In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Christopher Bollen’s novel The Lost Americans is a gritty literary thriller, a book whose setting in Cairo is as engrossing as its characters and gripping plot.
Electric Literature wrote of the book:
“Bollen is a modern master of the Highsmithian literary thriller. His previous book, A Beautiful Crime, was a Venice-set caper about lovers turned con men, a mystery that tapped into the Floating City’s labyrinthine nature. Here, he flies readers to Cairo to uncover a mystery about an American defense contractor who’d reportedly died by suicide and his increasingly suspicious sister working to understand what really happened.”
In his own words, here is Christopher Bollen’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Lost Americans:
As a writer, I am often guilty of favoring sight—visual images—to other sensory descriptions. For The Lost Americans, I made point from the star to favor sound. That made sense for a novel set primarily in two extremely loud cities—New York City and Cairo—and for a plot where very little turns out to be as it appears. Sound comes in many forms in the noveel—one of the two main characters has a hearing impairment from an accident in childhood; one of the big surprises of the book involves a recording of a phone call; ear plugs are used liberally to kill the sound of explosions, and there is more than one noise complaint. Music, of course, is a big symbol in the book. Cate Castle, the grieving sister and erstwhile New York nightlife parter, has just broken up from a doomed relationship with a musician (not her first). Like so many of us who spent our twenties in New York, for Cate music is something of a religion, a language, an ideal poetry.
For a novel teeming with noise, I’ve tried to create a soundtrack that reflects the texture and tone of its places, a soundscape for a very complicated world.
“Sin Pais,” Ali Khattab
This Cairo-born composer and guitarist is one of the most exciting musicians to come out of Egypt in the past decade. He blends so many different traditions into his melodies, near and far, that for me it captures the blend of worlds and cultures stewing inside Cairo. I like to think this song could be used in all the driving scenes in the book.
“Corrina, Corrina,” Bob Dylan / “A Bird that Whistles (Corrina, Corrina)” Joni Mitchell
“Corrina, Corrina,” is an old folk song with many renditions, but I like to think of Dylan’s version and Mitchell’s version as a sort of call and response twosome. In any case, for me, these songs conjure the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, where Cate Castle and her late brother are from. The Berkshires is one of the meccas of folk music, as well as home to magical Tanglewood. I wrote the first draft of the novel at my cabin in the Berkshires (and sadly sold the cabin soon after). These two Corrinas encapsulate the beauty and melancholy of those mountains.
“Al Hajez,” Mashrou’ Leila
Mashrou’ Leila is a Beirut-based rock band that have been leading activists in LGBTQ rights. They were the band playing in Cairo in 2017 when Sarah Hegazi dared to wave a rainbow flag in the audience—a simple, beautiful gesture of unity and individual freedom for which she was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, charged with inciting debauchery. Hegazi later fled to Canada where she took her own life. I thought of Hegazi many times in writing my novel, particularly when handling gay rights under a regime that has no respect for it. Mashrou’ Leila is an inspirational band, and I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with the extremely talented musician, artist, and band member Haig Papazian. I recommend finding some videos of him playing the violin and turning up the volume.
“You Are My Sister,” Antony and the Johnsons
If this novel has a love story, it’s a familial one. An estranged, difficult love between a brother and a sister. Cate is looking for answers to her older brother’s death, and I feel this sibling bond is so underrepresented in fiction, film, and music. Anonhi’s song is a rare exception, a beautiful ode to that irrepressible connection with a sibling. Cate risks it all to find out what happened to her brother.
I adore this ultimate classic in any incarnation, because I too moved to New York to be a part of it. As did the character Cate. But Nico’s rendition, which is on YouTube and I’m not sure was ever recorded on an album, has all the pathos and weariness of someone who came to New York and made a million brand-new starts of it. Cate, by her mid-thirties, is basically walking through a hangover of two decades living high in Manhattan. It’s a hard road after a certain age to keep New York alive in your heart, and Cate has finally reached that critical point where the city stops being the playground, and you have to reexamine your life here.
I know, I know, too obvious, too legendary, a staple. Every film set in Cairo opens with Umm Kulthum’s hypnotic voice. She’s the Billie Holiday of Egypt. I resisted, but she’s just too good, take any song, take a whole concert, let it wash over you with all of its supporting instrumentation, and you really do feel all the forces of Cairo working in harmony, playing together. She’s a gift, born of Egypt.
“La Main Parisienne,” Malcolm McLaren (with Amina Annabi)
Not only is Malcolm McLaren’s 1994 album Paris critically underappreciated, but it also does a terrific job of capturing the soul and sound of the City of Lights. I include it here because of Cairo’s overt French influences, seen more readily its grand downtown buildings and its love of French music and café culture.
“Evacuation” from The Killing Fields soundtrack, Mike Oldfield
This electronic masterpiece written for the 1984. Film The Killing Fields about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. But it could be the soundtrack for a scene of paranoia and government crackdown in any country around the world, including the United States or Egypt. It’s perfectly arranged to make the listener feel like the walls are closing in and the chances of escape dropping by the minute.
“Piano Sonata in B flat major, D960,” Schubert
Anyone who read my last novel (A Beautiful Crime) knows how much I love Schubert. This sonata captures the moments of calm between explosions, trying to reclaim peace before the storms build again. I think that echoes the movements of the novel—terrible tragedies, the attempt to rebuild and hold on and find some peace. I could have chosen a war song, because so much of the book is about weaponry, but I want to end on some Schubert-esque hope.
Christopher Bollen is the author of the critically acclaimed novels A Beautiful Crime, The Destroyers, Orient, and Lightning People. He is frequent contributor to a number of publications, including Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and Interview. He lives in New York City.