Arthur Phillips’s The Song Is You takes its title from a Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II tune originally written for the 1932 show Music in the Air and later popularized by a young Frank Sinatra. The novel concludes with an author’s note listing over one hundred composers, from Antonio Vivaldi to David Bowie and beyond, whose song titles the book incorporates. Thus, from beginning to end, the book is alive with music. Hammerstein’s well-known lyrics to “The Song Is You” celebrate the ability of physical allure to evoke music in one’s mind. Appropriately for Phillips’s purposes, they also carry a disquieting subtext about a frustrating inability to escape from solipsisman inability that keeps one separate from the object of one’s affections.
The concluding extensive catalog of composers, for its part, sets up a kind of game, challenging readers to go back and find the references and allusions they may have missed the first time through the book. Moreover, Phillips embeds invented song lyrics in his narrative, as well as rendering music an incessant presence throughout the novel: It is recorded on vinyl, reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, and compact discs (CDs); played on hi-fi stereo systems, televisions, Walkmans, and iPods; and stored on Web sites and computer files. Phillips uses this omnipresence of music to invite readers to reconsider the bond between performer and listener, and the altered nature of communication, in the mechanical and digital ages. The novel represents the extent to which continuous and ready access to music has become the norm, across socioeconomic boundaries, but it questions whether this norm paradoxically fosters isolation and thwarts community as much as it sustains one’s connections with others.
The story’s focal character is Julian Donahue, a highly regarded and much-sought-after director of commercials. Julian’s commercials employ familiar songs, which are somehow lessened or neutered in the process, and they are touted for featuring beautiful models lacking any trace of vulnerability. By contrast, Julian himself is extraordinarily vulnerable. Personally, he has undergone the trauma of the sudden loss of his two-year-old son to an infection and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage, after multiple infidelities on both sides. Professionally, he experiences the vague sense of never having become the film artist he might have been.
Impotent of late, Julian is suffering from a generalized, early middle-aged malaise. He is influenced by his father, who named Julian after a relatively unknown alto sax player when his mother rejected the first names of twenty more famous musicians, and who displays a strongly Beckettian sense of life beginning and ending in one long scream. Julian longs to find some stimulus that will somehow make everything right once again. The one stable force in his life seems to be popular music, about which he has a vast storehouse of knowledge going back even beyond his teen years. When listening to music, he “felt a physical relief as the day’s silliness was replaced with a sense of purpose.music could inject the quotidian with significance, lyricism, uniqueness.” Like his father before him, he becomes smitten by a female singer.
The novel’s intriguing opening sentence reports, “Julian Donahue’s father was on a Billie Holiday record.” Just before he shipped off in 1953 to fight in Korea, where he lost a leg, Will Donahue’s voice was caught on a Holiday recording when he requested that the performer he idolized sing “I Cover the Waterfront” for him at New York’s Galaxy Theater. Another Holiday recording, “Don’t Explain,” made just before her death in 1959, figures later in the novel: Julian runs into the recording’s featured jazz pianist, Dean Villerman, in 1988. He plays for Villerman a tape recording made of his father listening to Holiday’s radio performance, complete with an apology from Julian’s mother (“Sorry, my heart”) for interrupting the music. Though Villerman denies any memory of the experience, the elder Donahue, hearing the broadcast on his hospital deathbed via headphones attached to Julian’s CD player, judges it a moment of miraculous artistry, claiming “Dean was playing like he was giving Billie his blessing, saying it was going to be okay.” This provides Julian, too, with an opportunity to reassure his dying father that things will be “okay”a benison Julian understands he...
(The entire section is 1829 words.)