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December 16, 2014

Book Notes - Casey Walker "Last Days in Shanghai"

Last Days in Shanghai

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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Casey Walker's Last Days in Shanghai is an impressive debut, a literary thriller that deftly explores American political corruption and modern China.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Though its observations about China’s construction boom and the dismal state of American politics are as fresh as the morning news feed, Walker’s novel also feels like a disquieting peek deep into the coming decades of global economic upheaval."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Casey Walker's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Last Days in Shanghai:


There's an inside and an outside to the music of Last Days in Shanghai—there's the anonymous, cloying music in the world of the novel, and there's the music that I listened to as I wrote, which I imagine to be somehow more personal.

The music inside the book is all the ambient noise of dislocation—sonatas degraded by airport speakers; fragments of a cab driver's radio; loops of instrumental nothingness in a hotel lobby. The narrator, Luke Slade, is visiting China on other people's business, shambling along after the congressman he works for, and he's desperate to hear anything but what he's hearing. His Beijing is corrupt little whispers over a business dinner, and all the lively bars on Sanlitun Lu echo with the dance tracks of someone else's good time. Luke's music is foggy and placeless—a glazed stumble through a business hotel after too much baijiu. Elevator music was constantly on my mind: it's the perfect expression of a kind of confinement and discomfort we all recognize. Who is this institutional music for, anyway? Luke wants to see Chinese cities, but mostly what he gets, barely apprehended through jetlag, is the indoor playlist of global capitalism's most passionless architectures—airports, hotels, conference rooms. It's the music everyone hears and no one listens to.

There's a considerable amount of overheard music in my own experience of writing, too. I tend to write out in coffee shops and cafes (and moreso now, with a small child in the house). The jazz standards and indie strumming that saturates most cafes mixes with the coffee grinder and the squeal of milk being steamed. Almost always, the conversation two people are having at the next table over is deeply private and I'm an inveterate eavesdropper. I have to put on headphones and play my own music low, try to create a brownout of blended sounds. I think what separates the narrator's music from mine—elevator music from my own playlist—is the illusion of intimacy. You get to imagine a song is addressed to you just by choosing to listen.


"Cello Suite No. 1 in G-Prelude," Pablo Casals
"Twilight," Elliott Smith

Most often, the music in my headphones was either Casals' rendition of Bach's Cello Suites or the extended catalog of Elliott Smith—six albums, plus innumerable b-sides and live recordings I've acquired over the years. Casals became my Pavlovian training: his bow hit the strings, and I knew it was time to work. Later, I'd turn to whatever Elliott Smith record I was wearing out. His last, posthumous album was released right around the time I first went to China, and I loved everything about "Twilight," down to the crickets you can hear in the background of the recording. The day after I returned from my first trip to China, I sat in the backyard of a coffee shop on 4th Ave in Brooklyn and I scribbled a banquet scene about a drunken provincial official. I hoped it was the start of something.

"Hold Time," M. Ward
The most direct reference in the novel that I can recall—where I knew I wanted this passage to feel like this—is lifted from M. Ward. The narrator is in Venice, being ferried from one side of the Grand Canal to the other with his girlfriend, and they're more or less breaking up. That failed relationship hangs over the novel, and M. Ward's refrain hold time, hold time caught me so acutely that I ended up using the phrase in the passage itself. It's an allusion, or its plagiarism. The song is so hypnotic that I can only plead that the suggestion was subconsciously planted.

"Los Arcos- Granaína," Paco Peña
Many of the years I worked on Shanghai, I was commuting out of Brooklyn to teach—endless hours on New Jersey Transit. In an effort to break out of my own head, filled with cast-off novel pages and dissertation work, I started taking flamenco guitar classes once a week. My teacher turned me on to Peña and his virtuosity, compared to my poor strumming, was inconceivable. On years of journeys, Peña drowned out the harried commuters of the Northeast Corridor.

"Moonlight Reflected on the Er-Quan Spring," Lei Qiang
I felt painfully my distance—culturally, geographically—from the China I was writing about. I tried to shrink the insurmountable gap with books, pictures, emails to people I'd met there. When nothing else would suffice, I'd listen to this and think of the difference between the imagined China the narrator wishes he could encounter, and the China of state capitalist upheaval he's actually encountering. The ehru is such a mournful instrument, perfectly suited to vanishing dreams.

"The Sound of Silence," Simon and Garfunkel
Eventually, I had a draft of the novel—not a good one, as it turned out, but the rest of my work life felt grimly halted by the financial crisis and nationwide hiring freezes. Desperate, I sent out an over-long version of the novel to a few agents. That first encounter with the business end of publishing felt exactly like the moment in The Graduate that this song is famous for—plunged underwater, weightless and adrift.

"Condition Oakland," Jawbreaker
Sometimes you have to go back to the beginning. This is one of those songs that fed my most romantic teenage dreams about writing. It's all longing and frustration—Climbed out onto my roof, so I'd be a poet in the night—and I must have listened to it a thousand times. I learned who Jack Kerouac was from the spliced in recording of Kerouac reading "October in the Railroad Earth" near the end of the song. There's almost nothing else of my teenage self that I still listen to.

"I Fought the Law," The Clash
I wanted Shanghai, like the city itself, to be frenetic—for the narrator to feel the constant pressure of things moving too fast. The whole book takes place over the course of a single week—a week of scheming, corruption, deaths and missing persons all in a foreign space totally illegible to him. In this song, there's a slow build of drums that ramps up before the screaming guitars enter and the whole blistering song is over in 2 minutes, 41 seconds—there's something in The Clash's music that always reminds me to keep pace, to build and then burst. I'm always trying to balance my own reflective streak with a commitment to propulsion. A reader spends hours, days, even weeks reading a novel. You need cello suites, but you also need The Clash.

"Say Yes" Elliott Smith
I try to tell myself that to be a writer you should live like a cactus. Your skin should be spiny and uninviting, all of your resources husbanded to survival in an extreme climate. You should look for very little from the world outside—the smallest dew should suffice. That tough exterior is not the world of Elliott Smith's music, where difficult vulnerability is vast. But I do think I learned something about editing from listening to him. This album, Either/Or, was self-recorded in a basement. It's just his voice and a guitar, and this is one of the shortest tracks on the record. Strip it all down and get your two minutes of perfection. Out of the 125,000 word novel I originally wrote, I had to carve a 65,000 word version—had to learn what to leave out and when to just be quiet.


Casey Walker and Last Days in Shanghai links:

excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Publishers Weekly profile of 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

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End 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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