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San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
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The Song Is You

by Arthur Phillips

'The Song Is You,' by Arthur Phillips

A review by Heller McAlpin

Is that the author you hear chortling with pleasure in the background of The Song Is You Arthur Phillips' delight in his latest compulsively playful novel is almost audible -- and certainly contagious. He has managed, in four very different books in vastly divergent settings, to harness his flights of language to serve his imagination, and his imagination to serve literature.

All of his novels, beginning with Prague (2002), his wry portrait of American expats adrift in post-Communist Budapest, involve self-deluded characters. The Egyptologist (2004), an archaeological murder mystery set in 1922 Egypt, features his wildly unreliable anagrammatic stand-in, deranged scholar Ralph M. Trilipush. Angelica (2007) is a study in hysteria set in Victorian London, narrated by four members of a haunted household, each with a dubious grip on reality.

The Song Is You is Phillips' first novel set in America -- in Brooklyn, N.Y., land of Lethem, no less. It is also his first book set in the present -- so au courant, in fact, that its winter section unfolds in January through March 2009, and its spring, summer and fall are the seasons we're about to experience.

It centers on Julian Donahue, a middle-aged director of commercials that glamorize quotidian products like hair conditioners. One lonely, snowy night, Julian wanders into a neighborhood bar and becomes obsessed with a pretty, up-and-coming Irish singer named Cait O'Dwyer who's half his age.

Separated from his wife, Rachel, a lawyer, after the death of their 2-year-old son, Julian has been "sandbagging the new structures of mind necessary to keep pain from splashing over all his daily activity," in part with numbing music. He belongs to the first generation to grow up with personal headsets, graduating from Walkmen to Discmen to "that greatest of all human inventions, the iPod." (Inside Phillips' novel is an iPod commercial struggling to get out.) The constant stream of music piped directly into their ears results in what is essentially an emotionally associative soundtrack to their lives -- but also technologically induced isolation.

Like The Egyptologist, whose touchstone was Pale Fire, The Song Is You owes much to Vladimir Nabokov -- Lolita in particular. It involves a clever, flirtatious cat-and-mouse tease and chase between Julian and singer Cait that evokes Humbert's cross-country pursuit of Lolita. Phillips' characters slowly circle each other through cartoons scrawled on coasters, photos snapped on cell phones, e-mails, voice mails, fan Web sites and song lyrics. It's all direction and indirection, move and countermove, check but no mate.

The question is: Can these lonely people connect in person? Or is Rachel right, that she and Julian are better off back together, commiserating?

Julian follows Cait on tour across the Atlantic, ending in Budapest, the site of Phillips' first novel. Instead of Nabokov's sinister Quilty, Julian has to deal with a washed-up former rock star who keeps turning up unexpectedly, watching him watch Cait.

Where Nabokov slyly planted numerical clues and literary references in Lolita, Phillips embeds dozens of song titles in his text -- beginning with his title, from Kern-Hammerstein. Perhaps someday a scholar will annotate Phillips as Alfred Appel did Nabokov, identifying every last musical reference. In the meantime, rest assured that just as you can appreciate Lolita without footnotes, it is also possible to enjoy The Song Is You even if you've never heard of the Blow Monkeys, EMF or Jane's Addiction.

Nearly every page features delightful verbal flourishes, including an MRI as "heavenly white training coffin," matrimony that decays "into its component elements -- alimony and acrimony," and classic Phillips juxtapositions such as "lushly paid" and "plushly laid" and "Bleaker and Obliquer," one of many songs he creates for Cait. Phillips coins several winners, including the "moodicidal interruption of rewinding" a tape, "mistrustful divorcistan, a coolly celibate land," and Julian's "escargotically slow approach" to Cait.

Happily, Phillips not only indulges his hyper-cleverness, but, as in his previous novels, also tempers it with oblique self-mockery by including a ribbable character who shares some of his brainy characteristics -- in this case, Julian's brother, gifted at crosswords and Jeopardy! but hopeless at personal relationships.

The Song Is You takes on loneliness, alienation, middle age and what it means to feel passe and weighted down by your past -- "older than baseball players (even knuckleballers)." Yet despite these sober concerns, Phillips' sparkling prose makes for a seriously fun read.

Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Chronicle, Newsday and other publications. E-mail her at books@sfchronicle.com.


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