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October 10, 2018

John Wray's Playlist for His Novel "Godsend"


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.

John Wray's mesmerizing novel Godsend is one of my favorite books of the year, a profound exploration of faith and extremism.

The New Yorker wrote of the book:

"[Godsend] becomes much stranger and more original after it arrives in Pakistan, discovering within itself a profound understanding of the demands of religious practice―of religious submission, especially―which has eluded almost every serious contemporary American novelist since 9/11. It is not only Wray’s heroine but also his novel that comes of age, steadily deepening and astounding as it develops . . . The novel exhibits the reportorial authority you might expect, with a command of detail, context, and pace reminiscent of a reality-brined adventurer like Graham Greene or Robert Stone. (Hardly a negligible achievement, by the way.) . . . It’s characteristic of this novel’s combination of wise reticence and considerable daring that an event so often at the center of contemporary American fiction, labored over and lingered on, anguished over and analyzed, is here pushed off to the margins like gossip. In the Afghan landscape, what has happened in America is almost as impossible or hypothetical as science fiction; Wray quietly leaves its terrible implications and consequences in the earth, like unexploded ordnance."

In his own words, here is John Wray's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Godsend:

Aden Grace Sawyer may still be a teenager when her story begins, but Godsend is a novel about the mystical experience, about escaping one’s sad little self in search for something larger—something more beautiful, something to live for, and to die for—which makes this list for Largehearted Boy (my fourth!) especially well-stocked with masterpieces. Aside from sexual love and its aftermath, has any subject yielded so many songs of exquisite heartbreak as the attempt to know, or touch, or even catch a fleeting glimpse, of heaven? I’ve always had a thing for spiritual music—which, it could be argued, is all music. As no less an egghead than Albert Einstein once wrote to his wife, music may in fact be the only language humanity has ever found in which to talk to god, and actually have him answer.


I’ll start off with the most beautiful song of Muslim devotion I know, since the hero of my story finds her transcendence in Islam, and specifically the Islam practiced in the tribal regions along the Afghan/Pakistani border, not far from where Khan himself lived for much of his life. ‘Alla Hoo’ is a deceptively straightforward song of praise to God, but with each repetition the spell it weaves intensifies, much as movement and rhythm must do for the Sufi dancers known to the Western world as ‘whirling dervishes.’ I played this song on loop for days on end while I was writing Godsend’s first draft.


Not many people know that Ozzy’s Black Sabbath put out what is essentially a Christian rock album, and that the album in question, Master of Reality, is arguably the best thing Sabbath ever recorded. Any genre of music can be—and often has been—used to take on the loftiest possible themes, and these coke-addled gents from Birmingham turn out to be naturals at combining theology with smoking, ten-ton riffs. I’ll take ‘After Forever’ over most classical church music any day.


I was fortunate enough to meet Chan Marshall the first day I ever spent in New York City. She wasn’t famous yet, in fact didn’t even have a record out, and I could never have predicted that she, of all the talented and glamorous people drifting more or less aimlessly around the East Village, would end up making music that would outlive that sordid time and place. When I first heard ‘The Greatest,’ it gave me chills to think I’d actually known the human being responsible for music of such excruciating, supernatural beauty. It still gives me chills. Chan is a natural mystic, I think: even when you don’t quite understand what she’s singing about, you know that there’s nothing less at stake than life and death.


Coltrane probably comes to mind at this point because Chan always loved him, placing him (and maybe Bob Dylan) above all other musical and spiritual lodestars. But of course, out of just about every American musician I can think of, John Coltrane most demands pride of place in this list. I could just as easily have picked A Love Supreme, or Soultrane, or any of his other brain-bogglingly transcendent recordings. Coltrane’s instrument was just that for him—a tool in his search for something beyond himself. If you only listen to one track from this list, make it 'Ascension.' (Public Service Announcement: it’s a long one.)


There’s no John without Alice—or shouldn’t be. I discovered her by way of her more famous husband, like everyone else in the world, but I probably listen to her music more often now than his. Maybe that’s because it’s more human, somehow, and therefore more moving. It’s certainly no less beautiful, or intelligent, or true. In some ways I wish I’d come across Alice first. This is some of the most generous music ever made. It makes me want to be a better person. What could be more spiritual than that? I like to think Godsend's protagonist, Aden Sawyer, would have listened to her too. They have a lot in common.


No one’s ever made salvation sound more fun and feasible than Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Not only was she one of American music’s most ass-kicking, fire-licking guitar players, hands-down, she was one of rock and roll’s most central, important creators, though she’s never been granted her due in that regard. Why isn’t Sister Rosetta in the so-called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I guess the Eagles must have been given her slot. Storm the gates! Burn the city of Cleveland to the ground! This concludes the political section of this list. What’s a listicle without a rant?


A friend of mine with a PhD in Thin White Duke Studies points out that there are any number of Bowie tunes that would qualify for inclusion in a list of spiritual numbers, but I’m picking Sound and Vision for no other reason than the fact that I love it so much. God always lived inside of art for Bowie, and nowhere is that more clear than in this song, which features the Man Himself waiting to be touched by the divine in a small, spare room (that just so happens to be painted electric blue), no differently than Fra Angelico in his meditation cell in Renaissance Florence, or Joan of Arc the night before her execution.

The myth of Joan of Arc just so happens to have been important to the writing of Godsend, which also tells the story of a young woman who dresses as a man to take up arms in a war that she believes is holy.

This song is also the anthem of struggling writers everywhere, whether they know it or not. I will sit right down, wait here for the gift of sound and vision.


Another piece of music in which the search for god and for artistic inspiration are impossible to tell apart. Before Animal Collective came along and made mysticism hip again, Japan’s Boredoms made outer-limits-of-the-known-universe exploration their prime directive and delivered some of the strangest and most mysterious albums of their age. I could have chosen any one of this LP’s nine separate tracks, each one marked only with a symbol, but really they’re all part of one larger, all-encompassing sonic pilgrimage. Not for the faint of heart!


No list of spiritual music—or transcendent music, or beautiful music, or maybe just music in general—would be complete without the greatest gospel group of all time. Sam Cooke would go on to make ‘worldly music,’ of course, and we all know how extraordinary those profane love songs—'Cupid,' 'You Send Me,' 'Lovable, Wonderful World,' 'Another Saturday Night,' 'Working On the Chain Gang'—would be; but it’s really the ghost of the gospel songs he began with that gives his later hits their soul-stirring power. 'Touch the Hem of His Garment' brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. Aden’s father used to play a crackly old ’45 of it every Sunday when she was growing up, and when she’s in mortal danger in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, many years later, this is the song she calls to mind to give herself courage and hope. She needs it desperately, and these days, so do we. As a DJ once famously said, back in 1964, ‘Sam Cooke is yours. He belongs to every one of us. He’ll never die.’

John Wray and Godsend links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

New York Times review
New Yorker review

Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Lowboy

also at Largehearted Boy:

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