Warning: This summary contains spoilers.
The Optimistic Decade is set in the Bush Sr. era, with some flashbacks to the Reagan years. The main characters are teenagers and young adults, all of whom are engaged in a timeless rite of passage: the search for identity and purpose. At the center of the novel is Rebecca Silver, the daughter of two politically progressive parents who publish a “truth to power” newspaper. Rebecca, who worships her father, distinguishes herself among peers with her vocal expressions of leftist outrage. For most of the novel, she is a second-year college student at UC Berkeley, attending a remote summer camp in Colorado run by her older cousin, Caleb. Rebecca’s parents (Ira and Georgia), particularly her father, mock Caleb, who believes that his commune-like camp, where kids are “reborn” after a summer of roughing it, is ineffective in creating positive social change. However, when Rebecca attends this camp at Ira’s urging (sending his daughter away so he can publish his final newspaper without facing her), she begins to see the camp’s appeal, too busy to read Ira’s final editorial as she explores her developing sexuality and reconnects with her childhood friend, David (whose parents are close friends with Ira and Georgia). Rebecca and David are foils who represent an equally passionate response to the question: What is the purpose of a life? For much of the novel, Rebecca’s purpose is animated by her political activism and her dreams of becoming a journalist, whereas David is obsessed with his spiritual connection to Llamalo, going so far as to cast even the most mundane actions in religious language, the everyday “mitzvahs” of Llamalo, small actions or deeds that bring him closer to God. The name of the camp, Llamalo, is Hebrew for “why not?” and comes from Caleb’s last memory of his father, an itinerant man who committed suicide when Caleb was young. The name seems both significant and random, a possible clue to a central message: People are foolish to seek simplistic explanations when the world is complex and murky. Another salient message seems to be the danger of idealizing imperfect people, as Rebecca and Caleb both idealize (and even idolize) their flawed fathers, while David idolizes the egocentric and emotionally stunted Caleb. The main dramatic tension of the story comes in the conflict between Caleb and the previous owners of the ranch that Caleb turns into Llamalo: Don Sr., a quiet and hardworking man who lost his wife to cancer, and his son Donnie, a volatile young man who leaves his hometown after the oil bust and is brainwashed by right-wing conspiracy theorists, believing that the loss of his family’s land is the fault of leftist “eco-Nazis” (like Caleb) scaring away big businesses such as Exxon. This story finds a fitting ending when, after an injury lawsuit from David’s father, Caleb loses the camp and is hired to perform menial tasks by its new owner, a former counselor at Llamalo. In the end, it’s Rebecca’s mother, Georgia, who offers the wisdom and hope that refutes Ira’s cynical proclamation that people only have one “optimistic decade.” The final scene in the novel occurs at a California protest during the bombing of Iraq, when Rebecca hears (or imagines?) a protester asking her to storm a government building, his final word of ‘Llamalo,’ suggesting that the personal and the political are—contrary to what she’d always thought—inextricably linked, and that Rebecca, who is now an English major, might still end up committing her life to activism.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “It was April 1990, not even four months into the new decade, and already Nelson Mandela had been freed and Daniel Ortega defeated and the first McDonald’s opened in the USSR, which was about to drift apart, ending the Cold War, and still, although increasingly people chose to ignore this, everything was awful when it came down to inequality and Earth destruction and generally being fucked by capitalism. Rebecca Silver, thinking of all this, walked through residential Berkeley to meet her father for lunch” (1).
- “She felt so adult, her backpack full of used books with colons in their titles that would teach her everything Ira already knew. She felt, even with her problematic hair, almost beautiful” (4).
- “Until they arrived, Llamalo was simply a chassis—some wood, some dirt—and Caleb was nothing, just a man. He had nobody to whom he could point out the parabola of bird flight, nobody who needed to learn the word ‘junco,’ nobody whose life he could strip bare of causal comforts, nobody whose mind he could blow” (29).
- “He wanted to confront her with grand medieval language: State your purpose and king! But all the eloquence he felt here had vanished under her gaze” (35).
- “Outside, Rebecca often felt scared. There was a brutality to the exposure, an ominous wind much of the time, and when the wind stopped, the silence was freaky and the air thin and dusty” (37).
- “She began to apologize. It was a true emergency, she said. Her mother was sick. Terribly sick. She said the word ‘cancer’ and then regretted it, seized by a certainty that her mother’s healthy cells would now turn malignant by a devious god that toyed with atheists by taking them literally” (40).
- “At last, she felt like herself, the true Rebecca, holographically appearing on the plateau. War resister, Ira’s daughter, bearer of bad news. Let them stare. Let them listen. Let a shadow fall on their wide-open futures” (42-43).
- “It had been like this since her arrival. She’d carefully chosen books to bring, but they weren’t interested in her reading aloud. She’d imagined intimacies, secrets shared, vulnerabilities laid out in front of her like offerings to the gods. She’d imagined guiding them from the pedestal of her nearly nineteen years, from the flashing lighthouse of college, but instead they sat on Tanya’s bed singing Top 40 songs she didn’t know” (52).
- “They sped east on Sunset, past restaurants they would never try. Billboards, skimming by like shuffled cards, advertised movies they would never see. There was a different Los Angeles outside the sun-streamed studios and frozen yogurt and Brentwood Country Mart and Pappagallo espadrilles and everything Rebecca had heard about and didn’t understand. There was a true Los Angeles that only Rebecca and David knew, and it sang songs that would never become commercials” (59).
- “Afterward, he took her outside to watch the moon rise over the final, most western of the Rocky Mountains. It shone a spotlight on Escadom’s snowy summit, slid light down the mountain’s royal alpine body, cast its white eye over the oceanic and unaccommodating desert, which began in the folds of the mountain’s kingly robes and spread out southward as far as they could see” (73-74).
- “It was too warm in here to wait so long, too musty and moldy. Spores grew on paper, and there was plenty of that: tombstones of newspaper and columns of computer printouts and obelisks of spiral notebooks, and on the walls, yellowing cartoons, curling posters, against this, for that” (108-109).
- “But Rebecca, in the barn, was otherwise occupied. If this was a kiss, this thing that never ended, this Mobius route through dark woodland, then what exactly had she been doing before? She was somewhere she’d never been, led here by David, whose tongue tasted of tomato and probed everywhere, encouraging her to do the same, to keep her own mouth open, until all her little pecks and nervous licks ran together like a river, dense and insistent” (156).
- “Kayla was tiny and terrifying. She was a spiderweb and spider, all at once. She was a bouncy chair with a Winnie the Pooh pattern and a pink roses diaper bag and a bottle sterilizer and a white crib and pink bibs and pink pajamas and little pink dishrags that were not to be used for dishes, and diapers and a camo-print stroller, and this took up all the space in their apartment and all his money” (196).
- “Caleb felt solemn to be so near these people, to brush up against their disaster, to examine the tables with their mammy cookie jars, Mixmasters, towers of plates, a congregation of teacups, buckets of wrenches, earrings, scissors, Bible figurines, piles of faded linens” (205).
- “Nobody noticed that David was made from this place, his skin from the cracked clay ground, his legs from the branches of a Russian olive, his teeth from a king snake’s skull, his fingertips from the soft lobes of sage. The strange thing was, when he reached the edge of the cliff, he stepped onto the trail to the river, and the trail wasn’t there. He stepped into air” (258).
- “Unshod, Caleb followed him into a large room with tatami mats on the floor and two blue ovoid meditation cushions, like the eggs of some passing dinosaur. There was no furniture other than a small shrine on a shelf in the corner with a stone Buddha who had a lei of dried marigolds at his feet” (260).
- “When she’d met Caleb at the start of summer, she’d been surprised by his appearance. A tree of a guy with lines like bark on his face, he wore odd, ill-fitting jeans, a snap shirt, a cowboy hat. She’d wondered whether it was a calculated performance. Now, she knew that he simply lived outside the world of commerce, outside of culture and aesthetics, preference and reference. And after eight weeks at Llamalo, she was becoming like him. Everything here seemed antiseptic, unnecessary, funny. What was this greasy meat? These glossy red apples? This case of colored drinks? What were these walls? This TV? This roof? Why be inside at all?” (275).
- “Word would spread and soon he’d be attracting other young people as well. College students on a semester off in their aimless years after graduating, when life’s purpose glowed brightly, but held no shape. Before they hardened. Before they were distracted by babies and debt, before they’d relinquished their plans of living a life of wonder” (282).
- “Over the years, Caleb had learned that if you invited them the right way, people generally acted how you wanted them to act. If you made sure to invite them into something grand and purposeful. If you told them a compelling and urgent story into which they could enter. If you gave them a role, a small but crucial part” (286).
- “Soon Caleb grew pleased with the sluggishness of his leg muscles and the blisters ballooning on his heels and toes. This pain meant that he wasn’t the same Caleb as he’d been in DC, when his body had felt nothing. Here, red crevices had been cut into the earth. Maybe he, too, was cut away, all that was distasteful about him, all he’d inherited from his mother—his worry, arrogance, pessimism, all eroded” (299).
- “I’ve thought that maybe everyone has one decade, call it an optimistic decade, when the world feels malleable and the self strong. And then it’s over. It doesn’t come back” (326).
- “Was the feeling of standing on Aemon’s Mesa a holy feeling if Caleb was standing there with synergistic entrepreneurs? Was there a mitzvah of modular modernism with a Western flair?” (335).
- “Outside, the dazzling world mocked the gloom she’d felt in his room. Right in front of his fetid aquamarine building, grandly named the Sea Castle, where a multitude of delights: the bike path, a playground on the sand with swings and seesaw, circus sounds coming from the pier, the slow turn of the Ferris wheel at its end. ‘Behold!’ he said. ‘The sparkling ocean’ (346).
- “She wanted to call David and explain. Whoever he’d been on Aemon’s Mesa—that boy; that beautiful and confident boy; was with him still. Just as Caleb was both visionary and deceitful. There was no line, fine or otherwise” (349).
- “Placards bobbed like coral polyps from a reef. Banners swam eel-like in the current. She could hear whale calls from those giving speeches into bullhorns” (350-351).