Literary Mixtape: Alexander Chee Finds A Heroine
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by Alexander Chee
We’ve asked some of our favorite authors to make us a mixtape. This month’s installment is from Alexander Chee, whose new novel, Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) comes out this week. It’s a novel about “one woman’s rise from pioneer girl to circus rider to courtesan to world-renowned diva in 19th Century Paris,” so yes, Chee’s mixtape includes a healthy dose of both Beyoncé and The Runaways. Put on your headphones, turn up the volume, and read on.
Writing a novel about the Second Empire in France, I was wary of being too precious, of being the wide-eyed American who is too romantic about the history and the legends. I wanted to strip off the layers of schtick and false formality that I felt had covered the era in recent popular entertainments. And I wanted to forget the weak cinema courtesans I had seen and to try and imagine the women I was sure had existed, had found in my sources — confident, bold, hilarious and sexy, these women who began with very few gifts but knew that some of those gifts were so very very valuable to others. As long as they lasted.
The novel poses as something of a 19th Century tall tale autobiography — the confessions of a celebrity, who knew everyone and went everywhere, that becomes a picaresque with a woman in the place where a man usually is. She adopts and abandons identities, one after the other, in pursuit of a life where she can just live as she wants. Parts of it are true and parts, maybe less true, but it seems she believes it all, and the fun is in figuring out what is what or maybe the fun is just being along for the ride.
My heroine, Lilliet Berne, arrived fully formed but still was elusive, and the music here is some of what I used to get closer to her and to the other characters as I wrote the novel.
1. In Da Club (aka Sexy Lil’ Thug), covered by Beyoncé
When you hear this, just forget 50-Cent. This is the version that matters. In Beyoncé’s hands — “my hair my nails my diamond rings” — becomes a courtesan’s anthem, proud and loud. And the descant she sings against her own voice in the recording is perfect. For summoning the air of beauty that knows itself, knows what it can make men and women do, there’s little better.
[ed. note — This track isn’t on Spotify. Just watch the video; you were going to anyway.]
2. Check On It, Beyoncé
La Paiva, the famous courtesan who once told a young man to come to her with 40,000 francs and to set it on fire, and that he could have her “as long as it burns”…
More of the same as above. This is sort of a call-and-response song with Beyonce’s narrator essentially calling out the men looking at her. La Paiva, the famous courtesan who once told a young man to come to her with 40,000 francs and to set it on fire, and that he could have her “as long as it burns,” well, if I were writing some as yet unwritten musical about her life, this is what she’d sing to him.
3. Waitin’ For The Night, The Runaways
There’s a night Lilliet runs away with her best friend Euphrosyne, after they think they’ve killed a man, and they stay up all night drunk waiting to leave on the train. It starts out in high spirits and ends in their decision to be friends no matter what — and to run away together. This is the soundtrack of them.
4. When I’m Small, Phantogram
Lilliet wears a wig and a disguise when she leaves the theater to escape her fans. I can imagine this playing as she walks away unknown, headed off to supper with the Verdis.
5. Deceptacon, Le Tigre
Daring isn’t something you just have lying around — you have to bring it.
This song, quite simply, just kicks so much ass. During the hardest parts of writing this novel, I would put it on and immediately feel like I was brave enough to do anything I had to — and the boldest parts of the novel come in part from writing while, or after, listening to it. Daring isn’t something you just have lying around — you have to bring it.
6. The 212, Azealia Banks
This song makes me think of Euphrosyne, Lilliet’s troublemaking best friend — laughing in the face of danger, a perfect mix of “seen it all”, profanity and hilariousness. And to be honest, I’d love to see Azealia do a cancan. I feel sure she’d kill it and then bring it back to life.
7. Nightcall, by Kavinsky
…the idea of not knowing where you’re going, and remember the incredible power of the beauty queen, so beautiful it was almost supernatural.
I was on an assignment for Departures, in Shanghai. I had been sent to profile the restaurant Ultraviolet, an avant garde French restaurant with 14 seats and two seatings per night. To get there, you met the driver at a meet point and he took your whole party to the secret locaton. There was a former beauty queen in the group with two men — she seemed to be escorting them or they her, it wasn’t clear — but she was so beautiful she was like a race apart from everyone else. This song was playing as we drove through the Bund, which is like this lost arrondissement in Shanghai, and so the song forever has for me the night, the idea of not knowing where you’re going, and remember the incredible power of the beauty queen, so beautiful it was almost supernatural.
8. Disparate Youth, Santigold
I love Santigold, she just gives me life. But this song in particular, the sly snare line, the keyboard, the spy movie guitar vamps — the light melancholy mixed with deep joy in her voice, and that line, “a life worth fighting for” — that’s my main character, pure Lilliet.
9. Pass This On, The Knife
There aren’t so many story-songs now in pop that make any sense, but this is one, all forbidden desire and not knowing who is seducing who, and the keyboards that are like Jamaican tin drums alongside the bass line…Once you see the video, you can never forget it — I watched it to cast a spell on myself and the spell wakes up again each time it plays. And I decided it was part of the spell I wanted to cast over the whole novel.