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February 26, 2020

Tiffany Tsao's Playlist for Her Novel "The Majesties"

The Majesties

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Tiffany Tsao's novel The Majesties is a haunting literary page turner I couldn't put down.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Tsao cannily pulls back the gilded surface from a wealthy Indonesian family, revealing a rotten core….the narrative unfolds in a manner that’s both suspenseful and creepily claustrophobic. The novel also prompts readers to consider the cultural relativism of stereotypes, contrasting outsider perceptions of those with Chinese heritage in both Indonesia and the U.S. Tsao depicts a family whose fabulous wealth and privilege not only blind them to the needs of others but also engender cruelty and self-destruction. This is a bold and dramatic portrayal of characters on the cusp of an impossible choice between complicit self-preservation and total annihilation."

In her own words, here is Tiffany Tsao's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Majesties:

Writing The Majesties required me to descend into a very particular emotional and mental space: part velvet-lined cocoon, part ornate marble crypt. The novel is about two sisters from a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family—Estella, who kills the entire family, including herself; and Gwendolyn, the sole survivor who must sift through her memories to figure out why. The deeper Gwendolyn digs, the more skeletons she unearths. If I had to describe what I was going for when I wrote it would be: dark and opulent with notes of tenderness and bursts of short-lived hope.

The most obvious choices for this playlist were songs from the two artists I listened to on loop while writing the novel: Lana Del Rey and Sufjan Stevens. I’ve also included songs that set a definitive mood for specific parts, like the sisters’ first semester at Berkeley, and Gwendolyn starting her luxury fashion house featuring accessories made from genetically modified insects.

Other additions include country and folk music with religious overtones to set the mood for the novel’s main narrative arc—the sisters’ quest for their family’s moral redemption.

1. “Born to Die” by Lana Del Rey

The Majesties opens with a mass murder-suicide, so in a sense, it’s all over before it’s really begun. Estella has poisoned everyone at their tycoon grandfather’s birthday banquet, and Gwendolyn is trapped in a coma with recovery nowhere in sight. This song captures the tragedy inherent in all the characters being doomed from the start. And the opening lines capture perfectly Estella’s grim resolution as she saunters into the restaurant kitchen to poison the shark fin soup—so Gwendolyn imagines as she reconstructs the events in her head.

2. “Work Bitch” by Britney Spears

Against all her relatives’ wishes, Gwendolyn breaks away from the Sulinado family conglomerate to found Bagatelle—a luxury fashion house that creates accessories from genetically modified insects. I imagine this song as her mantra as she’s drawing up plans, flipping through reports from her team of scientists, and overseeing the design of their first line, Majesty. Naturally, Bagatelle’s models would also be strutting their stuff to this song at Paris Fashion Week, where Bagatelle makes its triumphant debut. Gwendolyn is determined to put distance between her and the family, and if she wants to do it, she’s gotta work, bitch.

3. “Heaven’s Gate” by Dawn Landes and Piers Faccini

I love the innocently hopeful yet weary quality of this song about searching for Heaven, for God. There is a similar aura about Gwendolyn and Estella’s quest to find their long lost aunt, their faith in the possibility of her being alive and being able reverse the moral corruption of their family. I imagine this song as the soundtrack to their flight from Jakarta to Los Angeles, and their drive from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, where they suspect their aunt lives.

4. “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” by Andy Williams

There’s nothing like Christmas music to throw the dysfunctionality of one’s family into sharp relief. In this part of the book, Estella, Gwendolyn, and their parents are spending Christmas at Estella’s parents-in-law’s beautiful Los Angeles home. And Patty, their white American housekeeper, has gone all out with the Christmas decor.

But all the Yuletide cheer in the world can’t hide the depressing facts: Leonard is a violent brute and Estella is miserable and trapped.

5. “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed

When young Estella and Gwendolyn start college at UC-Berkeley, they experience for the first time the freedom to be themselves, not to mention, by themselves. They have a rented house all to themselves. They start to make friends. They enroll in an entomology class. It’s not exactly the kind of wildness that Lou Reed is singing about, but the breezy, laidback vibes of the song make the perfect background music for their first semester at Berkeley.

6. “The Sailor” by Rich Brian

This is a novel about rich Chindos. So who better to include on its playlist than the Chindo rapper, Rich Brian? This particular song has the character Leonard written all over it: the combination of bombast and self-pity, the self-destructive baller lifestyle at odds with the search for meaning on a deeper level. This is the track blasting on the enormous expensive speakers in Leonard and Ricky’s LA apartment, where the party never stops.

7. “The Other Woman” by Lana Del Rey

The pity-party song to tuck away for the day when you discover your significant other is cheating on you. This druggy, draggy, melodramatic version by Lana Del Rey is a new take on the original written by Jessie Mae Robinson and sung previously by Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone. It sets the tone for Estella’s mood and behavior when she finds out Leonard’s been keeping a mistress. It’s the kind of song you want to weep uncontrollably to, smash things in slow motion to, tearfully pack a suitcase to so you can leave his shitbag ass.

8. “Gladiator” by Dami Im

Gwendolyn describes herself, in the wake of her sister marrying Leonard, as “a phantom limb, sawed off from the source of my animation.” Indeed, the two sisters, initially the closest of friends, drift apart once Leonard muscles in and dominates all of Estella’s time and attention. So three years into Estella’s disastrous marriage, when Gwendolyn convinces her sister to run away with her on an impromptu excursion, Gwendolyn couldn’t be more pleased. She finally has her sister back—and this song captures this exhilaration and “I’m willing to do battle to win you” love.

9. “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” by Iris DeMent

When the Indonesian monetary crisis peaks, it brings many members of the wealthy Chinese-Indonesian population to its knees. In prayer. Religious revival sweeps through Estella’s and Gwendolyn’s social set, and numerous friends and relatives become born-again Christians in this time of distress. This raw rendition of an old hymn brings out the genuine desperation that prompts these characters to seek refuge in charismatic evangelical megachurches.

10. “Judgement Day” by Blues Saraceno

On the sisters’ last evening in their luxurious hotel suite in Carmel, during their quest to find their aunt, conversation takes a turn toward dark events of the recent past—and more specifically, the sisters’ involvement. It is revealed their quest for the family’s redemption is no less a quest for their own.

11. “No Aphrodisiac” by The Whitlams

This ode to loneliness by the Australian indie band, The Whitlams, is the perfect track for Jono and Sandra’s college days in Melbourne. Their tale isn’t so much a love story as a they-thought-it-was-love story, which makes it a hundred times sadder.

12. “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” by Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens was prompted to compose the autobiographical Carrie & Lowell by his mother’s death. Equal parts melancholic retrospective on his dysfunctional childhood, compassionate elegy for his beloved mother, and wrestling to the death with God, the album made perfect listening while I was revising the novel.

I wanted The Majesties, for all its cynicism and darkness, to have a patina of innocence and tenderness. And Stevens’ album sounded how I wanted the novel—in this aspect—to read. There’s a thirst in this particular song—a longing for true relief, true shade. In the closing chapter of the novel, Gwendolyn dreams too of finding such things: the shelter afforded by caves, the cool comfort of water.

Tiffany Tsao was born in San Diego, California, and lived in Singapore and Indonesia during her childhood and young adulthood. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a PhD in English. In addition to writing, she translates Indonesian fiction and poetry.

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