In The Song Is You, Arthur Phillips has inscribed a 21st century myth of courtly love, as only he can. Phillips' sharp prose style, shunning any fuzziness, forces the reader to confront his best hopes and worst fears about the most transcendent of human experiences.
At 45, Julian Donahue is a successful Manhattan advertising director, peddling the usual commercial dreck. He is recently separated from his wife, Rachel, after the death of their infant son. An older brother, Aidan, well-meaning but obtuse, makes fumbling attempts to bring the couple back together. Julian is almost past the worst of his grieving.
Enter Cait O'Dwyer, a beautiful 21-year-old Irish rock singer on the cusp of major celebrity. Julian first hears her on a snowy evening at a Brooklyn bar. Then, through the magic of the iPod, Cait's songs shuffle up with messages that seem designed for his hearing alone. Later, at another bar, Julian anonymously writes directorial instructions on 10 coasters for Cait, to help her handle growing celebrity and pressure. The most cryptic of these messages, "Bleaker and Obliquer," Cait later chooses as a song title.
Thus begins one of the strangest modern fictional relationships, one never meant to be consummated, just as in the tradition of medieval courtly love, where the pursuit was the substance, not necessarily sexual gratification.
For Phillips to choose this mode suggests that he is skeptical whether physical love can remain satisfactory for long in this age of media intermediations. The medievalists were perhaps the first virtualists; Phillips returns to that convention to pose heart-shattering questions about all we are losing as our mania for self-promotion via virtual identities is erasing our foothold on humanity after several centuries of rationalism.
In the typical romantic story, boy meets girl and complications ensue. In this book, boy never meets girl. They both set out to prove themselves worthy of love, like the medievalists, and never quite reach the goal. It is never clear who is pursuing whom, or whether the means are creepy or elevated.
A greasy police detective, Stan, hired by the band's overprotective guitarist, Ian, misrepresents Julian as a stalker and is immune to the charms of Cait's music. A washed-up rock singer, Alec Stamford, is also pursuing Cait — or is he? — though Alec is pathetic, his vain attempts at self-promotion unable to keep up with contemporary celebrity culture's speed.
Boy can never meet girl because digital media filter perceptions. The time never seems right, the expectations keep rising, and the self-images keep forever shifting. This is the condition today not only of the Manhattan elites Phillips writes about, but of all of us, to the extent that we engage with the media.
Julian follows Cait through her blog, resenting the snarky comments of "doubtfulguest," who turns out to be Cait herself, addressing her own insecurities. He signs on to a text messaging service, alerting him to Cait's sightings in real time. In the novel's climax, when Julian follows Cait across Europe from Dublin to Budapest in search of the right time and place to finally meet, is he a sad groupie like Alec (or worse), or a noble, medieval lover, worthy of our deepest admiration?
The analogy extends to all forms of art. Phillips' prose is very supple and insinuating in that regard. A peak event in Julian's dead father's life — a 1953 concert by Billie Holiday, where the young soldier, about to lose his leg in Korea, makes a request for her to sing I Cover the Waterfront — opens and closes the book. In a moment of fleeting doubt about Cait's greatness, Julian reflects: "The only real ones, the pure ones, were the dead ones."
If we truly believed this, there would be no music or art — and no love. But not to believe it is to deprive ourselves of the means to measure the depth of our emotions. We believe that every great artist has an audience of only one — ourselves — which is both profoundly true and untrue.
Phillips has risked much, and won nearly the whole game. The reader will come away exhilarated, by glimpses that suffice for the whole, by patterns that elude the makers, by a cycle of consummation that eludes the voracious realist.
Anis Shivani's book, "Anatolia and Other Stories," will be published by Black Lawrence Press in September.