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November 8, 2012

Book Notes - Nick Harkaway "Angelmaker"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker is a complex literary thriller layered with philosophical and social undertones, a fast-paced rollercoaster of a novel that is easily the most fun book I have read all year.

The Telegraph wrote of the book:

"Angelmaker is an intricate and brilliant piece of escapism, tipping its hat to the twisting plots of John Buchan and H Rider Haggard, the goggles-and-gauntlets Victoriana of the steampunk movement and the labyrinthine secret Londons of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, while maintaining an originality, humour and verve all its author's own. "

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Nick Harkaway's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Angelmaker:

Stop reading! Stop immediately! You need to be listening to

"Another One Bites The Dust" (Queen)

before you go further! Why? Because that's what I'm listening to, right now, writing this, and the over-caffeinated almost macho urgency of what I'm about to say is coming straight from August 1980. How can we possibly understand one another if you're not biting your lower lip like a nervous weasel while you take in what I'm saying? Go! I'll wait.

All right, great. So we're all on the same musical page now. And that's the main thing I use music for, I suppose: mood. I'm listening to Queen because the main character in my new novel is about to do something brassy and masculine and sublimely stupid, but it's sort of admirable, too. And musically the choice works on two levels (that I'm presently aware of): the out-and-out prideful rock of the song in the first place, which summons the whole insane 80s decade to my mind - and even conjures a sense of it if you are mercifully young enough to have missed it - and the wiser feeling of stunned, even awed horror looking back at how deranged the whole thing was. The decade from 1980-89 would have ground up today's gossip shocks and political stupidity and injected them directly into its eyeball just to get the night started.

Or maybe that's just how the song remembers them. Music is zeitgeist.

I'm not musical myself, by the way, except in the sense that if you put me in one of those giant hamster-balls and rolled me across an orchestra I'd probably try to squash the brass section first. I wish I were. Or, I think I wish I were. But then maybe I wouldn't be able to do words, and words are amazing. But if ever I lose the ability to speak somehow, I'll reach for music and mathematics.

Mathematics... Angelmaker, my second novel, is not about mathematics. It's about a man who accidentally switches on a doomsday machine and has to fix the problem he's created. Except that nothing is ever simple, so there are mad monks and a very dangerous old woman and lawyers of questionable morality and submarines, clockwork and elephants. But yes, there is a mathematical genius in it, and she does build the strange device which might destroy conscious life in the universe - or usher in a new age of peace and humanity.

I needed a lot of mood music to get around a story which starts - for the characters, though not for us - some time in the early 1900s and ends tomorrow. I needed music for my main character: male, late 30s, living alone in London's warehouse district, son of a famous gangster.

A lot of the time, I played

"Rosie" (Jackson Browne)

I have a live recording, and it's hugely atmospheric. Great about being the other guy, the one who somehow doesn't get the spotlight. I also spent a lot of time with

"Furr" (Blitzen Trapper).

But Joe Spork (my hero) came easily to me. He and I have a certain amount in common - age, and the experience of a wonderful but possibly overwhelming parent, for a start. Speaking of which... Mathew Spork, Joe's lamentable dad, prince of London's 70s gangster scene, corduroy and sheepskin menace, sharp-suited dandy. That had to be an opportunity to max out on

"Daddy Cool" (Boney M.)

Well, you wouldn't, wouldn't you?

Then at the heart of the story, in a way, is in Joe's chosen profession: clockwork. The ethos and the virtue of making things by hand, and the relationship between humanity and technology, runs quietly through the book. So there's a bit in

"City of New Orleans" (Arlo Guthrie)

which kept going around and around in my head:

"The sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers' magic carpet made of steel"

It's perfect: it encapsulates the sense of loss I sometimes feel about that era of transport, but it also has just a whisper of the Big Industrial Problem Solving vibe which runs through the 20th Century - the Hoover Dam, the nuclear industry, the New Towns, the exportation of unsuitable techniques of agriculture to the developing world... and that almost Futurist vibe is also a part of Frankie Fossoyeur's decision to ‘fix' the world with her machine. Frankie would have an acerbic relationship with music: she'd hear it as information as much as experience it, and she'd probably argue. That doesn't mean I don't have songs for her - like

"Misery" (Professor Longhair)


"Di Goldene Pave" (Chava Alberstein and the Klezmatics)

- but they're images of her, and her musical themes mostly get swallowed by the soundtrack of what's happening around her. The secret agent who rescues her from various fates, though, definitely has her own collection.

Edie Banister is my second lead, and she slightly steals the show. Ancient when we first meet her, in her WWII and Cold War heyday she's an adventurer, an SOE-style international hero with an evening gown in one pocket and a pistol in the other: the sort of spy they don't make any more. Edie has plenty of music as she roves through the decades from 1939 to the present day. She's stylish, energetic, angry, and sexy, so I played

"The Jackal" (Ronny Jordan)


"Bad Things" (Jace Everett)

while she was being subtle, and for her fight sequences in south Asia and Europe I used tracks like

"Unbelievable" (EMF)


"Lust for Life" (Iggy Pop).

The person who really isn't easy to capture with music is the villain: he's what everyone else is fighting against, of course, but there's just not any music which conveys how evil, how jarring and dissonant he is in the world which isn't also really hard to work to. Maybe that's my audio-environment limitation talking, of course - perhaps a good composer would have no problem at all - and I'm constrained in what I listen to while I'm working because it can't be something which will break me out of the zone. That means that a lot of the time I'm listening to something quite simple and not too assertive - much of Angelmaker was written in the company of simple guitar and vocals. For sure, I couldn't have used Dire Straits' Telegraph Road for anything, or Ice T's That's How I'm Livin' - the words are too strong. So I spent a lot of time with songs from from albums Il Canto di Malavita, such as

"Ergastulanu" (El Domingo)

which has the overwhelming advantage that I don't understand it even though I speak some Italian, and which is both connected to the whole gangster thing by being about the Mafia, and is melancholic and elegant like my favourite formal dance music, Argentine Tango. When I really had to work with Shem Shem Tsien and understand him, I turned the whole thing on its head and tried to imagine he was the good guy - so instead of something bleak and atonal, I let him have fun. In the musical Negative Energy Universe, the Opium Khan's internal soundtrack was

"A Well Respected Man" (The Kinks).

Which really only leaves - well, no, that's not true, there's so much I could say, but I won't - the moment when I stopped working at the end of the day. After all that, I needed something to turn me back into a human being so I could make dinner with my wife, hug my daughter, and not dream about budo and fedoras. When I was a kid, I used to listen to this piece over and over and over again, and I sort of still do. Worse (or better) yet, I've passed the habit on to my daughter, who refers to this as “daddy's music", a vast and growling inaccuracy which I will one day have to correct. No, I did not write it, little bear. I just love it as much as you do - music to soothe and enlighten:

Clarinet Concerto in A: Adagio (Mozart).

Nick Harkaway and Angelmaker links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

A.V. Club review
Barnes and Noble Review review
Guardian review
Independent review
Independent review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
The Millions review
Observer review
Open Letters Monthly review
Publishers Weekly review
SF Signal review
Slate review
Telegraph review

Steamed! interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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