August 3, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Vu Tran's novel Dragonfish is an impressive debut, a haunting and evocative literary thriller.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Nuanced and elegiac…. Vu Tran takes a strikingly poetic and profoundly evocative approach to the conventions of crime fiction in this supple, sensitive, wrenching, and suspenseful tale of exile, loss, risk, violence, and the failure of love."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Dragonfish took me five years to write, and every night I stuck to a precise ritual: begin around midnight, stop at four in the morning, drink endless cups of jasmine tea in between, and give myself one smoke break outside, during which I'd listen to a song or two on my iPhone. They were always slow and sad songs, love songs inevitably, suffused with literal as well as emotional reverb. I call them my 2AM-cigarette-on-the-balcony songs, my favorite kind.
Unsurprisingly, Dragonfish is a nocturnal novel. A quiet and moody one. Even when scenes take place in the day or in the glitzy casinos of Las Vegas, its primary setting, a dark and pensive atmosphere pervades the narrative. Robert Ruen, the protagonist and narrator, is a police officer who's discovered that his ex-wife has disappeared. He's now being blackmailed by her new husband into tracking her down, and much of his progress through the novel is also a journey back to all the confusion and heartache in their failed marriage. The regret and bitterness too, which is present as well in the novel's secondary narrative, a series of letters that this ex-wife—Suzy—has written to someone she wronged decades ago.
All the songs on this list, even if you don't listen to the lyrics, evoke this feeling of loss and melancholy. Many are simply some of my favorite songs from the last five years. All I really had to do was go look at my most played tracks on iTunes. They make their own playlist for my state of mind during the writing of this novel.
1.) "Jungle Drums" by Xavier Cugat
Xavier Cugat is a favorite of mine because he's also a favorite of Wong Kar Wai, who uses his music often in his films. I first heard "Jungle Drums" in Days of Being Wild and have always found its stylized romanticism—a lovelorn person's fantasy of what it must be like to dance at night in the jungle—to be the perfect sound for a Wong Kar Wai movie. Exotic, playful and yet also very serious in its eroticism, and palpably romantic. In my writing over the last ten years, I've tried to emulate Wong Kar Wai's aesthetic approach. It's all about tone for me. If I can get the right tone in the language, in the voice of the narrative, everything else follows.
2.) "Lujon" by Henry Mancini
This unbearably sexy song—in all its sixties' Jazz/Latin exoticism—begins with a slow and percussive melody reminiscent of heartbeats, and then, twenty seconds in, lush violins swoon in and out, held at bay throughout the song by a trumpet, then a brooding saxophone, both of which sound as lonely as the violins sound overwrought. It's all wonderfully on the verge of being kitschy and yet so beautiful in its unabashed eroticism. Mancini is famous, of course, for the Pink Panther theme song, which because of the movie has attained a cheesiness that undervalues how elegantly and artfully composed it and so many of Mancini's songs are.
3.) "Empty Garden" by Elton John
For better or worse, I grew up in the eighties with MTV as my cultural guidepost, my childhood soundtrack, and this was my first Elton John music video. I didn't care that much for him back then, not nearly as much as I do now, but I do remember loving this song, how incredibly sad and lonely it made me feel. I didn't know until last year that it was written as a tribute to John Lennon. It's the song that Robert Ruen listens to in his car in the first scene of the novel, as he ponders the life he's lived since his ex-wife left him. I originally quoted the lyric, He used to be a gardener that cared a lot, but permissions for it proved too costly, so I described the music video instead, which ended up working much better. It's just Elton John playing a white grand piano in an empty concrete garden as autumn leaves are tossed about by the wind. As literal and corny as any eighties' video, but nostalgia has always made the song especially meaningful to me.
4.) "As Long As You Follow" by Fleetwood Mac
There are few openings to a song I like better than this one, with Mick Fleetwood's drums ushering in Lindsey Buckingham's gorgeous, cascading guitar melody, which repeats achingly throughout the song. Fleetwood Mac is the only American band my mother has ever loved, and she especially likes Christine McVie, who always sang with a softness and restraint that made the longing in this particular song—the conditional hope in the title—all the more moving. In the novel, this song is playing in the lesbian dive bar while one character recounts the unsettling story of another character, while he himself privately pines for a third character, who is listening.
5.) "Some Velvet Morning" by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra
That lesbian dive bar—the walls of which are decorated with hundreds of female dolls—contains one of the longer and weirder scenes in the novel, and so I thought I'd animate it with one of the weirder songs I know. I first heard "Some Velvet Morning" in the very cool and bleak cult film, Morvern Callar, and the psychedelic queasiness of that song—its title as well as its sound—perfectly captures the film's depiction of a woman's uncommon grieving process. Lee Hazlewood croons the male part and describes a mysterious, powerful woman named Phaedra, who "gave [him] life… and… made it end," the song shifting back and forth between this and Nancy Sinatra chanting a peculiar nursery rhyme about nature's beauty in Phaedra's voice. Dragonfish operates in a similar way: the "crime novel narrative," where Robert grieves the loss of a woman ultimately too powerful and elusive for him, punctuated by the "epistolary narrative," where his Phaedra reveals herself to the reader.
6.) "Forest & Sands" by Camera Obscura
One of my favorite contemporary bands. This song has that dark country vibe that Lee Hazlewood luxuriated in, and the haunting guitar lines that howl behind Tracyanne Campbell's cinematically sincere singing has always made me imagine her, in silhouette, behind the lit-up screen of an abandoned drive-in theatre. The opening lyrics—I'm in a van/And you're holding my hand/And you were travelling with me through forest and sands—get at that strange fearful sensation that comes with loving someone new (or, in the case of my protagonist, someone you never truly know). You're not merely unsure if you trust them, you're also unsure if you trust yourself. Oh, it feels like none of this is real, she repeats throughout the song, singing the line in the way we all often feel it, with something between desperation and elation.
7). "Better Times" and "Take Care" by Beach House
Beach House is my favorite contemporary band, their sound evolving over the years from a kind of chamber music intimacy to a more expansive, extravagant intimacy. Holding it all together is Victoria Legrand's classically trained voice, husky and yet restrained, gothic and somehow tender at the same time. In fact, that gothic tone was crucial for how I imagined Dragonfish. The crime novel, after all, is a direct descendent of the gothic novel and shares with it a preoccupation with love, death, solitude, uncertainty, darkness. These two songs appear on Teen Dream, probably my favorite album from the last ten years. Without getting too sentimental about it, I'll just say that no lyric moves me more than Legrand's refrain: I'll take care of you if you ask me to/ In a year or two.
8.) "Motion" by Balam Acab
Balam Acab is Alec Koone, and when he first came on the scene, his music was labeled "witch house," a subgenre of electronic music that is suffused with an occult sensibility. I find this label useless really, because Balam Acab also has a warmth and sentimentality that constantly plays against its dark tendencies. After an entire minute of ambient voices and cascading harps washing over themselves, the song opens up into a gorgeous, twinkling melody, backed by a pounding, almost dreadful beat that eventually brings in what sounds like the voices of children whispering a song into your ear.
9.) "Avril 14th" & "Fingerbib" by Aphex Twin
I've been a devoted fan of Richard D. James for about twenty years now, and I can't think of any other musical artist that explores the gamut of emotions and sounds so severely. His oeuvre is filled with noise experimentation, dance-floor banger beats, and outright dissonance, but it also includes some of the most beautiful and gentle melodies I've ever listened to. "Avril 14th" is a very simple piano ballad, underlain by a dampened metronome, as classical and organic as Aphex Twin gets, and as close to a lullaby as he's ever produced. "Fingerbib" is beat-driven but equally sentimental, its various synth melodies swirling around themselves, giving birth to other equally beautiful melodies until everything at the end suddenly vanishes. Aphex Twin has always been super weird, with glimmers of horror and dark humor in his music, but what makes him a genius is how he melds all that with a disarming pulse of nostalgia and sentimentality that is as lovely as everything else is often harsh and outlandish.
10.) "Libet's Delay" by The Caretaker
I wanted Dragonfish to evoke a sense of solitude, even when characters are not alone, and of all the musicians on this list, The Caretaker is most extreme in his evocation of that loneliness and emptiness. "Libet's Delay" is a track from his album, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. See what I mean? James Kirby built the songs from layers of sampled 78s and albums, and the result is what sounds like a collection of edits of prewar ballroom music. "Libet's Delay" makes you imagine one of these ballrooms, stripped of all its former finery, with the lamenting ghosts of the band playing in the center of the room as phantom dancers waltz around and through them. It also makes me think of that ballroom scene in The Shining, a movie as much about solitude as it is about madness.
11.) "Last Night at the Jetty" by Panda Bear
On Pulau Bidong, the refugee island in Malaysia where much of the action in the "epistolary narrative" takes place, there's a jetty on the beach. There's also a scene at night on the beach, close to this jetty, where Suzy encounters what she believes to be a ghost in the water. I have no firm idea what this song is about, but its title and motif of dreams just happen to coincide with all the elements in this particular scene from Dragonfish. It's also a wonderful, brilliantly arranged song, brimming with that Beach Boys harmony that Panda Bear has so expertly cultivated for his own psychedelic brew of electronic music. His first and his third album are so much better than anything Animal Collective—his day job—has produced, with maybe the exception of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
12.) "White Winter Hymnal" by Fleet Foxes
For various reasons, I've never liked folk music, and so I've always been pleasantly surprised by how much I love Fleet Foxes. It's probably the Beach Boys influence, as well as the fact that they're all exceptional musicians. I might have taken the title too literally, but I listened to "White Winter Hymnal" a lot during the winters when I was working on Dragonfish. After all, even though it's the desert, the novel does take place in December. The song's nursery rhyme lyrics and their evocation of blood and death fit very nicely with the plot and setting of the novel. I've always been struck by how Vegas—adult as it is advertised—seems driven by childish fantasies, and like in Grimms' fairy tales there's always something very dark and unsettling in such fantasies.
13.) "Do You Mind?" by The xx
It's incredible when a very young band arrives fully formed, with a sound and aesthetic all their own. The xx are like the musicians still playing late into the night at a house party, once everyone has passed out, are no longer talking, or on the verge of making love. They're full of quiet sex appeal that they're not really asking for, only because they're too shy, or too busy pining for someone, or too distracted by their own pain. "Do You Mind?" is an unreleased track that was produced around the same time as their incomparable debut album, xx. Its lyrics are familiar, a cliché come-on to a potential lover, but the song is awash in cavernous reverb and Romy Croft's glimmering guitar, and it's driven by pounding drums that make the plea for lovemaking so much more intense and emotional than anyone would be willing to bear—before accepting. I wouldn't say that Dragonfish contains the kind of sex that would appeal to most people, but I'd like to think there's a sexiness in the narrative, at least in the emotional language of the story, its nocturnal mysteries that have as much to do with the heart as they do with the body.
14.) "House of Cards" by Radiohead
I might have to look through their catalogue, but "House of Cards" is surely one of only a handful of straightforward love songs that Radiohead has ever produced. Of course, it's straightforward only in what its narrator desires, but there is still a lot of the usual Thom Yorkian anxiety and cynicism. I imagined my protagonist, Robert Ruen, in a similar light. He's someone driven by a desperate need for love and for access into the people he loves, but he's always been too pessimistic and cautious a person to ask for it in the right way. In "House of Cards," there's something so plaintive, despairing even, about Yorke's singing of denial. Waves of reverbed feedback sound like horror music in the background and it makes the lovely guitar strains seem all the more fragile. I can't help thinking that this is a love song sung by someone who has no idea what he truly wants, even as he tries to convince the object of his love to be more vulnerable and hazard everything for him.
Vu Tran and Dragonfish links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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