If Arthur Phillips’s fourth and latest novel, The Song Is You, were to spontaneously transmogrify into music, I’d wager a bet that it would take the form of a pop-infused iPod playlist. The two are kindred spirits for the most obvious reasons. The fortysomething Julian Donahue roams Brooklyn streets, dog runs, and subway cars always with earbuds attached. Popular song lyrics are embedded and alluded to within the text. And while music plays a constant background role, it also provides the foreground’s milieu. To begin: Julian inherits his enchantment with music from his father, who met his mother at a Billie Holidayconcert, after shouting a song request that Holiday honored – an act later immortalized on a live album. When Julian first moves to Brooklyn, his frequent walks along the Promenade are accompanied by the score on his Walkman; during one of these strolls, on an auspicious day (after directing his first television commercial), he experiences “the sensation that he might never be so happy as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True Love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that.”
Fast-forward many years, and Julian has married and separated, and has seen his young son die. His hope and vibrancy dissipated but his connection to music remains a consolation. And then one day at a local bar, he stumbles upon a band destined for larger venues and greater media attention. The singer, Cait O’Dwyer, acts a siren to Julian’s solitary soul; his fascination with her develops as he listens to her songs. While Cait’s catchy tunes play and replay in his mind, and on his Ipod, thoughts of her repeat on a loop.
Music fuels Julian’s obsession, and he attempts to woo Cait with advice, anonymously and somewhat accidentally at first, in the form of ten illustrated coasters upon which he writes tenets to enhance her rock-star persona. Julian knows nothing if not how to wield the power of an image, knowledge acquired from his work directing television commercials. He has perfected his ability to use images to evoke longing – for hair conditioner, floor cleaner, and the like – and now Cait O’Dwyer. With Cait, he’s motivated by his desire, as she is both the source of his desire and the raw material he hopes to refine.
Obsession and longing preoccupy Julian as he falls deeper into his infatuation. Cait returns the admiration, but to a lesser degree. She’s smart enough to recognize the wisdom of his advice, and to value his counsel. And yet, Julian’s desire to know her leads him into a series of escalating attempts to if not meet her at least to see her. He finds her apartment, observes from a bench as she walks her dog, and snaps candid photos that he later sends to her. By the time he lets himself into her apartment using the key she leaves under her doormat (a location she reveals in song lyrics), one would think he’s stepped over a line. He sifts through her apartment and cooks her dinner but she never shows. He thought she’d invited him with her lyrics, and it seems that she did, but all the same, by this point, how is it possible to consider the narrator entirely reliable?
Isolation also plays a role in the confusion as well. As the opening lines of the first chapter state, “Julian Donahue’s generation were the pioneers of portable headphone music, and he began carrying with him everywhere the soundtrack to his days when he was fifteen.” Much of the time he is plugged in to music, and much of the novel resides within Julian’s mind. As his obsession grows, he has a few encounters with other people, but mostly he ruminates and reflects and observes. There is a meeting with his estranged wife, Rachel, as well as conversations with his genius though socially awkward brother, Aidan. But throughout, Julian remains mum on all fronts regarding his obsession with Cait, to whom he writes notes and about whom he drafts defenses of on messages boards till the wee hours.
As a voyeur, Julian is impenetrable: he reveals his infatuation with Cait to no one, and he lurks like a stalker, watching her from afar, fantasizing about her, but never meeting her. This becomes more interesting when it seems he may be devolving into obsessive madness. Still, for all that Phillips does to lead the reader to wonder whether Julian has truly lost his mind, at the last minute there’s a quixotic save, which makes the story tie together so nicely, unbelievably so.
At times Julian’s interiority and inscrutability evokes a Proustian inwardness as well as one of Robbe-Grillet’s voyeurs, and yet these allusions are superficial; neither conceit is employed to great effect within this narrative. And so, after the contrived climax, the narrative resolves into a somewhat expected although rather abrupt end. Page-by-page the novel is immensely readable – the scenes limned of Brooklyn streets and city life are vivid, the members of Julian’s family are compelling, at times fascinating – but the sum of the parts doesn’t add up to much. This is another way the novel evokes a pop song. Phillips’s writing is descriptive, compelling, proficient, but there’s little substance anchoring the scenes. The end result is akin to the disquieting feeling I get after eating half a box of Krispy Kreme donuts – the anticipation and consumption, though delightful at points, has delivered me into a stultified malaise.