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February 27, 2020

Jeet Thayil's Playlist for His Novel "Low"

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.

Jeet Thayil's novel Low is dark, funny, and masterfully told book from one of the world's most talented storytellers.

In his own words, here is Jeet Thayil's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Low:

Low is the final installment of my Bombay trilogy, beginning with Narcopolis and The Book of Chocolate Saints. All three contain secret and not-so-secret David Bowie allusions. There are songs and song references throughout Low, which gave me a weird sort of thrill to embed. A sense of freedom and danger, I suppose, which is what we look for in music, as well as some kind of consolation. The novel’s protagonist, Domini Ullis, loses his wife to suicide and consoles himself with music, drugs and Donald Trump. But the book is a black comedy about grief, and the music isn’t always uplifting.

Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’: I always thought it was sung by Maria Callas, and discovered it was not. There’s really nothing like it if you’re looking to lose yourself for a minute and no medication is handy. In the key of B-flat major, which is a rock chord to my mind, though clearly capable of some major flexibility.

Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’: A sunny pop earworm from the late 80s, with an unexpectedly dark and twisted afterlife. You don’t realize at first that the title is ironic. What he’s really saying is that there is nothing wonderful about life, but it’s said with the sweetest smile and melody. Black’s own life turned out anything but wonderful, which makes the song a self-fulfilling fantasy.

An unnamed Ravi Shankar tune: I am not a fan, probably because I’ve heard too many trippy sitar noodlings that go nowhere, accompanied by the scent of patchouli, unwashed dreadlocks, and pretension. Always makes me want to reach for smelling salts. To quote Dom Ullis, Low's addled protagonist: “It was like flying Air India in the days when there was no other choice of airline: you were always oppressed by Ravi’s sitar as you tried to find your seat.”

Nicki Minaj’s ‘Ganja Burn’: There’s a character in the novel who enjoys her Minaj raps. I quoted a couple of lines from the song, but the rights-holders wanted so much money I had to drop the direct quotes and do this: “Instead there was Nicki Minaj, her second most favourite badass chick, rapping about ganja, rhyming ‘sex’ with ‘ask’, and ‘zen my body’ with ‘lend my body’.”

Garbage’s ‘Stupid Girl’: A fine pop song filtered through the dogma of grunge. In the vid, Shirley Manson is Charlie’s misbegotten daughter in a wrinkled mini-dress and boots, her kajal smeared and hair a mess, shipwrecked amid the icy stare of the lyrics: “You pretend you’re high/Pretend you’re bored/Pretend you’re anything/Just to be adored”. And then there’s the indelible two-note guitar hook that gets under your skin and stays there. What’s not to like?

Frederick Weatherly’s ‘Danny Boy’: Ullis (whose name is sometimes misheard as Ulysses), hallucinating, hears this song in his head, with lyrics re-arranged by the Sirens, for better or worse.

T-Rex’s ‘Bang a Gong’: A make-out track from a time when sex was dirty and the air was clean. Ask gramps if you don’t believe me. The piano glissando is Rick Wakeman, when he was broke and looking for work, and the backing vocals are Flo & Eddie, when they were still called the Turtles. Marc Bolan claimed the riff was all Chuck Berry, but it sounds like Bo Diddley to me.

A.R. Rahman’s ‘Humma Humma’: Low is a Bombay novel, and in Bombay you can’t escape Bollywood, certainly not at an illegal dance bar. The song has inexplicable Indian classical elements, a Michael Jackson-inspired rhythm track, jazz-inflected synth arrangements, and the relentless over-the-top aesthetic beloved of Bollywood.

The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘The Living End’: A shout-out to a friend, who likes to play this song very loud in his car, a black Skoda with tinted windows that the police are instinctively drawn to. He says listening to the Mary Chain first thing in the morning at high volume makes the rest of the day easier to bear. There’s no disputing some things. Drenched in white noise, white powder and misery, this is the sound of a lovely car crash.

Jeet Thayil is a poet, musician and novelist. He was born in Kerala in 1959 and educated at Jesuit schools in Bombay, Hong Kong and New York. He worked as a journalist for twenty-three years before writing his bestselling debut novel, Narcopolis, which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Man Asian Literary Prize. His second novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, was longlisted for the DSC Prize and described as 'easily the most original and formally inventive novel to come out of India in years' by Salman Rushdie. Thayil's five poetry collections include These Errors Are Correct, which won the 2013 Sahitya Akademi Award (India's National Academy of Letters) and he is also the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets.

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