March 31, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Elaine Hsieh Chou's Disorientation is an innovative campus novel, funny and incisive, and one of the best books of the year.
Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:
"Gleefully dark and incisive . . . Chou's examination of the catch-22s faced by Asian Americans, particularly women, straddles the line between satiric and searing . . . Disorientation is the best combination of entertaining and thought-provoking, and Chou is an exciting new voice in novel-length fiction."
As someone who works in silence, music didn’t have a major impact on the drafting of Disorientation. It was only when I visualized the whole story, when it came together as one moving picture, that accompanying songs came to me as if I were setting the soundtrack to the film version of the novel.
Here are twelve tracks for twelve scenes in Disorientation. I loved gathering these songs by singers from different eras and countries, from Filipino-British rock goddesses to Taiwanese megastars and the coolest rapper in Vietnam. I hope the soundtrack can act as the perfect compliment to the experience of reading the novel.
Note that some descriptions contain spoilers!
1. Panic at the Archive
Mitski - “Nobody”
When we first meet Ingrid Yang, she’s so anxious, she prays for stomach ulcers so she’ll have an excuse for failing her dissertation. “Nobody” by Mitski brims with anxiety and yet (or maybe because of that), it’s so catchy you can't unstick it from your head. Even the repetition of “nobody” starts to feel manic and as the chorus slows down at the song’s close, the anxiety grows more palpable than ever. Ingrid understands, “No one can save me.”
2. Oh that Vivian Vo!
Beabadoobee - “She Plays Bass”
Vivian Vo is everything Ingrid isn’t: stylish to her dowdy, clued-in to her clueless, confident to her insecure. Ingrid swears she hates her but… does she really just want to be her? Here’s an anthem for the most iconic activist at Barnes University (and if Vivian were in a band, she would totally play bass).
3. There’s Something About Alex…
Danny Chan - “Puppy Love”
With his sleeve of tattoos and diamond stud earring, Alex Kim is not Ingrid’s type… So why does she melt into a nervous puddle around him? This sugar-sweet Cantonese song featured in the Hong Kongese film Puppy Love (1985) is what I imagine dancing through Ingrid’s head when she first lays eyes on Alex.
4. Down for Whatever
Suboi - “N-SAO?”
One of my favorite scenes from Office Space is when the gang hacks their company’s computer system to Ice Cube’s “Down for Whatever.” What would otherwise be an uninspiring scene (typing followed by more typing) suddenly feels high-stakes and slick. Taking inspiration from this, when Ingrid and her friend Eunice Kim break into the Xiao-Wen Chou archive, Suboi’s fearless “N-SAO?” plays. Tampons will be involved.
5. Supersleuths with Snacks (Ode to Eunice)
Ginger Root - “Juban District”
Ingrid and Eunice start staking out someone’s house and eating all manner of junk food to pass the time (they’re hardly inconspicuous since Eunice insists they wear black sunglasses and berets). Ginger Root’s “Juban District'' perfectly evokes the two friends’ comical supersleuthing antics; I can just picture them popping up their heads from behind bushes. The song’s effervescent melody also reminds me of Eunice, the kind of friend who can always tease a smile out of Ingrid. PS: Watch the music video–it’s delightful.
6. Not So Fast & Furious
Giriboy - “Souljalee”
After a contentious open forum, Ingrid passes out from taking too many OTC allergy pills that cause hallucinations. Alex wakes her up and drives her home. Because he only blasts rap in his bedroom, Ingrid is caught off guard when he puts on an earnest ballad in Korean, Giriboy’s sunnily addictive “Souljalee.” Alex keeps on surprising Ingrid–she realizes she shouldn’t have judged a song by its cover art.
7. It’s So Bad, I Can’t Look Away
Koo Mei - “Love Without End
When Chinatown Blues, an offensive play by Xiao-Wen Chou, is performed at the university, Ingrid finds herself unable to look away from the horrorshow on display. Images of the play mix with real-life clips snipped from movies and TV shows where onscreen Asians are caricaturized to death. Sometimes the surreality of a scene is best accentuated by music that jars against it. Here, the plaintive classic “Love Without End” jars against the onslaught of a painful American tradition.
8. 4:32 AM Life Decisions
Bibi - “Umm… Life”
Hours after the play, Ingrid makes a major decision at 4:32 am. Let me paint the scene: she has a manic, frenzied look in her eye; the room is dark save for moonlight filtering in from the window; and Bibi’s hypnotic “Umm… Life” plays on loop. Because sometimes life throws you for an unexpected loop and all you can really say is, “Umm…”
9. Unsexy Sexy Time
Lexie Liu - “Sleep Away”
Ingrid’s fiancé Stephen Greene is into role-play, specifically the kind where he is a “sensei” disciplining a schoolgirl. After Ingrid’s thirtieth birthday dinner, he attempts to seduce her by laying naked on their bed save for a plaid tie around his neck and a wooden ruler in his hand. Lexie Liu’s languorous “Sleep Away” sets the mood until it comes to a screeching halt when Ingrid hallucinates her fiancé has morphed into Xiao-Wen Chou.
After a tense post-reunion argument, Stephen apologizes to Ingrid by taking her to the county fair. For a few blissful moments, Yumi Matsutoya’s “Surf Tengoku, Ski Tengoku” scores a cheesy montage of the couple engaging in all the usual diversions, from playing fair games to cheering for a pig race. The two of them are happy–for now.
11. Chaos & Chokeholds
Rina Sawayama - “STFU!”
The end of Disorientation culminates in Ingrid giving her dissertation defense in a crowded amphitheater. Tensions escalate, secrets are spilled and before you know it, chaos ensues. Ingrid’s bottled-up rage is unleashed as she storms the stage and chokes out her advisor, all while Rina Sawayama’s galvanizing “STFU!” shakes the walls. Please watch the music video for the intro that cleverly skewers a white man for his Japanphile ways.
12. Karaoke Love
Teresa Teng - “Ban Chun Hong”
After Ingrid is booted out of her PhD program, and her graduate housing, she moves back in with her parents. Though they haven’t spent much quality time together in the past, the trio make up for it now by partaking in wholesome activities: feeding geese, bowling, and of course, singing karaoke. Ingrid’s father, Bo, belts out a song in Hokkien by Taiwanese darling, Teresa Teng, that brings his daughter to tears. A fitting to end our playlist, as Ingrid soon prepares to visit Taiwan for the first time.
Elaine Hsieh Chou is a Taiwanese American writer from California. A 2017 Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellow at NYU and a 2021 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow, her short fiction appears in Black Warrior Review, Guernica, Tin House Online, and Ploughshares. Disorientation is her first novel.