Author Playlists

James Reich’s Playlist for His Novel “The Moth for the Star”

“This playlist is based on music that accompanied the writing of the novel, period pieces from specific chapters in the novel, and unfolds some of my intentions for it.”

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

James Reich’s novel The Moth for the Star is an inventive and propulsive work of psychological horror.

Lance Olsen wrote of the book:

“Every sentence on fire, James Reich’s cosmopolitan orphic novel alchemizes mystery tropes into an existential exploration of uncertainty and unlearning that leaves time, space, love, yesterday, and tomorrow as energetically unsettled as a symphony of quantum strings.”

In his own words, here is James Reich’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Moth for the Star:

The Moth for the Star is a psychological horror novel set one year after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Its protagonists are Charles Varnas, a murderer who has repressed his knowledge of his victim, and Varnas’ androgynous partner Campbell. Campbell’s father may or may not be the literal Devil. Their crime takes place in Cairo, and its consequences haunt them in Manhattan.

This playlist is based on music that accompanied the writing of the novel, period pieces from specific chapters in the novel, and unfolds some of my intentions for it. Thank you for listening and reading, and I hope you enjoy both.

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto “The Sheltering Sky Theme.”

Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949)is a perfect novel, an urtext. I must have seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s film adaptation with John Malkovich, Debra Winger, and Campbell Scott around 1991 and it had a profound effect on me. Ryuichi Sakamoto, who died just a few months ago, composed such a beautiful, melancholy score. It’s almost unbearably Romantic to me, like the First Prelude of Tristan und Isolde, but inflected with Modernism. If there were ever to be a film of the Moth for the Star, Sakamoto’s score and this opening theme, would be the benchmarks.

2. Public Image Ltd. “Memories.”

I love PiL. I find John Lydon fascinating. There’s a vulnerability to him that I find very attractive in an artist. His provocations often come from a ‘what if…?’ or, ‘as if’ curiosity and a sympathy for the underdog, or the abject. He’s managed to use his voice and identity to explore so effectively. Keith Levine’s guitar, which was always strange, sounds very Eastern on this. This song captures something of Charles Varnas’ problems with his memories and identity, the uncertainty he experiences. In his memoir Anger is an Energy, Lydon talks about the poignant shifts in the tone of the recording, like timeslips, moments of clarity…

3. Isham Jones “Kismet.”

This is one of the two placements of specific music into the ambience of the novel. I was researching music for the scene that takes place at Khaled’s Place, the Cairo cabaret where the central protagonists Charles Varnas and Campbell rendezvous after the commission of their crime. The music had to be off-kilter. This composition by Hershel Henlere struck me with the jaunty fatalism its title, and because the bandleader’s name reminded me of William Gibson’s character Tally Isham. Henlere was a kind of ironic dada figure, and Jones’ recording is riddled with mad percussion and atonality. Allegedly, it’s an Arabian foxtrot. It fits the drunken nightmarish quality of the chapter perfectly, I think.

4. The Stranglers “Golden Brown.”

One of the two best songs ever written about heroin. ‘Every time, just like the last / On her ship, tied to the mast,’ is just a perfect lyric: the Homeric sense of the siren call of oblivion, but it also reminds me of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” and the great vampire film Nosferatu. I was captivated by this song, the stock footage of Egypt and the appearance of dying Empire in the promo video. Again, it struck me as incredibly romantic from the fist moment I heard it, which must have been 1982…Jesus…I’ve drawn on it before, for Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness (2016). The harpsichord on “Golden Brown” surely influenced Blur’s “Clover Over Dover,” which I love also (one of their several nods to Quadrophenia). Anyway, it’s the sense of ‘oblivion seekers’ that resonates with the dissolute figures in the Moth for the Star.

5. Iggy Pop “Don’t Look Down.”

I wanted The Moth for the Star to have a vertiginous glamor, and the lyric ‘from Central Park to Shanty Town,’ could refer to Chapter Fourteen precisely, as the Depression takes over. My character of Osman Raffi, the detective, is reminiscent at times of Rudolph Valentino, and there’s a lyric in “Don’t Look Down”: ‘I went this morning to the cemetery / To see old Rudy Valentino buried / Lipstick traces on his name, you know / He never looked down.’ His tomb in Hollywood is kissed like Oscar Wilde’s in Paris. Lipstick Traces is also Griel Marcus’ book on the transmission of avant-garde cultures. Valentino died in Manhattan in 1926, between the past and the present of Varnas and Campbell. All of this is in the unconscious of the novel.

6. The Smiths “The Headmaster Ritual.”

The Smiths are one of about six bands that I actually listen to constantly when I’m writing. This song resonates with so many people who grew up in an education system that was often cruel, and where bullying came not only from your peers, but also from a generation of teachers that were relics of Empire, and when corporal punishment was legal. More than one smiling sadist contributed to my education. In his boyhood, Charles Varnas’ intuitive love of poetry is threatened by a man of this type.

7. Louis Armstrong “Body and Soul.”

This song is playing during the Hallowe’en party of 1930 that takes place in Chapter Thirteen. ‘What lies before me? / The future is stormy / A winter that’s gray and old / Unless there’s magic / The end will be tragic / And echo the tale that’s been told so often.’ * In all my work if there is a work of art, a song, some cultural reference in the narrative, it has to work as subtext, or it must possess some dramatic irony by the time the tale is told. It’s not enough for me to use something because it’s contemporaneous or popular alone. It has to communicate my intent and contribute to the force of the novel.

* The lyrics attached to this song on Spotify are incorrect.

8. The Velvet Underground “Venus in Furs.”

You could say that although what we hear during the Hallowe’en party is Louis Armstrong jazz, this is what’s really playing. In Todd Haynes’ recent documentary on the Velvets, John Cale describes the discovery of the sound of “Venus in Furs” layered with Lou Reed’s literary lyrics as the defining moment of the band. It’s utterly inimitable. It’s pretty well known that “Venus in Furs” derives from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella, and that the term ‘masochism’ was derived from his name by Krafft-Ebbing in the 19th century. Other people’s attempts at decadence often look silly, or collapse into self-parody, trying too hard to be gothic or strange, but The Velvet Underground’s take on masochism never does. In The Moth for the Star there’s a reference to the suicides or murder-suicide of Harry Crosby and his lover Josephine in 1929. The party takes place in the same building as their deaths, and “Venus in Furs” bleeds that annihilating desire. Varnas and Campbell are – returning to the Louis Armstrong record – the potential ‘echo’ of Crosby and his lover.

9. The Smashing Pumpkins “Wound.”

Machina, the album from which this is taken,is gnostic, romantic, and uninhibited by the need to be cool. The science fiction qualities remind me of Diamond Dogs. I appreciate Billy Corgan’s willingness to risk alienating his audience in pursuit of his vision. In terms of The Moth for the Star, I could have selected several songs from Machina that would fit its atmosphere, the strange love story, and its longing. But I liked ‘Last night I turned around / And thought I saw myself turning / Inside the strangest dream of life / Unloved and cities burning / Awake in my arms / You cry unharmed,’ and ‘Wound open / Reveal this broken man / And soon there’s notions of blood on his hands…’

10. Kate Bush “Nocturn.”

While Hounds of Love will always be the Kate Bush for me, there are some lovely songs on Aeriel, and this is surely one of them. Again, it has that quality of oblivion-seeking, disappearance, and transcendence. ‘Could be in a dream /Our clothes are on the beach / These prints of our feet / Lead right up to the sea / No one, no one is here /No one, no one is here / We stand in the Atlantic / We become panoramic / We tire of the city / We tire of it all / We long for / Just that something more…’ The couple on the beach, stepping tentatively then deeper into the Atlantic, losing themselves in the sea and sky and stars, and experiencing a majestic sunrise that ends in ecstasy…There’s certainly something of my sense of Varnas and Campbell in it. It reminds me obliquely of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening.

11. The Cure “Killing an Arab.”

Is it even worth saying yet again how misunderstood this song is, or that it influenced legions of punks to read L’Étranger? “Killing and Arab” is an ekphrastic poem to Camus’ novella. Great! L’Étranger is like The Sheltering Sky in terms of the anxiety of influence: one simply cannot write about sand and murder without it hanging over you.

12. 10,000 Maniacs “Noah’s Dove”

‘In your reckless mind / you act as if you’ve got more lives…’ I love songs that deal with an ache of what might be messianic delusion, or a snare in the psyche, or the crowd. Uncool as it might be, my favorite example of this is “One for the Vine” by Genesis, which is a gorgeous Nietzschean work, but Natalie Merchant’s lyrics here fit The Moth for the Star more closely. The question of mortality in the novel is haunted by birds. In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, before sending the dove to discover proof of life, Noah sends out a raven from the ark. The name of my protagonist Charles ‘Varnas’ derives from an Eastern European family name, and it means ‘raven.’ 

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