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November 11, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Heidi Sopinka’s Utopia is a vivid novel of friendship, art, and love.
Heather O’Neill wrote of the book:
“These brilliant and bold artists explode off the page as they try to transcend the boundaries of the material world in their work. But the most dangerous waters they must navigate are those of the male-dominated world of the 1970s, which erases their art and identities. Sopinka explores the minefield that is loving men in an oppressively patriarchal world. And she captures the volatility and power of female friendships, and the uncharted maps of women’s untameable artistic drives.”
Utopia centers on Paz, a young artist whose attempts to claim her creative life take an unsettling turn when details emerge about the death of her husband’s magnetic former wife. Songs drift through parties or play on the radio, mainly when Paz is driving, because there is so much driving in LA. Most of the book takes place during the southern California performance art scene of the late seventies, which has a particularly romantic glow for me. A time when nobody had any money, they were poor but adventurous, working on all of these radical, wonder-inducing things.
Written by Boudleaux Bryan, performed by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris (1974)
I read a lot of Joan Didion’s writing from the ’70s when I was writing this book. She offhandedly mentions going out on Sunset to see the Burrito Brothers, Parsons’ band. This duet always makes me sad, not just because of the lyrics but because I think of Parsons in his amazing flower-embroidered suits dying in a motel in Joshua Tree at twenty-six of a heroin overdose, and how his estranged wife worked to get Harris off the album cover in some sort of stroke of posthumous jealousy. I think that energy of a bright light that burned too fast is very much at the heart of Romy’s character— a gifted artist whose genius had nowhere to go given how destructive the art world was to women.
Written and recorded by Dolly Parton (1973)
Paz, the young art student that takes Romy’s place (she marries Romy’s art star husband), did performance pieces under an alter ego named Jolene Arkell in art school, singing country songs with a paper bag over her head. She took her stage name from this Dolly Parton track which becomes a haunting refrain for her given that the song is all about being jealous of another woman. It explores the ways we are haunted, and how jealousy flares up when we are vulnerable.
Second Hand News
Written and performed by Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Fleetwood Mac sounds like the ’70s to me. I equate Stevie Nicks’ voice with friends’ divorced dads who seemed to always be playing Fleetwood Mac when they would pick us up. I think they were all in love with Stevie Nicks with her long flowing hair and complicated layered chiffon. The lyric “I know there’s nothing to say/ someone has taken my place,” is at the heart of Utopia. The oddest thing happened, after writing a full draft of the story. I came across an interview with Stevie Nicks opening up about her trainwreck three-month marriage to her best friend’s husband. Her best friend died right after giving birth, and in a wave of grief, Nicks married her friend’s husband vowing to raise their baby. It was a disaster, but she talked about being haunted and feeling the presence of her friend in the house— the baby’s cradle would rock on its own, doors would slam. I’d already written about these things happening to Paz so it felt like a bizarre twinning.
Love is The Drug
Written and performed by Bryan Ferry (1975)
There are a bunch of party scenes in Utopia. They were fun to write because everyone in the ’70s in the performance art scene was so sloppy drunk and very high and amazingly dressed (late 70s is one of my all-time favourite fashion moments— they’d left the polyester behind and it was all about really high-waisted pants, tiny tops, tall boots). This song comes on at a bar where all the artists are gathered and it’s just kind of sexy and claustrophobic in the all the right ways. I also remember that Bryan Ferry wore and eye patch performing it, supposedly covering a shiner from a fight which also feels very seventies to me. Even Ferry, falsettoed and effete in his high-waisted trousers, was also performing a kind of bar-brawl hyper masculinity.
Written by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Glenn Gould (1955)
Romy, who is dead for most of the book, listened incessantly to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He first recorded them at the incredibly young age of 22. I had a piano teacher that said you could play Bach your whole life and you will always find something new. Most classical musicians are crazy for Bach because of this immortal quality to his composing. Romy experienced a very bizarre upbringing with a cold professor single mother who dragged her to highbrow culture in Europe before shipping her off to California to be raised by her grandparents. Romy’s love of Bach and Glenn Gould is, in part, about her inability to escape her past, but also that she was a noticer of genius, which Glenn Gould most definitely was. One of the arias is playing on the radio at one point when Paz walks into the house late after a party, even though she knows she turned the radio off before she left. She gets so jangly and on edge she downs a bunch of wine and drunk dials her new husband who in Europe but hangs up before she has the nerve to confront him.
She’s Lost Control
Written and performed by Joy Division (1979)
This song comes on the radio when Paz is driving through desert on a bit of heat-crazed mission. There have been too many signs to ignore that Romy might still be alive, so she decides to break her passivity and try to confront what’s really going on. She wants to see if Romy listened to Joy Division obsessively in early high school and had a massive crush on Ian Curtis. But my British boyfriend at the time almost broke up with me when I started to like New Order, the band that formed after Curtis hung himself. I love the punk intensity of Joy Division and obviously the lyrics are really on point here as Paz starts losing her grip on reality.
Ring of Fire
Written by Merle Haggard and June Carter Cash, performed by Johnny Cash (1963)
Paz finds her way to Romy’s studio, an old, abandoned hotel in the middle of the desert that she was cutting holes into, working with light. I sort of think of Romy as James Turrell’s sister, in a kind of Virginia Woolf, Room of One’s Own way, when Woolf talks about what would have happened to Shakespeare’s sister, presumably of the same talent as him but born a woman. Spoiler alert: she winds up dead in a ditch pretty quick. Paz approaches the hotel, sunbleached with tumbleweeds blowing by, and is so terrified of what she might find that she keeps the car radio on while she goes in. As she starts to experience dehydration along with a panic attack, she hears, “I went down down down and the flames getting higher,” Johnny Cash’s voice pulling her toward danger.
Dream Baby Dream
Written and performed by Suicide (1979)
If there was one song I had to choose to sum up this book, it would be this one. It’s so between worlds, punk and electro pop, ’70s and ’80s, fierce and soft. It’s so bright and hopeful but has this slightly menacing dark underside to it. Is it about hope or despair? I also am so interested in the way that LA is a place layered with so many dreams it turns the city almost magical. This is the song I picture running through Paz’s head like tickertape. She is trying to remind herself how hard she worked to become an artist and just as she’s on the brink of making it happen, everything goes sideways. There is something hypnotic, a bit of a time loop, hearing the refrain “dream baby dream” over and over. And then when you hear the hazy drawl of “forever and ever” there is an eerie feeling of freedom. The kind that makes Paz want to keep driving and never stop.
Written by Ian Curtis and New Order, performed by New Order (1981)
In the epilogue of Utopia, a writer is drinking scotch after her event at the Edinburgh festival with a photographer she met earlier that day who took her photo. They are at his rented flat, and he puts some music on and she’s trying to tell him that it makes her feel so alive because it’s a song she loved as teenager. But she finds she can’t really express how deeply she feels about it. It comes out wrong. But the photographer surprises her by understanding exactly what she’s trying convey. He says that maybe she is connected to it because nothing else now could ever give her that same feeling. Of that excitement for things that haven’t yet happened.
Heidi Sopinka is the author of The Dictionary of Animal Languages, which was shortlisted for the Kobo Writing Emerging Writer Prize, and longlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. A former environment columnist at The Globe and Mail, she is co-founder and co-designer at Horses Atelier. Her writing has won a national magazine award and has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, Brick, and Lit Hub, and has been anthologized in Art Essays. She lives in Toronto.