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May 31, 2016

Book Notes - Nick Seeley "Cambodia Noir"

Cambodia Noir

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Nick Seeley's novel Cambodia Noir is a compelling, fast-moving, and dark debut.

Bookreporter wrote of the book:

"Reads like a dark collaboration between Graham Greene and Hunter Thompson, with a dash of a coherent William Burroughs thrown in. … I loved every word of this gorgeous, frightening work... It's a drug that will stay in your system long after you think you've expelled it. And like a drug, it should come with a warning label. It's that good."

In his own words, here is Nick Seeley's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Cambodia Noir:

1. The Postmarks – "Thorn in Your Side"
This album came out in 2009, and I fell instantly in love with its lush, 1960s-film-score sound and mysterious, evocative lyrics. It became a regular in my playlist as I was writing Cambodia Noir, conjuring up the kind of over-the-top energy I wanted from the story, particularly in the character of June.

2. Dengue Fever – "Made of Steam"
The story of Cambodia's lost rock n' roll heritage is a saga well worth discovering, full of great artistry and great tragedy. It's the subject of the documentary Don't Think I've Forgotten, by John Pirozzi, who also directed Dengue Fever's Cambodian tour documentary Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. The band covers Cambodian rock classics, as well as composing original works that blend Cambodian style with American indie rock, powered by singer Chhom Nimol's 10,000 watt voice. "Made of Steam" is my favorite of their new songs, with its fertile imagery that marries consumerism and tourism with evanescence, ephemerality and disappearance.

3. Tom Waits – "Shore Leave"
It's perhaps cliché at this point, but I hugely admire Tom Waits--both as a musician, and as a writer who can perfectly marry story, tone and character in a handful of words. One of my totems as I worked was to try and capture the mood of those great Waits songs from the '80s and '90s: exploding with fervid energy, bizarre characters and evocative, half-told stories. It's no accident that Channi in Cambodia Noir plays Heartattack & Vine in her bar. I listened to that album a lot while I was working, but my choice for this list has to be "Shore Leave," with its wonderfully spare descriptions of loneliness and longing for home.

4. Death In June – "Rose Clouds of Holocaust"
I had a couple Death in June albums on mp3 that I listened to heavily during my brief soujourn in Cambodia. The lyrics wove their way into fever dreams and Malarone fantasies, and their eerie gloominess and mythic overtones always seemed in perfect counterpoint to the landscape around me.

5. NIN – "The Way Out is Through"
Despite Nine Inch Nails' popularity, I've always felt the artistry of Reznor's symphonies of song and chaos has been rather overlooked, in favor of aggressive dance tunes. NIN has made some of my favorite writing music ever, particularly the four-disc instrumental Ghosts, the late album The Slip, and of course the band's masterpiece, The Fragile. This track is one of my favorites, a crescendo of menace. I also love the title, which echoes in koan form one the darkest sentiments of Shakespeare's Macbeth (III.iv) and Richard III (IV.ii)--a refrain I also have one of my viewpoint characters, Will, return to in Cambodia Noir.

6. My Bloody Valentine – "When You Sleep"
What is there to say about My Bloody Valentine's towering classic, loveless? Its lost, dreamy mood perfectly encircles the emptiness I write about. "When You Sleep" is the albums' boldest track, and one I come back to again and again.

7. Joy Division – "Atrocity Exhibition"
I listened to a lot of Joy Division while writing: like My Bloody Valentine, I felt it captured something of the mood I was looking for. The opening track of their final album is perhaps their most jarring and disturbing. It was written in strange demi-homage to J.G. Ballard's experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition, which explored themes of mental illness and fragmented consciousness—issues that dogged Joy Division singer and songwriter Ian Curtis throughout his brief life. Indeed, Curtis' lyrics seem to reflect more his own tortured relationship with the audiences that came to observe his painfully raw performances than Ballard's book. Voyeurism, suffering, division of self: This song encapsulated most of the things I wanted to say about my main characters, and their relationship to Cambodia.

8. Poe – "Haunted"
I loved Poe's debut album in college, but it wasn't until years later that I learned that she was the sister of writer Mark Danielewski, who penned my favorite modern horror novel, House of Leaves, a postmodern epic of nameless dread. The book and Poe's album Haunted are companion works, both inspired by the siblings' relationship with their film director father—and both, for me, synonymous with terror.

9. Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea – "New Year's Eve (Jam 10 Kai Theit)"
A high-energy rock jam from the biggest stars of Cambodia's golden age of rock, in the 1960s. Both Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea disappeared and were presumed killed during the Khmer Rouge's brutal reign from 1975-'78, along with countless other artists and intellectuals. This song is a masterpiece, an icon of what was lost to ideology run wild, a reminder of the consequences of art in the face of violence, and a memento of a past that should not be forgotten. For me, it captures the wild energy of Phnom Penh nights and midnight moto rides.

10. The Clash – "Death or Glory"
I always felt a connection between the character of Will, in my novel, and early '80s punk and new wave music—perhaps it was some overarching sense of failed revolutions and broken dreams, now expressed only in a lost and rebellious culture. When this song came around in my workout playlist one day, as I was taking a break from writing, its resonance hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew it captured something about Will, and about Channi—so I wrote it in, playing in Channi's bar during one of their last meetings.

11. Cambodian Space Project – "I'm Still Waiting for You"
The Cambodian Space Project is another amazing musical project that celebrates, reimagines and improvises on classic Cambodian rock. Their Khmer-language cover of "House of the Rising Sun" is a monster, and the tension between Srey Thy's vocal performance and the memory of the American folk lyrics captures something inchoate but powerful about loss, regret, oppression and colonialism.

12. Robyn Hitchcock – "The Ghost in You"
Hitchcock is one of my favorite artists, and tiny references to his music are all over the text of the novel. (The working title of the book was actually "A Woman's Shadow," drawn from another Hitchcock song…) His cover of The Psychedelic Furs song "The Ghost in You" was a concert favorite, long available as a bootleg, and I was over the moon when he finally released a studio version in 2014. The Furs was another totemic "Will" band for me, and this Hitchcock cover perfectly captures some of my favorite elements of both artists: dubious redemption, in the key of desperation.

Nick Seeley and Cambodia Noir links:

Booklist review
Bookreporter review
Kirkus review
New York Journal of Books review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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