Sunday, April 12, 2009

More on Memory--Arthur Phillips, "The Song is You", Music, and Reading

I have suddenly discovered the joy of the prelude. It happened in Zoe Heller's The Believers, with that first 20 pages about young, wonderful Audrey, leaping 40 years ahead to terrible, totally unpleasant Audrey and compelling me to read the entire book to figure out what happened to her.

It happened again in Arthur Phillips' new novel, The Song is You. It starts with a memory of a young soldier, a Billie Holliday concert, and how it shapes his entire life. Phillips totally captures the experience of a song in this memory, pushing the exact buttons in your brain so that you want to read the piece over and over.

It sets the tone, but it's not the story. The Song is You is about the son, filmmaker-turned-advertising-director Julian Donahue, Brooklynite estranged from his wife Rachel, who comes across this young Irish rocker chick singing at a bar.

The story jumps back and forth between Julian and Cait the musician. One star's is on the rise, and one has crested. Julian's got unfinished business with Rachel and with his brother Aidan as well. The story jumps in and out of memory, touched off by music, and these memories and what they do to us appear in the form of an aging rocker turned painter, once Julian's idol, and now rival for Cait's perhaps real, perhaps imaginary affections.

How does Phillips do it? How does he get my brain pulsing the way music did for much of my life? It doesn't hurt that he's hidden references to so many of the artists I've loved over the years, from the could-be-hip Blow Monkeys to the on-the-fence unhip ones like Swing out Sister. (Just an aside here, there was a lot more to this band than "Breakout." Their faux jazz stylings, a popular trend in the UK circa 1984, turned into a half dozen authentic and pure albums that riffed on 40 years of music.) Oh, and their new album, Beautiful Mess, is coming out soon.

I don't much listen to music now (the switch got turned off when I turned 40--it still galls me) but the music of my past still pushes all the right buttons, just the way I'm sure it does for you. That's one of the things I love about The Song is You. He pushes the buttons as a novel, and also as music, and that's something. I'm not a critic, but a bookseller, but I hope this gives you an idea about the power of this novel. For more, check out the New York Times rave in the Book Review.

Just about every writer who likes music has to write a music novel. It might be a satire of the industry, like Jonathan Lethem's You Don't Love me Yet, or it might be a memoir, like the incredibly popular Love is a Mix Tape. It could incorporate music into its soul but not be about music, like Adam Langer's divine Crossing California, or it might be about the industry itself, like Jennifer Trynin's Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be. If I had had a blog at the time these books came out, I would have posted on all of them, but time has past, I just have memories, and they just appear now as lists, much like the lists of music I exhaustively kept for 25 years.

Yes, when our sales rep Alex finished an early manuscript of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity many years ago, he called me up (no computers) and said, "I've just read a book and it's sort of about you." Most people who know me now can't believe it. Oh, and it wasn't. I was never so cool--my music interest was awkwardly nerdly in a way that could never be misconstrued as hip nerdly.

So here's my Phillips' memory. I read his first novel, Prague, loved it, sold it, went to his event at the Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue. I had chatted with him at something or other, was it the event, was it publisher lunch? I have no idea. Note to Jason, we have to bring in a few copies of Prague as it turns out I'm still thinking about the book, one of the best novels I've read about youth abroad as I've read. OK, I might also suggest Daphne Beal's In the Land of No Right Angles.

The next book comes out, The Egyptologist. I don't read it. I don't know why--there are other books I'm under deadline with, I have a personal crisis, the cover rubs me the wrong way, I'm a lazy oaf who spent the available time watching sit-com reruns. None of these reasons are true and none of them are false. The memory isn't there any more; it's filed in a place I can't reach it.

I don't show up at the event. I'm younger and I haven't perfected the art of fudging a read. (I read a lot but I can't read everything and for some authors, that is a crappy excuse). He tells Dan to ask me why I wasn't there. OK, that means I must hide from him forever.

But writing a blog means you can't hide forever. Oh, and owning a bookstore too. They can all find you eventually (except for Tuesdays, when I'm officially off). So this is for you Mr. Phillips--I know my life is worse for not having read The Egyptologist or Angelica. But it's much, much better for reading The Song is You, and for that I offer thanks.

Oh, and we're closed for Easter, at least for this year.

1 comment:

CLM said...

This is actually a comment on the Reading List. It would be great if you could include Betsy in Spite of Herself by Maud Hart Lovelace, one of the beloved Betsy-Tacy books, but also, importantly, the one that is partially set in Milwaukee! Those nitwits at Harper have let it go OP but are bringing it back in a double edition with Heaven to Betsy in the fall. ISBN is 0061794694.

Good luck!