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March 13, 2019

K Chess's Playlist for Her Novel "Famous Men Who Never Lived"

Famous Men Who Never Lived

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.

K Chess's debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, is a mesmerizing work of speculative fiction.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Chess’ debut novel offers an intriguing and fresh spin on the parallel-worlds theme with its timely emphasis on the challenges facing migrants in hostile, unfamiliar surroundings, marking her as a promising new voice in speculative fiction.”"


In her own words, here is K Chess's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Famous Men Who Never Lived:



The main characters in Famous Men Who Never Lived escaped from disaster in a different part of the multiverse, and came as refugees to our New York City. Because the two worlds diverged at the start of the 20th century, Vikram and Hel number popular music among their losses. For this list, I chose songs about grieving in all its moods and permutations. There’s defiance, nostalgia, putting on a brave face, despair -- and maybe a little healing.


1. 1 Samuel 15:23 by The Mountain Goats

The Pyronauts is a book-within-the-book. The last paperback copy is a talisman for Hel; it’s gone missing and she searches for it desperately. This song goes out to the aliens of The Pyronauts, who came to Earth in crystal ships and caused an apocalypse, but intended only to do good.

2. Funnel of Love by SQÜRL featuring Madeline Follin (Wanda Jackson cover)

Wanda Jackson, who originated this wonderful song, visited the small Illinois town where I lived while writing Famous Men Who Never Lived, and I missed her performance. I’ll probably never forgive myself! SQÜRL’s cover, from the 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive, makes me think of people holed up together in their own world like Vikram and Hel in the early days of their dislocation, daylight leaking in around the edges.

3. REVOFEV by Kid Cudi

I’m drawn to this banger because the tight, triumphant optimism of the sound is really at odds with the ambiguity of the words. I added it to the playlist for Vikram, who is keeping his head down and biding his time.

4. Clandestin by Fatoumata Diawara

This song tells a story of economic migration and mass displacement. I listened to Fatoumata Diawara’s album often while editing Famous Men Who Never Lived and though I don’t understand the Wassoulou lyrics, I find her voice beautifully evocative.

5. New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by LCD Soundsystem

Anyone who has ever moved to New York from somewhere else or who has lived in the city for long enough to see it change can probably identify with this ballad of broken promises. (Even Kermit the Frog is feeling it -- check out the music video some time.)

6. 20 Dollar by M.I.A.

Hel has her “devil on speed-dial,” for sure! Years ago at Coney Island, I saw M.I.A. perform this song (which quotes The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”, another fave.) Every group is made up of individuals and we all want to be seen as individuals. Even when the big, impersonal forces that shape our lives are evident to us, we’d rather -- like M.I.A.’s speaker -- just talk about ourselves.

7. Never Catch Me by Flying Lotus featuring Kendrick Lamar

The UDPs in Famous Men Who Never Lived aren’t the only ones running from something. Dwayne works hard to build a new life for himself and doesn’t often think about the brother who helped raise him.

8. With Light and With Love by Woods

A retro-flavored mellow jam, this song builds in urgency, seeming to wind down before peaking. It’s how I imagine the sound of Baccarat, the vanished ‘60s band that Wes and Vikram love.

9. White Fire by Angel Olsen

While writing Famous Men Who Never Lived, I played this haunting song on repeat.

I walk back in the night alone, got caught up in my song
Forgot where I was sleeping, none of the lights were on
I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth
I laughed so loud inside myself, it all began to hurt

What if there was an easy way for us to withdraw from pain? What if we could undo the past and vanish entirely? Only love would keep us here.

10. Brand New Game by Elliott Smith

This one is about the sudden loss of illusion and the inevitability of fuckups. It punches you in the gut. The worst moment of Hel’s life was when when she mistook a stranger’s child on a street in Manhattan for her own dead son. She spends most of the book avoiding her feelings about this.

11. Driving This Thing by Luke Bryan

Let’s end on an upbeat note! I heard this song playing at the drug store once while buying ice cream and toothpaste. It portrays a relationship based on mutual trust. The speaker’s arrangement with his partner reminds me of Vikram and Hel’s game of exploring the subway system. Emotionally, this is the place I hope they can reach, after the book ends.


K Chess and Famous Men Who Never Lived links:

the author's website

Booklist review
The A.V. Club review
Foreword review
Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
The Verge review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review

Foreword interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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