The Song Is You isn’t the first book to wax rhapsodic about the powers and pleasures of the lowly iPod, but it may be the best. Arthur Phillips’ fourth novel balances an unconventional romance on the relationship between a musician and a listener. In spite of its terrestrial touches, the relationship occurs almost entirely in the digital realm; the premise’s whimsy is immediately recognizable to anyone who has staked out a particular tune as his own.
For Julian Donahue, an advertising director without ambitions to be much more, music is the one thing that hasn’t yet failed him. After his son’s death and his marriage’s dissolution, Donahue makes sport of picking the right music to create a mood on set, or score a beauty spot. But the drudgery of work and sex is interrupted when, stumbling into a Brooklyn bar, he discovers Cait O’Dwyer, a recently signed singer whose rock tunes have a soulful slant. His attempt to leave her an anonymous note at the bar becomes a saga of near-misses as she, facing the recording of her major-label debut and the near-dissolution of her band, tries to reach out to him.
Charged with artifice, the forces that draw Julian and Cait together also rob their situation of fairy-tale pretensions. As they casually disregard the people closest to them, their self-absorption mirrors the outrageousness of any listener’s claim to a popular song. Julian never mistakes Cait for his long-lost love, but he lets her songs bewitch him, as particular tunes—hers and others—scrape away at his coldest years. As Phillips’ artful chapters flow into one another like tracks on a live album, the chorus of loneliness which Julian and Cait hear in each other’s correspondence eventually drowns them out, and the would-be lovers hear instead only what they want to. A B-side to High Fidelity which laments the power of the ear even while celebrating it, The Song Is You struggles with the myopia of the modern musical experience without raising the stakes on either of its main players. Instead, confining himself as much to emotional truth as to their self-constricted worlds, Phillips simply describes their folly and makes it beautiful.