BLEAKER AND OBLIQUER: “The Song Is You” by Arthur Phillips (and other ramblings)

ALL RIGHT, ALRIGHT, “AAAIEET,” I’ve let the Exit Vector announce-ment sit for a week, it’s about time I press forward. Thanks to everybody for the words of faith and encouragement. Sorry for posting so little for so much of May. Amends forthcoming, including site upgrades—say goodbye to that Comedian pic, above, for starters—stand by also for improved links, the official launch of FIRES OF VENUS, weekly postings for Exit Vector, and a semi-regular book review column (thinking of calling it DOCUMENTIA, we’ll see), because I have been WAY remiss in finding and sharing cool shit, I’ve enjoyed the heavy lifting and intrepid investigations of others (VanderMeer and Ellis, for two) whilst not lending a hand or lifting a finger. So, inserting money into mouth, let’s kick it off with

 

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Julian Donahue loves music. Good music. Blame his dad, who managed to make it onto a Billie Holiday album by screaming a request (“WATER- FRONT!”) from the audience and spinning the event (and the rarity of the recording) into the stuff of myth for young Julian. But after a lifelong love-affair with the tunes via LPs, tapes, his Walkman, and finally his iPod, Julian’s more than just a bit burned-out, jaded, cynical. It’s not the fault of the music, just the circumstances of his life: a talented filmmaker, he makes boatloads of money lensing super-slick TV commercials (to Julian’s credit and to the dismay of his former film-school buds, he sees little distinction between “commercial” art and Art). Also, there’s the minor, niggling, troubling matter of the death of his son and subsequent disintegration of his marriage… yeah, that would do it. Julian’s certain that he’s lost the capacity to ever yearn for anything—or anyone—ever again. Until (in dire need of emptying his bladder), he ducks into a Williamsburg club and happens to catch the fetching Cait O’Dwyer and her band tuning up and belting out some surprisingly promising songs to the shadows of the club. Julian’s not full-blown smitten, but curious enough to catch a second performance a few weeks later, this time at a noticeably better-attended venue. With the help of a few drinks (and the news that Cait’s been recently signed) Julian’s initial instincts are confirmed: Cait O’Dwyer  is a rare and vulnerable talent, a newborn star ascending a treacherous sky. Julian, still with one foot in the hinterlands of doubt and boredom, takes it upon himself to scribble bits of advice, each with a cartoon drawn on coasters:  

#1: Indulge no one’s taste but your own. #2: Never fear being loathed or broke. #3: Repeat only what is essential; discard mercilessly. #4: Sing only what you can feel, or less. #5: Hate us without trepidation. #6: All advice is wrong, even this: a little makeup would not go astray. #7: Never admit to your influences, not dear Mum or Da, nor the Virgin Mary (competition). #8 Laugh when others think you should cry—we will gladly connect the dots. #9: Even now, cooing, swooning ghouls of goodwill scheme to destroy you. (and) #10: Oh! Bleaker and obliquer.

Coaster #10 is adorned with an illustration of “a glowing and levitating archangel of destruction spewing flames from her mouth, combusting saucer-eyed young men in flannel shirts, while a fellow with a clipboard and an embroidered J.D. on his lab coat’s lapel nods approvingly, though still not impressed, perhaps a little tired.” Man! Those must be big coasters! Anyway, Julian’s fairly sure that Cait would at least see his coasters of wisdom before tossing them. Cait not only sees them, she takes the coasters as the pearls they are, dispatches from the front lines scribbled by an older, weary—yet wise—veteran. In short order she has a new song, Bleaker and Obliquer, and the game is on between Artist and Muse, Performer and Critic, the Love and the Lover.

I read a lot of reviews of SONG before I finally got my hands on a copy—long waiting list at my library—and a whole bunch of critics harped on the “creepiness” of the situation described above, likening it to a journal of “stalking,” that the book is (I shall paraphrase) a “blurring of boundaries between fandom and fetishism,” or some such nonsense (I’ll take the blame for the alliteration) to which I respond, oh, phooey. THE SONG IS YOU is so much more than a tedious game of “Cait and mouse,” like, oh if I leave my key under the mat will my number one fan sneak inside and slice me up yadda yadda yet, yet yet! There is a game in play here, a dead-serious game about the mystery and allure of art, that if either player reveals too much the spell will be broken, that one or the other might be revealed for the fraud that he or she might be, a prospect that terrifies both Cait and Julian, for they seek nothing less than validation in the other’s eyes. This would all be so much hoo-ha in the hands of lesser writers, but the dexterous, laser-sharp wit and poignancy of Phillip’s prose is nothing less than exhilarating… all right, Phillips hit the hoo-ha button in one scene detailing Julian and his estranged wife on what Julian thought was a blind date, but structurally the novel needed that scene dressed precisely so: it’s icky, and we’d rather not be present, thank you; perhaps a more cynical writer would have hit the delete key on that scene altogether, but Phillips is smart and brave enough to know that a proper investigation of the human heart has to involve such ickiness, cornball and all, and I applaud him for it. I applaud him for the whole damn book. And since this the first damn book review I’ve ever written, let me wrap it up with what I’M SURE is a big no-no of critical writing, but fuck it: This is a wicked good book, it’s wicked fucking funny, wicked fucking heartbreaking, and I, for one, still yearn to yearn. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for No. I will be with you again, I will begin again No. I still yearn to yearn, man, and this book did it for me LOUD.

 

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ARTHUR PHILLIPS, the good-looking bastard behind THE SONG IS YOU

4 Comments

  1. Hey – you were right – I did enjoy that.

    Thank you very much – it feels great to be read like that.

    Arthur

    • Um, my pleasure, Arthur Phillips!! The paper edition of SONG looks great. I hope you are rocking out, wherever you are!

  2. Okay, Drax, I believe you, and I’ve just put The Song is You on hold at my local library. I’m intrigued by the premise, described in book reviews I’ve just read, and your exacting review. Thanks for drawing the book and the author to my attention. And, isn’t it great, for Arthur to have found you, and read your review?

  3. He won’t let you down, Annie. It is an exhilarating read. I am happy to spread the word about well-ordered and right words.


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