"He curls forward, the scroll on a reticent cello. Left hand steadies him against the piano edge, while right hand cups in front of him, holding some letter, now oddly lost. He grins at the odds against being here, breathes in, and sings." And with this invocation, Powers begins his ambitious and exhilarating new novel in which he manages the writer's equivalent of holding a nearly pitch-perfect note for an entire performance.
To be sure, Powers is no stranger to the ambitious novel, and the ambitious reader should be no stranger to him. In The Gold Bug Variations, he confronts the bond between genetics and love, and in Galatea 2.0, he tackles artificial intelligence and, well, love again. With The Time of Our Singing, he has turned his lens on the American family and written an epic social drama bursting with themes of race, history and, of course, music. But more importantly, Powers has dared to treat the very nature of writing, like all great art, as an act of worship and devotion.
Jonah's life and genius, as well as those of his younger siblings Ruth and Joseph (who is our narrator), is complicated by the fact that the family is multiracial: His father, David, is a German Jewish physicist transplanted in America to work on the atom bomb. His mother, Delia, is a young singer from a prominent black Philadelphian family. As Jonah's star rises, helped along by Joseph--who accompanies on piano and sits mostly in Jonah's shadow--the once tightly knit family begins to dissever. Delia dies in a tragic and unsolved accident, David drifts away from reality into abstract relativity theories, and Ruth feels alienated by her brothers who perform classics by white Europeans and seem to forget the other half of their roots.
The rift in the Strom family is gradual and profound, for it is split along the same seam that runs through their genetic code which has stitched and shredded equally all of American history. David and Delia, their early years told omnisciently in a recurring flashback, had idealistically decided to raise their children free from race and the endless restrictions it imposes. Delia believed that in doing so, "they could make an America more American than the one the country has for centuries lied to itself about being." The family finds this freedom in music, but they cannot pretend to escape the deep-seated prejudices that seek them out through their lives in the second half of the 20th century.
Thus, Powers stares head on at some of the indissoluble questions in our country. How does race shape our identity? How should it determine our loves and passions? Can we ever be free from our responsibility to history? And if we are free, what is the price we have paid for it?
There is much sorrow in The Time of Our Singing, but there is also hope and transcendence. Even pulling out all my superlatives to explain how Powers uses music, love, history and the relativity of time to spine-tingling compound significance would not do to him the justice of his own prose, like this paragraph describing the singing of African American contralto Marian Anderson, performing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the night that David and Delia meet:
"The size of the crowd, its gravity, splinters her measure's first beat. Common time goes out, allegro to andante to largo. Her racing brain subdivides the notes in her first number's introduction, eighth note turns into quarter, quarter becomes half, half whole, and whole expands without limit. She hears herself inhale and the pickup spreads into standstill. As she forms the note's forward envelope, time stops and pins her, motionless."
You cannot call this realism because it is more brilliant, more megaphonic and more intensified than real life. Powers' style is super-realism, where awe and elevation are the commonplace.
You don't have to know the difference between allegro and andante to be swept away by this book. Furthermore, you don't have to think it perfectly done. In trying to bring the Stroms all the way to the present, Powers stretches the end of the story too long and too thin; also, sometimes the plot coincidences exceed even the most ardent willingness to believe. But what is memorable are the many stretches he makes that do succeed. In these pages there are countless hallmarks which have the strength, if only momentarily, to set you free from the bodily constraints of yourself. This, in my eyes, is reason enough to make The Time of Our Singing the finest book in recent memory and to confirm Richard Powers as the best American novelist writing today.