books, People of Color, Reading

“The Time of Our Singing” by Richard Powers

“My brother sings to save the good and make the wicked take their own lives. At twenty, he’s already intimate with both. This is the source of his resonance, the sound that holds his audience stilled for a few stopped seconds before they can bring themselves to clap. In the soar of that voice , they hear the rift it floats over.”

IMG_0685Through nearly 700 pages, Richard Powers’ “The Time of Our Singing” composes an intricate story about two brothers born in the 1940s to David Strom, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, and Delia Daley, a black woman from Philadelphia.

David is one of the elite scientific minds of his age, a contemporary of Einstein and Fermi, a man often pondering the unanswerable questions of life while myopically missing the reality of life around him.

“Our father knew more than any living person about the secret of time, except how to live in it. His time did not travel; it was a block of persisting nows.”

Delia has the voice of an angel and dares to pursue a life of music in spite of her family’s ambitions for her upward mobility. What brings them together is the ethereal, intangible sway of music. Early on in their life together, David and Delia invent a game in which they weave musical “quotations” together, a mash up of epic proportions.

“The game produced the wildest mixed marriages, love matches that even the heaven of half-breeds looked sidelong at. Her Brahms Alto Rhapsody bickered with his growled Dixieland. Cherubini crashed into Cole Porter. Debussy, Tallis, and Mendelssohn shacked up in unholy menages à trois. After a few rounds, the game got out of hand and the clotted chords collapsed under their own weight. Call and response ended in hilarious spinouts, with the one who flew off the carousel accusing the other of unfair harmonic tampering.”

Their game is a parallel of their own “mixed marriage”, the intimate joining of two divergent threads, full of joy, producing beautiful progeny, and always teetering on the edge of catastrophe.

Against the loud objections of family and society, Delia and David cling to one another, forming their own insular world. Their children – Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth – are extraordinarily talented, gifted with heavenly voices and music pumping through their veins. Their talents are seemingly limitless, but the world around them is not. They are mixed race in a time of heightened racial tension and overt discrimination.

Powers writes about music like a musical scholar; music is deified, infallible, omnipotent.

“In life’s opening few years, everything you hear, you hear for the first time. After a while, the ear fills in, and hearing turns back from the future and into the past. What you’ve yet to hear is outstripped by what you already have. The beauty of Jonah’s voice lay in its running backward. With every new phrase that came out of him, old notes lifted off of his listeners and they grew younger.”

Jonah’s voice is other-wordly; it opens doors for him that would otherwise slam shut. For Joseph, his life is constantly in the shadows. A gifted pianist, Joseph’s role on stage is the same as off – he is his brother’s accompanist, his shadow. The two brothers enter Juilliard together, but they have very different experiences while there. Jonah wants to be unleashed, to soar on his own – as long as his brother gives up his dreams to follow along, that is. For Joseph, the rigor and demands of Juilliard somehow nourish him.

“I’d return to my cage for another two hours of dismantling and rebuilding. My body threatened to collapse and my brain tried to slip into a permanent coma. The drill was maddening, dulling, grueling, thankless, exhilarating, addictive, consuming, consummate. It felt like love, like a refiner’s fire. I was a child at the beach with a sieve, improving the infinite expanse of sand. In the focus of my will, the sheer hammering repetition, I could burn off all of the world’s impurities, everything ugly and extraneous, and leave behind nothing but a burnished rightness, suspended in space.”

Powers has written a story about identity – racial, familial, personal. The Stroms – particularly Jonah and Joseph – are on a mythic quest to discover who they are and to forge an identity all their own.

“There was a thing stronger than family, wilder than love, worse than reason. Big enough to shred them all and leave them for dead. All my life, that thing had pinned me. Its nurses wouldn’t let me into this hospital room, couldn’t accept I was this dying man’s son. And still I didn’t know what this thing wanted from us, or how it had grown so real.”

Richard Powers’ 2003 novel is epic and exquisite. It is haunting, masterful music.

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