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January 21, 2015

Book Notes - Deepti Kapoor "A Bad Character"

A Bad Character

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.

Deepti Kapoor's novel A Bad Character is sharply told and poignant, an impressive debut.

The Telegraph wrote of the book:

"The backdrop of Delhi and its class structures are drawn with sharp detail, but Idha's voice – that of a young woman struggling with the world’s sometimes violent plans for her – could ring out from anywhere. As the narrative skips through time, there emerges a poignant and impressionistic portrait of the end of adolescence and a changing world."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Deepti Kapoor's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel A Bad Character:


1.) 'Laura Palmer's Theme' – Angelo Badalamenti, Twin Peaks Soundtrack

Laura Palmer, the heart of Twin Peaks, is a love of mine. Men want her, but they're scared of her, they want to save her, they want to possess her. And sometimes they want to kill her. And since she's dead when we meet her, she already exists out of time. The surface perception - in her fictional world at least – is of a perfectly sweet, popular girl, and this is soon revealed to be false, replaced with the reality of a damaged, intelligent, sad, doomed, funny, nasty, loving, scared, strong and complex person. There's something supernatural about her too. For all these reasons I love her, and she's someone I tapped into for the novel. Not an influence exactly, more a reference, a presence. So I choose Badalementi's 'Laura Palmer's Theme,' from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. And it's not a symbolic choice either. The track is lonely, sinister, mysterious, hopeful and heartbreaking. It moved me the moment I heard it, and I never tire of listening.


2.) 'Go Long' – Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me

'With the loneliness of you mighty men / with your jaws and fists and guitars and pens / and your sugarlip / but I've never been to the firepits with you mighty men.'

It was a choice between quoting these lines, or some from Chris Marker's film, Sans Soleil, at the start of the novel. In the end I decided to have nothing. But this song was a direct inspiration for the approach, and it remained with me the whole way through writing. Among other things, it connects the breakdown of a relationship, the man's violence, despair and creativity, and the narrator's telling of it, with the Bluebeard myth, which is about the terrible consequences of female curiosity. It's much more than that though, which is part of its virtue, the impossibility of pinning it down. But for me, I was really interested in the link between creativity and violence, how the latter is so often seen as necessary for the former, especially in young men. And how the song manages to provide a counterpoint to this, even as it addresses the point.

You see the idea that one must destroy to create, you see it everywhere, the attraction of that violence and destruction, the revolutionary zeal. And the despair this thinking leads to, the chaos at its end. I saw it in the boyfriend in the novel. He believed that violence was not only transformative, but necessary, that creativity demanded violence, upheaval, madness. That to not go over the edge was to fail. Being a man with money in Delhi, he had that privilege. And he wanted to carry the girl along with him, but she had other ideas. Newsom has other ideas. She becomes more powerful than the violence, than the “jaws and fists and guitars and pens”, and demonstrates how to create something extremely powerful without falling back on those impulses, she knew how to create without destroying. So the song does not attack. It does not pursue. It does not consume and is not consumed. It opens, allows things to pass through, and remains open. As she says “What a woman does is open doors / And it is not a question of locking or unlocking.” It's a staggering work.


3.) 'To Bring You My Love' – PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love

Unlike Newsom, PJ fights fire with fire. She just rocks harder than the men. She is a harder, better, more terrifying singer and guitarist than most men. This is her response, her femininity. She's modulated this as her career has gone on, she's evolved and explored. But on this song, and in this era, she's a force of nature in the mould of the old blues players. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, the first time I heard it. It was so masculine, and yet so unmistakably female. So brazen. It's another kind of inspiration. In the novel I wanted to do what men do with their novels, with their characters, with their access to the city, with their swagger. I wanted to write like a man might and can. But never at the expense of being a woman. So this song often came to mind and was often played.


4.) 'Clara' – Scott Walker, The Drift

Scott Walker is a genius. Lyrically, and musically, no one touches him. His access to concepts and nightmares is unparalleled. My husband got me into him. It took a long time, as it tends to. I don't listen, I don't like, I resist, and then one day I listen and it clicks. It was the same with Sonic Youth. I'm stubborn like that. But The Drift is Scott Walker's masterpiece. It's a record that I still haven't absorbed, I've only begun to scratch the surface after a few years. Some music, you like instantly, and then a few weeks later it's gone. The Drift takes time, it has staying power, it exists in a vacuum, it's unlike anything else ever made. I picked this song specifically because Walker's method influenced the grammar of the novel, and this song is a perfect demonstration of the method. He tends to work with sound blocks rather than melodies. The combinations and variations of distinct blocks of sound create the songs, rather than having one unbroken thread running through. So there are sonic textures instead of melodies. I took this for myself. I wanted to avoid making a fully connected narrative, avoid a stream, a full melody, so to speak, and instead have moments, blocks, vignettes, which are not necessarily fully linked, and which taken together create a sensation, a kind of meaning, but have no truly linear connection, and as a by product of this create a blinkered, surreal, slightly nightmarish quality. Beyond this, the song itself is stunning, terrifyingly conjuring the inner life of Mussolini's lover, Clara Petacci, and her eventual hanging with Mussolini, and obliquely connecting it to early 21st century global politics. Operatic, horrifying, surreal, deeply moving, and the only song I've ever heard where a classically trained percussionist is punching a side of dead pig with good reason.


5.) 'Unravel' – Bjork, Homogenic

An early draft of the novel had some of the lyrics to this song within a passage of the middle section, where things are lost and drifting, where the girl is caught in love and the body and can see nothing else. I used to listen to this song a lot during the time the novel was set. My boyfriend of that time introduced her to Bjork, as he introduced me to other music, Radiohead and The Velvet Underground, things that were exotic in Delhi at that time for me. Before him I didn't know so much in terms of music, film, art. He opened me up. These artists seem mainstream now, obvious, but to me then they were a revelation. We'd drive the city and listen to Bjork's and he'd tell me how the world was going to be, how it was our world. Both Delhi and I at that time were more insular, protected. I never forget this song. It's one of the most beautiful in the world. A perfect song. And it still reminds me of those days, which were never going to last.


6.) 'Pacific Coast Highway' – Sonic Youth, Sister

I don't really have heroines, but Kim Gordon is a heroine. I love Sonic Youth as a whole, but Kim's the one. She's cool without being cool. And the way she sings, howls, grunts, yelps, commands, it leaves me floored. The way she sings this song, the flat intonation of menace and desire and revenge as she tells whoever is her object to 'c'mon get in the car, let's go for a drive somewhere,' it's a talisman for me. Driving around Delhi with that song playing gives me the necessary aggression to beat the city. I wanted some of that trashy, punk, no-wave energy inside the novel.


7.) '108 Chants of the Mahalaxmi Mantra' – Pandit Jasraj/Shweta Pandit/Ram Dixit

We used to put this on waking every morning at 5am when I had to teach yoga in the beach resort I was working at in Goa, and we also put it on when I left all that and had the freedom to write in the mornings without worrying about a job. It lasts twenty minutes, the single line of the mantra over and over, accompanied by sitar and drone. It's incredibly meditative, calming and focusing at once. These twenty minutes are the time I have to focus my mind for the day ahead.


8.) The Call to Prayer over Delhi

It's not a track, but it plays every day. The azaan, the Islamic call to prayer. It's one of the most beautiful creations, but never in a recording, it has to be heard live, and it has to exist as part of the city too, it has to call out alongside car horns, pigeons, crows, men, women, people washing their pots and pans, all those lives rubbing against one another. It has to call out alongside trains bleating. It's one essential sound of Delhi and the soundtrack to the novel.


9.) 'Kindred' – Burial, Kindred EP

There was a period writing the novel where there was a block. I'd go walking in the morning in the village with headphones on, often in a mode of despair, running calculations in my head. This track hadn't been out long, and so I listened to it on repeat for a while. Not only does it coincide with the blocked period, it also provided one small answer to it, in the crackle of needle static at the beginning of the track, which made me think of thunder, and triggered an image of my childhood that brought certain memories back. All the lines of that page, “the thunder breaks inside the sky like the crack of an old record player…” were composed walking through the village, and later written down from memory at home.


10.) 'Ain't Got No, I Got Life' – 'Nina Simone / 'Aint' – Body/Head

One is the original, the other the atonal, noise-art cover. The original I used to listen to in my car in Delhi at the time the novel was set. The Body/Head record came out around the time the editing was happening. I hadn't listened to the Simone song in years, I'd grown out of it, but the Body/Head version brought it back. It was perfect for my life then, Nina Simone's voice, her singular, lonely power. And this primal guitar-drone feminist banshee-wail – Kim Gordon again – was perfect for me at this point, so direct, painful, strong and uncompromising. It's the sonic equivalent of the kind of maelstrom I wanted by the end of things.


11.) 'All in Your Mind' – My Sad Captains, In Time

This is a band from London, my husband went to university with a couple of them, and when they're recording he gets bits and pieces, hears early tracks sometimes. The album this song comes from was written and recorded and produced when the novel was written, so there's an association. It's interesting to hear and see the process and development of someone else's work, especially when you're in the same kind of boat. But this very short song is something I'd listen to regardless of all that. It's a melancholic, acoustic piece of, I suppose, British Americana, but what's really special is the fleeting, ten-second guitar solo that's so slight, sublime and achingly beautiful that it's hard not to rewind and listen to it again right away. Sometimes when you can't face things, you need this kind of thing to sooth you, and this was there for me. It's also a good album to listen to the morning after the night before, a good comedown album.


12.) 'Night' – Midival Punditz, Midival Punditz

These guys, Tapan Raj and Gaurav Raina, started the 'Cyber Mehfil' mentioned in the novel, the early raves of Delhi. They're pioneers of India, fusing Indian classical forms and instruments with electronic music. They're still going, elder statesmen now. I used to listen to them all the time, everyone I knew in this scene did, my boyfriend went to their parties, though I was not part of that in those days, I was still somewhat removed. This song is not so indicative of a party, it's mournful, more down-tempo, uses the esraj, a sitar-like instrument, but it brings back that era for me completely.


13.) 'Living Room' – Grouper, The Man Who Died In His Boat

I'm looking for the place the spirit meets the skin
can't figure out why that place feels so hard to be in
we're all of us at this ill-fitting party
busy pretending to relate
and it's getting harder and harder to fake
acting like everything's in its place

I could include anything of Grouper's, I use her to sleep at night, and I mean that in the best possible way. She comforts me and calms my mind. This track is not a typical one, in the sense that you can actually hear the lyrics - usually they are obscured - but I choose it because it sums up how the girl in the novel feels about the world, how I have felt, and how I imagine many others do. The yearning to connect both to other people and to the natural world, and the suspicion that somehow this is an impossibility.


14.) 'Dead People's Things – Deathprod, Morals and Dogma

I want to end with some black magic: Deathprod, Helge Sten. He's Norwegian. This is all I know about him. This, and that he calls what he does an “audio virus”. Sometimes when you hear a band, an artist, a piece of music, you go and discover everything about them, you look up their other work, you familiarize yourself with them, get to know them or imagine you know them. But not here, not with Deathprod. All that I know is the music, all that exists is what I hear. Nothing beyond it matters one bit. Everything else is black. What I hear is also black, and yet it is black in the most expansive way. Listening to his music, to this track in particular, is like looking across the edge of the universe, it's like dying, being lost in an ocean or in deep space. Or maybe like being in the womb. Only when I started to write this did I go and find out what he looks like. I read up a little too. So I can tell you, in his own words, that his instrumentation “is made of homemade electronics, old tape echo machines, ring modulators, filters, Theremins, samplers and lots of electronic stuff”. I think this track uses the Theremin, oscillator and violin. It's just under twenty minutes long. It has a menacing hum of electricity, and hovering above it, a monolithic quality among a deep sorrowful melody that moves like a glacier. It's the sound of the end of the world. I used it for a long time in my yoga practice, to help go inside myself and access the secret parts. It gave me power. I transferred that power to the novel too, it allowed me to access painful things and come out unscathed.


Deepti Kapoor and A Bad Character links:

excerpt from the book

The Calcutta Telegraph review
Guardian review
The Hindu review
New Indian Express review
Publishers Weekly review
Telegraph review
Wall Street Journal review

BBC Radio 4 interview with the author
Biographile essay by the author
Fiction Advocate interview with the writer
The Hindu interview with the author
The Hindu profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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