by Richard Powers

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2003)

[an earlier version of this review appeared in The Redwood Coast Review]

Often presented as if merely the extemporaneous revelations of the narrator’s unchecked thoughts, The Time of Our Singing carries its mighty themes home con brio and with great artistry. Attention to literary matters may even seem too detached an approach toward apprehending such a passionate work of art, shot through with cris du cœur. Yet I marvel at the innovations of form that Richard Powers puts to good use in order to communicate his humane, disturbing vision of our situation vis-à-vis Race in North America today. What else but writerly craft is at work in this novel, sustaining a momentum that persuades us that it lives a vibrant life and sings with a compelling voice—or chorus of voices—all its own? What else but the author’s artful registration of thought in language specific to his story, language belonging to the characters of this story, especially evident when Joseph Strom, his storyteller, expresses bafflement at and during the course of events contemporaneous to his own narration. This facsimile of pure verbal improvisation is a stunning accomplishment but only one example of Powers’ updating of a wide array of literary conventions, besting the supposed limitations of “The Novel” while delivering his chastening news: Complete success at individualistic forms of escape from the responsibilities of social existence is improbable; to the extent that it is possible at all, chronic escapism cripples our capacities as individuals and deforms society at large.

The author constructs his complex narrative as if he were building a mobile while the main piece keeps on spinning. Elaborate digressions and musicological excursions are hung;  linguistic playfulness is attached everywhere. Constantly catching up with his own words heard, Powers’ process of composition allows for the inclusion of all manner of preludes, reprises, bridges, and “covers” of previous passages—just no simple repetitions, please. The reader doesn’t have to come to the text with prior study or knowledge of the whole history of Western music in all its settings—sacred, concert, vernacular, street—but it might help! However, giving in to the forward surge of such prose is prerequisite to hearing the author’s lyricism, witnessing his dazzling ideation, reeling back at his fluent minting of analogies, and frequently shaking one’s head at the sheer profligacy of one-liners thrown away. As the dramatic movement in Verdi’s later operatic masterpieces did not allow the composer to develop each melodic invention tossed off along the way, so Powers’ fountain of imagination jet-sprays an embarrassment of riches that spatter beyond the basin’s rim—shining coins all, no clinkers.

The Strom-Daley family saga is ultimately told in its devastating entirety, detailing the parents’ failed attempt to raise mixed-race children harmoniously, as if the surrounding society would turn a color-blind eye upon such a noble aspiration. The Time of Our Singing possesses a beginning, middle, and end, just not in that order. Instead, the narration typically settles into an historical present in which the exposition of past and present is fluidly introduced, handled so deftly as to make its default application in much contemporary fiction ring hollow. Readers who are annoyed or perhaps inured to narrative delivered in an awkward present tense that sounds forced and phony—like a cheap gimmick relied upon to induce dramatic tension otherwise missing in action—should enjoy its expert usage here.

I confess that, midway through this tome (the paperback edition weighs in at 631 pages), there were occasions when I did delay picking it up again. I couldn’t always chance being so disturbed by its forceful imagery or so engrossed by its heart-rending drama as to be kept from sleeping that night. Or I simply didn’t feel I had the wherewithal to follow its prose lines’ arabesques, so to fathom the greater rhythm of ideas relentlessly developed in passage upon passage. Nor could I pinpoint what about the writing—besides the daunting proliferation of new ideas presented in passing—was taking Powers so damned long!

Once upon a time, I indiscriminately tuned my adolescent ears to Kerouac’s bop prosody and cut my teenaged teeth on Ginsberg’s reality sandwiches. Nowadays, I am less patient with “theaters of impatience” (Edward Dorn), less enamored of Kerouac’s reckless self-indulgence and Ginsberg’s sensationalist shock tactics, although forgivable bad habits of two tremendous pioneers. I found myself questioning if the book wasn’t yet more proof that word-processing technology begets prolixity in print! Somewhere along the line, frustrated by what seemed to me unjustifiable longueurs, I started editing. I thought to improve upon The Time of Our Singing with some of my own mental cutting, pasting, and deleting; my efforts failed. The changes didn’t work, not conceptually, not structurally, not line-by-line. To pluck out individual tiles from this book’s complex mosaic was beyond me: the organic whole resisted dismantling. Through his text the author informed me: You take me as I am or not at all. What a relief to surrender to its mobile musicality without such small-minded preoccupations, to listen to its discourses on diverse music, to applaud its excoriation of conventional schooling, to shudder at its damning biopsy of contemporary careerism—a carefully modulated rendition reminiscent of Stendhal’s depiction of conflicted ambition in Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black.

With time and tools one could compile a concordance of the novel’s leitmotifs, create a comprehensive glossary of its chapter titles, and search out variant recordings of the many musical pieces and performances intricately interwoven into the tale. Hugo’s Misérables suggests the scale and scope of The Time of Our Singing: the cast of characters is that vast and memorable; the reportage of 20th century history, simply authoritative. Powers doesn’t seem to have deigned to consider the oft-bemoaned and sometimes celebrated demise of “The Great Novel.” Rather, he keeps its machinery in good working order, salvaging its best parts from the bone yard in order to engage the private reader in a public debate. Through characterization—the world rendered real from inside out—this thoroughly present-day yet fundamentally old-fashioned Bildungsroman demonstrates how faint a candle the social sciences of sociology, anthropology, and even psychology hold to literary and dramatic art forms when the latter are practiced by masters fearless of illuminating the fullest range of human experience.

In The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers’ writing expresses the curiosity, courage, skill, and deep need to explore what it is to be an American Black, an American Jew, both, neither, both and neither. The moral of the story? That neither institutionalized privilege nor personal dedication entitle or enable any one of us to deny the human potential of another human being without doing damage to ourselves. The novel accepts the challenge of Dr. King’s dream of carrying us all beyond color but only by carrying us all through color, sometimes having to drag us through all our colors to do so. The cautionary warning? That our not-so-pretty American story is far from over.