Mixtapes are one of the pinnacles of pleasure in my life. They’re as intimate as a handwritten letter, and they fly in the face of our fragmented, (post-)postmodern society: a simple expression of the idea that these songs configure together in a way that makes me want to make you listen to them. I still call them a mixtape, even though I haven’t made one on cassette in maybe fifteen years. A mix CD just doesn’t sound right.

But the people in my life for whom a mixtape is a practical gift are becoming more and more limited. Everyone has a way of hooking up their phone or an iPod to their car, and being limited to just 72 minutes of music in a disc is not very sexy. So I make my playlists on iTunes and every now and then I’ll burn one to a CD and mail it out to someone who I think might listen to it, but I try not to ask. I don’t want to imagine my little mixtape abandoned, because a lot of love goes into them. I have to imagine how the person is going to listen to it: in the background while working, while driving, or maybe while doing the dishes? Or could it be one of those people who listens to music with their full attention, eyes fixed into the vague distance? I have to take into account the person’s tastes, but I also want to try to include music they might not normally listen to, or maybe that they haven’t listened to in a long time. The songs have to have some sort of cohesion and transition, and I typically want the album to have some sort of plot, climax, resolution.

But the supply of ideas for mixtapes is higher than the demand, so I’ve turned to other outlets. If my mixtapes aren’t going to get listened to anyway, I thought, this opens up my options considerably. Enter Songs for Hal, a mixtape with a fictional audience: Infinite Jest’s Hal Incandenza.

I want to make it clear up front: this mixtape does not take into account the geopolitical situation of the Infinite Jest world. It does not seek to answer fundamental questions that were probably on everyone’s mind after finishing David Foster Wallace’s iconic tome, like whether or not Amy Winehouse’s career would’ve had the same arc w/r/t a post-O.N.A.N./Concavity/Convexity world.

Instead, Songs for Hal seeks to pierce the foggy world inside Hal Incandenza’s head and either substitute or complement that fungal brew in his stomach. In the text, Hal only indulges in classical music or the soundtracks of his father’s movies; I’m going to chalk that up to a sheltered childhood and assume he’d love some Lady Gaga if he only gave her a chance. And while Hal is consistently described as being stone-faced on the courts, one can easily imagine “Pinball Wizard” floating through the background of his mind when he gets into the rhythm. After all, Hal might be a feral prodigy, but what red-blooded adolescent male wouldn’t rock out to “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” while secretly getting high?

Hal’s familial relationships are a goldmine for musical connections. Months of therapy might not have given him any closure to Hal’s father Himself’s suicide, but Cat Stevens could do the trick. The Hollies would be the perfect wall-lowering tune for Hal to finally have a heart-to-heart with little brother Booboo. And intimidating, manipulative, embracing Avril Incandenza is just the sort of “Mother” Pink Floyd was singing about.

Without further ado:

Songs for Hal

  1. Yo La Tengo – “Deeper into Movies”
  2. Fun f/ Janelle Monae – “We Are Young”
  3. Lady Gaga – “Poker Face”
  4. Brownsville Station – “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”
  5. Aerosmith – “Dude Looks Like a Lady”
  6. The Who – “Pinball Wizard”
  7. Amy Winehouse – “Rehab”
  8. Regina Spektor – “Genius Next Door”
  9. Cat Stevens – “Father and Son”
  10. The Hollies – “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”
  11. Eugene McGuinness – “Those Old Black and White Movies Were True”
  12. Pink Floyd – “Mother”
  13. Neil Young – “Roll Another Number (For the Road)”


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