Wednesday 12 March 2008

voice of the nation

The Time of Our Singing
by Richard Powers

I have a lot of time for Richard Powers (and with the size of some of his novels you need it). The Goldbug Variations remains one of the most stimulating books I have read. Stimulating because through its dense prose and heavy science there was so much that got my brain firing and all of it structured perfectly with the precision and beauty of a piece of music. Reading his other books has always been an educational experience but they have always seemed to fall short of the emotion and transcendence achieved in that first one I read. I was hoping that a return to music would provide me with an opportunity to sing his praises anew. I should first say that this is a vast book, bursting with ideas and with a non-linear structure, thus making a cogent, comprehensive review almost impossible. So bear with me.

This novel combines the themes of race, music and the general theory of relativity in a narrative which jumps back and forth through time almost to demonstrate the ability of time to fold back on itself. At its core it is a family saga, a family created from the unlikely pairing of David Strom, a German Jew, lucky to have escaped his homeland in the run up to war and Delia Daley a young black woman. They meet in 1939 during the concert performance of Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. It seems a fitting event for them to meet at a performance itself the result of racial prejudice. The spirit it embodies will have an impact on how they chose to live their lives together during this period of American history so important in terms of race and civil rights.

"A lightness rises, a way point in this gathering sea of dark, the darkness that belonging itself has made. For a moment, here, now, stretching down the length of the reflecting pool, bending along an arc from the shaft of the Washington Monument to the base of the Lincoln Memorial, curling down the banks of the Potomac behind her, a state takes shape, ad hoc, improvised, revolutionary, free - a notion, a nation that, for a few measures, in song at least, is everything it claims to be. This is the place her voice creates. The one in the words that come back to her at last. That sweet, elusive thee. Of thee I sing."

Delia is a singer, barred from professional success due to her colour but together with David she begins a family that they hope to raise 'beyond colour' schooling them at home. Jonah, the eldest boy, is a prodigiously talented singer. His brother Joe becomes his accompanist and baby Ruth is also a talented singer. But these three children will take very different trajectories in life. The two boys forge a career in lieder recitals and Ruth rejects her talents after a family tragedy and becomes politicised, joining the Black Panthers. There is conflict along the way between Delia and her parents about her methods of raising her family and this comes to a head when her father, Dr Daley, takes exception to David's involvement in the development of the atom bomb (the use of which he sees as a racist act). It is a split from which they never recover. Powers shows later with gut wrenching emotion the consequences of this divide between Delia's parents.

Following such a period of history means that we witness those landmark events such as the Watts riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and the Kennedy brothers, the Million Man March and the fall out from the Rodney King beating and trial. Powers works hard to conflate these experiences to show that history is ever present. David tells his sons 'the secret of time': 'Now is nothing but a very clever lie'. This results in a brave and original ending to the novel which brilliantly brings the story full circle, tiying it together within the fabric of time itself.

This is not a book free of faults. It is too long, but I can imagine an editor finding it hard to know where to apply the red pen. Powers could also never be accused of being a beautiful prose stylist but he certainly has his moments, particularly when describing those flash points of violence, or the power and emotion contained in mass gatherings. He also writes well as I have said before about music and there is plenty of it here, again covering a vast period of time from medieval chants to modern day rap. But perhaps the stongest parts of the book are where he succesfully connects to the full emotions contained within any family which suffers division, disappointment and grief. The three Strom children, raised initially in a self contained paradise, safe from the attacks of prejudice, are all affected in different ways by America's struggle through time to deal with race in all its colours.

When David and Delia first meet she tells him 'how it's all impossible, their seeing each other again. A mistake, to think any story ever finishes.' and Powers shows quite brilliantly in this extraordinary novel how progress; both socially, politically and through time itself is an illusory concept. But it doesn't stop us trying. As David, a man who has lost his entire family before the book begins, tells his sons 'You two will be anyone you want.'


John Self 13 March 2008 at 10:01  

Excellent stuff. As you know I tried and failed with this one a while back, and now feel both relieved that you've-read-it-so-I-don't-need-to and frustrated because I wish I had gone through it for the more interesting bits you relate. But I would probably have been so irritated by the word-bloat that I wouldn't have appreciated them.

Still, "this novel combines the themes of race, music and the general theory of relativity" and how often can you say that? Outside the works of Andrew Crumey, that is...

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