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September 4, 2018

Alice Hatcher's Playlist for Her Novel "The Wonder That Was Ours"

The Wonder That Was Ours

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

Alice Hatcher's novel The Wonder That Was Ours is an inventive debut that examines the effects of colonialism through the eyes of cockroaches.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A Greek chorus of cockroaches amuses and admonishes in this admirable first novel about the human cost of colonialism."

In her own words, here is Alice Hatcher's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Wonder That Was Ours:

Authors who write to music often need to choose between songs that enhance their own mood—that put them in a frame of mind to work—and songs that help them channel their characters’ and narrators’ moods. I generally opted for music that suited the needs of my narrator, a collective of cockroaches infesting my main character’s taxi. As most fictional creations, the cockroaches assumed a life of their own. They overran my psyche, asserted their tastes, and issued demands. The Wonder That Was Ours, I had to cater to the roaches, as if they existed entirely outside of my head. It was the only way to get anything done.

I discovered this while working on the first chapter. The cockroaches were lying deflated on the dashboard, oppressed by another “boring lecture” by Professor Cleave, an eccentric taxi driver who treats them as a captive audience for his commentary on history and politics. Writing was going badly when a friend called. After I complained that the roaches didn’t seem interested in working, she said, “they probably need some Prince.” Moments later, I put on Musicology and the roaches came to life. They “skittered around the radio with raised antennae, hoping to intercept DJ Xspec’s Heavy Vibes Hour on Kingston’s 103.5 Jams.” Before long, they were perched on rooftops, trailing their antennae in the breeze and picking up radio transmissions, “so transported by Miles Davis, the Ramones, and the Skatalites that they forgot [their] wings were vestigial, and that gravity held sway over their affairs.”


“Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” by James Brown

Music lovers, the cockroaches find it galling that Professor Cleave lectures them instead of listening to the radio. They grow especially resentful when Professor Cleave, a member of a newbie species, patronizes them with monologues about history and literature. They hiss during a reading of The Metamorphosis. (“What did Franz Kafka know about cockroaches?”) When Professor Cleave calls them “hopeless delinquents,” they make “lewd gestures with their antennae.” In their view, Professor Cleave is “talking loud and saying nothing,” and “like a dull knife, just ain’t cutting.”

“Fussing and Fighting” by Bob Marley

One afternoon, Professor Cleave reads Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto through to its concluding phrase, “Men of All Countries Unite.” The roaches can’t imagine Marx having written, “Roaches of All Countries, Unite!” Such a call, they muse, would have been redundant. Cohabitation comes naturally for roaches crowded together in sewers. It makes sense, they note, that Marx wrote his manifesto for humans, a nearly cannibalistic lot with complicated rationales for hating and hoarding, as if there weren’t enough garbage to go around. Observing humans, the roaches often throw up their antennae and ask “why’s all this fussing and fighting?”

“Top of the City” by Kate Bush

To escape Professor Cleave’s lectures, the roaches crawl to the rooftop of the Ambassador Hotel. There, they observe Tremor, a bellboy similarly avoiding Professor Cleave. When Tremor gets high, the roaches inhale wisps of second-hand smoke, and for a fleeting instant, connect via tingling antennae to every cockroach on every rooftop on Earth, trip through infinite space and meditate like six-legged bodhisattvas tasting Nirvana. They experience the long-lost sensation of flight without lifting a wing. The roaches and I often envisioned Kate Bush climbing a ladder to the top of the city, “where just a couple of pigeons are living, up on the angel’s shoulders.”

“Airegin” by The Miles Davis Quintet

My cosmopolitan cockroaches have, for centuries, made their way around the world, stowing away aboard ships, cars and trains. They have heard Verdi performed in Vienna, dabbled in jazz with bedbugs and beat poets in Greenwich Village, and slept with hobos on trains rattling into Detroit and Chicago, music capitals and mythical cities built upon mountains of coal. Every day, the roaches requested something by Miles Davis. To avoid debates about the relative talents of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, I generally opted for the quintet featuring both musicians.

“Taxi Licence” by Calypso Rose

On my fictional island, the roaches board a car for the first time to escape an unexpected fumigation of the Governor’s Mansion. Panicked, they scuttle down the porch steps and slip into the undercarriage of an idling Bentley. A clutch pops, an engine roars, and a love affair is born. Cursed with vestigial wings, the roaches transcend their physical limitations by clinging to struts and fenders and watching the world streak past. Later, they ride in a Hillman Avenger while the young Professor Cleave and his cousin James discuss their dreams for the future. James turns on the radio, and the voice of Calypso Rose floods the car. The road curves around a cliff, and the roaches “learn to fly with wheels instead of wings.” Wynston Cleave feels like Calypso Rose is singing directly to him, and that he is more intelligent than strange. He, too, feels like he’s flying.

“Sexy MF” by Prince

The roaches adore Prince, a guy who might have been 5’6” in purple platform boots and was still one of the sexiest MFs around. If a strut can be sexy, the roaches have six legs. The roaches insisted on Prince when I wrote about Crazy Mary, a character who never menaces the roaches with newspapers or aerosol cans. Mary speaks kindly and coos to the roaches. Lured by her voice, the roaches gather in her house and pine, their antennae tingling and aching in anticipation. When Mary strokes their wings and blows on their antennae, they lay in her palms in a state of unrivaled bliss. I like to think Mary was humming Prince when she communed with the roaches, and that the roaches felt like sexy MFs.

“Free Money” by Patti Smith

The roaches are often seduced against their better judgment by the smell of garbage, engaging in what Professor Cleave calls “fetid feasts for the less fastidious.” As the roaches acknowledge, they have become dependent on humans—those intent on killing them—and abandoned good sense for overflowing dumpsters. Patti Smith’s lyrics about “scooping pearls up from the sea” and cashing them in to buy a jet plane speak to the roaches. The roaches lament nature’s lost treasures, even as they enjoy the castoffs of wasteful humans. After reveling in the trash bins of a hotel kitchen, they sit on a rooftop, look over a ravaged landscape, and remember the world when it was young. Free money, they know, is never really free; everything comes at a cost.

“Rehab” by Amy Winehouse

In their symbiotic and sometimes dysfunctional relationship with humans, the roaches have clung to the prows of Venetian gondolas littered with beer cans, suffocated in stretch limousines packed with stag parties trolling Manhattan, and disappeared in cocaine drifts in Ibizan dance clubs. At one point, they raid a resort’s dispensary, scour its floor for the contents of broken capsules, and sample every sort of existential analgesic, psychic expectorant, and nerve-numbing agent available. The roaches were sobered by the death of Amy Winehouse, who sang about the denial they experience when “screwed-up six ways from Sunday.”

“Sloop John B” by The Beach Boys

The roaches often stow away on cruise ships. They dunk their antennae in gin fizz, bathe in fondue fountains, and lose themselves in endless buffets, consuming empty calories in their ongoing search for something better coagulating in the next chafing dish. Disappointment invariably follows. In each kitchen drain, they find the same soggy tacos, iceberg lettuce and stale cake. The same tasteless entrées wear on their spirit until they feel helplessly adrift, plagued by a sense of moving without going anywhere. Exposing themselves to as much secondhand smoke as possible—anything to loosen their grip on the mortal coil—they empathize with the narrator of “Sloop John B,” who “feels so broke up” he wants to “hoist the sails” and go home.

“I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” by The Dead Weather

Exile looms large in cockroaches’ collective memory. The roaches slept soundly in the New World until the Spaniards unleashed their pigs, scrofulous beasts that routed them from their nests with ghastly yellow teeth and filthy snouts. The English introduced their own disruptions and horrors, including bespectacled entomologists with pins and matting boards. Centuries later, American developers tore the ground apart with steel claws and scattered the roaches to make way for resorts. Repeatedly driven from their homes by interlopers and insecticides, the roaches can appreciate lyrics about crossing a desert where love comes about “every million miles.”

“Whitey on the Moon” by Gil Scott-Heron

The “alphas of the Anthropocene” transform each new niche to satisfy their ever-expanding appetites and then move on, leaving behind boarded-up shopping malls and toxic dumps. In flight, humans are remarkably adept, graced with wheels and aluminum wings—objects of envy for lurching cockroaches. Their willingness to scuttle what they have damaged knows no bounds. Humans, the roaches observe, now talk of colonizing outer space, as if they’ve already given up on Earth and packed their bags to leave a dying planet. Knowing their odds of sneaking onto a space shuttle are slim, the roaches love Gil Scott-Heron’s song about African-Americans facing public spending cuts while their tax dollars put Whitey on the Moon.

“Wicked As It Seems” by Keith Richards

The roaches have been around the proverbial block and can recognize wickedness at any distance. They see it in a mercenary on an “endless mission to pacify the planet, one privatized war at a time.” They have seen countless mercenaries using so many variants of Roach Out! They recognize, too, the wickedness of a resort manager who commands an army of groundskeepers armed with substances even deadlier than Roach Out! They often requested Keith Richards’ song about cruelty “just as wicked as it seems” and a “one-way” street with “no way out.” The roaches would happily spend their last days on Earth with the man predicted to outlive all other humans.

“San Quentin” by Johnny Cash

In a misguided moment, the roaches wander into St. Anne’s prison and panic in its maze of corridors. They lurch deeper and deeper into dark warrens with a misguided sense of direction and dim hopes of escape, only to find themselves, through repeated missteps, in suffocating stairwells and indistinguishable cells. They have nowhere to run but forward, into a future not of of their choosing, spared the bottoms of boots by sheer dint of their negligible size. As Johnny Cash, they fear prison can warp souls, and that stone walls can turn blood “a little cold.”

“Burning Down the House” by The Talking Heads

The roaches love Professor Cleave’s father Topsy, a man given to telling dramatic stories. Their favorite story concerns the evening Topsy and his friends set fire to an abandoned plantation manor “back when the British still ruled the roost.” With “fire at their heels and the law certain to follow,” Topsy pauses to watch flames crawl up the side of the house, knowing he has never felt more alive, and that he has just lived through a beautiful moment that will protect him forever against regret, whatever might happen on earth or in the hereafter. The roaches are rapt listening to Topsy, an “ordinary guy” burning down the house.

“San Jacinto” by Peter Gabriel

The roaches dread The Plantations, a resort built on the site of a sugar planation. Travel magazines describe the resort as a “celebration of Britain’s imperial aesthetic” and note that “golf enthusiasts will delight in tea trolleys and teak chests that provide glimpses into the island’s charmed past.” The roaches dismiss such reviews as rot unfit for compost. They witnessed the barbarity of slavery. They were present in the 1990s, when developers mulched disintegrating beams near an abandoned slave village and built swim-up bars where guests could sip cocktails called Clipper Ships. The roaches reflected on the distortion of history to lyrics about “Geronimo’s disco” and a “Sit ‘n’ Bull steakhouse” built when “white men dream.”

“Sunday” by David Bowie

The roaches long for transcendent flight, and for love. They rue their stubby wings, vestigial appendages suitable for neither flying nor fanning themselves. The roaches might never have missed their wings, had it not been for the development of modern pesticides, horrible compounds that inflamed their antennae and sent them scrambling. David Bowie captures the roaches’ dream that they might someday “rise together through th[e] clouds, as on wings,” and that humans consumed by irrational fears will someday “seek only peace, seek only love.”

Alice Hatcher and The Wonder That Was Ours links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Arizona Daily Star review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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