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July 16, 2015

Book Notes - Tracy O'Neill "The Hopeful"

The Hopeful

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tracy O'Neill's The Hopeful is a remarkable debut novel, precisely told and as ambitious as its unforgettable protagonist.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The book soars in its descriptions of figure skating, capturing its strange and brutal beauty and achieving a beauty of its own in the process."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Tracy O'Neill's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Hopeful:


To me, writing is the choreography of language. Here, at the comma, the sentence bends at the waist. There it bounds to the foreground. As I wrote my novel The Hopeful, my design was that the dance of words on the page would impress rhythms on the reader. For these rhythms to be my own, I could not listen to music while writing. My ear is simply too suggestible; hear a rhythm, and I'll want to express it. It's because I love music.

And one of the wonders of music is the way that it so often makes one feel recognized. "That's my song," we beam, as though those notes have picked us out of the crowd, seen us truly. It's in this spirit that I have made my playlist selections. These are the songs that with their silvery surfaces might reflect my characters back on them, suggesting that they've been seen.

"Human Fly" by The Cramps
In this song, singer Lux Interior moans, "I got a garbage brain/That's driving me insane," a lyric that pretty tersely summarizes the central problem in the novel: Ali is stuck in a self-made prison of the mind, that is, an obsession. Ali's full name, Alivopro, derives from the phrase "alis volat propiis," which means "she flies with her own wings." So you could say Ali is the human fly of the song, a creature who feels deranged by her own thoughts.

"Different Pulses" by Asaf Avidan
In The Hopeful, I wanted to create a strong female character who organizes her life around a great love that is not a person, in this case, figure skating. Ali doesn't know if her entire identity is simply constituted by that one desire, and once it's unavailable to her, she's lost. "I am lost/ I try to push the color through a prism back to white/To sync our different pulses into a blinding light/And if love is not the key. If love is not the key/ I hope that I can find a place where it could be," Avidan sings. The hope that he will find a place where love can be is the same hope at the heart of the novel: Ali wants to find a life where she can nurture that great love once more. The song carries a valence of ecstatic despair and longing that would not be unfamiliar to Ali.

"Little Golden Age" by Wolf Parade
This song is an entreaty to someone named Emily to realize that she can't go back to the place she remembers from her youth. That place isn't worth a return anyway. Mark, Ali's tutor, would probably sing this song to her if he thought he could without inciting her anger. He couldn't. She's got the personality of a box cutter.

"When You Were Mine" by Prince
Early in the book, Ali recalls listening to this Prince song at the rink. It's a song her friend Ryan loves, but it's also one Ali remembers because it's about love in the absence of the object of love. As I was writing The Hopeful, I also wanted to hide little coded messages to some of my friends. For example, I shortened Alivopro to "Ali," rather than say, "Liv" or "Ro," as a nod to my very close friend Ali Emir Tapan. "When You Were Mine" was for my dear pal Maggie Rempe, because years ago when I worked at this dive bar the Cherry Tavern, we'd squander a hell of a lot of money playing it on the jukebox. We were super broke and didn't have money for things like shelving units, but what's a dollar for a few minutes of happiness?

"I've Got to Use My Imagination" by Gladys Knight and the Pips
Lou Doyle, Ali's mother, plays this song at an anniversary party. The book isn't autobiographical, but I did give Lou the same taste in music as my mom, who's always seemed to get a real kick out of even saying "Gladys Knight and the Pips." I think she thinks "Pips" is a funny word. In any case, very simply, "I've Got to Use My Imagination" was a shout-out to my mom.

"Tick" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Ali considers her changing body a bit of a ticking time bomb, and this YYY's track, which I remember first hearing on a SPIN magazine mix CD years ago, really captures the frenetic countdown Ali faces. In The Hopeful, the problem of aging is couched within this narrative in which Ali feels that she's running down the time she has left to become an Olympian, but I think this feeling is more universal. Her adoptive mother has experienced the same problem in her pursuit of bearing children, for example.

"Drugs in my Body" by Thieves Like Us
There's a heady circularity to this song that sort of makes the listener feel on drugs— in a good way— but also some melancholy in the vocal styling. Once Ali tries amphetamines, she's hooked into a twilight zone of perpetual awakeness tugged by an undercurrent of sadness. On an unrelated note, this is a great song to get people dancing at a party.

"Might Like You Better" by Amanda Blank
The chorus to this song is "I might like you better if we slept together." I could see Lucy, Ali's cousin, saying this to some guy at a bar. She's into bald sexuality. She's into shocking people with her directness. And Blank's voice carries a hint of nihilism that to me suggests that she knows how banal promiscuity can become. For Lucy, sex is something she does and discusses endlessly, but it's not necessarily captivating to her; it's her way captivating others.

"Boring Horror" by Born Gold
Ali really doesn't want to become a woman. She has anathema for many of the traditional fixtures of womanhood, in particular, motherhood and marriage. That's her idea of a boring horror. At the same time, her body places her squarely in the position of a biological woman. It's the "castle carved of flesh" referred to in the song and in this case, a haunted castle. Born Gold imbues the song with a wonderfully oddball mixture of twinkle and dread, that I can only hope was half achieved in my prose.

T.R.O.U.B.L.E. by Thunderbird Gerard
"If I could find the fortune teller, I would tell her/Please give me back all the leather that I paid her just to be a number," Thunderbird Gerard raps in this song. It's Ali's sentiment too. She doesn't want to be just a number in the billions of people in the world and feels that she is by a shit-for-luck lottery of talent. Her answer to her unfavorable fate? Spell out trouble.

"Change Your Ways" by Willie Kendrick
If Lou could change her husband Alvin and her daughter, she would. She wants them to be content with their life as a family, but none of her remonstrations against their depression work. In the end, what changes them is failure. They nosedive into the depths of rock bottom and resurface with the quietly triumphant knowledge that the world just keeps going in spite of their mistakes. It's a realization they initially would have hated, narcissists that they are, but one that ultimately glimpses hope.


Tracy O'Neill and The Hopeful links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

The Believer interview with the author
Deborah Kalb interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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