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July 15, 2019

Amanda Lee Koe's Playlist for Her Novel "Delayed Rays of a Star"

Delayed Rays of a Star

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.

Amanda Lee Koe's novel Delayed Rays of a Star is an ambitious and thoroughly rewarding debut.

NPR Books wrote of the book:

"It is hard to summarize a sprawling and ambitious novel like this, so I won't—but it is expertly woven, its characters alive and full-bodied. Blending questions about pop culture, war, and art, Delayed Rays of a Star is that rare book that is neither high- nor low-brow, refusing such facile dichotomies and playing, instead, in the messiness of the grey areas."

In her own words, here is Amanda Lee Koe's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Delayed Rays of a Star:

Delayed Rays of a Star is about female ambition, queer desire and fascist ideology as told through the occasionally interconnecting lives of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl. The novel skates wildly across time and space—1920s Berlin, 1950s LA, 1980s Paris and Beijing—and I experimented with tone to find a precise register capacious enough to hold all of this non-linearity together.

Tone brings me to music. Music is a big part of my life, and I wasn’t sure if I ought to make a playlist about: a) what I was listening to when I was working on this novel; b) songs that excite my synapses; c) music that appears in the book, because they are all super different.

a) would be pretty straightforward. I wrote this novel listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach, to the point that I could anticipate his notorious unconscious humming. On rare occasions, I’d switch to minimalist 90s electronic dance music.

I decided to make Side 1 & 2 to represent b) & c). The first 5 songs are kind of about how my brain works; the next 5 appear in the novel. Free your mind of arbitrary delineations of time, space, genre, language as you listen to this playlist. We might even get up and dance mentally together.


SIDE 1 (Songs 1 - 5)

1. "Sugar Water" – Cibo Matto
I was born in Singapore and I call New York home now, so I’m hungry for cultural omnivorism. Cibo Matto are two Japanese women who moved to New York to make alt art-pop in the 90s. I adore their surreal lyrics, trip hop melodies, the fact that they sing in unidiomatic English with Japanese accents. This 1995 song opens with the line “The velocity of time turns her voice into… sugaaaa wataaaa”. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I know how it feels in relation to when I am writing. Also, Michel Gondry directed the MTV for "Sugar Water", super lo-fi but super innovative: a split-screen with the same footage—one side going backward, the other forward, meeting in the middle of the song.

2. "You Make Me Like Charity" – The Knife

The Knife for me is sharp, mad, jangly, repetitive, weird, ghostly, sad, euphoric. Most people know them for "Heartbeats," but I really like their stranger, not-as-melodic, lesser known songs. "You Make Me Like Charity" is my favorite The Knife song. I went through a DJ-ing phase in my mid-20s, and once, when I was spinning at Zouk, I dropped "You Make Me Like Charity"… and everyone stopped dancing. It was a horrible feeling, saved only by the one heroically unfazed older man who came up to the console, gyrating his hips, asking me who the artiste was.

3. "Facebook Story" – Frank Ocean

Frank is a genius lyricist, diarist, musician. He knows how to tell a story, how to change gears within the same album effortlessly without breaking a sweat. One moment he’s R&B, a beat later he’s pop, the next he’s avant-garde. Facebook Story doesn’t even feature Frank’s vocals. It’s one minute long, just a recording of his friend Sebastian talking in real life set to minimalist, floaty instrumentals. He’s telling Frank about the time he had a girlfriend way back when, when Facebook had just begun, and the girl wanted Sebastian to accept his friend request. He refused because to him it was just virtual and “I’m in front of you”. The girl broke up with him because she thought he must have been cheating or something. I was very surprised to find out that people took issue with Sebastian’s treatment of his (ex)girlfriend (but also heartened that there’s an entire earnest Reddit thread titled “[SERIOUS] In defense of Facebook Story”). This track is so simple, yet quite profound in a way that’s rare to feel in contemporary music. I have a big crush on Frank’s insouciance, how he makes it all come together without anything feeling over-produced, over-written.

4. "Paris is Burning" – St Vincent

Annie! First up can I just say that I have always had a way of referring to my final work process as “nun-in-garret”, so I was stupidly thrilled when I came across an interview where Annie refers to the stage where she’s finishing an album as “deep nun mode”. Next, I almost fainted when I found out (after the fact, because I am slow like that and I never seem to know what’s going on in the real world… until last year I had no idea who or what the Kardashians were) that Annie and Cara Delevingne were a couple. Though they’re no longer together, Cara’s vocals can be heard on the track "Pills," from St Vincent’s most recent album, i.e. not all lesbian breakups have to be ugly, rejoice! On to the music. Annie is insanely versatile, smart without being snooty, and she’s able to not only retain but channel her weird into engaging aural narratives. I love how Paris is Burning is baroque yet fresh, historical yet glittery. I also really connect with how she seems very down-to-earth as a person, but puts on very deliberate, very outlandish costumes for her shows, which I think, beyond imaging, are a kind of expressive talismanic protection.

5. "SCREAM" – Grimes ft. Aristophanes

How cool that Grimes decided to collab with Aristophanes, a subversive Taiwanese rapper who had absolutely no idea who Grimes was when she first contacted Aristophanes on Soundcloud. In a world of marketing gimmicks it’s pretty damn neat that this all happened based purely on talent, happenstance and personal connection. "SCREAM" is a strange-ass song with Aristophanes rapping in breathy Mandarin to Grimes’s catchy, atmospheric electronics. The song doesn’t fear that Grimes’s audience won’t understand the Chinese lyrics, it’s confident you’ll go with the flow. For me this feels like a trance dream somewhere between an wuxia waterfall grotto and Berghain’s panorama bar (I could live inside of this big mood forever).

SIDE 2 (SONGS 6 - 10)

6. "Blowin’ In the Wind (Bob Dylan cover)" – Marlene Dietrich

It blows my mind that Marlene Dietrich did a cover of a Bob Dylan song, in German. It really doesn’t suit her at all. She’s a rigid glamourpuss, and not in the least folksy, bluesy or country, but this strange discordance is probably what I like best about it because it feels so unlikely.

7. "Nothing To Lose (一无所有)"– Cui Jian

This song still gives me goosebumps. You can find it on page 42 of Delayed Rays of a Star. It’s a 1986 Mandarin xibeifeng anthem, with distinct Western rock elements, which caused a political sensation and became the unofficial anthem for Chinese youth and activists during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The lyrics speak of a narrator asking a girl when she’s going to leave with him, despite the fact that he has nothing, and it connected deeply with the dispossessed youth of the era who were yearning for individual freedom under the regime. Cui Jian has named Bob Dylan and Talking Heads amongst his influences. He also made it a point to distance his musical style the revolutionary songs and proletarian operas made common under Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and undertook deliberate acts such as performing his music louder than 150 decibels, just cos Mao stated that loud music was disruptive to social order.

8. "Bizarre Love Triangle" – New Order

If you listen to this back-to-back following "Nothing To Lose," you’ll hear bits of '80s rock tissue between the songs. These sorts of liminal threads are what I live for, to be reminded that whether you’re in China or Europe, we’re all humans living through the same epochs in different ways together. Everyone knows this song, so I’m not going to say more other than that it appears on page 243 of my novel, where the mixed-race gutter-wunderkind boy-child Ibrahim, who idolizes Morrissey, makes a pilgrimage to Manchester only to find out that The Smiths has already broken up, but New Order is having a gig at the Hacienda. As he dances in the club surrounded by packed bodies, all of a sudden he feels completely alone and begins sobbing.

9. "What Do You Have To Say(你怎么说)"– Teresa Teng

The Taishanese immigrant girl character, Bebe, sings this in her head when she is working in a shoe factory in Shanghai, on page 257. Teresa Teng is the virtuous paragon of Chinese womanhood (seeing is believing, watch a video of her performing this song live here), and 你怎么说, or “What Do You Have To Say” was a gentle, sugary Taiwanese pop hit of the 1980s that managed to crossover into China despite the political tension between both countries. I’m fascinated by how Teresa Teng’s voice is a mixture of vulnerable resignation and melancholic sweetness, and I’ve always imagined there to be a streak of repressed sexuality under her innocent femininity.

10. "A Rush and A Push and the Land is Ours" – The Smiths

I don’t want to say more about this song because I want to leave my relationship to it intact, so you can look out for it on page 360, and meanwhile, I’ll just leave my favorite lyrics here:

“I travelled to a mystical time zone / And I missed my bed and I soon came home”

Amanda Lee Koe and Delayed Rays of a Star links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review

BOMB magazine interview with the author
Yale Daily News interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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