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September 6, 2017

Book Notes - Holly Goddard Jones "The Salt Line"

The Salt Line

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

Holly Goddard Jones's novel The Salt Line is an inventive and impressive work of literary dystopian fiction.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Th[e] mystery-like structure keeps the reader guessing as Jones switches seamlessly from evocative pastoral descriptions of North Carolina and Tennessee to action-packed scenes of violence....At once dark, disturbing, and highly enjoyable, this is a timely novel bursting with ideas."

In her own words, here is Holly Goddard Jones's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Salt Line:

Even though there’s a pop star in my new novel, The Salt Line, I had a hard time imagining the musical backdrop for his world—a dystopian near-future, where an outbreak of diseased ticks has carved the country up into quarantined zones with vastly different governing structures and resources. Pop star Jesse’s signature song, “Right Night for You,” is best known as the anthem in a fast food burger chain commercial, and I pictured him, artistically—if that’s the appropriate word here—as two parts Robin Thicke, one part late-80s/early 90s-era balladeer: Richard Marx, or Robin Hood-era Bryan Adams. But that’s not exactly the tone I was going for with this book—so what, then, is the soundtrack for the future?

The novel’s action transpires on two sides of a dividing wall—in-zone and out-of-zone—and I chose songs that exemplified the vibe of each place, as well as the wall that divides them:

In Zone

The Salt Line begins in Atlantic Zone (specifically, in what is now central North Carolina), at a training facility for an adventuring touring group called Outer Limits Excursions. A group of wealthy Zoners has paid through the nose for a chance to travel west, beyond the Wall, for three weeks of camping. Among their number is the young CEO of a social banking app; the aforementioned pop star and his bartender girlfriend; and a middle-aged mob wife. Like most of us today, these are people who spend a lot of their time plugged in and online, and though life is comfortable in the Atlantic Zone bubble, there’s a sense that it’s all an illusion, and all that stands between the Zoners and disaster are some superstitions and political grandstanding.

What I like about '80s synth pop—and that’s the theme for in-zone—is the way it thunders and churns and broods, cheerful on the surface, roiling with anxiety just beneath it.

1) Tears for Fears/ “Mad World”

“Mad World” might be more recognizable these days in its Michael Andrews/Gary Jules incarnation, or even—ye gods—as sung by Adam Lambert. But I prefer the original Tears for Fears version, which contrasts lyrics like “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” with a cheerful backbeat that makes you want to bob your head. I suppose it’s obvious why a song called “Mad World” might be an appropriate entry point to a dystopian thriller, but I specifically like the recurring lines about people running in circles. After all, what else can you do when you’re trapped behind a wall?

2) Eurythemics/ “Missionary Man”

OK, full disclosure: I sort of want to include this just because it’s one of the first music videos I ever saw, and it scared and intrigued me in equal measure. Do you know the one? Annie Lennox, bleach blonde and red-lipped and appearing to have been carved from marble, looks like she’s trapped in the workshop of a mad scientist. During the refrain, machine parts twist in and out of her head as she sings, “Don’t mess with a missionary man.” As a kid, I confused “missionary” and “machine,” and I imagined the “missionary man” as a person who inflicted cruel tortures with screws and bolts.

Well, turns out that a Missionary Man is maybe almost as scary: “he’s got God on his side” and “black-eyed looks from those Bible books.” And that imperative of the chorus? It’s the speaker’s mother, telling her daughter to be true to herself—but also, don’t mess with that zealot who wants to control your rights. This makes “Missionary Man” a great theme song for Edie, the heroine of The Salt Line. Edie is a daughter who lost her mother, and she’s a young woman struggling for autonomy in a place that regards her as undeserving of it.

3, 4) Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark/ “Messages,” “Electricity”

I couldn’t choose between these two OMD songs, so I went for both.

OMD is quintessential 80s, British, angsty synth-pop—electronic throbbing heartbeat and lyrics straight out of a teenager’s locked diary. In other words: fantastic!

“Messages” is a good song for Wes Feingold, the tech wunderkind who founded Pocketz, a social banking application that has digitized value exchanges. The lyrics of “Messages” seem to be about a speaker who keeps getting letters from an old lover; the letters are an act of aggression, and the speaker says, “Memories are uncertain friends/when recalled by messages.” Old-fashioned paper letters don’t have much place in Wes’s world, and yet technology is failing him similarly. Wes tries to create a new value exchange app that emphasizes virtues rather than products, and it’s a huge-scale failure—a miscalculation made by a young man who wants desperately to connect with others, and to do good, but who doesn’t really understand—yet—what a connection is. Or what “doing good” is, for that matter.

“Electricity,” on the other hand, is a world-scale lamentation about the sad, slippery slope of energy consumption. It’s not particularly subtle or wise on the subject, but I can’t help liking it, in part because its existence is so ironic: machine-filtered song-making about the problems of using fossil-fueled machines.

The Wall

5) White Stripes/ “Seven Nation Army”

And now we transition west, out of Atlantic Zone and across the Salt Line. The Wall is both a physical barrier and a vibrating perimeter, and so it seemed appropriate to use a song here that has a driving, incessant rhythm. At the same time, though, in leaving the tech-centered Zoner culture, we’re moving away from machine-processed pop. “Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth,” Jack White once said, and though he was talking about Autotune, he could have been pointing to one of the themes of The Salt Line.

They say that “Seven Nation Army” is a song about White grappling with new fame, and that doesn’t interest me much. Like “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” it’s a great-sounding song with annoyingly solipsistic lyrics. As a battle cry, though, it’s deeply satisfying, and for my playlist, it culminates on an appropriate sentiment: “go back home.” The characters in this novel struggle with the idea of home. How do I get there? Is there really no place like it?

Out of Zone

Past the wall, not far from what we now know as Asheville, NC, the wealthy travelers get more than the ticks they’d bargained for. Without giving too much away about life beyond the Salt Line, I’ll say that the vibe here is very different, and it calls for a completely different musical style. So I selected some songs that are a little bit country, a little bit—well—weird. Because it’s still the future, after all.

6) Neko Case/ “Night Still Comes”

I don’t know what the hell this song is about. But I like it. And it feels like a theme worthy of a character, June, who lives beyond The Wall—a woman driven to extreme acts out of a desire to protect what she has made and whom she loves. I especially love for her the line, “I revenge myself all over myself.” Oh, and this: “Swallowed, waist-deep, in the gore of the forest.” In The Salt Line, characters go into the forest and get swallowed—literally and figuratively.

7) The Handsome Family/ “Tesla’s Hotel Room”

Like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by Nikola Tesla—who he was, of course, but also all the might-have-beens he represents. The lyrics of this song are just beautiful, as precise in their imagery as good fiction, and they capture with aching melancholy the idea as well as the man: “In the last days of wonder/when spirits still flew.”

At one point in the novel, June tells someone about her father, a rare sort of man who lived according to his beliefs instead of trying to adjust his beliefs to how he lived. “A good kind of crazy,” she says. I imagine that Nikola Tesla was that kind of man, and I like this song as a bookend to OMD’s “electricity.” It seems to me that most dystopian and apocalyptic novels are—at least in some small measure—about electricity. The magic of it, and the cost.

8) Harry McClintock/ “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”

This is a hobo song, and some of the characters in The Salt Line are basically that—homeless travelers convinced that the life of their dreams is just out of reach, on a mountain or beyond a wall. The fantasy images at play in the song—cigarette trees, lemonade springs, lakes of stew and whiskey—are almost psychedelic, and drugs play a prominent role in the novel, as both a force of destruction and potential salvation.

Holly Goddard Jones and The Salt Line links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
audio excerpt from the book

Booklist review
BookPage review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

WUNC interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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