Writing about music is hard; “like dancing about architecture” goes the saying. Which doesn’t keep people from trying, though most of what’s written is reportage or shorthand: This band sounds like that, Chan Marshall had a crazy mother, etc, etc. The trickier thing is an accurate expression of listening, the sensation it produces, that ineffable, transporting… thing a song or lyric or a string of notes can do. Language hardly seems up to the challenge.
Since this is set in our technologically assisted present, love is mediated by gadgetry—all of it allowing Julian and Cait to flirt but stay physically apart.
But challenges are novelist Arthur Phillips’s stock in trade. His novels are reliably ingenious affairs, intricately plotted, full of blind-spot reversals, and how’d-he-do-that exercises in style. Take the opening scene in Prague, his bestselling debut about young Americans set loose in post-Soviet Eastern Europe: Five characters sit around a table making four statements each, but only one is true; they try to guess which is which; a score is tallied on a cocktail napkin. It’s a 17-page party-game puzzle and only the introduction to a headily complex (and very enjoyable) novel. “I write to entertain myself,” this five-time Jeopardy! champion-turned-novelist once said at a reading I attended. For this guy, I remember thinking, entertainment must be a pretty tall order.
Fortunately novel writing has a sky’s-the-limit degree of difficulty. And though his latest, The Song Is You, sounds simple enough—a love story set in present-day Brooklyn—this is actually a book-length attempt to express the inexpressible: what music does to a fan, the derangements and ecstasies it inspires in him. And, oh yeah, for style points, Phillips has also embedded over 100 song titles in the text, listing the artists in his acknowledgments. Can you find them all?
The plot is straightforward enough: Julian Donahue is a mid-forties advertising director who has recently separated from his wife after the tragic loss of their two-year-old son. One snowy night in Brooklyn, he wanders into a bar and hears a rock band, led by a fetching young Irish singer named Cait O’Dwyer. He buys her demo, loads it onto his iPod, and falls very much in love.
But since this is set in our technologically assisted present, that love is mediated by gadgetry. There’s Julian’s beloved iPod (“that greatest of all human inventions”), his TiVo, a digital voice recorder, a Web site chat board, a cellphone camera—all of it allowing Julian and Cait to flirt but stay physically apart. Phillips maintains this distance past the point of credibility, turning Julian into a kind of benevolent stalker when it would seem easy enough to ask the very willing Cait out for an old-fashioned drink.
Julian is convincing, his grief-struck numbness artfully drawn, but Cait seems pure fantasy, a headstrong Irish redhead, relentlessly clever in speech, prodigiously talented if secretly insecure. I was much more interested in Julian’s estranged wife Rachel, who is complex and perceptive in her too-brief scenes. In fact, The Song Is You has a terrific cast of supporting players, including Julian’s know-it-all brother Adrian with his hilarious backstory involving Jeopardy!, and a washed-up alt-rocker who is memorably introduced and then allowed to drift uselessly through the rest of the book.
Phillips’s writing can feel strenuously clever. “Ian was obviously free to intubate every young lady he saw, and Cait would never harbor the flimsiest dinghy of a grievance.” Harbor, dinghy: rim shot. It’s hard not to be impressed by Phillips’s stylistic virtuosity, but my eyes rolled when a character’s progress was described as “escargotically slow,” when in Cait’s room I was presented with a “diptych frame next to a Diptyque scented candle,” and also here: “her trajectory followed the heptilateral calculus equations laboriously worked out by her label.” My grudging Google of “heptilateral calculus equations” turned up zero hits. Annoying. If Phillips were in a band, he’d be the guitarist who can’t stop noodling through his lead.
So The Song Is You isn’t perfect, but as an obsessed music fan like Julian (and I suspect the author too), pretty much always plugged into my iPod, Phillips has my number. The passages where Phillips articulates that ineffable transport that comes from a particular song are the best in the book. One time, wearing his headphones, Julian experiences “the sensation that he might never be so happy again as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that...Julian was longing for longing.” Longing for longing; it’s a neat abstraction, one that true music fans should recognize. I certainly do. Writing about music is hard, but Phillips is a writer who’s up to the job.
Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.