrators”[2] driving, and more of them are on the move another way, especially within the series of songs known as the Going To songs. Some of these are romantic, some are lonely, and most of them are about Darnielle poking fun at the assumption that things will be better elsewhere. As he put it: “'Taking a geographical' is a term from recovery where you think if I go somewhere else, maybe that will fix my problem. Which, of course-if you are an alcoholic in Claremont you will also be an alcoholic in Portland. The phrase in recovery is that you can’t run from yourself.”[3] Before Pierre Chauvin and soon Jenny From Thebes, no album after 2005 has included a “Going To” song, but plenty of songs outside the series revolve around characters taking similar geographicals, trying to run away from home and figuring out what wasn’t home in the first place: in songs like “The Mess Inside” this is tragic, but sometimes “the highway’s open and the sun is full” ("The Car Song").


In December 2018, the poet Maggie Smith tweeted an idea for a “photo essay that won’t happen: Divorced woman drives her rumpled c.2005 wedding dress across the country and takes photos of it… a metaphorical weekend at Bernie’s… the dead thing is the marriage.”[4] After the Mountain Goats account responded positively, Darnielle almost immediately went away and wrote it, despite protesting he was maybe not the right person to do so. And it’s wonderful. Described as “a Willy Vlauth short story set to music as the protagonist takes off on this sort of strange, rambling road trip that only makes sense to Americans”[5], “Picture of My Dress” is really the Mountain Goats song Ride With Me is most about. (Emma doesn’t bring her dress, but I thought about it.) I’d love to claim that one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite artists inspired by the tweet of one of my favourite working poets inspired this book. It didn’t. But when I came back to redrafting the book in lockdown it was there, informing how Emma’s character grew. Wherever I could I wrote Emma taking great joy from eating because “I get extra mayonnaise, it’s a mess” is my favourite line.


When the personified narrator is not alone, there is often a place between love and hate for them to be sitting in, a thrilling melancholy to be together with someone with just as much wrong about them as you. In “Going to Hungary”, “I got all sentimental we were going straight to hell in a Lincoln continental”; or in “Weekend in Western Illinois”, “the land’s opening up like a blanket,/ and the dandelions spread themselves thickly out along the fields, which are, evidently, endless;/ and we are hotly in love with one another./ we’ve got an unquenchable thirst in our throats./ we are, for some reason, all the time, bleeding,/ and we are friendless.” In “Fault Lines” they proclaim, “I got termites in the framework, so do you!” and in “Cry For Judas” "We are the ones who don't slow down at all, and there's nobody there to catch us when we fall". There's teeth gnashing joy in that sentiment; in living and risking life in spite of the world. To be alone with each other against the world.


“No Children” isn’t an ambiguous song and it’s not about moving anywhere: it’s an anthemic crescendo to an album about a couple who should be getting divorced if they had a shred of self-preservation, but they don’t. But it’s also about glorying in being the worst version of yourself and cutting yourself off from everyone but the person it’s a terrible idea to be anywhere near. Though that’s very much not what this novel is, there’s a darker version of it still sitting very close between the lines. Ultimately, it’s a HEA romance: this works out for them. But they make some unhealthy choices, cutting themselves off from just about everyone but each other. “I wanna say I’m sorry, for stuff I haven’t done yet” (Old College Try): they’re both so scared and convinced they’re going to fall back into their existing patterns which to a greater or lesser extent have made them lonely that they know they’ll fuck it up. They’re afraid to slow down and stop moving, because they’re not sure there’s anything waiting for them when they do.


Home and self never feel like settled states in Darnielle's writing, and I hope they don't in mine. I wanted to make two people who weren't sure of who they were, what they wanted to do with their lives, or where they wanted to live them, find a home in each other. I wanted a situation as painfully romantic as the couple in “Riches and Wonders”, but to have my couple escape the existential despair contained in the line “I wanna go home. But I am home.” Because even when happiness is focused on in a Mountain Goats song, it’s usually as much feared as enjoyed, taking discipline to bear. In "Twin Human Highway Flares" and "The Recognition Scene" love too is something they’re afraid of losing as much as it is something they’re accepting. If love and homecoming is the “feeling of being in motion again” (Going To Georgia) what happens when you stop moving? And while good things feel fleeting, trauma lingers. "There's always gonna be a ghost at the back of your closet, no matter where you live, there's always gonna be a few things, maybe several things, that you're gonna find really difficult to forgive" as “Up The Wolves” begins. The advice from “Clean Slate” to “forget the ones you can” is usually the takeaway.


This isn’t much of a spoiler, but in running away from her marriage, Emma is forced to consider her mother’s abandonment of her as a child. But this story is about her finding a new life with Lucy, not confronting her mother’s ghost. In a 2005 introduction to “Alpha Incipiens”, Darnielle said – “You say 'where was it that I fucked up and everything just began going to hell?' You want to see the starting point and imagine that you can go back and fix it. You can’t, by the way.”[6] Emma’s journey is a lot about realising there isn’t an old version of herself to return to, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to escape to. Though she’s desperate to shed the perfect housewife image she’s spent the last few years cocooning herself in, she can’t return to being the depressed, angry, alcoholic she was before her marriage: she’s outgrown some of the need for those coping mechanisms. Speaking in a twitter thread on the time of his life that nearly killed him, Darnielle said that memories of it gradually became less affecting: “They’re not cornerstones at all”; “They’re points of departure.”[7] In that philosophy and through these songs, love and hope and joy become things which take real discipline to even bear: “Your laughter tore through the New Jersey night/ And I can’t stand it, but I’m all right.” (Raja Vocative)


The joy that’s easier but perhaps more painful for these narrators to bear is the furious, spiteful type, the kind of happiness existing because against all the odds the speaker is still alive. “There’s always a joy in transgressing,” as Darnielle puts it.[8] He admits to writing frequently “about looking into the face of people who do not wish you to have the type of survival you would like to have, and thinking toward them, “I wish you well, but I will not allow you to hold me down.”[9] This story is about revelling in that invented moment that the Mountain Goats are so good at making a meal of - of going up against the world, and revelling in your daring to become something new: "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me";(This Year); “Do every stupid thing to try and drive the dark away”; (Amy AKA spent Gladiator 1)“If not by faith then by the sword/ I’m going to be restored/ But I will transcend/ And vomit this loser out of me”; (Hebrews 11:40) “And I feel guilty/ But I can’t feel ashamed” (Prowl Great Cain).


The new Mountain Goats album is out sooner than my new book and it’s billed as a sequel. Titled Jenny From Thebes, it’s a return to their oft referenced story of Jenny. She’s the postcard writer in “Source Decay”[10], she’s the motorbike rider in “Jenny”, she’s the voice down the phone in “Straight Six”, in “Night Light” the narrator says of her, “I dream of maybe waking up someday/ and wanting you less than I do”. She’s just a woman (some would say trans woman[11]) and “she’s not there when things are going well and she’s not remembered when things are going well”[12]. Fans love to hunt for her in other songs. For me, I wrote Jenny into Ride With Me without realising it, but changed her name to another one that meant a lot to me because, as another Jen name haver, I didn’t want people to think she was a self-insert, especially when she was actually a Mountain Goats song insert. “She both is and isn’t the same person…she is a function of memory,” Darnielle said of her, years before Jenny From Thebes was announced. [13]


My Jenny, Annie, is the safe harbour on the road trip. She’s Lucy’s ex and best friend and she’s trans, and at the point of the novel I write about her she’s lonely and living back on her home ranch in Texas. In the vinyl liner for Jenny of Thebes is written a long piece of prose which starts: “JENNY USED TO LET ABSOLUTELY ANYBODY CRASH AT HER PLACE...” The press release for the album called it “a story about the individual and society, about the safety and shelter and those who choose to provide it when nobody else will… a woman named Jenny, who buys a Kawasaki to ride as far away as she can from a town she’s been carrying on her shoulders too long… this is the house Jenny rents; these are the people who crash there when they need a place to stay; this is where she’s at in the process of becoming someone other than the keyholder she’s been.”[14] It speaks to both the queer desire to “Invent my own family if it comes to that/ Hold them close, hold them near/ Tell them no one’s ever going to hurt them here”(Hebrews 11:40) while also acknowledging the burden on the keyholders to those created sanctuaries. With Annie I wanted to focus on that: she’s not just a magical helper along the way, she has her own issues. And though she’s the romcom best friend, she and Lucy have their own history that hasn’t always involved them being as good as they can to each other. (“People say friends don’t destroy one another, what do they know about friends?” (Game Shows Touch Our Lives))


Darnielle once said music is “to express things that are beyond language.”[15] The book speaks for itself as much as it can, but these are some of its themes and touchstones I didn’t always want to spell out within it. It’s not that deep: it’s a romance novel that’s a little bit of a play on Thelma and Louise. It’s pulpy, often silly, and hopefully sexy. But for the record, though Emma would like to think she’s living in a country song, I know more than her, and she’s actually in a Mountain Goats song.


About Jenna

Jenna Jarvis wrote her first book at the age of five—a nonfiction work about dogs. Since then, she has continued to seek attention through writing and has branched out into fiction. Her degree in literature and history has never helped her find a job, but just like the eclectic mix of jobs she has held, it’s definitely given her writing inspiration. Digging for Heaven is her first published novel. She is happiest in mismatched socks and earrings, enjoys watching horror films with her dog, and thinks karaoke is healing for the soul. She grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and now lives in Glasgow with her partner.

[1] https://medium.com/@yellowcardigan/illustration-by-john-keogh-e736b8e5c56d [2] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/john-darnielle-wants-to-tell-you-a-story [3] https://www.stereogum.com/2195715/john-darnielle-mountain-goats-bleed-out/interviews/weve-got-a-file-on-you/ [4]https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-mountain-goats-picture-of-my-dress-new-song-1074346/amp/ [5] https://louderthanwar.com/the-mountain-goats-getting-into-knives-album-review [6]https://themountaingoats.fandom.com/wiki/Alpha_Incipiens [7] 31/12/2022 https://twitter.com/mountain_goats/status/1609338400477253632?lang=en-GB [8] I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, Episode One, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” [9]https://www.stereogum.com/2176877/mountain-goats-all-hail-west-texas-turns-20/reviews/the-anniversary/ On best ever death metal band (intro at Zoll show) [10] I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, Episode Thirteen, “Source Decay” [11] https://www.autostraddle.com/10-mountain-goats-songs-ranked-by-transness/ [12] I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, Episode Four, “Jenny” [13] I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats Episode Four “Jenny” [14]https://consequence.net/2023/07/mountain-goats-jenny-from-thebes-clean-slate-stream/ [15]https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/john-darnielle-wants-to-tell-you-a-story



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