Arthur Phillips' new novel, The Song Is You, chronicles the love triangle between an unlikely trio — Julian Donahue, an aging commercial director, Cait O'Dwyer, a fiery young songwriter, and the iPod, that mistress of many tunes. The Song Is You accomplishes the unusual task of being a book about music without being about music history or musicianship. Instead, Phillips has focused his pen on the poetic, intangible relationship between listener and tune.
The iPod may be the least tactile of musical experiences, a fact Phillips works eloquently into his story. You can't touch an MP3, at least not in the way you touch an LP or electric guitar. Yet, the iPod is a deeply sensual experience for Julian, causing his "hunger for music [to] become more urgent, less a daily pleasure than a daily craving." The strange, technological quality of intimate distance, of being so close to something impossible to touch, is acted out by Julian and Cait, who orbit around one another without physically crossing paths. Julian communes with her voice on his iPod, while leaving Cait a trail of his muselike advice through cocktail napkins, text messages, and the random anonymous phone call.
Phillips handles the admittedly strange love story with grace. Julian's poetic ruminations on music only occasionally gravitate toward banal sentimentality, though that may be the fault of a self-centered, vaguely misogynistic narrator more than the author. Though the primary love story is centered around Julian and Cait, The Song Is You teems with little love affairs and unrequited longings. Phillips' articulate prose and talent for structure keep the tangle of romantic interests clear for the reader.
Phillips pulled from his own experiences as a failed musician and music lover for The Song Is You. The passages about songwriting or close listening ring with authenticity without sounding pretentious. The author's passion is infectious, and compels one to put on a pair of headphones, crack the spine and press play.
The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips. Random House. $25. 250 pp.