February 28, 2013
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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Aria Beth Sloss's debut novel Autobiography of Us spans four decades (the 1950s through the 1980s), and gracefully explores the friendship of two women as well as the culture of the times.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Captivating, engrossing, surprising… Sloss’ debut novel sweeps across the tumultuous events of the late 1950s through the 1980s and… celebrates the terrible struggle to find one’s identity as it elegiacally rues the necessary losses."
It's funny – or maybe it's sad, or maybe just inevitable – but after years of studying as a classical musician, I've become somewhat of a silence junkie. I need white noise to sleep, like a newborn; I don't listen to music when I run or ride the subway; mostly, it just never occurs to me to turn anything on. When I write, I shut myself up at the back of the apartment and wear huge, noise-canceling headphones. If there's construction outside or a barking dog or a garbage truck, I sort of melt. So the writing of Autobiography of Us was an entirely soundless endeavor, like something that happened after an immense snowfall. But during revisions, I found myself turning to music as a research tool. Songs like the ones listed below helped me enter the odd pocket of time during which these women I'd written about came of age. The shift in tone from, say, the Beach Boys of the late fifties to someone like Joni Mitchell in the early seventies is a handy reminder of how dramatically the social topography changed in just a few short years. Each of these songs locates some small nuance of those decades; listening to them was like walking back through time with a divining rod, eking out all the hot spots. Music, like literature, is nothing if not a mirror for its time
1. "California Girls" - Beach Boys
The Beach Boys were big in my family, one of a very few non-classical cassettes allowed in the car tape deck. I remember being ten or eleven or so, sitting in the passenger seat beside my mother as she sang along to this song. The thought struck like lightning: my mother had been a ‘California girl'! She was born and raised in Pasadena, just like the main characters in Autobiography, but she and my father moved to Boston years before I came along. That afternoon in the car was one of the first times I tried to imagine the woman who picked me up from school and brushed my hair and sent me to my room as a girl; the sheer mental gymnastics required to make that leap blew me away, and the aftershocks continued for years. That moment was one in a string of moments that led up to the moment I sat down and started this book.
2. "Then He Kissed Me" – Crystals
Another one from the childhood memory vaults. When I listened to it as an adult, I was surprised to find that what I remembered as innocent narrative – "one day he took me home to meet his mom and dad/then he asked me to be his bride…and then he kissed me" – was actually tinged with something slightly malevolent – "I didn't know just what to do/so I whispered ‘I love you". So a relationship begins out of a sense of…helplessness? Love springs from… blind panic? In many ways that little dagger tucked away behind the song's otherwise sunny sweetness speaks volumes about the time period the novel addresses, particularly the women who – like my mother – were born into it. Rebecca, the novel's narrator, has been brought up to believe in the magic of the song's formula: a kiss leads to meeting mom and dad leads to marriage, something she describes early on as "the ultimate goal". But of course the truth is that that dream is a sham. In the book – as in life – no fantasy is more treacherous than one centered around love as an answer to all that ails us.
3. "Tangled Up in Blue" – Dylan
Dylan really wasn't part of my musical landscape as a child. He represents the "other" 1960s, the one my mother didn't experience as a young, well-to-do woman coming of age in Pasadena in the early part of that decade. By the time this song came out, she was already married and had two small children; it was her younger sister and her friends who listened to Dylan, went to Woodstock, and marched against Vietnam. All those women who came into their own just a few years after my mother, in the age of Gloria Steinem and The Feminine Mystique -- they were the ones who smelled Dylan's "revolution in the air". There was no revolution for my mother's generation. They just stood there and watched it march by.
4. "I Will Never Marry" - Joan Baez
Another song I imagine existing beyond the perimeters of my characters' lives. The idea that a young woman might not marry was unthinkable in the Pasadena of this book's era. Alex, the novel's other main character, sees much more clearly than Rebecca does that the kind of love they've been brought up to believe in would deal their dreams a lethal blow. But her clarity of vision translates into little more than a prescient sense of loss. It's always the brightest, the most aware, who suffer from the restrictions imposed on them the most cruelly.
5. "California" - Joni Mitchell
Maybe it's too neat a diagram, but I can't resist the idea of this song closing a circle that begins with the Beach Boys' take on California. Autobiography never offers quite as cheery a snapshot as the one "California Girls" does, I don't think, but as I worked through final revisions I was surprised, over and over again, to find I'd written such a sad book. The disappointments of this generation of women came to feel very real to me. Decades later, the choices they faced and the limitations they battled remain terrifyingly resonant. February marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and as I write this I find myself wondering just how different the society she wrote about was from the one we live in today. Joni Mitchell's haunting last refrain "will you take me as I am?" seems, in any case, like the right place to stop.
Aria Beth Sloss and Autobiography of Us links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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