Reflections: The Time of Our Singing

Richard Powers's novel, The Time of Our Singing, immerses the reader in a world of music and abstract physics in order to hold out a glittering promise of an America "beyond race." Don't jump to conclusions about the unrealistic or unjustifiable optimism of the author; when every moment is a single "now," that promise might be fulfilled only after hundreds, even thousands, of years' worth of nows have passed. All that we can be sure about is that that now isn't yet our own.

The reader follows the experiences of a family through the eyes of Joseph Strom, a product of the marriage between a light-skinned African American musician and a Jewish refugee from the Third Reich who teaches physics at Columbia during the most racially charged period of our history. Strom lives through, and lives in denial of, the place and era into which he has been born: America from Emmett Till's death through Watts to the riots after the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King.

Powers excels at showing that exclusion of difference on both sides of the race line has crystalized the way that we think, feel, and talk about race. The symbols for this are the three Strom children and their parents. Each of the children take a different path in finding an identity necessarily defined by their undefinable race in 1960s America. Their parents, in an earlier era, lived a domestic life oscillating between deep connection and total alienation brought about, respectively, by the similarity of their personalities and the difference of their histories. The oldest son and lightest-skinned child, Jonah, seeks a place in the rarefied world of classical musical performance. After his first major review in which he is labeled an up and coming "negro" performer, he sets off to make himself into a star so talented and remarkable as to be beyond being defined by his African heritage. Ruth, the youngest and darkest of the three children, disowns her father for his obliviousness to the racialized hatred that causes the death of her mother. She joins the Black Panthers, suffers the death of her husband at the hands of police officers, and finally starts a school in Oakland. Joseph, our guide through this world, bounces back and forth between the two as he bounces between identifying with "white music" and "our music," as his sister calls the soulful spirituals and hip hop that give her and her sons strength. Jonah finally ends as an impressive music teacher at Ruth's award-winning school, and Jonah reaches the pinnacle for which he has been striving. Despite these external successes, each manifest a numb emptiness that derives, it is suggested, from their realization that their destinies are limited by white America's inability to see them as something beyond "black."

For all of its investment in difficult social and political issues, this is not a message in a bottle. Rather, it is an ode to the human endeavors that allow us escape, at least for stretches of time, from the realities of our own now. The book is a song about music, a theory about time, and a poem about how bringing the two together produces magical moments that sustain us, even amidst opposition.


Kevin Robert said...

Fascinating. I will read this "song about music" for sure. Thanks for the rec.

John Kern said...

I'm deep into the book and getting into the rhythm of stories told out of time. I'm still looking for a "black" character who can be as evil as the killers of Emmett Till. Taboos violated make a rough equality.

Kevin Robert said...

Almost a year later, and I've now honored my word. One of the strangest and most disturbing elements of this novel for me is the way the atomic bomb -- and David Strom's "advisory" work on the Manhattan Project -- fades out of view once it has served its turn as a plot device (i.e., as the source of the bitter falling out between Mr. Daley and the Stroms -- over race, however, not over civilian casualties). When theoretical physics comes back in at the novel's end, connecting sound to color spectrum and offering a kind of otherworldly redemption to Ruth's family, I have to wonder about its unfathomably steep downside, too.