Two Perfect Pages

The comment thread for my post last week on Richard Powers eventually turned to his 2003 novel, The Time of Our Singing. “I’m always pleased that Powers takes risks, and a big book on race from a white writer carries some risks, but there’s also a sense in that book of trying to cover all the bases, straining to not mis-step,” Richard Crary writes. That echoes my feelings about the novel, though of course the book has its defenders. I mentioned that I’ve dreaded reading Greil Marcus‘ essay on the novel in last year’s A New Literary History of America, a book he co-edited, because I wasn’t prepared to be told that I’d missed something important in Powers’ book and really ought to reread it.

I needn’t have worried. Marcus admires Singing, but his admiration is less about Powers’ writing and more about what other cultural objects Marcus, in his familiar cross-disciplinary way, can bounce against it: Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson, Sol Hurok and Harold Ickes, the history of interracial marriage laws and of music. All interesting points, but arguing for the novel being an interesting synthesis of various threads in American history and culture isn’t the same thing as arguing for the novel being great, or even very good.

Still, Marcus understands the flaws with Powers’ prose that Andrew Seal, Crary, and I mentioned, so his deep admiration of Singing‘s first two pages are of interest. The book opens, Marcus writes, “with two pages in perfect pitch—two complete pages where plain, barely inflected phrases somehow steal the magic of the music they are describing … It is no small thing to write two perfect pages—two pages where the reader cannot find the seams, the artifice, the vanity of art.”

You can read those pages yourself. “Perfect” is a hard word to casually sling around, but those first paragraphs are indeed lovely, hinting at the big themes the novel is going to take on without fervently pointing at them. His description of how dam breaks in the crowd after Jonah Strom finishes singing is at once elegant and efficient: “Silence hangs over the hall. It drifts above the seats like a balloon across the horizon. For two downbeats, even breathing is a crime. Then there’s no surviving this surprise except by applauding it away.”

“All of it is so rightly balanced on its own air,” Marcus writes, “that when the first false note breaks you feel it as if you had dozed off to be wakened by the phone ringing.” Thing is, Marcus doesn’t identify what that first false note is. It’s not this sentence (Marcus admires it): “In the soar of that voice, they hear the rift it floats over.” But it ought to be; even writers capable of writing two perfect pages should think twice about awkwardly deploying “soar” as a noun. Regardless, things get decidedly less admirable in the next paragraph, the big proclamation of the important times in which the novel is set:

The year is a snowy black-and-white signal coming in on rabbit ears. The world of our childhood—the A-rationing, radio-fed world pitched in that final war against evil—falls away in to a Kodak tableau. A man has flown in space. Astronomers pick up pulses from starlike objects. Across the globe, the United States draws to an inside straight…

And so on. “The continent is awash in spies, beatniks, and major appliances,” Powers writes, and his grip is loosened—it’s unclear whether he might be making a serious statement about a prosperous early-60s Cold War culture, or making fun of a Life-reading, self-satisfied middle class paranoid about the Commies. Not a disaster, in any event, but it’s the first hint of the difficult job Powers assigned himself, and how imperfectly he pulled it off.

5 thoughts on “Two Perfect Pages

  1. Good close reading here, enjoyed it. Powers is someone I’ve read and enjoyed sort of despite the prose itself, which is both a compliment and slam I suppose.

  2. It’s precisely in using ‘soar’ as a verb that Powers lifts Jonah’s voice from the page – and from the brink of triteness.

    1. I wish I could agree on this point. Using “soar” as a noun isn’t an incorrect usage—it’s in the dictionary—but it draws attention to itself in a way that’s noiser than I suspect Powers intended, especially since I think Marcus is right that those early paragraphs get much of their power from their artlessness.

      Keep in mind also that I spent a number of years editing music reviews, which means I’ve experienced (and sometimes committed) enough misusage, obnoxious usage, clumsy portmanteaus, nounification of verbs, verbification of nouns, adverbification of adjectives, rhetorical hot air, silly metaphors, and other misdemeanors against language in music writing to last me a lifetime. So I’m perhaps a little oversenstive to any music writing that seems even a little pretentious.

  3. I don’t have access to the Marcus piece, unfortunately, but I disagree with you – most cordially, of course – that those early paragraphs are artless. Take, for example, these lines from the very first paragraph:

    ‘… His voice hasn’t dampened yet. Not altogether. The rooms where he sang still hold an impression, their walls dimpled with his sound, awaiting some future phonograph capable of replaying them. ‘

    It’s unusual enough to speak of a voice dampening, but walls dimpling with sound are striking in their very strangeness, and aptness. So too the entire image. This to me is not artlessness. But perhaps we mean two different things by the word?

    I appreciate how you feel about pretentiousness with regard to music writing – and I have committed crimes enough of pretentiousness in my own fiction to hang my head. However, in the end, as with so many things, it’s very difficult to determine the boundaries. How convenient it would be if we could just call in a surveyor!

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