The critically lauded Arthur Phillips and his fourth novel, The Song Is You, is a 21st century meditation on love and music that washes the reader in...moreThe critically lauded Arthur Phillips and his fourth novel, The Song Is You, is a 21st century meditation on love and music that washes the reader in poetic prose and imagery, but ultimately amounts to ‘old wine in a new bottle’ or for me, just plain old bullshit.
Phillips’ writing is amazingly good, and it’s on constant display throughout. He’s a natural at writing prose that’s poetic and effective. Much of the praise this novel has amassed is due in part to his skillful writing that weaves narration and description into characters that perfectly fit between the covers of this book. The dialog feels real and fits his character’s mindsets without overindulging the author’s mission to communicate their raison d’etre. However, the dialog alone cannot keep this book afloat for me while the story drowns deeper and deeper into the quicksand of romantic mushiness.
Dialog on display: A conversation between a detective and Cait O’Dwyer, the Irish pop singer that propels half the book.
“I’m performing on Thursday night. Do you think I’ll be in danger from that dirtbag?”
“Difficult to say. I’m not psychic. But if you’re inviting me to the show, I’ll think I’ll pass.” She nodded twice – he finally landed a jab after all her swings – but she quickly laughed.
“I wasn’t. You have to work late, solving a nice murder?”
“No. No excuse. I just don’t necessarily think I’ll see the best of you under those circumstances. Pop music, you know.”
“I’m not sure I do.”
“I think you know that what you do is temporary. Cheap. It’s for kids. I understand – a person’s got to make a living. I don’t think less of you for doing that to pay your rent. But it’s not the most interesting part of you by a mile.”
“And you can see the most interesting part?"
“If your job was dressing up as rabbit in a theme park, would you want me to come visit you and pretend you were a real rabbit? I hope you’re laughing because you see how right-on the comparison is. You go sing; I’d worry if you really thought it was a big deal.”
The story follows a middle aged commercial artist named Julian that once had high ambitions of creating meaningful art, but is now broken of his younger dreams by the death of his two year-old son and subsequent failed marriage. On a snowy night in New York City, he finds himself in a bar watching the aforementioned Cait O’Dwyer sing with her band. Somewhat impressed, he buys her demo CD and eventually transfers it to his iPod. Through the MP3 player her music comes alive and seems to speak to him personally in a special way that ignites his passion for Cait and for life again. As Julian is already a musical junkie that’s always plugged into the world that his iPod contains, Cait’s music inspires him to become a fan in a shadowy, deceptive way that’s usually called stocking. He contacts her via cryptic notes scribbled on beer coasters and online forums that eventually piques her reciprocated interest in him and fuels her creativity. And so the story plays out with the two following, stalking, and playing a game of tease and chase that ultimately comes to an unsatisfactory end. While the end generally does avoid clichés in an expected way; it’s nothing new to trade an expected ending for a less expected but equally banal finale.
One funny thing about this book, is that it’s completely contemporary right now, but in the future it will fade and age into a period piece like, Hemingway’s, A Farewell To Arms. Whether this is intentional, I don’t know, but while I read of websites, cell phones, text messaging, usernames, emails, web forums, iPods, search engines; it makes me kind of chuckle because it will date the book just like the music Cait seems to passionately sing will date her like the real singers she reminds me of. Think; Jewel, Paula Cole, Joan Osborne. Like the detective’s words above, it’s temporary music – especially so when compared to Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco; artists that exude longevity.
The story ain’t bad, but what hurts this novel even more is the believability of the characters and their actions. The genres of Fantasy and Magical Realism are not present here, but I feel that I’ve been lied to when I read this in the supposed realistic setting of present day America. One can tell the truth in so many ways, but when there’s a connection that seems not to fit very well, forcing the truth comes off as tripped up and ultimately a lie. Validity escapes reality and succumbs to a world of spectacle that is more fit for an average dramatic movie. In fact I think this story would work better as a movie than a book. Give it to the Coen Brothers and I’m sure once they inject it with their trademark dry wit and irony, and adapt the already good dialog, a fine movie would result. But that’s not a reality. Yet Phillips’ way of telling a tale of lost and found love has garnered him critical fame as a great writer – which is true of his prose – but for me, the pretty writing just serves a mediocre story that is shallow and empty. I’ll give Arthur Phillips another chance one day, but for now he’s going to have to go to the back of the line and wait a long time! (less)