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April 13, 2017

Book Notes - Olivia Sudjic "Sympathy"


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.

Olivia Sudjic's debut Sympathy is a startlingly original novel about obsession and identity.

The New Republic wrote of the novel:

"A remarkable debut, with the arrival of such a novelist we can finally welcome our techno-dystopian future with open arms."

In her own words, here is Olivia Sudjic's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Sympathy:

I didn't listen to much music while working on Sympathy, or use particular tracks for inspiration. Retrospectively, then, these are the songs I'd use if I had to tell the story without writing it.

Mura Masa
'What If I Go?'

My brilliant UK editor, Elena Lappin, has a system with Jon Gray, the designer of so many amazing book covers. As well as the book, she sends him a song which, to her, is an appropriate soundtrack. She chose this song to send him with 'Sympathy' and I think it's perfect. The video too. There's a Japanese intro, and then the lyrics are about following someone everywhere they go… a recurrent theme with all the ones I've picked!

Beach House
'Space Song'

My unreliable narrator, Alice, is obsessed with Particle Physics. This song is about falling into place in an infinite universe. The lyrics also mention things falling apart, which seems to refer both to a romantic relationship and the inherently unstable universe. Then there's the plaintive: 'Were you ever lost/ Was she ever found?' and I guess that makes me think of the way Alice feels lost, and the method she hits on to try and 'find' herself - finding someone else, a Japanese writer called Mizuko, who she doesn't really know but who she imagines to have lived a very similar life in some respects. Aptly, given the lyrics, an unintended consequence of this is.. actually that's a spoiler... but the song is spot on.


Partly the song's refrain 'Everybody wants to go to Japan', which everybody does, and which I poke fun of with Alice's Japan obsession, and partly because it's quite a mad song which, right in the middle, switches into a completely different, operatic song, then switches back. I wanted to do something similar with the book in terms of it not fitting into one genre, trying to get the reader to come along with Alice instead of having a set idea of what the book, or main character, should be like from the outset.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
'Higgs Boson Blues'

His voice is so flat, and it matches the landscape in Texas, where Alice ends up with Mizuko, trying to distract her from heartbreak and interest her instead in writing a story about Alice's own life. Her adoptive father was a Particle Physicist involved in the early search for the Higgs Boson. Texas was once going to be the home of an American super collider (an underground tunnel shaped like a ring, to collide particles at high speed and break them open) before CERN was built in Geneva, where the world wide web was first unleashed, and the Higgs Boson was eventually found. It was abandoned before any discovery could be made however, congress cancelled funding and the site was abandoned. This triggered Alice's adoptive father to abandon his family. This is the elaborate backstory to Sympathy, but also the bedrock. Alice herself, projecting a kind of ideal onto her missing father, hurt by a second abandonment (her mysterious birth parents being the first), takes up his interest in Physics and, typical of her obsessive personality, becomes deeply concerned by the implications of the Higgs Boson's discovery, which points either to fundamental order or absolute chaos. Do we live in the Multiverse, or is the competing theory, Supersymmetry, the explanation for our existence? The discovery of Mizuko causes Alice to hope the latter is true.

'Englishman In New York'

Alice is mixed race, born in New York, but adopted into a white family and swiftly relocated first to Texas, then to Japan, and then to England with her adoptive mother, where she is completely marooned from her origins. Returning after an interval of twenty years, finding her homeland to be different to what she expected, outstaying her visa, tripping out in Morningside Park, makes me think of this chorus about being an alien.

Louis Armstrong
'La Vie En Rose'

This song makes me think of the great romantic films set in New York, which Alice probably hopes for. There is also a line in the book where Alice says that, to her, pink is the colour of New York. The piano in this song also makes me think of the blossom she observes falling from the trees in Spring, high on sudden freedom from her dysfunctional life in England, but directionless, making inconsequential choices about whether to walk up or down, left or right along the city grid.

Emmy The Great

In The Age of Earthquakes by Shumon Bassar, Douglas Coupland, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, they talk about finding your perfect match based on what the internet knows about you, locating you and them, like internet twins. This love song reminds me of that. The “coincidences” in the book become increasingly absurd, and I wanted to evoke the opaque feeling of slowly sensing that an algorithm is making choices for you, or shaping the menu from which you make choices. So saying a word aloud or passing by a store, then immediately seeing an ad for it on your web browser, or someone you just met appearing in the “People You May Know” section of your Instagram.

FKA Twigs
'Video Girl'

Twigs' song is about her experience of being a recognisable figure before she became famous in her own right – as a backing dancer for acts like Jessie J. It's about how someone's reputation precedes them and can pigeon hole their identity for others. This is what Alice does to Mizuko. The song also talks about the desire to have attention - “all eyes on you” and a “craving for the whole universe”, which makes me think of Mizuko's way of living her life as performance on online platforms. I also think of Alice not wanting to step out from the shadow of her girl crush. When I first heard it though, I thought the lyrics were about a jealous lover, and imagined Alice scouring Mizuko's Instagram for evidence of where she is and who she's with. Both work.

Lykke Li
'I Follow Rivers'

The opening words of this song could be Alice's own:

'Oh, I beg you: can I follow?
Oh, I ask you: why not always?'

They remind me of Alice's agony over whether or not to request to follow Mizuko, and then the long wait to be accepted. Then there's the following lines:

'Be the ocean, where I unravel.
Be my only, be the water where I'm wading.'

In Sympathy, water plays on Alice's mind – rivers (the Hudson) and oceans (people drowning in them, the missing Malaysia flight) – and she talks about losing herself in Mizuko as if she is going underwater. The video for this song is of Lykke Li – a veiled figure – chasing someone through a snowy landscape. I'm sure it's obvious by now, without even reading one of the latter scenes in the book, how this lonely, dogged determination reminds me of Alice, but it's also about the metaphor of rivers, and the Hudson plays a role in Sympathy.

Grace Jones
'I've Seen That Face Before/Libertango'

Alice is dressed up by her grandmother in eighties clothing, and I can imagine her stalking her way uptown to this. There's also a real paranoia in this song about being followed and watched. Jones sings about the voyeur, whose “Staring eyes chill me to the bone”. Go figure.

Wild Beasts
'Loop The Loop'

I came up with this song because I was trying to think of songs about being on a loop, or going round and round, replaying something and unable to forget. I also did some research for Sympathy on the concept of “strange loops”, proposed by Douglas Hofstadter in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, because Alice keeps returning to the start of her obsession, retelling it, changing the order, link by link. I also read an interview with the lead singer where he says that the line “Forget Now” from this song is taken from the Almodovar film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which I love, and which came out the year I was born.

The National

Not long ago I saw an exhibition at The Barbican in London of the work of Ragnar Kjartansson. A lot of his musical work is about repetition and loops. There's a room which plays a video recording of the band The National, who agreed to take part in one of Kjartansson's endurance pieces. They performed at New York's PS1, playing 'Sorrow' over and over again without stopping over the course of six hours. When he sings the word “sympathy”, over and over, it starts to sound like a cultish chant. Or it did to me when I watched it, and I've become hypersensitive to that word.

Olivia Sudjic and Sympathy links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

New Republic review

Deborah Kalb interview with the author
Salon interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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