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February 26, 2014

Book Notes - Chris Abani "The Secret History of Las Vegas"

The Secret History of Las Vegas

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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Chris Abani's The Secret History of Las Vegas is a literary thriller that holds up to the term, a lyrically told and complex tale of murder. I was so impressed by this book that I dashed out to pick up his previous books before I was even finished with this novel.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

""What lifts the novel is its energy, the audacity of Abani's imagination, and most of all the breadth of vision that supplies its moral context. The Secret History of Las Vegas has a global sweep and – what’s often aspired to, but rarely achieved in a novel – a feeling of thematic unity."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Chris Abani's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas:

Dear Reader,

I have compiled here a playlist of songs that I think inspired my new novel, or that work as companions as you read it. Or at the very list would make a great listening experience. I've tried to give you some sense of the book without revealing any spoilers. I hope you like it and enjoy it.

"The Way You Dream" - Michael Stipe and Asha Bhosle

This is the entryway. It's the process of reading. The ritual before, when you select the book from a shelf or pile. Thumb through it, smell it and settle on it. It's the making of ginger tea, the agony of melting honey and the plump of cushions as you settle down into a favorite chair. You crack the first page and surrender to the world of The Secret History of Las Vegas.

"Eddie Quansa" – The Peacocks Guitar Band

This is a beautiful poignant song that conjures up all the nostalgia of Africa in the '70's. It leads you into the novel and your first encounters with the conjoined twins at the heart of the novel, Fire and Water; Sunil; Eskia; Asia; Sheila; and of course Salazar. It holds all the fun of a good read, of a predictability that is so attendant to uncovering the world of a book like The Secret History of Las Vegas.

"Natural Mystic" – Bob Marley

The first inkling that all is not well in this world is the stealth hyena-like stalking of Eskia. You begin to realize the sense of history, the nuclear tests, and the history of apartheid is taking a dark turn. You realize a still unseen force is at play. It is both seductive and yet world changing in that haunting prophetic lyricism that only Bob Marley can summon up in three minutes.

"You Make Me Feel" – Sylvester

I grew up in the age of Funk and Disco. Sylvester, this strange trans-being who was way ahead of his time, ruled the spinning world of disco. Light, adventure, hope, possibility and slippage – all the things I imagined that Las Vegas offered when I was a kid in Nigeria and which I try to infuse in The Secret History of Las Vegas are held in this giddy number.

"Who The Cap Fit" – Bob Marley

As you begin to gain access to the backstory of the novel, access to all the ghosts, mistakes and regrets that haunt this book and the characters, you feel a certain kind of sympathy, empathy even for these souls. But you are also still able to feel level and even about the terms. The stakes haven't overwhelmed you and everything is still filled with hope as you hold onto a clear moral sense.

"Grazin In The Grass" – Hugh Masakela

So far in the novel, everything about Johannesburg and South Africa in the 70's has the tinge of innocence and sentimentality, of a texture that holds promise. You relive all the protests against apartheid that suffused the world and of which we were all part. Now The Secret History of Las Vegas is your friend. A reminder of how good can and must overcome evil.

"Comanche" – The Revels

You have already met the conjoined twins, Fire and Water, but the freaky kids in Fremont take you deeper into this alternate world. You become aware of Fred, and of The Carnival of Lost Souls. There are teasing hints of the circus, of the sideshows, of characters named Horny Nick, Elfin Annie, Petrol, the fighting midgets, the fire wizards that are Fire and Water. This song is the national anthem for a nation of freaks, the anthem of the different.

"My One and Only Love" – Sting

You begin to sense the melancholy and yearning that Jan brings to both Sunil and Eskia. She is unattainable to both because of very different reasons, but though they have both lost her, they still love her. This love burns in Sunil and finds expression in the frustrated love he has for the prostitute, Asia. The desire Sheila has for Sunil that never finds expression is also bound up in this song. All that desperate unrequited love fills us with a delicious heartbreak at this point in the novel. We come to understand that The Secret History of Las Vegas is also a love story.

"Richest Man in Babylon" – Thievery Corporation

When we encounter Brewster in the novel, the man who runs The Desert Palms Institute, and Sunil's boss in the research on psychopathic behavior, we encounter everything that the word “Babylon,” means in patois; an expression of the corruption in Vegas, of an unchecked excess, of the corruption in systems like apartheid and American capitalism. This song brings it all into focus.

"Love is a Battlefield" - Pat Benatar

This song is Sheila's heart; the very essence of her struggle to find love as a nerd. Also it is full of all the angst of the eighties, and speaks for all of us who never got over their first heartbreak and it marks a tender moment in The Secret History of Las Vegas.

"Kulala (Live)" – Miriam Makeba

Dorothy and White Alice are the two mothers in The Secret History of Las Vegas and in fact it can be argued they are both Sunil's mothers. This song speaks to the unspeakable sorrowful lament of every South African mother under apartheid, of the cost of that loving a child that you might lose. Miriam Makeba, herself a symbol for all the women of Africa, and the soul of the struggle, rends our hearts with a voice purely divine.

"Blue in Green" – Miles Davis

"The Shape of My Heart" – Sting

12 and 13 go together. They are the deepest desires and the contour of Asia's heart and soul. A deep longing, a deep love, a deep melancholy. She is the one that got away from all of us. She is also the one that wants nothing more than to be claimed by all of us. We can't help but love her with everything that we have. The love story in this novel continues to grow, and seduces us.

"Jack and Diane" – John Mellencamp

This is the perfect road trip song, and one we can imagine hearing, as Sunil and Salazar cross the Nevada desert in search of Fred. Hearing this song in Nigeria in the 80's conjured up all the complicated hope of America and what I imagined it held for Americans as they struggle with the beautiful contradiction of this country. It is in many ways the wistfulness that all immigrants have for an America they have never and will never experience and it sums up Salazar's character up best – fun, brash, haunted, American.

"Mona Ki Ngi Xica" – Bonga

This is the song that plays when Salazar and Sunil first pull into the spooky ghost town that hosts Fred's The Carnival of Lost Souls. They will later realize it is coming from a sole musician sitting in a quarry in the moonlight. It haunts the next three songs and you must imagine it playing under them, weaving in and out. It is the sound of all human yearning.

"Yulunga (Spirit Dance)" – Dead Can Dance

When we first encounter Fred in the flesh, along with Sunil and Salazar, this is the song that plays in our heads. Fred is quite simply a Rilke angel – a being of terror and beauty. Pure primordial goddess – Pravati, Durga and Kali combined. Even Oshun – a being before who we are all remade and I imagine the conjoined twins, Fire and Water, in worship, in love, sing this to her.

"Sorrow, Tears and Blood" – Fela Kuti

In this song, in this moment in the book, the histories of resistance in both nations, South Africa and the USA, collide and intersect. As Fred recounts the Downwinder Struggle, we revisit all of Sunil's past, the struggle of the ANC, Inkatha, SWAPO and so forth. In this melancholic anthem of transformation by Fela Kuti we are confronted with our complicity, our participation and the hope of change.

"Hallelujah" – Jeff Buckley

If you imagine a young David singing Psalms to calm an irate King Saul, Jeff Buckley immediately comes to mind. This song ties up many threads in the novel and slows time for the reader even as the book accelerates towards the ending. It ties together Fred, Fire and Water, Asia, Sheila, Salazar, Eskia and Sunil. It is also the psalm that sings Eskia into death.

"Have No Fear" – Bird York

This haunting song from Bird York is playing in the final scene of the book as the replica ship sets sail on the lake on fire. It is the anthem for an uneasy end. For the peace we have to make with discomfort. At the final whisper, The Secret History of Las Vegas comes to an end.

"Country Mile" – Pharoah Saunders

As you put The Secret History of Las Vegas down stretch, shudder, and finish the last dregs of your now cold ginger tea, Pharoah Saunders guides you back to the day, to your life, to your living. He is the shaman that makes it all good again, but the screeched harmonic notes, even in this happy upbeat tune, remind you that The Secret History of Las Vegas has changed you forever.

Thank you for reading and listening.

Baraka Bashad

Chris Abani

Chris Abani and The Secret History of Las Vegas links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review
Washington Post review

PEN interview with the author
The Rumpus 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

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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