The Time of Our Singing

Unfortunately, exams interrupted my plan to sit down and crank through The Time of Our Singing (see below). But now that exams are over, the plan has been plun. Herewith, a brief review.

When you pick up a Richard Powers novel, you can expect certain things. There will be complicated puns that turn familiar metaphors inside out. There will be hyper-intelligent characters engaging in dazzling repartee. There will be an insistent moral question endlessly repeated until its full force breaks open your heart and your mind (see the lastest sidebar quotes for examples). And Powers the polymath will be displaying his emotional brand of erudtion on some new but well-researched subjects.

The Time of Our Singing is about music and race. The former is a familiar Powers theme. Pun fully intended -- this is Richard Powers, after all. The Gold Bug Variations was his music novel -- but then again, it was also a science novel, and he redid the science thing with Plowing the Dark, so I guess he can take the repeat when it comes to music. I'll stop now with the puns, I promise.

Race, though, is (mostly) a new subject for Powers, and he does well with it. The novel follows the musically-talented children of a mixed-race couple through the turmoil of the last half-century, with digressions to tell their parents' and grandparents' stories. Something in the rhythm of the way Powers parcels out the racial slights and shocks has remarkable power. You're left with a vivid sense of the toll that their parents' optimism leaves on his leads, the way that the experience of race consists mainly of new ways in which to be hurt.

But The Time of Our Singing falls down in many ways, too -- more so than the usual Powers novel. He has a persistent problem with flat characters; none of the characters whose personalities should be carrying this novel ever really jumps off of the page. His research shows in places, more than usual. And the pacing is all wrong.

The Time of Our Singing is a fat novel, six-hundred pages plus. The first half is stately, solemn, steady. But the second half picks up steam until it is positively racing. I think either style could work; he's certainly managed to make both styles work in the past. But they fit poorly together. I found myself repeatedly wishing he'd slow down and give the later incidents the same loving attention he gave the earlier ones. Scenes that would have run out ten pages at the opening of the novel only get one by the end. Events feel trivialized; characters feel slighted. Moments of great dramatic impact feel rushed.

Would better editing have helped? I don't know. Yes, I suppose an editor could have told him that the pace was inconsistent. But it's hard for me to see what he could have done about it. The book has a structural logic behind it; Powers jumps back and forth in time according to a plan that makes great thematic sense. Unfortunately, this plan doesn't leave much room for extended narrative near the end of the book. The events in the last hundred pages are a kind of coda, and the structure of the book would go awry if the pace were consistent. The author of this book wrote himself into a kind of corner, I suppose. It would take a Richard Powers, at least, to be able to write his way out of it.

Even so, the very end of the book -- the last few pages -- are stunning. All at once you see the trick Powers is playing -- and just how much of the novel has been leading up to this moment. I knew that Powers was a fan of parallel plot lines that unexpectedly converge, but I didn't think this was one of those novels. And it's not, but he pulls something off that's just as astonishing. It's a thematically perfect resolution, in about six different ways.

The Time of Our Singing is by no means Powers's best novel; I wouldn't even rank it above his median. But mediocre for Powers is still excellent by any absolute standard. If the novel were a concert, you'd be on your feet applauding as soon as the last note was sounded.