Friday, October 28, 2011

The Song is You

Posted by Kurt

This fascinating hipster love story isn't quite as charming as (500) Days of Summer, but I was enchanted by it anyway. The main protagonist (Julian) is a director with a self-consciously astounding collection of music on his iPod, and the novel is generally about his love for Cait, a young Irish rock star on the rise. Their courtship is truly unique, as he gives her hard advice to make her a better artist, and she begins writing the next steps of the relationship into her songs. As the love story develops, though, the book gets more complicated in unexpected but strangely inevitable ways. He follows her around like a man in love, and Phillips is a strong author who is able to subtly shift perspectives and introduce enough doubt to make the reader uncomfortably confront the idea that he may also be following her around like an unwanted stalker. What if, for example, an anonymous message was from some other admirer? What if he is creating his love's reciprocal feelings from inside his own head? It is occasionally nauseating and often creepy and kind of exactly how I think hipster love goes.

Personally, I am no big fan of hipsters. I tolerate them just fine, but I prefer to read about people who are a little more mainstream in their pop cultural interests (I grew up in the suburbs). So even though I liked the main characters in this love story, I greatly appreciated the variety of perspectives presented by the supporting cast. Julian's estranged wife brings some gut-wrenchingly honest emotion to the narrative, and his genius brother alternates between being hopelessly irritating and intensely sympathetic (in a Jeopardy! fiasco, I actually had to stop reading for a minute or two because I felt so horrible for the character's honest but irreparable mistake).

The way music drives this story is a little troubling for me. Although I can't really relate (I love structure and carefully engineered playlists), I like Julian's strange little obsession with shuffling through his iPod like a Tarot deck, letting randomly selected songs guide him to different decisions. I'm fine that most of the music he likes is not what I have on my own iPod. My main problem is Cait's music. I don't get, based on the lyrics that we have in the book, how her career skyrockets with mainstream U.S. audiences. I may be influenced by her Irish background and my intense dislike of the film Once, but without some phenomenal instrumentation, I would not want to listen to her songs. They read like very personal poetry that lacks a universality - which is great to produce, sure, but not easy for a listener to grasp and own. I wish that Phillips had given less detail about the songs, leaving the reader with enough lines to hit his plot and character points but holding back enough of the other lyrics for the reader to fill in the blanks with a lyrical style of his/her preference. On the other hand, Phillips could have downplayed Cait's star potential. Either Julian should fall for an artist who is about to explode on a mainstream scene (in which case, she needs more accessible lyrics), or he should see a talent other people are doomed to miss (in which case lyrics that appeal to a smaller audience make much more sense). In this book, though, the actual music doesn't match the stated impact of the music, and I am a little more hesitant in my recommendation because of it.

This is a really good love story, and a good exploration of the role of art and music for humanity in the new millenium. It has real emotion within the bounds of the self-conscious hipster affectations, and the story has some great surprises along the way. I look forward to reading more by this author.

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