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August 3, 2010

Book Notes - J.C. Hallman ("In Utopia")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

J.C. Hallman is a writer equally adept at writing fiction and nonfiction. The first Hallman book I read was the always interesting William James-inspired look at religious cults, The Devil Is a Gentleman. Earlier this year I enjoyed his short story collection, The Hospital for Bad Poets.

Hallman is back with In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise, a book that not only explores six modern Utopian communities, but also Utopian literature. Like his previous books, In Utopia's writing is smart, sincere, and witty while never sacrificing its subjects' dignity.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Hallman entertains with an ironic, Alain de Botton style of erudite bonhomie and scads of self-referential postmodernism, but his intellectual embrace is copious and his conclusion sincere: 'the failure of good intentions should not be met with inaction, but with further good intentions, with better intention."

In his own words, here is J.C. Hallman's Book Notes music playlist for his book, In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise:

A few months I did a Book Notes essay for a collection of short stories entitled The Hospital for Bad Poets. One of the stories was called "Utopia Road," and as unlikely as it seems it's autobiographical: I grew up on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community in Southern California. Having been raised in paradise, it's perhaps only natural that I eventually turned to the history of utopian thought for a new book.

Thus, a new Book Notes.

In Utopia is sort of a brief history of hope. In it – and despite my admittedly dystopian roots – I try to defend the utopian spirit by examining the impact of utopian literature on real life. Given its travelogue nature (and the fact that one section was named for the 2010 Best American Travel Writing), it sort of makes sense that first song in my playlist is…

"The Road to Utopia" – by Utopia

The first thing to note about utopian thought is that Thomas More's original Utopia wasn't meant earnestly. That is, he didn't intend to create a thing that others would use as a blueprint for real life. But that's what happened. In putting together this playlist, I came to realize that a number of songs I became familiar with as a kid had perhaps entirely different meanings that what I'd thought originally. And it turns out that Thomas More wasn't alone in his use of satire…

Utopia was a seventies band that tried to borrow a lot from the Beatles. They were led by Todd Rundgren. Even though they had a lot of talent they never really went anywhere, which is actually sort of typical of the history of utopian social experimentation. The lyrics of "The Road to Utopia" are suggestive…

And will I find what I'm after
Do I know what I'm after
Guess I'll join the laughter
On the road to utopia.

…but I find Utopia's original "Utopia Theme" as hard to listen to as to watch. That Utopia was originally from New York suggests that the band's name originated as much from utopian idealism as from Utopia Parkway in Queens – another road named for utopia. But what's most interesting is that, like More, Utopia played around with satire, as in "Swing to the Right:" "Swing to the right/Don't want to hear what the povertous/expect from me 
Let 'em eat cake if they feel that way/I gotta work, why should I have to pay for that?"

In Utopia begins with a brief discussion of "Utopia Road" and the irony of More, but it pretty quickly sets off on its journey. First up is a description of Pleistocene Rewilding, a radical idea from Conservation Biology. The basic idea is to repair bereft ecosystems by populating them with large animals like lions and bears and elephants. This put me in mind of…

"Tusk" – by Fleetwood Mac

There used to be a cool YouTube video of "Tusk" set to images of elephants roaming free in Africa, but apparently it ran afoul of copyright issues. And obviously the song's not really about elephants. What's it about? Jealousy? Primal rage? Who knows. Here's a kind of disappointing live version, and here's a creepy arrangement for a high school marching band.

Next, In Utopia looks at the history of social experimentation. I stayed for three weeks at America's oldest active secular commune, Twin Oaks. This is kind of a cheap shot, but Twin Oaks – honestly! – made me think of…

"The Safety Dance" – by Men Without Hats

Don't get me wrong – I liked Twin Oaks a lot. It had an air of fey permissiveness, and this video may be the only place on the web where you can watch a girl with long blond hair dance with a midget without worrying that your spouse or your employer is going to find the cookie on your computer and get you in trouble.

From the spare confines of Twin Oaks, In Utopia next travels to The World, the first ship on which it's possible to own actual real estate. Rich people buy luxury apartments on board, and sail about endlessly. Which weirdly sounds a lot like…

"We All Live in a Yellow Submarine" – by The Beatles

Indeed, a slight cut to the lyrics might actually be a miniature version of the The World's history:

In the town where I was born,

Lived a man who sailed to sea,

And he told us of his life,

In the land of submarines,

So we sailed on to the sun,

Till we found the sea green,

And we lived beneath the waves,

In our yellow submarine,

And our friends are all aboard,

Many more of them live next door,

And the band begins to play.

As we live a life of ease

Every one of us has all we need

Sky of blue, and sea of green

In our yellow submarine.

Here's the beginning of the Yellow Submarine movie, which sort of suggests that – like More's Utopia – there might be danger to taking things too literally.

The World was a lot like a floating version of Charles Fourier's "phalansteries." Fourier was a wildly prolific utopian, and in addition to describing paradise as a kind of grand hotel, he had a lot to say about food. Which is where In Utopia heads next: to a pair of food utopias in Italy. Interestingly, it's a whole lot easier to associate music with paradise than with food, but of course there is…

"Fish Heads" – by Barnes and Barnes

"Fish heads, fish heads/Roly-poly fish heads/Fish heads, fish heads/Eat them up, yum!"

I think you need to hear that lyric exactly once to commit it to memory.

The original "Fish Heads" video was once named one of the top videos of all time. And from a strictly utopian perspective, one might argue that the elaborate narrative beginning (generally not included in the many knock offs of the song that gave it cult status) looks and feels a whole lot like Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Metropolis – or rather, megalopolis – is where In Utopia goes next: a Korean master-planned urban space being built on an artificial island off the coast of Incheon. Which of course suggests…

"We Built This City on Rock and Roll" – by Starship

I think the video of this song solves a long-standing mystery – who to blame for the musical Rent – and who knew the lyrics included an indictment of corporate America, a citation the work of Guglielmo Marconi, and a complaint about Californian civic engineering? All of which, arguably, might be things one should consider while building yet another city in the world.

In Utopia's last trip is not to a utopia at all, but a dystopia. I tell the story of training for a week at Front Sight Resort, the world's largest civilian combat training center. I'm a little ashamed to admit that my first instinct was to associate my four-day defensive handgun course with…

"Another One Bites the Dust" – by Queen

It's probably useful to note that this is one of the few popular songs of its era that anticipates the driving rhythm of techno. But that's not why I'm ashamed of my association. I'm ashamed that I missed its irony – and this links it back to Utopia. In listening again to "Another One Bites the Dust," I realize it's not about fusillades of bullets at all. Now, it seems to me more or less obvious that the song is about AIDS, the disease that Freddie Mercury didn't even admit he had until the day before it killed him.

J.C. Hallman and In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise links:

the author's website

So Many Books review

Bookforum list of Utopian literature by the author
Bookslut essay by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Devil Is a Gentleman
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Hospital for Bad Poets
Matters of Opinion interview with the author
The Millions essay by the author
The Millions essay by the author
Need to Know interview with the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author
Tin House Books Blog essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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