Neil Young, the Bard of Boring Suburbanites
Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings (2013)
This novel begins with a group of teenagers forming a clique at a summer arts camp and naming themselves “the Interestings,” and then follows the course of their lives into adulthood. (The set-up reminded me, weirdly perhaps, of what I’ve heard about this book, though I haven’t actually read it. I wonder if it mentions Canada….) Jules Jacobson, the central character, is a bit of an outsider in this group (she feels lucky to be included), and her experiences and perceptions are at the heart of the book, though it goes on occasional tangents to focus on other characters.
There are no direct references to Canada as a country, but there are a couple of references to Canadians that seem worth mentioning; they even pick up on figures we have come across before.
1. Leonard Cohen
The first relates to Jonah Bay, one of “the Interestings” and the son of Susannah Bay, a famous folksinger who seems to be loosely modelled on Joan Baez. Barry Claimes, another folksinger and a friend of Susannah’s, has been struggling, and failing, to write his own original songs. He begins inviting Jonah over to his house, where he plies the child with hallucinogens, hands him a guitar and records whatever comes out of his mouth. Claimes then works Jonah’s spontaneous, drug-fuelled compositions into songs, which he presents (or, you might say, “claims” — ha-ha) as his own.
At this point in the novel Jonah has figured out that something is wrong in this relationship with Barry, but Barry keeps phoning him:
Barry called him back a dozen times, and Jonah didn’t realize that he could simply not answer. Each time the phone rang, Jonah answered. And each time, Barry Claimes said he cared about him, he missed him, he wanted to see him, Jonah was his favorite person, even including all the folksingers he had known — even including Susannah and Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and Richie Havens and Leonard Cohen. (126)
Leonard Cohen, the lone Canadian, simply appears in a list of folksingers; there is no comment on the fact that he is Canadian, or on Canada as a country; we simply notice a Canadian taking his place in that particular pantheon.
To me, however, the reference to Cohen seems a little odd. This scene in the novel takes place in 1970; certainly Cohen had put out albums at that time, and was known as a folksinger, but was he really a figure that people would think of in the same breath, so to speak, as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger? (Contrast, for example, Graham Nash’s reference to him as “Joni’s Canadian friend” in his memoir, which suggests that, to Nash at least, Cohen wasn’t well-known.) Cohen has endured and his reputation has grown over the intervening time, and especially since the 1990s (even in Russia), and I wonder if his appearance here is more reflective of the time the novel was written (2010-2012, presumably, given that it was published in 2013) rather than the time it takes place.
2. Neil Young
The second Canadian reference occurs when Jules is on the phone with her best friend, Ash, discussing Ash’s brother Goodman. At this point in the novel, it is 1976:
From the next room Jules could hear her sister Ellen’s roaring blow-dryer, and the same Neil Young album that seemed to be on autoplay, with the singer’s thin voice now singing, “There were children crying / and colors flying / all around the chosen ones.” (169)
Jules’ sister, obviously, is listening to After the Gold Rush (released in 1970). I suppose this idea of irritation at a sibling’s taste in music expresses one of the universal truths of human life: I have heard my father make the same complaint about his sister, although in that case it was Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” that she was listening to over and over.
What is interesting here, I think, is the question of what liking Neil Young says about a person. To Jules, Ash and her brother Goodman represent everything she yearns for in life: they live in New York City, their parents are wealthy and sophisticated, and they are brought up in a world of art and culture. By contrast, Jules despises her own life outside New York in an ugly house with her dull sister and widowed mother, which to her is the very definition of everything boring and suburban.
Neil Young’s music is associated with Jules’ sister — that is, with the stultifying absence of culture in suburbia — rather than with Ash and her family in New York City. This Canadian musician, then, represents the dull, middle-of-the-road, and vaguely irritating musical taste of the suburban bourgeoisie, which is what Jules yearns to escape. (This is notably different, by the way, from Neil’s totemic position as a culture hero to current American hipsters.)
There is also an undeniable tone of exasperation in the description: the record “seemed to be on autoplay,” the singer has a “thin voice,” and perhaps most of all, Jules’ sister is listening to it with her hair dryer on (providing a version of the “vacuum cleaner continuo” suggested by another Canadian, Glenn Gould?) — it’s hard to ignore the implication that listening to Neil Young is no pleasure. The fact that he is Canadian is never directly expressed in the novel, but could the American stereotype of Canadians as rather dull and unadventurous lie behind this choice of Neil Young as representative of boring taste in music?
(Alternatively — and if we wanted to try to salvage a bit of Neil’s reputation here — we might observe that Ellen is listening to an album, which originally came out in 1970, in 1976. This might suggest that it is not Neil Young himself whose music is dull and suburban, but only that Ellen’s taste is rather behind the times.)
Regardless of that, the presence of both Leonard Cohen and Neil Young in the novel shows again the extent to which Canadian artists and performers are woven into the cultural texture of American life, something we have noticed before in books by Lorrie Moore and Dave Van Ronk, to name just a couple of examples.
3. The Music
Here is Leonard Cohen live in 1970, to give an idea of what his music sounded like at that particular point in time:
And here is “After the Gold Rush,” with Neil’s voice admittedly sounding thin even by his rather attenuated standards: