In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Bethany Ball’s novel The Pessimists is a literary satire with teeth, a book as funny as it is astute in its observations of suburban life..
Booklist wrote of the book:
“A stinging satire about the hollowness of the suburban dream… Withering in its barbed wit, Ball’s mordantly penetrating portrait of middle-class malaise teems with infidelity, inequity, mistrust, and disappointment.”
Music has always been wildly important to me. In college, I received a very modest scholarship for my middling mezzo soprano and my happiest times in high school were spent in choirs. Had I been more of an extrovert and had more talent, I might have liked singing in a band rather than novel writing.
In my novel The Pessimists there are six main characters. Like me, they are mostly Gen X and I have a pretty good sense of what music they would listen to, and some of their favorites overlap with some of mine.
Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” comes up in the first chapter of the book, played at a New Year’s Eve party. It’s a quiet, joyful song. I believe the song is heard in my first book and though my two books are pretty different, I like that there are a couple little threads that connect them. One of my favorite versions of Harvest Moon is Cassandra Wilson from her album New Moon Daughter.
My character Virginia is originally from Kentucky and is nostalgic for home and for her late mother. I think we would share a love for The Cowboy Junkies and Trinity Sessions in particular. I love especially their cover of “Blue Moon.” I think Virginia would love Whites Off Earth Now!!, the Cowboy Junkies first album. It’s full of Robert Johnson covers.
Virginia’s husband Tripp is a dark character without too deep an inner life. He’s the kind of guy who would weep a little listening to White Snake’s Here I Go Again—a cassette a high school boyfriend of mine gave me before he joined the Marines. Tripp might rock out to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” if he heard it alone in his Mustang. I kind of love that song, I’m embarrassed to admit, even though every Detroiter knows there’s no such thing as “South Detroit.” In fact, South Detroit is actually Canada.
Rachel is by far the coolest of my characters. A native New Yorker, I would probably find myself intimidated by her if I were to meet the real Rachel. If I asked her what album she was currently listening to she would tell me she’s revisiting grunge, punk, rock band L7’s 1988 self-titled album and it came out the year she graduated high school. Going for a run with music blasting through her headphones, I could see her screaming, “Bite the Wax Tadpole!” at the top of her lungs.
Rachel’s husband Gunter is a Swedish architect and older than the others, and though he fancies himself rather sophisticated, I imagine one of his proudest moments was the evening in early April 1974 when Abba won Eurovision for their song “Waterloo.” He would have loved in particular blonde Agnetha Faltskog in the tight velvety royal blue get up. And “Waterloo,” after all, is still a bop.
Richard is a unicorn among the men in the novel. He would be actively searching out new music well into his forties. He’s a bit on the poetic romantic side, the type of guy who would love Lana Del Rey’s song “Mariners Apartment Complex” but maybe would only very shyly admit it—perhaps to the younger woman at his office he was flirting with.
Margot is complex, a little stuck in her life and secretly devastated by the years ago loss of a child. She might wistfully play Hadestown—an album my daughter and I were crazy about a couple of years ago. I especially love the Trumpian song that Hades sings: “Why We Build the Wall.” The Pessimists is set in 2013 but I imagine Rachel might later find herself shocked by how many of her neighbors vote in the next election.
As for the me, I make a new playlist for every season of the year. Right now some of my favorite songs on my summer playlist are Arvo Part’s “Berliner Messe,” Chet Faker’s “Low,” and Sudan Archive’s “Wake Up.” The other song I’ve been obsessed with the past few months is Christine and the Queens “Tilted,” a song I first heard on Pamela Adlon’s brilliant show Better Things. Christine and the Queens is a French singer and her gender bending pop journey has been a joy to watch.
Bethany Ball was born in Detroit and has lived in Santa Fe, New Jersey, Miami, and Israel. She now lives in New York with her family. She is the author of What to Do About the Solomons.