'Mama,” asks Jonah Strom, the prodigy who’s the central actoror rather singerin Richard Powers’s new novel, The Time of Our Singing, “you are a Negro, right? And Da’s some kind of Jewish guy. What exactly does that make me?”
The Time of Our Singing is an extended seminar on this question. It’s a Ken Burns documentary in the form of a novel, featuring a full syllabus of American history from 1940 on, with a double major in classical musicology (emphasis on voice) and electives in nuclear physics and mathematics and the fate of Eastern European Jewry in the Holocaust. For some years, Powers has been on a forced march through the American experiencewriting novels (Gain was about American capitalism, The Gold Bug Variations about genetics, Galatea 2.2 about computer science) in which the characters are not so much people as topics, subjects, fields of study. This is his race novel, and it’s a somber monument of a book, its handsome, understated jacket suggesting the worthy searching that takes place within.
The Strom family was formed when David Strom, a physicist and mathematician who’d fled the Nazis, went to Washington to hear Marian Anderson, the great black contralto, sing at the Mall in 1939 (she’d been banished outdoors by the Daughters of the American Revolution). One hundred thousand people showed up to hear her sing, including Delia, daughter of an eminent black doctor, who herself has a prodigious, potentially Marian Anderson–size vocal gift. When Delia takes David home to meet the family, pork roast is on the menuand Strom, it turns out, loves the other white meat. The family is conceived (all senses make sense) as a near-utopian, post-racial, post-kosher music-making avatar (“There is no such thing as race,” David Strom says at one point. “Race is only real if you freeze time, if you invent a zero point for your tribe”). Complications inevitably ensue.
Powers invents Jonah as one of the great singers of the age. His brother, Joey, who narrates much of the book, looking back from the present, is his piano accompanist, 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 for posterity.
Even Trent Lott might tear upeven out of camera rangereading about the struggles of these characters. While the boys attempt to lose themselves in the music their parents have trained them for, the world keeps noticing that they’re different. Their talents and interests are measured and qualified against their color. They don’t belong to either the white or the black world. The premise has promise, but Powers has taken a shortcut to making them singularhe’s made them gifted. A sizable fraction of the book is devoted to superlatives about Jonah’s talent (though Powers does manage, as few have, to get down in words the excitement of making music). David Strom is one of the most eminent thinkers of his time, a predictably kindly, predictably absent-minded, predictably disheveled professor at Columbia who “solves a thousand unsolved problems” and who’s working at the furthest reaches of the general theory of relativity.
They’re walking, talking superegos, pure of heart, strong of spirit. We admire themwho wouldn’t?but their perfection makes them a little hard to relate to. And when they are on their pedestals, Powers always has them striking noble poses. When one of Delia’s sons asks an inconvenient question, Powers has her “look off to whatever place lay beyond sound,” wherever that is. One keeps hoping for Philip Roth (or Chris Rock) to take over the proceedings and put in something funnythe abundant bad classical-music puns don’t count.
There is also an often cloying soundtrack of historical heavy breathing. “The country still dozes in its last pretended innocence,” Powers writes early on. Or: “If any voice could have sent a message back to warn the past and correct the unmade future, it would have been my brother’s.” When David Strom and his daughter, Ruth, are listening to Martin Luther King speaking on the Mall, Powers writes, “The black-Jewish alliance is crumbling all around them.”
Whenever a great event goes down, from the building of the A-bomb to the Watts riot, there seems to be a Strom on hand to experience it. Albert Einstein himself comes to play his violin one night with the Strom household. “Yes, the boy has talent,” he observes about Jonah. The characters often manifest a surprising knowledge of their own historical circumstances. “In America only a year,” David Strom thinks that “he might come to say my country more easily than half of those he passes, people who arrived here twelve generations ago, on someone else’s travel plan.”
And too often in this weepy novel, one is alarmed to discover that the lump in one’s throat is actually a large, semi-digested wad of mismatched imagesmetaphorical miscegenation, still and always a sin before God and copy editor. Here’s Powers on the performance of Jonah and Joey’s choral group: “When we were hitting on all cylinders, Jonah blessed us. Tied to his omnipotent tenor, we might travel anywhere, run any theft. But when we were off, falling back to earth in a fiery ball like Icarus, his patience grew as thin as a snake’s skin. Then six bruised egos spent hours trying to coax the damn carcass back to life again.”
Or later, once again in front of the Lincoln Memorial: “American Dream and American Reality square off, their long trajectories arcing toward midair collision. The ancient ship of state, gone too long without a hull scrape, groaned at anchor last night.”
Whether the ancient ship of state ever got that hull scrape is perhaps a matter for Powers’s next bookthe nautical novel. But by the end of the sixties, the good ship Strom has all but foundered. Sister Ruth becomes a Black Panther. Joey becomes a lounge piano player in Atlantic City, then joins forces again with Jonah, who’s moved to Europe and started a seminal early-music ensemble, then out to join Ruth to teach music at the school she’s founded in Oakland.
A generation later, the family produces a grandson who closely resembles (heavily tattooed middle-class gangster rapper from Oakland whose mother was a Black Panther) a young Tupac Shakur. But by this point, many a reader, having long since succumbed to compassion fatigue, will suffer from irony fatigue as well.
The emotion in this book often seems to have a borrowed, air-guitarish quality. There’s passion heretoo much, probablybut it’s finally a novel of received ideas.
Respect in a World of Inequality, by Richard Sennett, the NYU sociologist and novelist, is a work of nonfiction, but with an uncannily similar set of themes. It is part argument about race, part personal and musical memoir, part political-philosophy essay. Sennett grew up in Chicago’s notorious, now-destroyed Cabrini-Green housing projects in the forties, back when they were a way station en route to the American dream and not the dead end they became. He lived in a house filled with books; his father fought in the Spanish Civil War with an uncle. In 1964, faced with a tightening of the tendons in his wrist, Sennett, a talented musician if not a prodigy, decided to have an operation. It was botched, ruining his chances for a musical career. But the discipline of music pushed him toward higher education and left him, in this book, with a sense of specialness as well as a musical metaphor for respect between people of differing gifts and abilitiesthe different instruments in an ensemble. Sennett’s central question is why, in America, neediness has been so stigmatized, and his book provides an extensive, occasionally fascinating, often woolly exegesis of the political and religious underpinnings of charity and welfare. But for all its erudition, he never quite manages to bring his argument back to bear on what we see in front of us, the political realities of the welfare system of the twenty-first century. Rather, what’s most compelling in this book is Sennett’s modernist sense of loss. What happened to the old neighborhood? Why couldn’t their new neighbors from the South be accommodated? And how did we get from there, with all our good intentions, to here? This is obviously still a tormenting question, most of all to those who lived through it.