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August 9, 2018

Heather Abel's Playlist for Her Novel "The Optimistic Decade"

The Optimistic Decade

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

Heather Abel's coming-of-age novel The Optimistic Decade is an impressive debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"A politically and psychologically acute debut… A strong sense of time and place anchors the story, and Abel’s well-crafted plot brings all the strands of the story together into a suspenseful yet believable conclusion. Without landing heavily on any political side, and without abandoning hope, Abel’s novel lightly but firmly raises questions about how class and cultural conflicts play out in the rural West."

In her own words, here is Heather Abel's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Optimistic Decade:

The first music I knew was protest music, learned at rallies or vigils and then listened to on my parents’ record player during the long hours I spent alone. I’d sit with my face pressed against the black mesh of the speaker, imagining myself as part of a crowd of singers, joining in the delicious call and response. I’d sing along until my sisters came home and told me to stop. I’m a terrible singer. Chorus teachers have asked me to mouth the words at concerts. Friends have laughed. My husband has said, in wonderment, “But how are you always out-of-tune? You’d think one time you’d land on the right note.” Now, my kids shush me. And yet I’ve never been happier than when singing an angry song in a large group; it’s the high I’ve sought my whole life, since those early protests, my first campfires. And while that experience is basically the opposite of the quiet aloneness of writing a novel, on very good days, I feel the crowd singing with me.

The Optimistic Decade takes place in 1990 and the early 80s, but it grapples with the question many of us are struggling with in the terrifying present: How to fight for change when so many attempts fail? The main characters in The Optimistic Decade aren’t all seeking the same sort of change -- Rebecca and her father, Ira, are furious at capitalism and the suffering it creates; the bankrupt ranchers Don and Donnie believe the federal government and coastal elites are destroying the West and its working people; Caleb is a utopian camp director and David his devoted camper -- but they’re all idealists. Their idealism is tested in the book, brought to the edge of the ravine of disillusionment – or smashed against the rocks below. And because they are all idealists, there are lots of songs in the book. What is an idealist without a song? Music is the aural manifestation of our togetherness, our euphoric readiness. Music creates groups, defines insiders and outsiders. Here are my character’s sing-alongs:

“We Shall Overcome,” as sung by Pete Seeger

Last night, a babysitter took my kids and I walked into town with a friend and when we happened upon a small protest, we joined it. It was intended, as far as I could tell, simply as a wail against the despair of this past week, our totalitarian-loving president lying while kids remain in cages. What can be said, really, of this horror? The first speaker, a white lawyer, tried to buoy our spirits by reminding us how much progress the Mueller investigation has made. The second speaker, an African American doctor, began by singing We Shall Overcome. My god she could sing. It was impossible not to join in, although I have lots of conflicted feelings about "We Shall Overcome," feelings I gave to Rebecca, who, like me, grew up singing "We Shall Overcome" while other kids were playing soccer and watching TV, who believed in the claims of each verse – We are not afraid, We’ll walk hand-in-hand, Black and white together -- and who comes to realize that all these promises might indeed be false. We shall overcome someday? Really? When exactly is someday?

The small protest I joined last night in Northampton, MA, was again not that elusive someday. There were maybe fifty of us, mostly white people, signing a song from the civil rights movement, holding with earnest signs. Before I wrote The Optimistic Decade, I would have walked home full of bile. Why bother? Nothing concrete would come of that rally, no substantive economic or political change. But I feel differently now. The fifty of us on the lawn were nourished by the protest, by standing together, upset and angry, by singing. We returned home with more strength to make phone calls, to read the news, to stand against it. Protest isn’t, as I used to believe, a clear cause and effect game. It’s food, it’s church, it’s how we stay hopeful when there’s darkness all around, it’s as powerful as a song.

“There is Power in a Union” as sung by Utah Philips
“The Internationale” as sung by Billy Bragg

Like me, the songs Rebecca listened to as a kid were union hymns, which means they began as Christian hymns with words changed to fit the labor battles of the early 20th century. Since I was raised by atheists, these were our only hymns, and I loved the clear and grand melodies, the twang of Pete’s banjo in the Almanac Singers, the call and response of voices in unison, and most of all, the grand vision of revolution: There is power, there is power in a band of working folks when we stand, hand in hand, That’s a power, that’s a power that must rule in every land. One industrial union grand.

This version is sung by Utah Philips, the great labor organizer, anarchist, and train-jumper. I used to join his sing-alongs in church basements. He was an incredible story-teller, and if you want to learn about – or relive -- the heyday of the labor movement, you could listen to his stories, recorded in his albums. Be sure to listen to "Hallelujah I’m a bum" -- and his story of asking the Feds to plow his garden.

By the time I was an adult, the labor movement had lost its power in the US. Like Rebecca, I was sort of shocked to realize that societal change would never come from the workers of the world rising up. These union songs can seem quaint, antiquated. Still, the Internationale, as sung by Billy Bragg in this version has a line I think about all the time: Freedom is merely privilege extended unless enjoyed by one and all. I’ll sing along to that any day.

“Don’t Fence Me In” by Willie Nelson

When I moved to a small coal mining town in western Colorado in 1995 to write for the environmental newspaper, High Country News, the United Mine Workers signs along the highway were bullet-ridden and anachronistic. The unions held no power. Instead, the corporate-funded Wise Use movement courted miners and ranchers, rallying them in a hatred of environmentalists that Donnie shares. The town, which became Escadom in the book, was divided between enviros and miners, but when Willie Nelson came to play in the rodeo grounds in Ridgeway two hours away, everyone came -- the hippies and the ranchers. Everyone dressed like a cowboy. Who is a real cowboy anyway? Who belongs in the west? Does Donnie belong there, because his great-grandfather, a white pioneer, was given a free parcel of land by the government? Does Caleb belong there because he bought Donnie’s land and wears Donnie’s cowboy hat? Well, no. Neither of them do -- or we all belong there. A cowboy is a cover song. Its Willie Nelson singing a song made popular by Roy Rogers, written by Cole Porter, its words stolen from a highway worker from Helena.

What I love about "Don’t Fence Me In" as an anthem for the west, a place so intent on authenticity and myth, is that it’s completely inauthentic, rugged individualism as played by Hollywood. And yet I can’t listen to it without wanting to drive as fast as I can until I’ve crossed the 100th Meridian and I’m back in the wide open country that I love, away from all this greenery and civilization. Don’t fence me in.

“Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver

How do you get a group of teenagers to sing a campfire song without becoming ironic or sarcastic? "Rocky Mountain High," like all of John Denver oeuvre, lacks "Don’t Fence Me In’s" jaunty insouciance. It’s too reverent about the West. It display’s an outsider’s earnestness. But if you sing it enough times, it becomes something else. Like everything else at camp, repetition and ritual turns the mundane into the sublime. Here’s David, explaining how this works:

“At the first campfire, that first summer at Llamalo, Caleb and Mikala had taught them hippie songs: “Teach Your Children,” “For What It’s Worth,” “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Songs with repetitive choruses so everyone could join in. The last song that night was “Rocky Mountain High.” David had been sitting between Suze and Caleb. There’d only been thirteen kids that first summer. “This is ironic, right?” Suze had asked Caleb. And yes, it had started out with irony. They’d sung it the way Ira and Joe sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” when the police had come to arrest them. Too loudly, tongue in cheek. I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky. But in just a few nights, it was sung differently. With the sweet sincerity of believers. They sang it every night at every campfire that summer, and still they sang it, always the last song of the evening, standing and holding hands in an amoebic ring. It was how they said goodbye to the day.”

“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” by R.E.M.

At last we’ve reached a song that understands irony. Here was the anthem of my Gen X college days. We started jumping up and down as soon as we heard the galvanizing drum roll intro. But there are far too many words, and with no lyrics available in the liner notes, we all memorized it slightly wrong. Still, we’d shout out LEONARD BERNSTEIN, as if it meant something. What did it mean? It meant : Everything’s fucked; let’s sing. At the end of July, Caleb’s counselors leave Llamalo and wander into Escadom the rundown mining town that’s as odd to them as if they’d landed in a foreign country. How do they celebrate the euphoria of being a group? Through this song:

“Scott reached the bus first. He coaxed the engine, shoved a tape in the deck, and twisted the volume. Then he jumped out. That’s great, it starts with an earthquake. Scott was first to start dancing, and the way Scott danced was like one of those wooden animals where you depress a button and the strings fall limp. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn. World serves its own needs. Saskia was next, and the way Saskia danced was more like pogoing, and the way Kai danced was hips and tits, like she was listening to an entirely different song, and the way Jeremy danced was to hop from foot to foot and huff out the words. Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped. Look at that low plane. Lights went on in the houses across from the park. The way Mikala danced was to grab hands with Scott and to swing their arms from side to side. You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light. Feeling pretty psyched. The way they all danced was to shout as one, It’s the end of the world as we know it.

One thing I love about this song is that, as a counterpoint to all the words, one voice (is it Stipe’s?) plaintively sings, “Can I have some time alone?” I like to think of this as the voice of the writer. If the high I’m always seeking is a sing-along, I know that to actually write a book, I have to leave everyone.

“Father and Son” by Yusuf/Cat Stevens

When I was in high school, I was part of a group that brought 100 high school students to the Nevada Nuclear Test Site outside of Las Vegas to protest the detonation of nukes on Western Shoshone land. We trained the other students in nonviolent civil disobedience, rented buses, and camped out among the activists who did this regularly. The night before we planned to get arrested, we couldn’t sleep. The moon was bright, and a group of us walked through the desert singing every Yusuf/Cat Stevens song. We knew all the words, or at least Blase did and the rest of us followed him. The best was "Father and Son," because we were young and angry.

David and his friends, hiking through the high desert outside Llamalo, sing this song for the same reason – the sheer joy of collectively shouting out their fury at being told that their dreams may not last (that their Optimistic Decade might end). From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen! But I also chose this song because my book is crowded with men -- with fathers, like Ira and Don and Caleb’s dead dad Robbie, and with sons like Caleb and David. I wrote about men because I was interested in masculinity in the west and how it gets learned and performed. And I also wrote about it because when I was young, like Rebecca, the leader of every group I was a part of – every activist org., every camp – was a man. She’s surrounded by men. They have all the power and in this book she’s learning how they abuse this power, she’s learning not to revere them, to find her own voice.

“Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill
“Waiting” by Sleater-Kinney

But before she finds her voice, Rebecca has to listen to men, men, men, including her new boyfriend Luke: “‘We are each only the sum of our signifiers,’ Luke liked to say. Luke was a senior she’d met in a seminar on postmodernism. After he’d eviscerated a paper she’d written—“Who Is the Dreaming Animal Really?: Representations of the Other in Kingsolver”—he’d asked her out to coffee, where he explained that all politics was aesthetics. Protest was an aesthetic choice. Capitalism had subsumed rebellion, making it just one more thing to purchase. Now, they were dating, which meant that every week she’d sit on Luke’s floor, his Panasonic cassette player between them, and he would lecture her. It was important to him that she learn which was the best Sonic Youth album, exactly when Nirvana was “dialing it in.” At some point in the evening, he would put on Galaxie 500 and they’d have quick sex on the floor, a jabbing in the general direction of her clitoris, a frantic humping.”

This comes toward the end of the book, but I love to think about the world Rebecca might enter after the last chapter. I can see her, headphones on, walking down the street in Berkeley with a new kind of bravery, because she’s listening to Bikini Kill’s "Rebel Girl." I can see her, in 1996, at her first Sleater Kinney show, maybe at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, shouting along to every word of "Waiting." It’s waiting for you, Rebecca. A new kind of protest music. A new euphoric belonging. A heroic fuck you to the patriarchy. It’s all there for you to find it.

Heather Abel and The Optimistic Decade links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
School Library Journal review

Book Talk interview with the author
Powell's interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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