THE SONG IS YOU by Arthur Phillips

Book Quote:

“Two months ago, she was raw and unblended; tonight she was reasonably effective; someday very soon she would be in danger of marbling over into a slick cast impression of herself. The target was only microns wide and history’s great singers may simply have been those who happened to make a record in the brief time between learning and forgetting how to manage their power. ”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Poornima Apte (MAY 04, 2009)

Julian Donahue, the protagonist in the wonderful The Song is You, is a middle-aged drifter. He directs commercials for a living and has separated from his wife after the loss of their two-year-old son. Worse, he is at a point in his life where he is clearly able to see the trajectory pretty much every action of his will trace—in other words, he sees the pointlessness of it all and is in a funk. The only thing that keeps him connected and interested, is music—more specifically, his iPod—which reminds him of all the significant moments in his life. On his playlist, there is even one wonderful Billie Holiday live recording that connects him deeply to his father, an army vet.

One evening Julian walks into a Brooklyn bar and watches a young Irish singer, Cait O’Dwyer, perform. He likes her well enough and also notices that he is probably the oldest person in the crowd that has assembled to watch O’Dwyer perform. “He bought the demo CD because she was pretty and to try to keep up, a little, for work. Maybe she was someone he should have heard of,” Phillips writes of Julian.

Slowly Julian starts tracking Cait’s career and one day even leaves her some advice on a series of coasters in a local bar. Cait, a wise and knowing artist, sees something of value in Julian’s advice. He officially becomes her muse when she composes a song called “Bleaker and Obliquer,” based on one of the phrases he leaves behind in his notes. “[He is] something of an adviser who spots all my flaws,” she later relates in a magazine article.

Soon Julian and Cait fall into each other’s orbits increasingly. It could be love. There could also be selfish reasons. “[Cait] was surrounded by people telling her she was a genius, a goddess so important, and so she probably longed for a little normal life, a little meat in her diet of air and lettuce,” Phillips writes. In Julian, therefore, Cait probably sees someone who could see “how the trick was done. He saw the strings and mirrors.” Advice like that was invaluable to a beginning pop star. As for Julian, the fact that a young singer actually sought out his advice makes life meaningful once more.

As the book rises in tempo, the two send increasingly fevered and direct communiqués to each other, hoping eventually, to consummate a long-distance volley of messages into something more meaningful—a real relationship.

Arthur Phillips, whose debut novel, Prague, I read and enjoyed tremendously, knows how to write about listlessness. The characters he portrays in his latest, The Song is You, all worry they are not the genuine article—that there is some essential wiring missing in their lives. On the periphery is Aidan, Julian’s older brother whose singular defining characteristic is his disastrous showing on Jeopardy! There is a down-and-out musician, Stamford, who is trying to live knowing his time in the limelight was over before it started.

In The Song is You, Phillips also does a brilliant job capturing the ups and downs of fame in the music world. A brilliant reflection is through Stamford who, he writes, was “too old and slow to catch the crests of musical fashion, not confident enough to ignore them, never sure if he was ‘advancing,’ imitating or parodying himself, he finally quit and, in self-punishment, hit clubs to check out new bands, then Googled them after the shows, then, inevitably, auto-Googled too. His rare appearance in celebrity magazines, like a faint echo of the big bang just perceptible on the far edge of the universe, warmed him for weeks.”

Much has been said about the iPod and Julian’s feverish devotion to it. The book has had many discuss the place of music in contemporary society and in a digital age. While all these are great topics to explore, what has largely been missing from the discussion of The Song is You, is the light it shines on the middle age drift—when the life you had planned runs head on into the life you create. “He had success in a field for which he felt no passion but didn’t suffer from the lack…” Phillips writes of Julian, “He would amass more events and people and memories, and he would clarify old thoughts and rearrange details to highlight new significances and explain to himself what happened, and on and on. All of this was meaningless, he thought, but that raggedy word was not, it turned out, so bitter on the tongue. One could do worse than meaninglessness like this.”

Yes, one could. Phillips’ latest marvel is as much a discussion of greater psychological explorations—the meaning of life, the definition of success—as it is about music’s relation to our deepest selves. It succeeds in large part because Phillips shows how relevant these questions are, even in the age of instant messaging and a whole host of technology doodads. He knows how to frame the story perfectly. The Song is You cements Arthur Phillips’ place as one of the more creative authors of our time. It is the genuine article—a perfect symphony of clever writing, taut storyline and soulful exploration delivered through one beautiful package.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 17 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (April 7, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Arthur Phillips
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: The Tragedy of Arthur

Another book with the same title:

The Song is You by Meagan Abbott


May 4, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Drift-of-Life, Literary, Reading Guide

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