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September 23, 2019

Anita Felicelli's Playlist for Her Novel "Chimerica"


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.

Anita Felicelli's Chimerica is an inventive and compelling debut novel, a literary legal thriller (with a touch of magical realism) not to be missed.

Jonathan Lethem wrote of the book:

"Felicelli's remarkable CHIMERICA is a coolly surrealist legal thriller--in turns sly, absurd, emotionally vivid, and satirically incisive--that shifts the reader into a world just adjacent to our own."

In her own words, here is Anita Felicelli's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Chimerica:

I wrote my novel Chimerica between 2011- 2015 before our world turned as dark as it has become, before conversations about women and power were commonplace. Chimerica is the story of Maya Ramesh, a Tamil American trial attorney who loses her job and her marriage at the same time, and begins scheming about how to get her job back. She’s presented with a strange opportunity in the form of a talking lemur who claims to be from the mural that was the subject of litigation she’d been working on just before being fired.

Maya, as a character, has been with me for twenty-five years this year. Although Chimerica is a standalone novel, I’d imagined Maya fully in a short story about two sisters in 1994, and my first novel grew out of that short story. My first novel was a kunstlerroman about a young artist who psychiatrically disintegrates, a kind of coming-of-age, but mostly in reverse. I’d drafted that first novel as an art student and fiction writer. Several years later, I found myself in law school in search of a day job to support my fiction writing — I felt like I couldn’t be both a serious visual artist and serious fiction writer and still financially support myself. Chimerica grew out of my observations of other lawyers, lawyers who were lawyers because that was their goal in life.

Mysterons - Portishead

Mysterons is a song about self-deception that immediately sets a strange mood and creates the feeling that we’re all living amidst so much illusion, and that there’s another reality underneath all of those illusions. It’s that mood that was in the back of my mind when I conceived of and first drafted Chimerica in 2011. Portishead and other trip hop was on my regular rotation at the time, setting a surreal, experimental mood. Maya’s name means illusion in Sanskrit, and it’s a fundamental concept within Hinduism, referring to a cosmic illusion that the world around us is real. Among people as they live, maya refers to human ignorance of the true nature of self. Maya is a protagonist who is perpetually pretending—it’s both her strength and her weakness, and it’s a personality trait that serves the forward motion of the plot. There is also a particular repeated line in Mysterons: “Did you want Did you want Did you want” that haunts the protagonist Maya as she considers the loss of her husband and job due to an affair.

Near Wild Heaven - R.E.M.

There’s a feeling of almost-but-not-quite in R.E.M. Near Wild Heaven that suffuses the whole song, its melody, as well as its lyrics. Before the novel opens, Maya has a life that many people perceive as the American Dream—she has a husband, Ross, who loves her, two kids, a house with a hot tub, and the job she wants. And yet, it’s not enough. It’s the proximity to the American Dream, the ability to see it clearly around her, and yet never attain it for herself that maddens her. There are lines in Near Wild Heaven that I think are perfect for this situation: “And I always thought that it would make me smarter/But it’s only made me harder.” Almost two decades before the novel starts, she had cheated with an old boyfriend just before her wedding to Ross. I’d written a number of scenes in that first novel with R.E.M. in the background. In Chimerica, the urge to explode her relationship surfaces again, and before the start of the novel, she’s exploded her marriage. She knows, though, I think, that she’s exploded her marriage for a chimera, a perfection that’s impossible to achieve.

When You Were Mine – Cyndi Lauper’s cover

The ache and desperation of When You Were Mine is so true to what a breakup can feel like afterward. No matter how mediocre a relationship is, it has elements that make the people in it feel like sticking around, and the loss, not just of the person, but the future that might have been, can be devastating. Although there are intimations Ross might not be her soul mate— he’s definitely not on board with her quest for power— it’s the loss of him and her children that makes Maya so frenzied about proving herself with the law firm. She meets someone — a talking lemur who claims to have escaped from a mural downtown— who she thinks she can use to get her job as a trial attorney back. But behind her frenzied effort to prove herself to her old boss and regain the job, is the loss of her family, and the ache from that loss is a driving force in the novel. I love Prince and his genius, but this is a first-person novel that is very centered on one woman’s emotions at home and in the workplace and through loss, and so I picked the Cyndi Lauper cover.

This is the Day – The The

Melancholia isn’t the dominant mood of the novel, though it’s an undertow. If melancholia were more foregrounded, Maya wouldn’t have the energy to try to regain her job, and there would be no plot. Maya is, instead, relentlessly hopeful about the prospect of getting her job back. In many ways, even though she was born to a working class family in South India when India was still a third world country, Maya is a model of assimilation into Bay Area affluence. She embodies a certain optimism that’s very American: the sense that the system works, and that to the extent it might not be perfect, she can still make it work in favor of her client the lemur, in favor of the wild, that she can secure some kind of big win even though she’s already exploded her life. The The’s This is The Day captures her spirit: “This is the day, your life can surely change.”

The Whole World – Outkast

Outkast inspires me. How does it pull in psychedelia and techno and still make powerful hip-hop? Outkast’s recombinant artistry in every song is a mystery to me, but it’s also an inspiration for writing a genre bending novel, a novel that plays with genre, and provides more pleasure in so doing. The Whole World is bouncy, but has embedded in its second person, a kind of adversarial quality, a “you” against the world, which has desires separate from yours. In this and other songs, Outkast has a genre-bending, boundary-crossing ethos I consciously adopted in 2011 in my own writing of this novel, mashing forms together. Chimerica is a literary novel in the tradition of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, but it’s surrealistic, freely borrowing and subverting the conventions of legal thrillers, noir, magic realism, and family drama.

Under Pressure – Queen and David Bowie

What would a playlist for a novel critiquing American copyright law be without at least one song that’s been subject to controversy? One of the more well-known copyright controversies was between Queen and David Bowie who owned the rights to Under Pressure and Vanilla Ice who sampled Under Pressure without permission in Ice Ice Baby. That hook. A few notes valued at such a high price —of course, it’s those notes that made Ice Ice Baby popular at the time; without the hook, the rap lyrics are nothing special. I was introduced to music copyright law in college at a time when I was also studying fiction and visual art and thinking about how to do something original in art. I’ve always been fascinated by sampling and theory around authorship. I think all art requires other art for its existence, all novels depend on other novels. Where is the line over which we can call anything original, how far removed would that hook need to be for Ice Ice Baby to be legitimate? Either way, Under Pressure is an ideal song for a book about a trial lawyer.

Cherchez la ghost - Ghostface Killah

Ghostface Killah tells good stories, and sets tremendous moods. Cherchez la ghost is hypnotic, and this is a song I’ve written and edited to on repeat, a song that drifts into the background, but remains powerful on its own. I don’t know what the lyrics are, something about sex, I think? But the feelings of the woman’s voice singing the hook melt into you. They’re so strong and seductive. In Chimerica, Maya has a doppelganger who seems more real while living a distant, different life than Maya is living in the novel —this is a voice that reminds me of that doppelganger.

Burning Sky - Uptones

Maya’s teenage daughter Tara is probably Maya’s harshest critic. She’s a fan of ska. She’s also a fan of all things retro (and so was Maya as a teenager) and so this playlist wouldn’t feel right without a ska song. Most people think of hip hop when they think of the East Bay, but one of the first bands devoted to ska in America were the Uptones, who used to play Berkeley shows. Trial lawyers —real trial lawyers, not the litigators who push paper around at big, prestigious corporate firms—take a certain pleasure in a courtroom fight; it’s what makes them good at their job, and it’s a joy and flow that’s being eroded by insurers and corporate lawyers and moneyed interests, an issue that comes up in Chimerica. This old Uptones’ song Burning Sky, is a little on the nose, but it has a line that strongly reminds me of trial work: “just because you are winning, it does not mean that you're right.”

We Care a Lot - Faith No More

I listened to a lot of angry music while initially drafting Chimerica, including Faith No More, though I edited all the revisions in total silence. While the novel is woman-centric, historically, trial work in America has mostly not been. Being in an environment surrounded by aggressive energy, being in an environment where she needs to be more aggressive than aggressive men are, affects Maya’s psyche. Underpinning the book is a critique of America that’s filled with an ominous foreboding reminiscent of the drumbeat that starts Faith No More’s We Care A Lot. Like Outkast, Faith No More isn’t afraid to play with genre, throwing in funk, rap, and metal—creating a chimera. It’s a catchy, accessible song that easily turns into an earworm, so you don’t necessarily notice all the genre mashing. Similarly, since I was taking a lot of other risks with genre and philosophical matter, I tried to make the prose in Chimerica go down easy.

First in Flight - Blackalicious

Blackalicious is a hip hop group from the East Bay, whose album Blazing Arrow is among my favorites. In the early aughts, I shared a rental situation in a house in the Oakland hills overlooking the zoo with five other people. That particular house served as the model for Maya’s house in Chimerica. One of my roommates at the house went to shows by local groups all the time, and introduced me to Blackalicious. I promptly became obsessed with the classic sound and their multisyllabic lyrics. Whenever I think of that house, the setting of many scenes in Chimerica, I think of the album Blazing Arrow. First in Flight is a supremely upbeat song, a song that makes you think anything is possible, and this sense of possibility is necessary, I think, whether you’re a trial lawyer trying to secure a win or a novelist hoping to bring to life made-up characters. It’s a good song to go out on.

Anita Felicelli and Chimerica links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Electric Literature interview with the author
Full Stop interview with the author
Kweli interview with the author
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Love Songs for a Lost Continent
Mountain View Voice interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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