February 16, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Zak Salih's debut novel Let's Get Back to the Party is an intimate yet universal exploration of modern queer friendship and love.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Poignant and poetic . . . Readers will find a compelling exploration of the experiences of queer people from different generations as two modern-day gay men figure out whether they want to conform to traditional views of relationships and marriage or break free entirely."
Mixtape for Let’s Get Back to the Party
Chalk it up to being biracial: I’m fascinated by the drama that happens when two different people are set up against one another. It’s why I’ve long thought of my novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party, as a cockfight between two men with very different ideas of what it means to be gay—both as individuals and as members of a community. In one corner: the melancholy Sebastian Mote, struggling to extricate himself from the past in hopes of a future that’s stable and safe; in the other: the irascible Oscar Burnham, refusing to connect with anything that could tie him to the vulnerability he fears more than anything else.
This duality—of ideas, of moods, of voices—found its way into the music I drew on for inspiration and energy while thinking about and writing the novel. Some of these songs I intended to appear in the novel from the beginning; others I discovered long after the publisher approved the final manuscript. In arranging this playlist to oscillate back and forth between Sebastian songs and Oscar songs (with an overture and exit music), my hope is to capture not just jarring sonic differences but also the ways in which these songs, in their own soft and loud ways, reflect my novel’s real intention: to illustrate how two very different people cope with the passing of time in two very different ways.
1. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys (OVERTURE)
Oh, we could be married (oh, we could be married) / And then we’d be happy (and then we’d be happy) / Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?
I remember, days after the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama, thinking we’d turned the corner on race in America—and look where we are now. Similarly, I remember the days after the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, thinking we’d turned the corner on sexuality in America—and look where we are now. Let’s Get Back to the Party begins in a time when marriage equality seemed, however delusional, to be the end of a struggle. And what band of brothers is more joyful, more hopeful that The Beach Boys?
2. “Everything in Its Right Place” by Radiohead (SEBASTIAN)
Yesterday, I woke up sucking on a lemon
There’s something incantatory about slow and ponderous Radiohead tracks, like this one from Kid A. It’s the kind of song those of us with a propensity for brooding sink into. I can easily imagine this hypnotic, benthic song in Sebastian’s head in the early moments of the novel. Here’s a man who finds comfort in order, who spends much of the story wrapped in memory and sadness. There’s also an underlying bitterness to Sebastian, for having made all the right moves and still somehow, in his estimation, coming up short.
3. “Your Disco Needs You” by Kylie Minogue (OSCAR)
So let’s dance through all our fears
Discos and clubs, those meeting grounds for gay men, now compete with the convenience (the laziness?) of phone apps. As someone socially and physically awkward, the clubs were never my scene; still, something vital is lost whenever a dance club turns into condos. I find endearing Oscar’s fervent “campaign”—however disillusioned, however desperate—to invade straight bars with raucous, superficial displays of gayness. Kylie Minogue’s militant, danceable call to arms captures the spirit of Oscar’s mission.
4. “Feel Like We Only Go Backwards” by Tame Impala (SEBASTIAN)
I got my hopes up again, oh no, not again / Feels like we only go backwards, darling
Sebastian has a fantastic memory, bless him. But because he’s fixed on what was, he struggles to focus on what could be. He loves the past because it’s ordered, already mapped out. Unlike the future, the past can never surprise you—or wound you. There’s a curious dual nature to this Tame Impala track, at least to my ears. Does the narrator truly want to go ahead, or is there something seductive in going backward? Sometimes, this song strikes me as a cry for help; other times, an admission of resignation.
5. “Tous les garçons et les filles” by Françoise Hardy (OSCAR)
Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge \ Se promènent par les rues deux par deux
It’s only alluded to in the novel (“My high-school French classes aren’t much help. Something about boys and girls holding hands, making future plans. Something about walking through streets alone, in pain.”) but this is the song Oscar hears in Rehoboth Beach, lip-synched by a drag queen named Madame Pamplemousse. A man named Paul wants to flirt; Oscar wants to fuck. But Oscar’s resentment of gay men pairing off is a ruse; he lives, like the narrator of this song (and like many of us), with a fear of being left out.
6. “Movies” by Weyes Blood (SEBASTIAN)
The meaning of life doesn’t seem to shine like that screen
The film unit with which Sebastian ends his AP Art History class in inspired by a similar unit that ended my 12th grade AP English class. One of my proudest moments as a wannabe intellectual was telling on a substitute who fast-forwarded the last 15 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey because it was, as she put it, “just a light show.” (The teacher made us watch it again.) This sweet and sad song, with its burbling synth background, is as close to a love song as Sebastian and his student, Arthur, will ever have.
7. “Don’t Stop the Music” by Rihanna (OSCAR)
Please don’t stop the music
Loud, crowded dance floors aren’t my thing; nevertheless, I felt compelled to spend time on them in my late 20s in an effort to get laid or find a boyfriend (neither of which usually happened). I could swear that, at some point in the night, on every dance floor I’ve ever been on, this Rhianna song has played. It’s thumpy, it’s catchy, it’s joyful, it’s sexy, it’s repetitive—it’s everything Oscar wants in music. It also begs a question the novel aims to touch on: What happens when the music, as it has to, stops—or, at least, changes?
8. “Valse” from Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Georges Delerue (SEBASTIAN)
Alain Resnais’s 1959 film is in my opinion, nearly perfect. Like T.S. Eliot’s April, it mixes memory and desire, both of which play an integral part in Sebastian’s journey throughout the novel. His fixation on Arthur is as much about the boyhood Sebastian didn’t have as it is about the boyhood Arthur does. This excerpt from the film’s score is more forlorn than frolicsome, and accompanies an incredible moment when Emmanuel Riva’s character, consumed by memories of war, slams her fists and cries, “I was so young once!”
9. “Leavin’ Me” by Bent (OSCAR)
I can't believe that you're honestly thinking of leaving me / 'cause I thought that leaving really wasn't even on your mind
Our fathers—and father figures—often disappoint us. They’re human and, as such, always contain within them aspects that are unknown and unknowable. That was my intention with the moments in which Oscar feels betrayed by the author Sean Stokes, the object of his fascination. When people change, they often leave something behind: a person, a belief, a memory. But on a more visceral level, I’ve been bopping to this song ever since I first heard it in a friend’s car in 2008. I imagine Oscar has, as well.
10. “Open Your Eyes” by STRFKR (SEBASTIAN)
Open your eyes / Who doesn’t need another friend / In these bodies, we are alone
I think of adulthood as the moment when one’s perspective changes from an “I” to a “we.” Life becomes not just about “me” but instead about “us.” As tempting as it may be to want to try and make it through life alone, with no one’s help, we can’t do it. We are, as they say, in this together. I’m fascinated by the tension between a need for solitude and the craving for companionship (in the form of lovers, yes, but more importantly friends); this wonderful STRFKR song reminds me of that craving.
11. “Alive” by Goldfrapp (OSCAR)
Looking out at the universe / I thank the stars and the heavens for you
I think a lot about death, which is why so much of this novel is haunted by the dead. Today me, tomorrow you. One risks objectifying the dead, cheapening their extinguished lives, by using them as lessons in the importance of life. Still, the impulse is unavoidable and human. A religious person would say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” An atheist like me would simply chalk it up to the dumb luck of the universe. Maybe not what Goldfrapp had in mind, but there you have it.
12. “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys (EXIT MUSIC)
God only knows what I’d be without you
A second song by The Beach Boys to bookend this playlist, this one a counterpoint to the cheerful ebullience of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” Yes, it’s a love song in which the singer professes uncertainty about life without their beloved. But sometimes I hear the lyrics differently. Sometimes, I imagine the singer wondering what greatness they could be capable of if only they’d let go of the things—even the people—dragging them down. The closing chapters of Let’s Get Back to the Party try to capture both interpretations.
Zak Salih is the author of Let’s Get Back to the Party. His fiction and essays have appeared in The Millions, Foglifter, Crazyhorse, The Chattahoochee Review, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.