Let’s say you’re a middle-aged man. You see a lovely 22-year-old girl singing in a bar. Do you (A) realize that the almost 30 years between you make you a sad cliché and allow her to get on with her life; (B) figure that hey, you’re still young at heart and woo her with Prada and expensive restaurants; or (C) spend hours outside her home, taking photos that you then mail to her.
If the answer is C and this is real life, you’re going to get slapped with a restraining order faster than she can say “stalker.” If it’s fiction, you’re the main character of Arthur Phillips’s lyrical yet befuddling new novel, The Song Is You.
Julian Donahue, a director of ads who made a living hawking shampoo (and enjoying the “perquisite struggling actresses and relaxing models his work delivered him”), has been upended by grief at the death of his young son. He’s separated from his wife, Rachel, who went through a string of her own affairs in a futile effort to cauterize her grief.
One night, he hears “Irish pop-enomenon it-girl of the instant” Cait O’Dwyer perform at a club, and her voice inspires in him the first feeling of hope since his son died. Intrigued and grateful, Julian leaves behind advice on beer coasters explaining how she can improve her stage presence.
Cait turns one of the bits of advice into a song and comes to look at the elusive Julian as a muse.
Phillips, whose first novel, “Prague,” catapulted him into the upper echelons of literary fiction, creates a tricky two-step between the characters. Julian’s obsession with Cait deepens, but the two never meet. Instead, he listens to her demo tape on his iPod as they have a series of narrow misses in New York and Europe.
On the sidelines, watching with disapproval, are: Cait’s long-suffering guitarist, Ian; Rachel, who’s quietly suicidal; and Aidan, Julian’s older brother, a “Jeopardy!” contestant. (Phillips was once both a jazz musician and a five-time “Jeopardy” champ.)
Phillips takes amazing risks with the plot – Julian’s wooing comes straight from the Serial Killer Handbook. (Step 4: Break into target’s home and go through her belongings. Check.) It doesn’t reassure a reader that his previous novel, “Angelica,” was a Victorian ghost story whose narrative pivoted around the testimony of unreliable narrators.
But anyone who was ever a member of a garage band or who has memorized swaths of “High Fidelity” will probably love “The Song Is You.” Phillips talks in detail about everybody from Billie Holiday to The Pogues. He’s even hidden dozens of song titles in the novel’s text.
Those with college-age daughters, however, may be less charmed when Julian interprets the lyrics of a new song, “The Key Is Under the Mat,” to be an invitation and then stands “swaying in her living room, horrified that some maniac could do this....” As for Cait, she’s blithely unconcerned at having a man she’s never met wandering her bedroom.
Phillips can be a writer of great power, but it’s hard to suspend that much disbelief. The other problem is Cait. Since we can’t hear her sing, all we’re left with is her ambition and self-absorption – not terribly attractive qualities.
To balance that, “The Song Is You” offers a brilliant take on the music scene and a melancholy meditation on song. Julian’s story is bookended by powerful memories of the import of Billie Holiday’s music in his father’s life.
The novel is at its best when Julian muses on the power of music. “The songs now offered him, in exchange for all he had lost, the sensation that there was something still to long for, still, something still approaching....”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.