[Crossposted from a 3-star entry on Goodreads.]
No, it’s not a proper review (I leave that up to the experts), but more of an extended observation, which can perhaps be best illustrated with an example of Arthur Phillips’ prose, with our protagonist Julian listening to his Walkman in the Manhattan twilight:
…and he had 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. “Love” was in most of these potent songs, of course, but they — the music, the light, the season — implied more than this, because, treacherously, Julian was swelling only with longing for longing. He felt his nerves open and turn to the world like sunflowers on the beat, but this desire could not achieve release; his body strained forward, but independent of any goal, though he did not know it for many years to come, until he proved it.
Because years later, when he had captured all that — love, wife, home, success, child — still he longed, just the same, when he listened to those same songs, now on a portable CD player, easily repeated without the moodicidal interruption of rewinding (turning spindles wheezing as batteries failed). He felt it all again. He pressed Play and longed still.
It’s eloquent stuff, yes, all this aching, the blunt and concise beauty of a phrase like “this quake of joy.” And yes, there are small gems like these scattered throughout the novel. But see, it’s that word “moodicidal” that’s, well, moodicidal. All this rapture, then a tiny thud, as if our appealingly lovelorn but not completely sympathetic protagonist — the sort of person who would craft a word like “moodicidal” as a form of emotional self-defense, if that makes any sense — had insinuated himself into the narration. A private grief made more palatable, perhaps, pulled to the surface, manifested and masquerading as verbal artifice. Because after all, the emotional core of The Song Is You is loss (the death of a child, a divorce), its depths momentarily excavated, dragged up to the light, by the fortuitous turn of the iPod’s click wheel.
The thing is — and this is where my disappointment with the novel lies — The Song Is You is not really about music itself. Music is the milieu, sure — rehearsal rooms, bars, groupies, message boards, drummers storming off in a fit, the privations of a tour. That is, it’s not about music’s capacity to transport, though it’s actually music’s transcendent power that Phillips beautifully captures in the lovely story (about his father and Billie Holiday) that bookends the novel — the prologue, in fact, was what convinced me to buy the book in the first place — but the rest of the novel’s events simply pale in comparison.
The novel’s narrative of pursuit seems to undercut the sublime quality of the prologue. Its cleverness as a whole — one might cite “moodicidal” again, at this juncture — deflates. There’s this tension throughout that Phillips balances nimbly: is it a story about stalker and stalked, hunter and quarry… or a raging, unrequited love, of sorts? Well, it’s both, kind of — though not in such predatory terms. Think of the novel’s proceedings as a more benign, albeit uncomfortable, pursuit. It’s part-Chungking Express (a very good thing), part-Amelie (a not so good thing); these cinematic comparisons are apt, as what fuels the narrative -– a series of missed connections, as it were, between Julian and a singer -– is similarly about physical intimacy deferred. As another American songwriter (Tom Waits) once said, “The obsession’s in the chasin’ and not the apprehendin’ / The pursuit, you see, and never the arrest.”
The novel doesn’t quite fulfill the promise that the Oscar Hammerstein III song of the title refers to:
I alone have heard this lovely strain,
I alone have heard this glad refrain:
Must it be forever inside of me,
Why can’t I let it go,
Why can’t I let you know,
Why can’t I let you know the song
My heart would sing?
What drives the singer crazy — and I will always have Frank Sinatra in my head when I think of the song — isn’t how his love-object is the physical embodiment of the music, but (again) his longing that must be kept hidden and silent, kept only to himself. Music does not work in the same way that it functions in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, for instance, where the main character’s musical obsessions and mix tapes are substitutes for his inability to communicate.
In contrast, Phillips’ characters are studiously hyperarticulate, and music, in its general sense, is merely pushed to the background. Perhaps a movie version, paradoxically enough — freed from the written word and forced to rely on the visual and aural — will pare the events down to something closer to a musical essence.