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July 25, 2018

Thea Lim's Playlist for Her Novel "An Ocean of Minutes"

An Ocean of Minutes

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.

Thea Lim's novel An Ocean of Minutes is a stunning dystopian debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Lim’s enthralling novel succeeds on every level: as a love story, an imaginative thriller, and a dystopian narrative."

In her own words, here is Thea Lim's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel An Ocean of Minutes:

Old songs, like our sense of smell, make us time travel: they transport us to lost days. And, as is the case in so many time travel novels, we must go back, whether or not we want to. I tried to harness this power when I was writing An Ocean of Minutes, particularly the sections set in the 70s and 80s. I wanted to use music references to trigger nostalgia in the reader the same moment it’s triggered in my characters, hoping for the emotional equivalent of surround sound.

“Georgy Porgy,” Toto (1979)

p.207: “Norberto had covered a row of records, three feet long, in plastic sheeting. He looked proud. ‘It’s for my nostalgia department. Pre-pandemic artifacts will be in high demand.’ The records were in alphabetical order, even to the second letter: Joni Mitchell before the Monkees. One album had its spine to the wall. ‘Marta’s favorite band. Toto. Don’t like seeing it.’”

This song shouldn’t work. There’s no clear logical connection between the verses (I never ever should have told you you’re my only world) and the nursery rhyme that forms the chorus (Georgy Porgy pudding pie, kiss the girls and make them cry). And why does said chorus sound like it belongs to another song – maybe a disco tune, since it’s sung by Cheryl Lynn of “Got to Be Real” fame? It’s only held together by atmosphere: the sense of longing radiating from the ghostly piano, and the way the track sounds far away, like it’s coming out of a stereo on the other side of the wall, or the other side of time. It’s all on the verge of falling apart but it never does, which makes it a great soundtrack for novel-writing.

“If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” Bobby Womack (1981)

p.75: “She wrestled the window open, and she could hear music playing somewhere down the line of rooms. One song played all day, an electric guitar descending the saddest scales as Bobby Womack and a chorus of soul singers chanted its title again and again: if you think you’re lonely now.”

I’m sorry not sorry to say I discovered this song through that other break-up anthem, “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey. When Mimi sings the lines: Bobby Womack’s on the radio, saying to me, If you think you’re lonely now—wait a minute this is too deep, too deep, she trips over the words, her cadence brimming with grief. Even her glass-shattering voice is too puny to contain the heartbreak. That’s the emotion I wanted to channel. But since to cite Mimi would be anachronism, I just recreated the scene Mariah paints, but with my protagonist Polly in her place.

“Coming Around Again,” Carly Simon (1986)

p.32 “He takes the corners with one hand on the wheel and the sun comes dusty through the windshield and Carly Simon warbles on the radio as Frank squints to make out the street signs. He looks like a photograph. Polly wishes that time could just stop right here, and stay in this very moment, for good.”

It’s 1978 in this scene, so really Carly should be singing something like “You Belong To Me.” But I always imagine 1986’s “Coming Around Again,” which is about getting older and watching how love dissolves into the everyday, poignant and banal all at once, just like how the synth beats that make this track are perky and mournful all at once. I know nothing stays the same…but what else can I do, I’m so in love with you. The people we love get older, become other people, and we love these strangers still. The moment Polly meets Frank, she feels like she’s losing him. Nothing makes sense, but art helps.

“I’m On Fire,” Bruce Springsteen (1985)

p. 75: “She had let the imaginings she’d kept out come in: the earflaps of a woolly hat, buttoned under the chin; Springsteen whistled out of tune; the only way to slice a lemon; arms wide for a hug as he walked towards her, crossing the street.”

I don’t know if Frank’s whistling captured the way the synthesizer in this song sounds off-kilter and wild, like going to the movies in the '90s when there was something wrong with the speakers, except intentional, as if the instrument is crying. Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife baby edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my skull. The most tragic part of this song is how quickly it ends: just as Bruce winds up for the howl that’ll release that pent-up pain, he’s faded out. I wasn’t ready.

“I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” Dionne Warwick (1979)

p. 74: “He turns on the radio and cranks it, looking for a manful anthem. Instead he gets Dionne Warwick, singing “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” But when the piano booms like a drum and her voice storms the chorus, Dionne is epic, warlike.”

This scene ends a chapter that is underhandedly about masculinity’s most foolish impulses. Earlier versions had Frank listening to “Hold the Line” by Toto, but it never sat right. Then one day I heard Dionne on the radio, and the song’s theme of how knowing a moment is fleeting makes us incapable of appreciating it – A fool will lose tomorrow looking back at yesterday – coupled with her female vocal supremacy, made it the perfect pick.

“Maybe This Time,” Liza Minnelli (1972)

p. 146: “Polly and Baird worked together like cogs in a clock. He only had one record, the soundtrack from Cabaret, and he would hum along, sometimes even giving in to song, forgetting Polly was there, crooning along with Liza Minnelli about how this time was bound to be better.”

When I was 20, I worked as an usher at a Toronto theatre, and Cabaret came through. I never knew musicals could be so bleak. I loved it. I was monstrously depressed and nothing soothed me like Sally Bowles’ desperate, unfounded hope that her luck was about to change. I guess misery loves company. But ten years later, when I started writing a novel that starred a woman in her early 20s, this song was one cue that could bring me back to what it felt like to be that age – that feeling of being simultaneously at the beginning of everything, and the end of everything.

“El Rey,” José Alfredo Jiménez (1971)

p. 241: “Diana kept time on an overturned bucket while a chorus of older women sang Mexican folk songs—“Cielito Lindo” and one that Cookie translated as advice from a rock on how to be king of your own destiny, even if you have no money.”

I was in a torta restaurant in Montreal on my thirty-fourth birthday, feeling a little blue. At a nearby table, fifteen women were celebrating a bachelorette party. All of a sudden, they burst into song. They were singing “El Rey.” I was eating with a friend from Mexico City, who provided the explanation that I eventually assigned to Cookie. A stone taught me my destiny was to roll…I don't have a throne nor a queen nor anybody understands me but I'm still the king.

“Time Will Tell,” Blood Orange (2013)

p. 259: “In the new dimness, music unlike Polly had ever heard piped out of the mini speaker: a man sang like a woman, in high falsetto, and an electric piano noodled a riff, both chipper and melancholic.”

Okay, so this is an obvious anachronism, but this scene is set in an alternate 1999, so who’s to say that in another timeline, Dev Hynes didn’t record Cupid Deluxe in the '90s? It certainly sounds like it. Another song that does something funny with distance: the instruments sound like they’re being played under a towel, but his voice croons right into your ear. At 1:54 the piano falters, as if the song loses its way; later, near 3:40, the voice splits into multiple confused murmurings, and a duck seems to quack. All of it pulls together to pulse with a shared sense of wandering loneliness. And it keeps on running back.

“Here’s Where the Story Ends,” The Sundays (1990)

This was the original title of An Ocean of Minutes. My agents wisely talked me out of it (No one could remember it. What’s it called, friends would say, This is How the Story Finishes?) but nothing will ever stop me from loving the pacey melancholy of this song, and the idea that emanates from its refrain: that we manage loss by telling ourselves that life is a story and one day it will all make sense, even though it is loss that forces us to acknowledge that life will never hold together with the neatness of narrative. But we keep trying.

“Realiti,” (demo version) Grimes (2015)

I can’t make a playlist for a time travel novel without at least one futuristic pop song. I chose this one because, A): during the last year of writing, I began many days by watching the video, and the line every morning there is more mountain to climb became a mantra for Polly. B): after you’ve been living far from home for many years, you forget you miss it. In part, this novel was inspired by my indelible and invisible longing for the country where I grew up: Singapore – which is also the location where Grimes filmed sections of this video. The year the video came out, it had been five years since I’d been back. The first time I saw it, I was frozen. Then I watched it slowly. It was like a lost loved one had come into the room, and as if by hitting pause, again and again, I could make the moment last.

Thea Lim and An Ocean of Minutes links:

the author's website

Booklist review
BookPage review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Toronto Star review

NOW Toronto interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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