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A Novel

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On Sale: April 07, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-793-8
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Each song on Julian’s iPod, “that greatest of all human inventions,” is a touchstone. There are songs for the girls from when he was single, there’s the one for the day he met his wife-to-be, there’s one for the day his son was born. But when Julian’s family falls apart, even music loses its hold on him.

    Until one snowy night in Brooklyn, when his life’s soundtrack—and life itself—start to play again. Julian stumbles into a bar and sees Cait O’Dwyer, a flame-haired Irish rock singer, performing with her band, and a strange and unlikely love affair is ignited. Over the next few months, Julian and Cait’s passion plays out, though they never meet. What follows is a heartbreaking dark comedy, the tenderest of love stories, and a perfectly observed tale of the way we live now.


Chapter One

Julian Donahue's generation were the pioneers of portable headphone music, and he began carrying with him everywhere the soundtrack to his days when he was fifteen. When he was twenty-three and new to the city, he roamed the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, claimed it as his discovery, colonized it with his hours and his Walkman. He fell in love with Manhattan's skyline, like a first-time brothel guest falling for a seasoned professional. He mused over her reflections in the black East River at dusk, dawn, or darkest night, and each haloed light-in a tower or strung along the jeweled and sprawling spider legs of the Brooklyn Bridge's spans-hinted at some meaning, which could be understood only when made audible by music and encoded in lyrics. Play on, Walkman, on, rewind and give me excess of it.  

Late in the evening of the day he completed his first job directing a television commercial, Julian sat in the fall air and listened to Dean Villerman on his Walkman, stared at Manhattan, and inhaled as if he'd just surfaced from a deep dive, and he had the sensation that he might never be so happy again as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that. "Love" was in most of these potent songs, of course, but they-the music, the light, the season-implied more than this, because, treacherously, Julian was swelling only with longing for longing. He felt his nerves open and turn to the world like sunflowers on the beat, but this desire could not achieve release; his body strained forward, but independent of any goal, though he did not know it for many years to come, until he proved it.  

Because years later, when he had captured all that-love, wife, home, success, child-still he longed, just the same, when he listened to those same songs, now on a portable CD player, easily repeated without the moodicidal interruption of rewinding (turning spindles wheezing as batteries failed). He felt it all again. He pressed Play and longed still.  

When he was first married, Julian worried how he would feel about particular songs if his marriage should expire prematurely, in Rachel's death or her infidelity (yes, he had imagined it before he knew it, perhaps imagined it so vividly that he caused it). And he prepared himself to lose music for Rachel, as the price of love, the ticket torn at admission: he assumed that, whether the marriage worked or not, he would never really find his way back to the music, that old songs would be sucked dry of promise or too clogged with memory.  

But no, music lasted longer than anything it inspired. After LPs, cassettes, and CDs, when matrimony was about to decay into its component elements-alimony and acrimony-the songs startled him and regained all their previous, pre-Rachel meanings, as if they had not only conjured her but then dismissed her, as if she had been entirely their illusion. He listened to the old songs again, years later on that same dark promenade, when every CD he had ever owned sat nestled in that greatest of all human inventions, the iPod, dialed up and yielding to his fingertip's tap. 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.  

Julian Donahue married in optimistic confusion, separated in pessimistic confusion, and now was wandering toward a mistrustful divorcistan, a coolly celibate land. He understood little of what had transpired between the day he said he could not live without this woman and the day when the last of her belongings (and many of his) left their home. If he forced himself to recall, he would revisit particular arguments, understand they were scaffolded by interlocking causes and built upon the unstable ruins of previous arguments. He saw that old arguments had been only partially dismantled either to mutual satisfaction or to no one's, or to her satisfaction (perhaps feigned) and his relief, or to his satisfaction and her mounting resentment, to which he had been blind. Perhaps all of this swayed upon some swampland of preexisting incompatibility, despite mutual feelings of affection and lust all signatories probably felt back at the start. Obviously he would not downplay the role of Carlton, though it was wiser not to think about that, and he had become skilled at cutting off those fractal thoughts before they could blossom.  

The day Rachel announced her indistractible thirst for his absence, Julian was consulting his music collection, hunting for the song that would explain to him, even obliquely, the bleak atmosphere in his home, the two magnetized black boxes circling each other, attracting and repelling each other from room to room.  

"I want to play you something," he said, kneeling in front of his CD shelves when Rachel entered behind him. "I was thinking about Carlton, and..."  

He must have been present for something. He recognized his dumb urge never to think about her again even as he failed to stop thinking about her, perhaps because of the energy required to stop those other thoughts. Photography still in his apartment claimed there had been Eiffel Tower kisses and golden beach sunsets; he hadn't thrown those out yet. He had drawn her portrait a hundred times and shot eight-millimeter video of her and sometimes still watched it when he was home alone and in the mood to mope. When there were animal shows on cable, he would put on the CD of Summer Holiday and mute the TV, switching back and forth with the remote, hitting Video Input over and over: Rachel sleeps on her side, her hair fanned out behind her and her arms pushing in front of her, as if she were soaring through the sky; the polar bear rears back and with both fists double-punches straight down through the ice to reach the seal; Rachel bats a dream pest away from her face; the seal is consumed in eight bites;
"-I cover the waterfront..."  

Lately he watched the animals more and Rachel less and sometimes felt as if all human affairs-but especially his own-could be sufficiently explained by the wily, competing coyotes and babysitting, gnu-gnawing lionesses and fascistic ants. After he was separated from Rachel and returned to the wild, he watched animal channels for hours at a time because they helped him fall asleep. Later, when he was sandbagging the new structures of mind necessary to keep pain from splashing over all his daily activity, when he could consider those years and still go to work, the animals remained. When he was able to think about his past, to consider and not just feel his pain, to calculate how thoroughly Rachel had broken and discarded him, how comprehensively they had misimagined each other, the baboons and orcas offered a certain stabilizing hope for the years ahead, and soon everything seemed explicable by animal behavior. Aggressive Teamsters on a commercial set were expressing threatened alpha status; gallery openings served to tighten group bonds for the protection of like genes. One had to be less heartbroken, since our cousin primates died from emotional trauma or recovered from it quickly. Litters in the wild of almost every species included a certain number of unfeasible offspring, starved by the mother and siblings, or just eaten by them.  

Urges that had once driven Julian-to pursue and capture shampoo models, for example-were explained and defused by animal shows. That old behavior was just what countless cheetahs did, spreading seed. More and more of life dripped down beneath him, reduced by the immutable laws and relaxed habits of the animal kingdom. Entire species went extinct; ours would, too, someday, or evolve into something unrecognizable, a higher species that would pay no more attention to our obsessively cataloged feelings than we do to the despairs of Australopithecus, and all of this vain heartbreak that we cling to as important or tragic would one day be revealed-by TV scientists-for what it is: just behavior.  

From the Hardcover edition.
Arthur Phillips|Author Q&A

About Arthur Phillips

Arthur Phillips - The Song Is You

Photo © Jan Phillips

Arthur Phillips is the internationally bestselling author of Angelica, The Egyptologist, and Prague, which was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Arthur Phillips

Arthur Phillips is interviewed by Tim Riley, the author of several books on rock history, including Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary and Fever: How Rock ’n’ Roll Transformed Gender in America. Riley edits the Riley Rock Index. 

Tim Riley: The Song Is You tells the story of two music-obsessed people at different ends of the music industry, and how music steers and inflects their obsession with each other. It starts with a live Billie Holiday recording of “I Cover the Waterfront,” and we learn that Julian’s father is the fan on the record yelling out the song request. You’re very attentive to how such intimate affections burst into public. Have you ever had a similar experience—where a pop record takes on intense personal meaning in your private life? 

Arthur Phillips:
All the time. I wouldn’t have written this story otherwise. I do have that much in common with Julian Donahue. I haven’t really taken my affections public, however. I have befriended a musician whom I greatly admired when I was a kid, and, many years ago, I did ask the singer of the Beautiful South to dance with me at First Avenue in Minneapolis, at the end of their concert. She looked at me as if I might be dangerous and ran to her tour bus. But otherwise, it’s just me and my iPod having intense personal experiences all the time. 

Randomness plays a key role in how your plot unfolds—the way an encore of “Monkey Man” by the Rolling Stones reveals something telling about Cait to Julian, fills in some blanks. Did you have playlists for each character, or did songs jump out at you as you developed their differing traits? How many of the novel’s music choices were random? 

Well, it’s not revealing any great secret to say that everyone’s music in the book is mine. It’s all from my collection and I love it all, and that’s why I used it. I did listen to music while writing this book much more than I ever have in the past, and I would often stop and skim through songs trying to find just the right one for a character’s developing taste. I remember walking down the street one day, with the old ’Pod on shuffle, and “Monkey Man” came on. “Oh, yes, definitely,” I remember thinking. “She’d definitely cover this.” 

That’s just the coolest, because if you had made her a singersongwriter in the mold of someone like Jewel, or Sarah McLaughlin, I would have never fallen in love with her. That track just pulled a trigger for me and I immediately started rooting for her. Have you heard any feedback from readers saying that you’ve pointed them in interesting directions with their listening habits? 

AP: I did put a playlist up on iTunes, which at least a few people looked at. I am—like every music fan—both protective of my secret passions and a proselytizer for whoever I think is great. I do hope that the book gets people listening to my favorite bands. And giving me credit for it. 

Cait is at once Julian’s “ideal music babe” and a flesh-and-blood musician with foibles, petty indiscretions. Like many singers, she treats her guitarist like dirt. How difficult was it to strike this balance between Julian’s “Cait” and the real Cait working the industry ropes? 

I’ve been on both sides of that, I suppose. I’ve been a musician; I’ve felt what it’s like to perform and to deal with music industry types. I’ve also had crushes where my imagination of the crushed party leaps far ahead of any actual facts. So writing from both of those perspectives didn’t strain me too much. 

Did you ever fall so in love with a song that it prompted you to dream up a character? Or an idealized romantic conquest? 

More like the song attached to whoever was my current idealized romantic conquest. There’s a girl in the dorm, I’m thinking about her, I’m walking around, a song comes on, it seems to capture something, and suddenly it’s describing her, very specifically, or her thoughts. . . . I was dreaming up a fictional person, of course, but one who shared certain superficial traits with some poor girl from Iowa in the dorm. 

Do you think a fundamental shift has happened with the iPod? Are people experiencing music differently from before? Has this affected the music itself? 

There have been two fundamental shifts that I can see, from the point of view of the average music lover. The first was the Walkman: you took your music with you, either an album or a mix, and it be- came part of your day outside of your private spaces. The second was the mp3 player, which let you take more than one album with you. Those two things definitely mean you experience music differently. It’s a part of your outdoor life, it’s a part of your interior monologue when out in the world. These are psychic events that our ancestors (back in the seventies) really didn’t experience. I am not making music now, so I can only guess what this means to musicians and bands and composers. My guess is that for pop musicians it makes the single far more important again (as it was in the fifties and before) and the album less important. 

There’s an essay there—about intimacy with music in public spaces and how it accommodates some styles more than others and could be said to influence the kinds of music people create and consume. . . . If you ever write that essay, I’d love to read it. Of course, this all happens during a giant meltdown in both the music industry and the explosion of the Web, so much so that it’s hard to separate out the tools and platforms from music’s new landscape. I suppose one of my thoughts is: How come more fiction writers haven’t embraced some of this material? It’s happening so radically, on such a mass level, it’s curious that I can think of only a handful of writers who are dealing with it, either fictive or nonfictive. Thoughts? Have you read the Big Industry Piece yet that I’m missing? 

You’ve stumped me on this one, but I suspect you should be writing that BIP. 

In your book, the iPod and its shared music operate as a kind of character. Can you think of other novels you admire that make creative use of music and its meanings? Are you a fan of Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul?

AP: I haven’t read that one, but I did spend a lot of time going over old favorite books when I was writing this. Proust has a lot about what it feels like to hear music for the first time, and what it felt like when you fell in love with a piece of music before mechanical reproduction, when you couldn’t hear the thing you wanted to hear, and when the world was mostly without music. These are psychic experiences most of us will never have. Similarly, I was very interested to reread some Milan Kundera, where he uses bits of scores in his novels, where he explains the meanings of particular phrases, compositions, and composers to the characters. He has also written about how he tries to structure his novels to mirror certain classical forms—sonatas, for example— and how he tries to achieve the same effects of musical tempo through his literary pacing. 

Kundera’s a really good example, except his fondness for late Beethoven gets obscured, in my opinion, by his utter contempt for pop culture. I never understood why one had to choose. 

Yes! Yes! Yes! It is one of my great complaints with that great writer and one of the points on which I have to go back and question all my assumptions about his wisdom. Why the big insistence on saying music died with Duke Ellington? It’s so intensely stubborn and wrongheaded. And yet it seems tied to a previous step in the evolution of music technology. Music on speakers that you cannot avoid— in restaurants, for example—so offends Kundera (understandably) that he associates, I think, that blow against civilization with the music that is being piped through those speakers. I think, really, he dates the death of music from the onset of PA systems and Muzak (which carries a vaguely Orwellian or Stalinist tinge for him, I suspect). It is, as a side note, worth pointing out that pop music made in the 1960s had a massive importance to the men and women who dissented against Czech communism, but for Kundera (who also dissented), it’s all just noise, anti-art. 

You write persuasively about ensemble politics. Most people never seem to realize how hard it is to keep a band together, even when it finds success. How much great music relies on this mixture of sexual tension, power intrigue, and competing individual interests? 

AP: Young people working together, egos at risk, trying to create something new, trying to honor their heroes and still break free of them, sharing solo space, trying to get audience respect and admiration and possibly love: this is a very exciting atmosphere, but it is also obviously very unstable. In the rare occasions when it somehow works and keeps working (the Rolling Stones again), it really has defied all odds of collapse. Generally, a truly collaborative musical partnership is going to be much more unstable than an artistic dictatorship, where all creativity comes from one leader. Great music can come from either, but it’s going to come longer from the dictator, in almost every case. 

Or simply wobble along unsteadily. Although I’m curious how many long-term rock partnerships I can rattle off: Steely Dan, Jagger- Richards of course, but that dwindles off considerably. What about the idea of an artist’s relationship to his muse: Dylan, say, who holds a very fascinating conversation with himself for a long time, and then collapses into weary self-pity. Springsteen would be the benevolentdictator example. 

And look what happened with Springsteen and his backup singer. I am, obviously, very interested in the muses, but I don’t know many of them. And I am a little worried about seeing a picture of them, especially the muse of a song that I love, and thinking, “Oh. Well. Not my type, really.” 

You write about how Cait receives an anonymous critique from Julian that helps her discover her voice and develop her persona. Do you think many musicians have that much respect for critical, or even insider, advice? 

That is the most common sticking point people have with this novel, I think. It is a unique case: Cait is someone of a specific background, makeup, and susceptibility to advice at the moment when it arrives, and it arrives facelessly. I think the degree to which any artist is willing to take advice will vary from person to person and from year to year within an individual life. That said, it is not uncommon for young artists to have an older mentor they trust (until they feel they have to get rid of them to grow). How about Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish as the model here? A unique case, but one in which the younger party allowed the older party enormous leeway. 

I think it works for reasons you detail, but also because it’s very good advice from an experienced pro, and it hooks up with Cait’s ambition to create a persona as well as write material for that specific persona. A lot of musicians get lost in the details, I think (as we critics do), and fetishize over the trees at the expense of the forest. I know when I read that advice, I thought “Spot on, would that somebody had encouraged me like that.” But of course, it makes great material because it’s complicated: he wants to seduce her as well as see her succeed. 

May I also say: Mariah Carey and her older advisers, if I have my story straight. 

Cast the movie. 

I’ll leave that to the pros, thank you very much. But it makes a good book club topic.



“One of the best writers in America.”—Washington Post Book World

“Enthralling . . . brilliant . . . triumphant.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Life is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think, and for those of us who try to think and feel, The Song Is You captures the flip sides of life at middle age pretty much perfectly. Arthur Phillips is that rare thing among fiction writers, a wise guy who’s also wise.”—Kurt Andersen

“Impossible to put down.”—New York Times Book Review
“Daring . . . [an] incandescent new novel . . . richly human, filled with unexpected grace . . . A burning urgency animates the tale.”—Washington Post
“Phillips’s sparkling prose makes for a seriously fun read.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“This is the kind of novel you wait for, mostly in vain. Now that it has arrived, Phillips takes his place . . . with the likes of Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, and the late David Foster Wallace—twenty-first century authors, in short, who can simply blow you away with what’s happening on their pages.”—Buffalo News
“An ambitious story of love and obsession [that] showcases Phillips’s gift for plumbing the depths of grief and emotional fragility.”—USA Today
“Captivating . . . This book is itself a flowing, lyrical arrangement—the words almost begging to be read (or sung) aloud.”—Elle
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. As it turns out, neither Cait nor Julian has perfectly correct information about the other when they make their decisions. At each step of their relationship, do their actions (or inactions) make sense to you? 

2. Is Julian a stalker? A romantic? Is this a love story? 

3. What role does music play for the characters in The Song Is You? How and why does music “reopen” Julian’s world? Does it “pay him back”? What does the narrator mean by a “mutual possession”? 

4. What do Billie Holiday and the recording of “I Cover the Waterfront” symbolize for Julian’s father? For Julian? 

5. Alec’s gallery uses a cocktail napkin that reads: “following the act of love, all creatures grieve.” Rachel resents Julian’s “retreat from feeling,” his fading out to “present less and less of himself to hold on to.” How does Rachel grieve? What realizations do Julian and Rachel reach on their own? Together? How are grief and memory intertwined? 

6. “You have to reclaim yourself somehow, or you’ll walk forever like this: among the living but not one of them. Nobody will touch you.” How does this advice relate to Julian’s role as muse to Cait? Why does he consider being her muse “plenty, for now”? 

7. Describe the significance of how Julian and Rachel met with regard to what we know about their relationship and Julian’s eventual relationship with Cait. 

8. How does technology both promote and hinder connection in the novel? 

9. Discuss how aspects of music—art, talent, fame, nostalgia, feeling— can simultaneously inspire both self-love and self-loathing for characters in The Song Is You. How does the struggle for permanence relate? Courage? Longing? 

10. On the subject of singers, Julian suspects that “the only real ones, the pure ones, were the dead ones.” More broadly, how does this statement ring true in Julian’s life? Cait’s? Rachel’s? Do you agree? 

11. Discuss the significance of space and silence in The Song Is You: between characters, in songs, onstage, and even “the gap between the man and the music.” 

12. How and why does Julian reach the conclusion that Cait is the “necessary catalyst” to making Carlton “a present joy in his life” rather than a “semisweet torture from his past or a future stolen from him”? 

13. Explain the significance of the Japanese sleeper stories Julian’s father told him as a young boy in relation to the novel. Do you agree with Julian’s father’s conclusion that “love is not sufficient. It never has been”? Does Julian? How do Julian’s and Aidan’s reactions to their father’s stories reflect their differing relationships with him? 

14. Why does Aidan delete Cait’s voice mail from Julian’s answering machine? Do you agree that this is “best for everyone”? 

15. In Budapest, Julian insists that “a perfect solution, a perfect ending and a perfect beginning” existed. Why is a “factual soft focus” required in Julian’s “perfect” world? Given this, how do you interpret the end of the novel? Is it a “perfect ending”? 

Arthur Phillips

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Arthur Phillips - The Song Is You

Photo © Jan Phillips

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  • The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips
  • March 23, 2010
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $15.00
  • 9780812977912

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