The Bon Iver of Debut Novels

Reading between the lines.
May 5 2012 12:12 AM

Organized Noise

A debut novel attempts to visually represent the music inside its hero’s head.

120504_SBR_illo9PITARRAfinalversion2SOUND

While consuming art by conspicuously sensitive heterosexual guys, it's easy to wonder what it would be like to date them, given that their ideas of "sensitivity" are usually wrapped up in how they interact with and come off to the opposite sex. Are their romantic longings performative—that is, do they exist because of an uncontrollable urge, or because the men just want to look as if they feel them? Have they received their ideas of love not from thinking about the way human beings interact when they get close, but from received rhyming wisdoms put forth by put-upon troubadours? Might they, like Nigel Tufnel, get confused by the difference between "sexy" and "sexist"?

This is what I think as I listen to songs by the likes of Bon Iver and Girls. And these are the glimmers of doubt I felt throughout the process of reading Sound, a frustratingly gimmicky yet not flat-out terrible debut novel by T.M. Wolf. The book's hook is that it operates like a sound piece. "Polyphonic," the marketing people call it. "Polyfontic" is probably more appropriate, though.

Lines that mimic musical staffs crisscross the page, although they work more like a stretched-out set of stage directions: When dialogue occurs, each participant gets his own line and a different typeface. The internal monologue of Cincy Stiles, the 25-year-old grad-school dropout and protagonist, gets its own font when it periodically appears, sometimes arguing with itself; so, too, do the snatches of music and play-by-play baseball action that Wolf weaves throughout the text. This is meant to recreate a music-obsessive’s brain, but it mostly induces eye strain. Minute-long scenes get stretched out over multiple pages, and the tiresome technique comes to an almost self-parodic head near the book's climax, when a swarm of police offers yells out orders in a font that could best be called "Divey Irish Bar Sign."

Sound
Sound
by T.M. Wolf
Faber and Faber

Paging through Sound and its fussy layouts make the reader wish as much care had been given to character development as typesetting. Nowhere is this more apparent than when trying to dig for any non-surface qualities held by the book's love interest, to whom we are first introduced at a bus terminal. She is, of course, beautiful—Cincy later describes her as “about five-nine, slender and curved, like the curls of smoke rising from the flaring end of a cigarette”—and the mere sight of her is enough to inspire Cincy to summon D'Angelo lyrics in his head. But before you can say Voodoo, she's been whisked away by New Jersey Transit—although given that this non-meet-cute happens less than 10 pages into the action, it's obvious that the two will meet again.  

After a few hijinks and the introduction of the book's chief source of intrigue—the harborside business, where Cincy's snagged a job for the summer, has some shifty characters lurking around—the love object, named Vera, returns, at a bar with a jukebox conveniently stocked with Marvin Gaye. ("His voice was perfect. Just listen," she commands Cincy in her sans-serif font.) "Listening to her was like hearing my new favorite song for the first time," Cincy sighs to himself, although the lyrical contents of said song are only heard in snatches. But no matter: Phone numbers are exchanged.

A page from Sound, by T.M. Wolf.
A page from Sound, by T.M. Wolf.

Glimpses of Vera's actual character come but twice. First, during a stroll on the boardwalk, one of the few descriptions of their dates that doesn't dissolve into a montage of infatuated snapshots. Later, a scheduled date turns into Cincy getting roped into helping out at the homeless shelter where she works; his inner monologue indicates hostility toward the notion of Vera having an existence of which he’s not the focal point. Indeed, it's only later in the book, when she leaves her journal at his house after a late-night, mental-blue-ball-inducing record-listening session that he seems to care at all that she has an inner life—and then it's only because he's trying to figure out what he thinks of her.

Cincy's romantic narcissism seems anomalous, or at least unintentional; elsewhere in the book he seems smart enough, running the aforementioned harborside business, trying to outsmart the intensely corrupt local police force, and cracking wise with his childhood friends (on whom he kind of looks down, either for not getting out of their hometown or for actually having the balls to make music). Wolf has a clear affection for South Jersey, an area that can be downright bucolic during the summer, and his descriptions of the way the town's police force treats the local businesses like a collection of trick-ready yo-yos are keenly observed. The plot is a bit workmanlike, though—the identity of the "villain" among his co-workers becomes plainly obvious right away, mainly because it's not any of the people who the cops would think it would be—and the cutesy detailing turns the book's 350-plus pages into a chore.

Author T.M. Wolf.
Author T.M. Wolf.

Nora Wolf

Even discounting the font-related conceits, the self-satisfaction running throughout Sound deflates the dumb-me romantic pose put forth by its narrator. Snatches of radios blaring baseball have the announcer calling plays by American Leaguers past and present, a tic that could be cute but comes off as annoying. Chapters are named after Jay-Z tracks and Beach Boys records; Cincy owns albums by OutKast, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and various Wu-Tang members. He expresses skepticism toward a go-getter ad-world pal—even though he probably falls squarely in his friend's firm’s most-lusted-after demo. It's character definition by cultural checklist; it's also worth noting that when we see Vera at a record store, she picks up $12 worth of albums, and even though Cincy pays, we don't get to see what, exactly, she's buying.

The book's big finish has Cincy holing himself up in his room and writing "every night for weeks"; when he's done, he gets inspired to turn the adventures of his summer into a sound installation "recorded, produced, and arranged" (according to the book's faux title page) by his roommate. In the final moments of the novel, Cincy steps up to the microphone and utters the novel's first three words over again—the intimation being that, as one might with a favorite record, the reader should flip back to the book's beginning and start over again at Side A. (The book ends with the musical notation signifying repeat.) It's a cute gimmick, although one that lays bare the frustrations I experienced while reading Sound; if it had much to offer besides its look-at-me layouts and smug knowledge of Ghostface deep cuts, a second reading might be worth it. But the combination of its gimmicky, glib surface, its wince-worthy romantic ruminations, and headachey design make it more likely to collect dust than get multiple spins.

Maura Johnston is the editor of Maura Magazine and an instructor at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

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