In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Antoine Wilson’s novel Mouth to Mouth is as compelling as it is intricately woven, a book that is truly unforgettable.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
“An enthralling literary puzzle…This powerful, intoxicating book’s greatest tension is that we have no idea where it is heading.”
In my novel, Mouth to Mouth, Jeff Cook, a successful art dealer, bumps into a former UCLA classmate at JFK and invites him up to the first class lounge. What starts as a seemingly innocuous catchup with an old acquaintance evolves quickly into full-on buttonholing as Jeff unspools the story of his rise, beginning with his rescue and resuscitation of a drowning man on the beach in Santa Monica, a man with whom his fate becomes inextricably entangled.
Mouth to Mouth is about fate, moral compromise, and Faustian bargains. It’s also about airports, confessions, and the high-flying art world of the mid 1990s. The eclectic list of songs below reflect the equally eclectic nature of both its content and its inspirations.
“1/1” from ambient 1: music for airports by Brian Eno
Brian Eno hated canned airport music so much, he created his own version, music, he said, “to resign you to the possibility of death.” The resulting album was hugely influential across many fields of music, but didn’t make a ding in the awful vibe tunes still played over airport loudspeakers today. I picture Eno’s composition playing in the background of the first class lounge, barely audible over Jeff’s monologue, until the narrator makes his way to the fancy bathrooms, in the peace and quiet of which he can absorb “the meditative music coming from speakers in the ceiling.” Music to pee to.
“I Keep Forgettin’” – Michael McDonald
Before Jeff Cook stumbles upon the limp body in the surf and changes the course of his life forever, he’s a recent college grad reeling in the wake of a breakup, unmoored and directionless. I like to think of this as his theme song, Michael McDonald’s weirdly deep falsetto hitting him over the head every morning as he wakes to realize he’s no longer with his beloved Genevieve.
“Smooth Criminal” – Michael Jackson
Do you know what song you’re supposed to think of while doing CPR? “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. At 103 bpm it’s in the just right rhythm zone for chest compressions. But there’s no way I’m putting it on this playlist. I respect you all too much for that. So I’ve turned to another classic in the annals of CPR instruction. When learning CPR, you practice on a doll called Resusci Anne. Before you start whaling away on the dummy, you’re trained to ask “Annie, are you okay?” A phrase Jackson borrowed to great effect. How’s that for edutainment?
“Austerity / Girl One (Medley)” – Human League
This song, the quality of which I cannot judge because it entered my life at an impressionable stage, has a lyric that continues to intrigue me: “When the best of men take bribes / isn’t it the fool who doesn’t?” Ethics! Do you make a stand, or do you go with the flow? And what, in this context, is a fool? Where’s the line between a bribe and the run-of-the-mill baksheesh that lubricates the cogs of commerce? These are questions that should have come up in young Jeff Cook’s mind as he made his way up in the world. Whether they did or not is a matter of debate.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” – Radiohead
Another song about giving in to elemental—possibly nefarious—forces greater than yourself, or so I interpret it: “The ones you light your fires to keep away / Is crawling out upon its belly / And all you have to do is say yes.” Listening to A Moon Shaped Pool on repeat, this song always stands out for me as a gloss on Jeff, on the way he says yes, so to speak. I picture the serpent in the garden. Others have pointed out that these lyrics could simply be about the domestication of wolves, but what do they know?
“Remurdered” – Mogwai
This track off the 2014 release Rave Tapes—an album that has nothing to do with raves or tapes, as far as I can tell—is one of those song-long instrumental crescendos that go really well with a cup of coffee, noise canceling headphones, and a novel in progress. Mogwai recorded this album not long after making their phenomenal score for Les Revenants, and some of that mysto creepy atmosphere remains here. I like the way it starts with a slow burn, adding layers, gaining volume, and peaking out with deliciously beefy synth lines before ending cleanly. Not unlike a certain novel written under its influence.
“Airport Sadness” from Places by Brad Mehldau
The opening scene of Mouth to Mouth came to me circa 2001, when I was spending a lot of time in airports, waiting for standby seats to open up so I could make my way from Madison, Wisconsin to LAX and back. An album of original jazz piano compositions, each titled after a place, Places is the rare concept album that works with or without the concept. For years it was my headphones-on companion whenever I traveled alone, and is perhaps a better music for airports than music for airports. I mentioned the opening scene, but I’ve saved this for the end because it pairs so well with the novel’s penultimate scene. There’s no airport sadness quite like watching someone glide through first class boarding while you remain huddled with the hoi polloi in Group 7.
Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Best New American Voices, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and he is a contributing editor of A Public Space. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, he lives in Los Angeles. His website is: AntoineWilson.com