The soundtrack to a life in progress

Arthur Phillips spins a darkly comic tale about courtship in modern times. Arthur Phillips spins a darkly comic tale about courtship in modern times. (ANNA WEISE)
By By Julie Wittes Schlack
April 11, 2009
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For the first two-thirds of "The Song Is You," I kept thinking that if I had an iPod and a Y chromosome, I would understand and love this book, that I would glide over its pages instead of slogging through it with an ever-changing mix of appreciation, exasperation, and just plain perplexity. But by the end, I'd surrendered to its slow and sneaky pace, its oblique eroticism, its self-conscious but undeniable cleverness, and, yes, even become a grudging fan of its author, Arthur Phillips, a five-time "Jeopardy!" champion with three other critically acclaimed novels.

I say grudging because early on his narrator refers to "that greatest of all human inventions, the iPod," which raised questions about whether this novel is just an ingenious experiment in attracting Gen Y readers through product placement. (The book's playlist, available on iTunes, its references to iPods too numerous to count, and its publicist's breathless announcement of the many, many song titles woven into its text did little to quell that suspicion). But while it may indeed be part marketing ploy, "The Song Is You" is also a darkly comic tale of courtship in the electronic age and a textured portrait of man coming to terms with aging and loss.

Julian Donahue is a New York-based director of television commercials. Estranged from his wife, Rachel, after the death of their young son, he is sexually and emotionally incapacitated, more plugged in to his music player than into his work or relationships because, 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."

Ducking into a Brooklyn bar one snowy night, he sees a performance by Cait O'Dwyer, a singer-songwriter in her early 20s. She is beautiful, blazing with talent, as fiery as he is frozen. A master of inducing longing (he is, after all, a commercial director), Julian drunkenly scrawls a series of professional tips to the young singer on a set of bar coasters. Soon after, he hears some of his words incorporated as lyrics to one of her songs, and so their mating ritual begins. He calls her on the phone when she is volunteering for an on-air fund-raising drive. They exchange e-mails, voice mails, browser bookmarks, blog posts, forum comments, their digital dance becoming ever more obsessive and charged. For Julian, her "disembodied voice filters all feeling and also causes it . . . he comes to crave the voice because it reveals the feelings that he could not find in silence."

Creating an alienated (and alienating) protagonist is always a risky business. But Phillips deftly pulls off this balancing act, infusing his secondary characters with vitality. And as we see more of the earlier Julian as a son and father, as he pulls "the plugs out of the holes in his head," the novel makes a snaking ascent to a perfect climax. We are told a fable that Julian's father told him and he told his son, in which a young man is ordered to leave the monastery where he has taken refuge and claimed to have found happiness.

"No, you have only learned to hide your unhappiness and form dreams from it instead," the monk tells the novice.

That line of wisdom is not a song on the iTunes playlist, but it is what resonates most.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.


By Arthur Phillips

Random House, 254 pp., $25