Arthur Phillips’ Pocket Symphony

I’ve recently finished Arthur Phillips‘ latest novel, The Song Is You, and liked it much more than I’d expected—I’d pretty much given up on Phillips after actively disliking the opening pages of his debut, Prague, and I now have an inherent distrust of novels about rock bands. (This is largely Jonathan Lethem‘s fault.) But The Song Is You, happily, isn’t a novel about a rock band in the sense that it stresses how fun/agonizing/sexy it is to play on a stage; its best passages explore how songs have a way of reworking our emotional wiring, how MP3 players give us a strange amount of freedom to recalibrate our feelings at will, and how a snippet of abstracted lyrics motivates us to search for deeper meanings. (This is one of the few novels that includes made-up lyrics that aren’t cringeworthy; Phillips has figured out how to make them read simply, but not dumb or florid.)

If all that means that the plot feels a little absurd and makes its hero, Julian, look like he’s a little creepy, quite nearly stalking up-and-coming star Cait O’Dwyer, it’s not a bad thing for the novel, and Phillips acknowledges Julian’s problem—one of the nice things about The Song Is You is that it doesn’t work under the assumption that music is a magical balm that makes people better, as so many such books do. Pop songs are usually unrealistic visions of the world, and though the book isn’t a tragedy, it suggests the foolishness of falling for their lies.

My main problem with Phillips still applies—he’s prone to overwritten sentences that seem to strive for Faulkner or Roth but often wind up sputtering and backfiring like a old lawnmower. Try, for instance, reading this sentence out loud: “Nor could it be called charm or charisma, because he knew people with it who positively repelled onlookers to a distance of about twenty-five feet but then held them there, in an unbreakable orbit, like a fly hovering immobile, trying to escape the effect of a vacuum cleaner nozzle held just so.” This combination of subordinate clauses and an iffy simile isn’t a deal-killer. But is it too much to ask that an author of a novel about songs be more vigilant about unmusical passages?

If Phillips’ writing is a little brocaded, it may be because his reading looks mainly to the past. In an interview with Bookslut, he talks about his reading habits:

American writers that have really, really, really influenced me are Hemmingway [sic], Fitzgerald, Salinger, Henry James, the second half of Nabokov’s career as an American writer… Those are the big stars for me. I’m very fond of Paul Auster and George Saunders. Let’s leave that for American writers.

Do you read much contemporary fiction as well?

I read some, but I don’t read a whole lot because I feel like I’ve got so many holes in the list of dead people that I need to fill in. But I do read some contemporary.

His idea of “contemporary,” though, is William GaddisThe Recognitions, a book that I suspect won’t fix the problem.

One thought on “Arthur Phillips’ Pocket Symphony

  1. I should also note that Christian Bauman’s IN HOBOKEN is a good rock ‘n’ roll novel (or folk novel) — in part because, like Phillips’s book, the music is the theme, not the central story.

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