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November 3, 2022

Stephanie Feldman's Playlist for Her Novel "Saturnalia"

Saturnalia by Stephanie Feldman

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Stephanie Feldman's Saturnalia is a fast-paced and mind-searing apocalyptic vision.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Feldman uses ecological collapse as a backdrop for a chilling tale of alchemy and corruption."

In her own words, here is Stephanie Feldman's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Saturnalia:

Saturnalia takes place over one night during a massive winter solstice carnival with parades, public celebration, and elite masquerade balls. The celebration has a reckless spirit—it’s not just about letting loose during the holidays, but giving into abandon as climate change destabilizes the city.

But the novel is about also about a young woman navigating this world and fighting the temptations of nihilism. As I revisited these songs, my most-listened-to in the years spent writing Saturnalia, I found that many of them capture the vibe of the carnival, but all of them relate to some moment in my main character Nina’s journey, from outcast to power-broker to something entirely new.

1. The War on Drugs, “Under the Pressure”

I listened to this album, “Lost in the Dream,” over and over again while writing the early drafts of Saturnalia. I often stick with a soundtrack for a writing project. When I turn on the music, it brings me back into the space of the fictional world and helps me maintain momentum across writing sessions. I was drawn to this album in part because it’s easy to write too—the vocals are unobtrusive and it doesn’t demand you dance along.

But it also effectively captures my protagonist Nina’s mood at the beginning of the book. Nina is a fortune teller who reads the coveted Saturn Oracle cards. The first card she draws is The Drowning Girl, and that’s what the melancholy but propulsive melody sounds like to me—being alone in a swirling limbo. And like the speaker in the song, Nina was “raised on a promise” that didn’t hold: that the world is a meritocracy and she can succeed in it, despite her humble background.

2. Shamir, “Abomination”

Shamir’s album “Heterosexuality” came out when I was doing very final edits on the manuscript, so chronologically, for me, it’s a kind of a bookend to “Under the Pressure.” Thematically, though, I’d slot it in here, when the Saturnalia festival begins and Nina returns to the elite and mysterious Saturn Club for their solstice masquerade. This song just sounds like Saturnalia to me—the beats and industrial synth and mechanized, scratchy vocals. The lyrics also capture the spirit of Carnival, which is all about upsetting the social order. They also capture what it’s like to live in a world where Carnival is just for show. The wealthy and powerful characters who organize the festival don’t really want to overturn anything—they like being in charge and want to keep it that way. Shamir is screaming for everyone else, the so-called abominations raging for revolution.

3. Halsey, “Girl is a Gun”

This is another song with a Saturnalia vibe (and another album I listened to a ton when I was revising in the fall of 2021). Halsey is singing about her conflicting feelings about her relationships—the suffering and abuse, but also how she keeps falling in love, and still wants to have fun. All of this captures something of Nina, too, who has endured abuse and doesn’t know how to assess her remaining relationships. It also embodies the spirit of throwing yourself back into life, knowing that you’re like a loaded gun with the safety off. Nina’s finally taken off her safety, too, ready to take a wild and reckless shot in the dark.

4. Anohni, “Four Degrees”

“Four Degrees” has haunted me since it was first released in 2015. It’s a dreamy dance song about the destruction of the earth; once we reach four degrees of warming, we’re done. (I believe we’re at 1.5 right now, and getting hotter.) The lyrics describe this annihilation in detail: the water boiling, the animals falling and burning. Each death is preceded with a plaintive “I wanna see.” Anohni’s indicting humanity, and herself. Our actions—our failure to address environmental catastrophe—prove that we want to see fish go belly-up and dogs cry for water.

Climate disaster is a key concern of Saturnalia, but so is this self-destructive impulse. Look what we’ve done; look what we’re still doing, to ourselves and to each other. Now that we can no longer deny our sins, will we change course or will we revel in the massacre?

5. Christine and the Queens, “People, I’ve Been Sad”

This song really resonated with me when it came out in February, 2020, which is almost comical in hindsight, given how the rest of the year would unfold: “People, I’ve been missing out… People, I’ve been gone for way too long…” (Like, if only I knew!) This is such a direct confession of loneliness, but with such a lovely melody, it’s almost a comfort.

Nina has a lot of noise in her head and in her soul: her anger, her uncertainty, her thwarted hope and reignited ambition. As she begins to face what she’s learned, and face the past that’s held her captive, she also has to face her own sadness. She’s been gone, but she’s not gone anymore. I guess that’s part of the comfort, too.

6. J-Hope, “Blue Side”

Saturnalia is a time of celebration and debauchery, but some Christians observe Blue Christmas on the solstice, holding services for people in mourning. In the book, Blue Christmas is an opportunity to escape the festival, and for Nina, it marks a pivotal moment in her history with Max, the friend who invites her to begin her Saturnalia journey. J-Hope is famously sunny and upbeat, but “Blue Side” is calm, peaceful, and reflective; it’s about finding renewal in the past instead of sorrow. Nina has to release her dark past’s grip on her future.

7. CHVRCHES, “How Not to Drown”

Back to the Drowning Girl, the first oracle card Nina draws on Saturnalia morning. It’s ominous, but Nina notes that it’s the one figure in the Saturn Deck that’s in motion: the girl is submerged, but she’s still alive, still here, and still—perhaps—fighting. Even though the lyrics are dark (they’re inspired by singer Lauren Mayberry’s harassment) the song is still about not drowning: it’s about staying conscious, telling the truth, and knowing what you want.

Mayberry sings: “That was the first time I knew you can't kill the king / And those who kiss the ring.” At the beginning of Saturnalia, Nina finds that her ex-boyfriend, East, has been named the festival’s Lord of Misrule, a title she once coveted for herself. At the end, she has very different ideas about kings, rules, and her own ambition.

8. of Montreal, “Peace to All Freaks”

I kept this song on rotation with “People, I’ve Been Sad.” In that song, Chris explores the feeling of sadness and isolation; in this song, Kevin Barnes sings about joy in solidarity. And it’s really an explosively joyous song—not a good one to write to, as it does encourage dancing, and so a fitting end to the playlist.

“Peace to All Freaks” acknowledges the pain and hardship of systemic oppression, but imagines what we can do as individuals and a community to counter it. It’s maybe a slightly kinder version of the revolution Shamir’s abominations threaten. The chorus asks us not to be negative or cruel, but you know, easier said than done! Especially for Nina.

What I love most is how the lyrics acknowledge that struggle: “I don't think that I can do it for myself / But I can do it for us.” We might feel crushed under pressure or dragged under the water; we might feel driven to throw bombs or fire wildly like a loaded weapon; we might be tempted to give into our sadness or hopelessness. Somehow, though, it’s easier to keep going when we’re doing it for someone we love—and when someone we love is doing the same for us, right by our side. Which is how Nina—the lonely, bitter, scared girl—ends her Saturnalia night, and watches the sun rise.

Stephanie Feldman is the author of the debut novel The Angel of Losses is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. She is co-editor of the multi-genre anthology Who Will Speak for America? and her stories and essays have appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, Catapult Magazine, Electric Literature, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Rumpus, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She lives outside Philadelphia with her family.

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