Ian R. MacLeod's Song of Time is, notwithstanding its various near-future aspects (its virtuality crystals and genetically engineered plagues, its nuclear war and ecological catastrophes) a backward-, not forward-, looking book. It is concerned with the ways memory shapes our life, and this Proustian theme keeps the novel's focus always on the past as a function of the present. It doesn't quite work, either as a novel or as a meditation, but it's an ambitious piece of writing for all that.
Roushana Maitland is an old woman living in a plush Cornish house called 'Morryn'. She recalls her life as a girl growing up in Birmingham; the death of her beloved brother to a terrorist-created disease; her rise to worldwide fame as a brilliant violinist, her bohemian life amongst the artists, musicians, decadents, faux-messiahs and gender-benders of future-Paris (a notional 21st-century but actually 1920s Paris with a few hightech props), and her life married to a brilliant, slightly unhinged conductor. We're in, I suppose, the 2050s, but the music is all Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Stravinsky and, in a Desert-Islands-Disc-style sop to popular taste, one reference to Thin-White-Duke-era Bowie. There's a rather touching assumption that mid-21st-century cultural life will revolve around classical music concerts and performances, even as the world's ecosystems implode and nuclear war rages ("people had grown sick of big beats and clever virtualities, and they liked the idea of dressing up and going out for the evening to watch living people performing music which somehow sounded fresh and new despite its age," p. 269). It's MacLeod's world, and he can do what he likes with it of course; but I can't say this rang true for me.
The hook upon which all this garrulous reminiscing suspends is the appearance in Roushana's life of a beautiful young man—washed up, injured, naked and nameless, on the shore near her house. She carries him inside, dresses him in her husband's old clothes and calls him—since his Bournean amnesia has wiped his own name—Adam. We can all agree, I'm sure, that this is an excellent and auspicious name for anybody to have. The mystery of this figure's actual identity is one of the things that moves the story on; along with the question of whether Roushana is going to upload herself into a post-mortem virtual existence as many of her friends have done. Scenes of aged Roushana with Adam are interwoven with gobbets of reminiscence of her earlier life, to uneven but heartfelt aesthetic and emotional effect.
Part of the problem is that too much of the autobiographical stuff is what Salinger called "all that David Copperfield crap": I was born in such-and-such a year in such-and-such a place; I went to school at X. I went to the University of Y and got a job doing Z. I married; I had a number of kids; my parents died; something remarkable happened (as it might be; war; misadventure; disease; tragedy) but afterwards my life fell into its regular rhythm. For all its fascination with the trappings of Modernist Paris (.".. here were the precious glasses which the myopic Joyce had supposedly used to write Ulysses," p. 235) Song of Time is all very pre-Modernist in its aesthetic project: life conceived as a series of notional high points, rather than the more oblique but much more emotionally compelling epiphanies that trace out (say) Stephen Dedalus's existence in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Roushana's account there's a good deal of detail, but much of it is inert and some of it is tell-don't-show polystyrene ("It was Hindu against Muslim. It was black against white. It was tribe against tribe. As a longfestering war broke out here in Birmingham as well, bodies were dangling from streetlamps," p. 93). You don't quite believe it.
Another problem is that this is a novel centrally about music, which necessitates a great deal of dancing about the architecture. There's something tiresome in being repeatedly told about "Karl Nordinger, and his magnificent Fourth Symphony" when the prose gives us no sense of how this alleged masterpiece is or sounds. MacLeod perhaps wants to suggest that his musicians are pushing the sonic envelope, but he doesn't pull this off: "it had," he says at one point, "a complex beat, shifting from 4/5 to 4/4, but flowing in a way which felt entirely right to the heart and the hips" (p. 130). Hmm. He's talking about a piece of music that carries through a consistent 4 beats per bar (that's the first part of the slash) but shifts the note-value of each beat from one-and-a-quarter to one. This wouldn't be a complex beat; it'd be a squeezebox rhythmic of alternate slightly slower and faster. You'd find more jolting-but-right rhythms in Squarepusher, or Tool. Maybe MacLeod is thinking of the opening of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which starts 5/4 and then shifts to 6/8, a more complex, though more comprehensible, rhythmic progression. Or maybe he's thinking of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," which is also in 5/4 time (not, though, in 4/5 time). But maybe he's not thinking of anything of the sort, because in other places his sense of what makes great music is McCartneyesque tunefulness ("coming up quite spontaneously with that tune which everyone in Paris was soon humming," p. 135); and the examples of actual music he includes are things like the pretty but harmonically unexceptional Irish folksong She Moves Through the Fair (he calls it "an English folksong," p. 141). We have to take on trust that Roushana's memories are soaked through with gorgeous, brilliant, new music, and I never did. Similarly the Parisian scenes make the suspension of disbelief harder than it otherwise might be: the Route Périphérique is called the "Periphique" (p. 143), MacLeod thinks the French for truffle is "truffel" (p. 188) and he writes "de monde" instead of "du monde" (p. 194). Moreover he thinks Beckett's Waiting for Godot is "a Dadaesque tragedy" (p. 187). I'd say it's hard to think of two words that apply less to Godot than those two; and putting them together like that, oxymoronically, just looks odd.
Enough nitpicking. Not every reader is a pedant, after all. There are broader pleasures to be had here, and some of them derive from MacLeod's often-praised prose itself—although I have to say that stylistically this is an only intermittently impressive book. There are many sentences that are simply beautiful, and MacLeod clearly has a good ear for a striking image or comparison: "Car and house alarms were squalling, buses lay overturned, and the pavements were already glittery from looting" (p. 92). "The vast mote of some leviathan is floating across the sky as it mouths and digests whatever poisons have been cast here from other, less fortunate lands" (p. 102). I loved the description of the steps up to Morryn blurring "in Escher angles of light and shadow" (p. 211). He's very good at the Sturm-und-Drang stuff:
Then they are down beside the raging waves and the boathouse, part hewn-stone, part cliff, part cavern, Morryn's last outreach, at which the sea tongues and mauls, lies ahead. Blinding white froth rolls out of the blackness, draws back, rolls in again. Shingle slides. (p. 288)
Some of it (a grand piano's lid being called a sail; lemon-coloured light—Craig Raine and Derek Walcott, there) is second-hand; but that doesn't stop it being striking.
The style, though, is terribly uneven. For every well-turned sentence there's a sentence that is just horrible: "I noticed again the view through the window when Blythe and I returned to the charming virtual room she had first greeted me in" (p. 159); "Comets can approach enough to give us the apocalyptic willies" (p. 241). MacLeod has a fatal affection for "resolutely," a word he uses indiscriminately as adverb and adjective: "resolutely Anglo-Saxon enclaves," "resolutely fully dressed," "resolutely asleep," "my resolutely English ears," "resolutely male," "resolutely granite-grey" (Bodmin, this), "I stroked his resolutely flaccid penis," "a resolutely self-contained package," "resolutely doing the American thing" (p. 19, 30, 46, 80, 101, 151, 196, 197, 218). We can appreciate that certain words tend to stick in a writer's ear; that's one reason why revising one's first drafts is a needful activity. The problem here is not just the repetition but the sense that MacLeod evidently thinks "resolutely" a nonspecific intensifier rather than an inflection of the word "resolve" (does he really mean to say that Claude's penis was flaccid because Claude had resolved to keep it so? I have to say that's not my experience of how the organ works). Sometimes the writing seemed to contradict itself, as with the improbably silent rainstorm ("Silence fell. So did the rain" 125), or the physiological improbability of "his nose was both Negroid and aquiline" (p. 127).
In other words, though the prose is sometimes good, the overall impression is one of unevenness. The first-person voice, throughout, is slacker and more prolix than it needs to be; the dialogue isn't particularly deftly or expressively handled, and the details often clog rather than illuminate. All of this collaborated to make my experience of reading Song of Time frustrating rather than unambiguously pleasurable. That said, as the novel draws to its conclusion it accumulates a genuine, and affecting, emotional heft. Perhaps it is in part a consequence of the momentum of a fairly long novel (which in turn perhaps justifies the sometimes stodgy build-up): certainly as it closes the fate of Roushana, the identity of "Adam" and the sheer pressure of memory acting upon the present become properly involving and even a little moving. On this emotional level, then—which I take to be the level for which the novel aims—the novel works, at least in the final stretches. This is not to say that it achieves its implicit Proustian ambition (one of Nordinger's pieces is called Swann in Love) of articulating the strangeness and depth of memory's action on the present. It does manage some striking effects, although it also reads as often mis- as well-judged. As far as this review goes Roushana, on memory, gets the final word: "I can't remember if I ever noticed before that penises could float." (p. 211) Well. Quite.