04/23/2009 11:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Culture Zohn Off the C(H)uff: Arthur Phillips Has a Song for You


Arthur Phillips. Credit Andrea von Lintel

Though most people have been having love affairs with their iPods for a number of years now, I am late to the deejay party.

Yet I am no less ardent; though I used to raise an eyebrow at those who could not be severed from the white plastic spaghetti strands trailing from their ears, I am now one of them. I do not seem to be able to do anything (walk dog, hike, ride subway, ride in taxi, ride in car, sit in bed, work at desk) without having the reassuring cord with its silver treasure draped over my neck, on a nearby hook or in my bag. No necklace could be more precious.

I haven't enough time to listen to things and load them and I don't know yet how to send an MP3 or even what that necessarily means, or how to retrieve a podcast.


Still, I am all music, all the time. Arthur Phillips's new novel, therefore, The Song is You, spoke, or rather sang, to me from its very opening pages. Phillips tells of the crush Julian, a commercials director whose marriage has disintegrated (ostensibly triggered by the premature death of his infant), gets on Cait, a beautiful, young singer. And she has it right back at him.

IPods meet -- not so cute -- their owners hiding behind playlists and intellectual gamesmanship.

Julian filters the world through music, memories of music, his father's memories of music, chords, and opening measures that recall emotion. Music is both his savior and his undoing for it summons things he no longer has access to and makes him want things he can never have.

"The songs now offered him, in exchange for all he had lost, the sensation that there was something still to long for, still, something still approaching, and all that had gone before was merely prologue to an unimaginably profound love yet to seize him. If there was any difference now, it was only that his hunger for music had become more urgent, less a daily pleasure than a daily craving," and later on, "He hoped that music might at least seep into cuts, smooth over a surface, be useful, pay him back for all his years of commitment to it."

Julian's drift through post-marital tristesse, Brooklyn bars and the demi-monde of almost famous musicians is not new but Phillips's way of describing things is so haunting you want to crawl inside the sentences and take comfort in their perfect metaphors and canny allusions.

What is different is the reversal: Cait takes him as her muse.

They play cat and mouse, his obsession waking him up after months of sadness and being shut down, hers opening her up to new creativity in her songwriting. The deliberately missed connections and unspoken invitations to stalk each other are both creepy and alluring.

" A piece of music's conquest of you is not likely to occur the first time you hear it, though it is possible that the aptly named "hook" might barb your ear on its first pass. More commonly, the assailant is slightly familiar and has leveraged that familiarity to gain access to the criss-crossed wiring of your interior life. And then there is a possession, a mutual possession, for just as you take the song as part of you and your history, it is claiming dominion for itself, planting fluttering eighth notes in your heart."

Phillips's characters are iconic but unique; he is careful about their effects on us, and on each other.

"And so to make a man find her desirable even after he became conscious of her trickery, she must also imply in her performance that she would extinguish that same public display of emotion a moment later."


"He was not emotionally color-blind, but the more garish colors certainly registered with him more easily."

Phillips took a few minutes away from work on a new project to talk to the Culture Zohn:

CZ: You say that we tolerate songs without redemption. Will the one I
love be coming back to me? Can you give me some examples of your
favorite songs that express this longing and loss?

AP: Well, that one ("I Cover the Waterfront") is a pretty good example. It ends with a question: the singer is still standing on the dock waiting to see if her lover is coming or not -- no resolution, and possibly no happy ending... I also like songs about despair that still manage to have a sense of humor about them. Morrissey and the Smiths are unequaled at this: "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now", "King Leer", "You're the One for Me, Fatty."

CZ: You write about the role music plays in love affairs, that things can be "understood only when made audible by music and encoded in lyrics". What is this power that music has over our heart?

AP: I don't want to go too far: that quote there is just one character in one very potent, over-romanticized moment, but... yes, for me, there have been times when music--especially piped directly into the brain through headphones--seems to bring everything around me into sharp focus, brings things out of me I didn't know were in there (and maybe they weren't, maybe it's just a trick of the music.) I suppose there's brain anatomy to explain it: memory banks and audio processing and emotional centers all in close circuitry, or something, but that's just a blueprint for a building each of us fills out and lives in differently.

CZ: You were a jazz musician. In Minneapolis, Cambridge or NY? Do you go to clubs or concerts? What's on your radar right now?

AP: I was in Boston and Cambridge, and Budapest before that. I do occasionally take in new music in clubs, usually friends like or As for jazz, I am quite into Madeleine Peyroux right now.

CZ: Recent studies have reported that older men should not consider themselves immune from a biological clock, once thought to be the unnerving exclusive bailiwick of women. Yet you set Cait up as the object of at least two older men's affection. Do you think this scenario will ever change?

AP: Men of all ages are drawn to Cait, some with fertility in mind, some with other things in mind. I wouldn't say that all the men in the book are immune from the sensation of time running out; Julian is suffering from that quite explicitly. Whether you call it the biological clock or just "the passing of time and all of its sickening crimes" (Morrissey, thank you)...

CZ: Stories about the premature death of a child and its lasting effects on the surviving members of a family are classic (Ordinary People etc). Why do you think this is so primal?

AP: Whether your viewpoint is evolutionary, or humanistic, or religious, for most people, it is the most frightening thing you could imagine, a sense of living death to lose a child. It holds the threat over you of having to go on with meaninglessness forever. Whether that is how it feels, or whether it feels like that forever, I hope never to learn.

CZ: Has Hollywood come calling on this one? Are your other books under option?

AP: They nibble away from time to time. We'll see. They have optioned a short story I wrote, an espionage story called 'Wenceslas Square.' Look for it at cinemas in, um, 2015?

CZ: A Quiz Show scandal sets up one character's downfall. I see in the end notes that you were a Jeopardy! champion. What was the question that made you the winner?

AP: I recall winning a game (this was a while ago) on "a kind of hat made popular by people traveling west by boat to the California gold rush." (What is a Panama hat?)

CZ: And what was the business you started that failed so dismally?

AP: An Internet start-up. A good idea, good people working at it, dreams of fortunes all around. Lost a lot of people's money on it.

CZ: Are you working on something new? What is its general subject?

AP: I'm about halfway through writing a book on Shakespeare, combining some memoir and some light scholarship about his life and some of his apocryphal works, the stuff where we're not totally sure about authorship. Mix that with some unanswered questions about my own life and some things to atone for, and ... we'll see if there's a book there. I think so, but I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

Lovers who communicate exclusively by email or playlist are getting to be more ubiquitous than we may like, but readers willing to follow Phillips and his riffs on life, happiness, children, marriage, professional success and failure and other subjects of the heart will be well-rewarded, not only by the noir, twisted plotting but by the naked emotion and his extreme literary gift.

Readers in LA: Don't forget to attend this weekend's Book Fair at UCLA. Readers everywhere else: read one!