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The Flâneur

By (April 1, 2009) No Comment

The Song is You

By Arthur Phillips
Random House, 2009

Charm, like beauty, is a quality whose appeal is in its utter wastefulness. The more strain, planning, or worst of all, purpose enter into a person’s mindset, the less attractive that person becomes. Solomon may have been wise, but he was born a prince and his royalty was vocational; like God Himself, we love David, who composed psalms with the same offhand ease with which he led armies. Those poor, industrious Manning quarterbacks don’t have a shred of charm among them, whereas Tom Brady, who’s never seemed to try too hard or worry unduly over any outcomes, wears it like a cologne.  

Charm despises effort – or more precisely, prettily mocks it while casually swiping the prizes that are effort’s vain goal. As the allegedly charming Albert Camus (French standards of the stuff don’t translate well across the Atlantic) put it, charm is a “way of getting the answer ‘yes’ without having asked any clear question.”

Or it’s this: in a 2004 interview, explaining how he came to be a five-time Jeopardy! champion, novelist Arthur Phillips said,

I’d gotten married a couple months before, and my wife was increasingly dubious about my abilities to make any money. I went and tried out. Six months later I got on. My wife had said, “Listen, I don’t care how you do it, but this year you have to make x dollars.” I was like, “Okay, okay. I can do it.” And I came back after two days in Los Angeles having made three times what I had to.

Stomach-turning, I know, but let’s face it, we all yearn to be that guy, or at least to be around him. Phillips is no professional brainiac like Ken Jennings; he seems to have won a ton of game-show money on a whim, in the spare time he had between playing jazz saxophone and inadvertently discovering a comet.

For the past decade Phillips has written novels, and guess what, they’ve all been bestsellers and critical darlings. Prague, his 2002 debut about Lost Generation Xers in post-Communist Budapest, is a rambling rodomontade you’ll like or dislike in direct proportion to the amount of pleasure you take in the company of its charmingly profligate main character John Price. It’s been some years since I read Prague, and I can’t recall that Price did anything more than moon around in jazz clubs, causing people to fall in love with him and then breaking their hearts. But the earnest, winsome spell that Price put on nearly all those who brushed against him had an effect on me as well. He evokes the implacable desire to possess him and cure him of the waywardness that’s the source of his attraction. He’s like the young beauty you know will leave you the instant you put a claim on her.  

Arthur Phillips

Needless to say, Phillips relied very heavily on that same spell to carry him across the dreaded sophomore slump, which, in charmingly profligate fashion, he extended through two novels. The Egyptologist (2004) and Angelica (2007) are very puzzling book, indeed. Both are send-ups of period pieces – the first of a kind of H. Rider Haggard boy’s adventure, the second of a Victorian ghost story – and both are conflicted in the way of nearly every novel by an intelligent writer frolicking in the shallows of genre pastiche: they want simultaneously to preserve an ironic distance from the sensibilities of the past and to outdo the originals. These are performances. Consummately brought off, but never quite free from the irking artifice of someone putting on an accent.

Phillips’ newest and best novel The Song is You returns to a comfortable modern setting – New York City in our present iPod era – and very quickly displays its dashing quotability. Immediately upon meeting Julian Donahue (John Price with fifteen years behind him), we’re told that he “fell in love with Manhattan’s skyline, like a first-time brothel guest falling for a seasoned professional.” And there at the outset is the first incantation of the gentle spell that Phillips has so long relied upon: a mixture of boyish, aw-shucks wonderment and knowing sexuality.

But in fact, Julian turns out to be something of a seasoned professional himself, a partly reformed roué creeping upon middle age. The salient fact of his life is that his son Carlton has died in infancy. Since then, he has separated from his wife Rachel and hovered in an earbudded limbo, busying himself in the rather superficial work of TV ad production (he’ll spend an average afternoon casting fashion models), keeping emotionally distant form his wife and eccentric brother Aidan, and finding sanctuary in the music of his youth.

There’s obviously growth in the premise from the study-abroad vagabondage of Prague, and with that some growing pains. Phillips’ writing is excitable, charged with wild metaphors and word play: Julian’s marriage, for instance, is about to “decay into its component elements – alimony and acrimony”; and of course special lyricism is reserved for “gratis glimpses from a city of sexual saleswomen: the thin cardigan worn over reactive skin; the groove along the outside of a seated and high-skirted thigh, toned and tanned.”

But Phillips deploys the same banzai prose, which works so well to in dealing with rock music and inter-office flirtations, to describe the death of a child. The conflation prettifies the tragedy, makes it more a matter of aesthetics than emotions. In addition, Phillips’ leftover impulse to pad his books with trivia appears in the bagatelle subplot of Aidan, who accidentally blurts out an anti-Semitic slur on Jeopardy!, and is condemned to live out his days as a Youtube foil. Early on in The Song is You, we feel a little annoyed at what seems like an overconfidence in the raconteur’s ability to casually cover serious concerns.

It’s a short-lived annoyance. At the heart of The Song is You is a wise and clear-eyed exploration of the ways that the enchantments of youth turn stale – how gravity, in the mantle of heartbreak, imposes itself on even the most blessed of lives.

Phillips’ set-up to that end is more than a little ingenious. On one of Julian’s lonely strolls through Brooklyn, he happens into a bar to see a rock singer named Cait O’Dwyer. Cait is on the cusp of breaking out, and the atmosphere at her local gigs is primed by the knowledge that she’ll soon be too famous to do them. She reminds Julian of his bachelor days, when he was a small-venue habitué. But he’s also an experienced talent scout, so even as he’s gradually captivated by the singer, he understands the fraught transition she’s attempting from neighborhood idol to national celebrity. At another concert he writes a list of ten things she should do to be a better performer (“#5: Laugh when others think you should cry – we will gladly connect the dots”). This list makes its way to Cait, and soon Julian discovers that she’s based a new song on it – and that she wants to meet him.

An intense and fascinating monomania now consumes the book, as if Ahab had been desperate to keep the white whale in his sights, but was never willing to attack it. Julian understands that his attraction for Cait is partly due to his anonymity, so he proceeds to devise ways to leave her further messages without yet agreeing to meet her.

Cait plays the game. For one thing, she needs to draw inspiration from wherever she can get it. But mostly she craves his honest criticism and his empathy to help her through the sleepless hours of the wolf when she fears both selling out and not being good enough. Julian can tell her, in a late-night phone call,

“The truth is, anyone who puts so much of herself and her life into art as you do must naturally fear any failure in that art as a potential threat to your life. And so you protect your art more than you protect your health or the common forms of happiness the rest of us have. And you probably have this in common with every artist you admire….”

The Song is You has a lot of fun with popular music (song titles are woven throughout it like the names of bodies of water in the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter of Finnegans Wake), and it disburses some very funny jabs at the music scene (a washed-up rocker who routinely alerts celebrity websites to his own whereabouts is Julian’s ghoulish bête noir and a disturbing mirror in which to see aspects of himself, curdled charm in squeaky leather and black blue jeans). But the novel’s insights into the tightrope walk of being a public performer make the deepest impression. Cait, in her persona and performances, must somehow seem both uncompromising and accessible; she has to maintain an aura of mystery, yet make her fans feel they share a personal connection (and not only her fans – Cait is obliged to keep up an exhausting flirtation with her besotted guitarist to get him to play well). She has to transcend charm into outright conjuration.

Billie Holiday singing “I Cover the Waterfront”; in The Song is You, Julian Donahue’s father had his voice captured on an LP requesting the song, which then became a touchstone for his youth

Julian, for all his own attractions, is one of the bewitched, and all music lovers will recognize the form of the magic:

[Cait] sang. She was able to produce and display emotion on demand in contoured, glistening miniature, without acting or emoting, without “putting over the song.” She sang of heartbreak, for example, like this: she recalled heartbreak, and then sang a distillation of the recollection, so that Julian (and a hundred and some other men and women) wished to help her by punishing the cause of her pain. And then they recalled their own heartbreaks. Cait could make them feel what she had felt and what they didn’t know they felt, too. A man who foolishly stammers with indecision when a real woman says, “It’s now or never” will nod decisively and repeat, “It’s now, it’s now,” when a strange woman sings it with her eyes closed.

Cait’s power is to better articulate Julian’s feelings for her than he can. She takes the words from his mouth:

…If he could perfectly express himself to her, it would sound like one of her own songs. He’d have to send her a CD of herself. Better yet, she should stand alone in a room and just sing to herself until she better understood him.

But gradually the teasing mouse-and-mouse charade between Julian and Cait loses some of its allure – it becomes simply juvenile. Phillips’ self-awareness is the key to his ability to describe the arc from romance to disillusion. He grasps charm’s final intangible ingredient: it’s evanescent, a gift and not a trait. With superb subtlety, glamour shades into ridiculousness, passion into desperation, bravado into cowardice. We see that Julian is expending the last of his charms not so much to woo Cait as to keep aloft the cloud world in which he doesn’t have to wake up every morning to the memory that his son is dead.

Julian’s complicated infatuation with Cait is so absorbing that we’re surprised when Rachel and their shared past begin to intrude upon it. Phillips handles this unromantic material with graceful interiority. Julian would like to resolve the “mathematical problem of Cait and Carlton,” but he knows they can’t be either combined or reduced. The ending of The Song is You takes place in Budapest – Phillips is like the musician dipping into his back catalog to finish the set. But he’s a little surer of himself now, with a wider range of sound, and the conclusion is both imaginative and touching.

Phillips’ prose in The Song is You matures along the same path as his main character, shaking off its ingénue tendencies of genre tributes and encyclopedic digressions. And as Phillips further grows into his vocation as a professional novelist, we can expect a deepening of his themes and a less adorned manner of revealing pure thoughts and feelings. At which point, of course, I’ll chide him for becoming dry, overserious, and stylistically ossified. It’s a tough gig, being a novelist; or at least it should be for writers as good as Phillips.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, The Quarterly Conversation, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.

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