Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: Underground Fugue

A member of my book club recommended this title because it was written by a friend of hers. Underground Fugue really got me thinking about how writing books can be akin to writing music. Divided into seven chapters, the story sings out from multiple voices shedding light on relationships, identity, and loss. The author, Margot Singer, skillfully weaves the perspectives of her tale like passages of music in a fugue, quite an artistic endeavor.

Moreover, I loved how the title played out in the story on so many levels. "Underground" can refer to several ideas: 1) beneath the surface of the earth; 2) secret or hidden; and 3) a subway system. It also comes through in the myriad of emotions plunged beneath the surface by individuals unwilling to face them head on. In the same way, fugue can mean "a musical form or composition designed for a definite number of instruments or voices in which a subject is announced in one voice and then developed contrapuntally in strict order by each of the other voices" or it can follow the psychiatric meaning of "a state of psychological amnesia during which the subject seems to behave in a conscious and rational way, although upon return to normal consciousness he cannot remember the period of time nor what he did during it; temporary flight from reality." (Webster's)

Fleeing the tragic death of her young son and the concomitant dissolution of her marriage, Esther arrives in London to care for her dying mother. Unable to sleep on the first night, she takes to the porch for a smoke and is intrigued to notice a college-aged boy slipping into the neighbor's house in the middle of the night, covered in mud. She is immediately curious and suspicious, but doesn't let on when she first meets the boy's father, Javad, an Iranian neuroscientist. Javad seems to know as little about his son as Esther does. Javad and Esther's developing relationship is threatened when a terrorist attack occurs and the boy goes missing.

Woven among the stories of the main characters is a subtext of a factual story about a man who washed up on a beach in England in early 2005 wearing a suit and tie. This man, dubbed "The Piano Man," was an outstanding pianist, yet would not, or could not, say a word about his identity (see this NPR article). The inner workings of the brain have always fascinated me, so I was especially drawn to the neuroscientist character. Javad is called in to consult on the case of "The Piano Man." He cannot tell if the amnesia and aphasia (language impairment) are due to brain injury or voluntarily affected. The mystery surrounding this man serves as a counterpoint to the mystery festering among the main characters.

My heart also ached for Esther and the onslaught of loss she weathers. As she reflects on the structure of the fugue performed by a pianist in a recital, she observes, "Its variations make connections between seemingly unlike things and reveal the ways in which the new is recreated out of the material of the old. It shows us how the present is always in conversation with - in counterpoint with - the past." Thus, Esther deals with the reverberations of fallout from her own troubled past.

Truly, the writing sings. In a passage told from the perspective of Esther's dying mother, the author writes, "Time has a different rhythm now. Days and nights bleed together as she drifts in and out of sleep.... Time dilates and contracts. In the stillness of the afternoons, or late at night, the sound of the piano rises through the floorboards.... The notes like fractals, a filigree of counterpoint.... Music for the beginning and the end of time."

The author reveals, in the acknowledgments, the germ of her idea (that NPR piece on the "Piano Man") and the painstaking effort to create a worthy manuscript ("many drafts and many years"). I was blown away when she admitted to having discarded the project's earliest draft. I cannot even imagine! But, I am thrilled that she persisted because her work paid off to produce a beautiful, lyrical novel. A deep sense of grief stuck with me long after I put the book down. My mind continues to lick over ideas of identity and relational friction. Just as music evokes emotion, this melodious novel stirs the heart to feel and the mind to think.

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