’Mama,” asks JonahStrom, the prodigy who’s the centralactor—or rather singer—in RichardPowers’s new novel, The Time of OurSinging, “you are a Negro, right? AndDa’s some kind of Jewish guy. What exactly doesthat make me?”
The Time of Our Singing is an extended seminaron this question. It’s a Ken Burns documentaryin the form of a novel, featuring a full syllabus ofAmerican history from 1940 on, with a double major inclassical musicology (emphasis on voice) and electivesin nuclear physics and mathematics and the fate ofEastern European Jewry in the Holocaust. For someyears, Powers has been on a forced march through theAmerican experience—writing novels (Gainwas about American capitalism, The Gold BugVariations about genetics, Galatea 2.2about computer science) in which the characters arenot so much people as topics, subjects, fields ofstudy. This is his race novel, and it’s a sombermonument of a book, its handsome, understated jacketsuggesting the worthy searching that takes placewithin.
The Strom family was formed when David Strom, aphysicist and mathematician who’d fled theNazis, went to Washington to hear Marian Anderson, thegreat black contralto, sing at the Mall in 1939(she’d been banished outdoors by the Daughtersof the American Revolution). One hundred thousandpeople showed up to hear her sing, including Delia,daughter of an eminent black doctor, who herself has aprodigious, potentially Marian Anderson–sizevocal gift. When Delia takes David home to meet thefamily, pork roast is on the menu—and Strom, itturns out, loves the other white meat. The family isconceived (all senses make sense) as a near-utopian,post-racial, post-kosher music-making avatar(“There is no such thing as race,” DavidStrom says at one point. “Race is only real ifyou freeze time, if you invent a zero point for yourtribe”). Complications inevitably ensue. Powers invents Jonah as one of the great singers ofthe age. His brother, Joey, who narrates much of thebook, looking back from the present, is his pianoaccompanist, but he never comes to life as a person.He’s a pair of eyes and ears (and, of course,hands), there to record Jonah’s struggles forposterity.
Even Trent Lott might tear up—even out of camerarange—reading about the struggles of thesecharacters. While the boys attempt to lose themselvesin the music their parents have trained them for, theworld keeps noticing that they’re different.Their talents and interests are measured and qualifiedagainst their color. They don’t belong to eitherthe white or the black world. The premise has promise,but Powers has taken a shortcut to making themsingular—he’s made them gifted. A sizablefraction of the book is devoted to superlatives aboutJonah’s talent (though Powers does manage, asfew have, to get down in words the excitement ofmaking music). David Strom is one of the most eminentthinkers of his time, a predictably kindly,predictably absent-minded, predictably disheveledprofessor at Columbia who “solves a thousandunsolved problems” and who’s working atthe furthest reaches of the general theory ofrelativity. They’re walking, talking superegos, pure ofheart, strong of spirit. We admire them—whowouldn’t?—but their perfection makes them alittle hard to relate to. And when they are on theirpedestals, Powers always has them striking nobleposes. When one of Delia’s sons asks aninconvenient question, Powers has her “look offto whatever place lay beyond sound,” whereverthat is. One keeps hoping for Philip Roth (or ChrisRock) to take over the proceedings and put insomething funny—the abundant bad classical-musicpuns don’t count.There is also an often cloying soundtrack ofhistorical heavy breathing. “The country stilldozes in its last pretended innocence,” Powerswrites early on. Or: “If any voice could havesent a message back to warn the past and correct theunmade future, it would have been mybrother’s.” When David Strom and hisdaughter, Ruth, are listening to Martin Luther Kingspeaking on the Mall, Powers writes, “Theblack-Jewish alliance is crumbling all aroundthem.” Whenever a great event goes down, from the buildingof the A-bomb to the Watts riot, there seems to be aStrom on hand to experience it. Albert Einsteinhimself comes to play his violin one night with theStrom household. “Yes, the boy hastalent,” he observes about Jonah. The charactersoften manifest a surprising knowledge of their ownhistorical circumstances. “In America only ayear,” David Strom thinks that “he mightcome to say my country more easily than half ofthose he passes, people who arrived here twelvegenerations ago, on someone else’s travelplan.” And too often in this weepy novel, one is alarmed todiscover that the lump in one’s throat isactually a large, semi-digested wad of mismatchedimages—metaphorical miscegenation, still andalways a sin before God and copy editor. Here’sPowers on the performance of Jonah and Joey’schoral group: “When we were hitting on allcylinders, Jonah blessed us. Tied to his omnipotenttenor, we might travel anywhere, run any theft. Butwhen we were off, falling back to earth in a fieryball like Icarus, his patience grew as thin as asnake’s skin. Then six bruised egos spent hourstrying to coax the damn carcass back to lifeagain.” Or later, once again in front of the Lincoln Memorial:“American Dream and American Reality square off,their long trajectories arcing toward midaircollision. The ancient ship of state, gone too longwithout a hull scrape, groaned at anchor lastnight.” Whether the ancient ship of state ever got that hullscrape is perhaps a matter for Powers’s nextbook—the nautical novel. But by the end of thesixties, the good ship Strom has all but foundered.Sister Ruth becomes a Black Panther. Joey becomes alounge piano player in Atlantic City, then joinsforces again with Jonah, who’s moved to Europeand started a seminal early-music ensemble, then outto join Ruth to teach music at the school she’sfounded in Oakland. A generation later, the family produces a grandson whoclosely resembles (heavily tattooed middle-classgangster rapper from Oakland whose mother was a BlackPanther) a young Tupac Shakur. But by this point, manya reader, having long since succumbed to compassionfatigue, will suffer from irony fatigue as well. The emotion in this book often seems to have aborrowed, air-guitarish quality. There’s passion here—too much, probably—butit’s finally a novel of received ideas.
Respect in a World of Inequality, by RichardSennett, the NYU sociologist and novelist, is a workof nonfiction, but with an uncannily similar set ofthemes. It is part argument about race, part personaland musical memoir, part political-philosophy essay.Sennett grew up in Chicago’s notorious,now-destroyed Cabrini-Green housing projects in theforties, back when they were a way station en route tothe American dream and not the dead end they became.He lived in a house filled with books; his fatherfought in the Spanish Civil War with an uncle. In1964, faced with a tightening of the tendons in hiswrist, Sennett, a talented musician if not a prodigy,decided to have an operation. It was botched, ruininghis chances for a musical career. But the disciplineof music pushed him toward higher education and lefthim, in this book, with a sense of specialness as wellas a musical metaphor for respect between people ofdiffering gifts and abilities—the differentinstruments in an ensemble. Sennett’s centralquestion is why, in America, neediness has been sostigmatized, and his book provides an extensive,occasionally fascinating, often woolly exegesis of thepolitical and religious underpinnings of charity andwelfare. But for all its erudition, he never quitemanages to bring his argument back to bear on what wesee in front of us, the political realities of thewelfare system of the twenty-first century. Rather,what’s most compelling in this book isSennett’s modernist sense of loss. What happenedto the old neighborhood? Why couldn’t their newneighbors from the South be accommodated? And how didwe get from there, with all our good intentions, tohere? This is obviously still a tormenting question,most of all to those who lived through it.