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July 21, 2016

Book Notes - Martin Seay "The Mirror Thief"

The Mirror Thief

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.

Martin Seay's novel The Mirror Thief is an ambitious and entertaining debut, and has already earned him numerous comparisons to David Mitchell.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Grandly entrancing...Shimmering with intimations of Hermann Hesse, Umberto Eco, and David Mitchell, Sheay's house-of-mirrors novel is spectacularly accomplished and exciting."


In his own words, here is Martin Seay's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Mirror Thief:


The Mirror Thief alternates through three main settings: Las Vegas in 2003, where a recently-retired U.S. Marine is tracking down a missing gambler; coastal Los Angeles in 1958, where a Brooklyn-born juvenile delinquent is searching for an obscure poet; and the city-state of Venice in 1592, where a physician and alchemist is conspiring to steal secret techniques for making flat glass mirrors on behalf of a foreign power. In all three settings music plays an important role: as atmosphere, as commentary, and sometimes as backstory.

With a few exceptions, this playlist consists of music that's mentioned in the book—though the book often refers to imaginary versions, not the recordings provided here.



"Va, pensiero" from Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Temistocle Solera (1842), performed by the Ambrosian Opera Chorus and the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Riccardo Muti (1977)

The famous chorus of Hebrew slaves from Verdi's opera about the Babylonian captivity. In the early pages of The Mirror Thief it's being performed solo by a gondolier at a Venice-themed casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Intentionally or not, every historical narrative also tells a story about its present. Within a short time after the premiere of Nabucco, "Va, pensiero" came to be understood as a coded anthem for Italian unification; the slipperiness of history when it gets repurposed as rhetoric and spectacle is a concern that recurs in the novel. The Las Vegas sections take place in the days just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq; I liked the fact that "Va, pensiero" draws a powerful imaginary link between Italy and Mesopotamia. The text of the chorus is derived from Psalm 137, also the source for the well-known Rastafarian song "Rivers of Babylon," among many other musical settings from many other Abrahamic traditions. The psalm speaks of the plight of artists in unjust times, and of their struggle to keep their work from being recuperated by the powers that oppress them; this is, of course, a consideration for artists in every era, including poets in 1958 and painters in 1592.

"It's Only a Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, Y.A. Harburg, and Billy Rose (1932), performed by the Lionel Hampton Quintet (1954)

"It's Only a Paper Moon" appears in The Mirror Thief twice: playing through an open window in 1958 Los Angeles, then being sung by a drunk in 2003 Las Vegas. In keeping with a numerological practice favored by one of my main characters, I've put it on this playlist three times rather than two.

This might be the version heard through that window—though it would've had to have been a bootleg, since this track didn't see official release until 1999. It was recorded during a session for the Lionel Hampton Quintet, but Hampton doesn't play on it; instead we hear drummer Buddy Rich, bassist Ray Brown, pianist Oscar Peterson, and a jaw-dropping performance by Buddy DeFranco, one of the few notable clarinetists of the bebop era.

"Tequila" by the Champs (1958)

One of the great pop singles of all time, and one of those lightning-in-a-jar moments that litter the cultural landscape of the twentieth century. The Champs weren't a band yet when they recorded it; they were just session players in need of a B-side for the Dave Dupree single that was the ostensible point of their gig. The band ended up named after the sponsoring record label, Champion, which was in turn named after the beloved horse of the label's founder, singing cowboy Gene Autry.

The song was written by saxophonist Danny Flores, who also sings its one-word lyric. Because Flores was then under contract as a vocalist to a different label, he was credited as Chuck Rio, a name that stuck with him throughout his career. As "Tequila" took off, Dave Dupree put his solo act on hold and joined the Champs under his real name, Dave Burgess. A lot of name-shuffling occurs in The Mirror Thief, too; "Tequila" is in the air in its 1958 sections: a local hit that suddenly breaks coast-to-coast. It also pops up in 2003: a bright electronic jingle played by an imaginary slot machine.

"Inútil Paisagem" by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Aloysio de Oliveira (1965), performed by Elis Regina and Jobim (1974)

A classic ballad by the father of bossa nova. In the book it's one of three numbers performed in the lounge at the top of Las Vegas's Stratosphere by an improbably arty and melancholy jazz trio.

"Mas pra que?" goes the first line—"And for what?"—thus setting up one of the best examples of urbane sadness to come out of the urbane and sad mid-1960s. This later recording—the last track on Regina's legendary album with Jobim—strips the song to its essentials. The lyric's faintly serrated edge comes from the perverseness of what it expresses: the notion that the singer's abandonment has rendered the wonders of the natural world "useless." How could anyone imagine that a landscape is available simply for their use? But of course everyone imagines this. Wounded idealism of this sort—idealism that's no longer capable of recognizing itself—brings a lot of misfortune, in the book and in the world.

"Invisible" by Ornette Coleman (1958)

The Mirror Thief includes a lot of jazz. This is partly because its Los Angeles sections are set in Southern California's Beat milieu, and jazz was what the Beats listened to, the music they took seriously. Partly, too, it's for the sake of backstory: Curtis, the main character of the 2003 sections, is the son of a jazz bassist, and jazz is one of the things that still connect him to his dad. It helps connect him to other people, as well: early in the book he catches a ride from an Egyptian-immigrant cab driver, and the two find music to be a subject of common interest, a way to approach other subjects.

"Invisible" is on the radio when Curtis climbs in: the first track from Ornette Coleman's first album, recorded at the same time and in nearly the same place that the novel's 1958 events occur. The title suggests a concern—also evoked by other tracks on the album: "The Disguise," "Angel Voice," "The Sphinx"—with the solving of riddles, the navigating of illusions, and the pursuit of otherworldly truth. Although pretty straight by comparison to the path-breaking free jazz that Coleman would play in the next few years, the solos on "Invisible" are crazy by 1958 standards. "It was when I found out I could make mistakes," Coleman is said to have remarked, "that I knew I was on to something." If there's a more profound axiom for pursuing innovation in the arts, I haven't heard it.

"Que C'est Triste Venise" by Charles Aznavour and Françoise Dorin, performed by Aznavour (1964)

Another number performed by the made-up jazz trio in the Stratosphere lounge; like "Inútil Paisagem," it's another song about the ways our attitudes and emotions change what we perceive. A city for lovers is unbearable after love has ended: "In vain museums and churches open their doors: useless beauty before our disappointed eyes."

A pop icon who might be comparable to, say, Frank Sinatra had Sinatra not only recorded but also written dozens of enduring hits, Aznavour is in many ways the definitive French singer of the twentieth century, even more so because he's the child of immigrants: Armenians who fled the genocidal purges of the dying Ottoman Empire. Fraught exchanges between the Ottomans and the West feature prominently in the novel's 1592 sections, an era closer to the height of the Sultanate's power.

"It's Only a Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, Y.A. Harburg, and Billy Rose (1932), performed by Miles Davis featuring Sonny Rollins (1951)

Then again, this might be the version of "It's Only a Paper Moon" heard through that window in 1958: Miles Davis's, with Walter Bishop, Jr. on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, Art Blakey on drums, and Sonny Rollins on tenor. The track originally appeared on The New Sounds, Davis's debut LP as a bandleader, which dates from a difficult time for both him and Rollins: both were struggling with heroin addiction, and the latter was between stints at Rikers Island.

The recording captures Davis's move away from the cool-jazz experimentation of the late 1940s in the direction of hard bop: slower tempos, more rooted in the blues. These incremental changes in styles and strategies were topics of passionate debate among the Beats of Venice Beach, who recognized the vitality of the contemporary jazz scene and sought authentic ways to emulate it in their own work.

"Urania" from To the Muses: Nine Galliards by Vincenzo Galilei (1584), performed by Anthony Bailes (2014)

One of the foremost lutenists of his generation, Vincenzo Galilei was an important figure in the emerging science of acoustics, a core member of the Florentine Camerata, and a noted composer who helped to lay the theoretical foundations of Baroque music. He's best known, however, for fathering an astronomer and physicist who is arguably the single most important figure in the history of science.

In 1592, this gifted son was simply a young scholar angling for a university appointment at Padua. He makes an uncredited cameo in The Mirror Thief, playing the lute at a gathering of the Uranian Academy, a group of progressive Venetian intellectuals devoted to science, music, Neoplatonism, and cabalistic magic. This piece composed by his father—who had died the year before—certainly would have been on the program: Urania, to whom both this galliard and the academy were dedicated, was the eldest of the muses, associated with astronomy and universal love.

"How High the Moon" by Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton (1940), performed by Sonny Rollins (1958)

More classic jazz on Curtis's cabdriver's radio, and another recording from 1958 Los Angeles: the New-York-based Rollins on tenor, plus legendary LA session players Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Barney Kessel on guitar.

"Somewhere there's music, how faint the tune," goes Nancy Hamilton's original lyric; "Somewhere there's heaven, how high the moon." One of many classic American songs of yearning, it differs from its peers by locating heaven specifically in the nighttime sky, evoking the moon as the traditional ally of forbidden lovers, and thus uniting them with other figures—poets, criminals, practitioners of occult arts—whose undertakings are unsanctioned by society. In alchemy, the moon is silver to the sun's gold, brain to the sun's heart; it's also associated with the opus magnum: the alchemists' oblique strategy for accessing the mind of God though the experimental interrogation of Nature. Gazed at directly, the sun blinds us; the moon intercedes on our behalf, stealing and distilling the harsh solar light to return it to the darkened world. In this sense, the moon is the first and foremost mirror.

"Floating Bridge" by Sleepy John Estes (1937)

The last of the three numbers played by the jazz trio in the Stratosphere lounge: an autobiographical tale by Tennessee blues singer Sleepy John Estes, who nearly drowned during the historic floods of 1937 when a car he was riding in skidded off a pontoon bridge. Like many blues songs, it refers to a trauma that has been survived but cannot entirely be overcome, an event that—like a ghost—recurs relentlessly, refusing to remain in the past. ("They dried me off and they laid me in the bed," Estes sings; "couldn't hear nothin' but muddy water runnin' through my head.") Even beyond the proximate suffering they bring, these traumas stand to disrupt the progress of normal narratives—personal, cultural, historical—and trap their sufferers in loops where the ordeal is continually relived or reenacted. Many such loops appear in The Mirror Thief.

A famous bridge of a very different sort also features in the book: the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, which was less than a year old in 1592. In its planning stages the bridge was a political lightning-rod, dividing conservatives who favored a heavily-ornamented three-span design from progressives whose innovative and practical single-span approach finally carried the day. In early-modern Venice, where the wrong word in the wrong ear might lead to one's arrest (or worse) by the Inquisition or the Council of Ten, soliciting an opinion on the Rialto Bridge was a pretty good way to gauge the safety of speaking freely.

"Straight Life" written and performed by Art Pepper, from Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (1957)

One of the great jazz stories of all time, and evidently maybe somewhat true: on January 19, 1957, LA-based saxophonist and junkie Art Pepper—who had not touched his horn in weeks (according to the liner notes) or months (according to Pepper's autobiography)—rolled out of bed to the news that his label had booked him a studio session that night with Miles Davis's rhythm section, in town from the East Coast. Along with Davis and a young saxophonist named John Coltrane, the rhythm section—pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones—comprised what has come to be known as Davis's "first great quintet;" Pepper idolized them, and understood himself to be in way, way over his head.

Then—so the story goes—Pepper soaked his dried-out reed, fixed a broken neck-cork in his alto with a Band-Aid, dragged himself into the studio, and gave the performance of his life. The story is embellished, but the album is extraordinary; it would have been spinning on a lot of turntables in 1958. (It also pops up in Curtis's cab in 2003.)

"Jam-e Narenji" (traditional); adapted and performed by Mohammad Rahim Khushnawaz (1993)

Although this is not a piece of music from the book, the sound of the instrument heard on this track—a short-necked lute with both plucked and sympathetic strings, known variously as a rubab, robab, or rabab depending on where it's being played and who's doing the transliteration—features in the memories of Crivano, the eponymous mirror thief, the main character of the 1592 sections. A Venetian born in Cyprus, Crivano was captured by the Turks in his early teens and pressed into service as a janissary soldier, fighting in campaigns across the full breadth of the Ottoman Empire, from Tunis to Tbilisi. Although this type of lute originated in Afghanistan, it spread westward into the lands surrounding the Caspian Sea; Crivano would have heard it in Turkey or Georgia. Because the Venetians he meets in 1592 aren't supposed to know about his janissary past, he has to keep this memory to himself, along with many others.

Performed here as an instrumental by the Herat-born Mohammad Rahim Khushnawaz, "Jam-e Narenji" is a traditional Dari song with lyrics that partake of themes common to minstrel traditions worldwide: impulse control, self-invited doom, adventures in masculine privilege. "Girl in the orange dress, on seeing your face I had to flee [. . .] you are a springtime flower that I must not pick."

"Let's Get Lost" by Jimmy McHugh & Frank Loesser (1943), performed by Chet Baker (1955)

Chet Baker's status as an icon—a product of his matinee-idol good looks, his haunted tenor croon, his junkie detachment, and the self-destructive thread that runs through his biography—tends to obscure his significant contributions as a pioneer of West Coast jazz: as the trumpeter in Gerry Mulligan's quartet, he helped establish a style that was softer, airier, more measured, and more self-consciously cerebral than that of their peers back East. Baker's later vocal tracks were widely derided as a cynical bid to appeal to young women instead of the chin-stroking male hipsters who made up the "real" jazz audience; while the record label's motives couldn't be clearer—the cover of Chet Baker Sings and Plays looks like a collage inside a high-school locker—the music sounds great, not despite but because of the limitations of Baker's voice, which hint at a mysterious, inaccessible interiority.

In The Mirror Thief, "Let's Get Lost" is a song that Curtis can remember his dad's combo playing. Doing just what the lyrics propose—simply vanishing, shaking off every entanglement, jumping the narrative rail of one's past, present, and future—is an impulse that several of the novel's characters flirt with.

"Redemption Song" by Bob Marley (1980)

The last song on the last Bob Marley album released during his lifetime, written and recorded while he was suffering from the cancer that would kill him, "Redemption Song" is his de facto valediction: a statement of his beliefs, tempered with acknowledgement of the difficulty of asserting freedom in the face of power. The lyrics paraphrase and expand Marcus Garvey's warning that the most effective mechanisms of coercion and control do their work inside us, below the threshold of consciousness, and limit what we're able to think. Like "Va, pensiero" and Psalm 137, Marley laments the limited power of songs to oppose injustice, and he leaves open the question of whether the only solution is apocalypse.

In the novel the song is sung by yet another Las Vegas cabdriver, who can't remember all the words, and keeps returning to the opening lines: the narrator's account of being removed from a slave ship's hold by pirates, only to be sold again. Their temporary intervention doesn't alter his status as an object, as property. Pirates appear at several points in The Mirror Thief, feeding off the inefficiencies of empire and capital.

"It's Only a Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, Y.A. Harburg, and Billy Rose (1932), performed by the Nat King Cole Trio (1943)

The first song on which the legendary songwriting team of Arlen and Harburg directly collaborated, "Paper Moon," was commissioned by Billy Rose for a musical that failed; Paul Whiteman's orchestra had a hit with the tune in 1933, but after that it seems to have been largely forgotten until the war years, when Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman all recorded it. Maybe something in its concern with authenticity and artifice—its reach toward the real, toward genuine connection—is needed in a time of systematized violence.

Although it was composed earlier, there's a sense in which "Paper Moon" is a cooler shadow of the duo's most famous composition, "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz. Where the diurnal "Rainbow" expresses an almost gnostic yearning for an untroubled world beyond what can be seen—the barrier, after all, is presented as the visible spectrum itself—the nocturnal "Paper Moon" seems to discount this kind of transcendent communion with the divine in favor of one that's more human-scaled, though hardly less magical: the collaborative dreaming that occurs in the spaces between artists and their audiences.


Martin Seay and The Mirror Thief links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Chicago Tribune review
Guardian review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review
Wall Street Journal review

Dead Darlings interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
The Qwillery interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author


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