The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers is, like all my favorite books, a book about everything. Every thought I’ve ever had (and a lot of ones I didn’t) about life, death or culture is in there, stated much more eloquently than I could ever state it. As a writer, this is daunting and depressing. As a reader, it’s wonderful, and I shall make it my mission to proselytize this book in every form available to me. So here goes:
I know I just said that The Time of Our Singing is about everything, but more specifically, it’s about music, race and time. The novel is narrated by Joseph Strom, born in the early 1940s to a German Jewish physicist father and an African American musician mother. The family’s early years are spent around the piano playing “Crazed Quotations,” a soaring crazy quilt of phrases pulled from songs classical and gospel, European and American. Together they produce the harmony that their country fights to call impossible.
All three Strom children are musical prodigies, but Jonah, the oldest and lightest-skinned, is the only one to run with the role, devoting his life to proving that he’s not just a “talented Negro singer” but that he is the most talented singer, period. He searches for a music that can carry the weight of this challenge, no easy task when even the most transcendent art is the result (or at least the byproduct) of oppression and theft.
Born just late enough to grow up in a completely different world from her siblings, Ruth, the youngest, gives herself to the Civil Rights movement and turns her back on their father who, after their mother’s untimely death, is trapped in a loop of loss and physics that renders him irrelevant in her eyes.
But this is Joseph’s story, as much as a middle child undergoing a permanent identity crisis can have a story. He spends his youth as Jonah’s literal and figurative accompanist, but his true talent is empathy, and he is forever suspended between his siblings, between black and white, classical and pop, then and now and the future. At Julliard he befriends a composer named Wilson Hart, one of the few other African American students, who makes him swear that one day he will write down his own music. What that music is, is the question that drives the novel.
Plenty of other questions sing back-up. Little things like: Is time linear or does it bend back on itself, dooming us to infinitely reprise our best and worst moments? Can a fiercely committed family shut out all of history’s ugliness, or is that a cruel joke that dooms the children the moment they step outside the door? Does art redeem? Does it merely distract? Or is it too immense and biological a force to be accused of any neat moral function?
Powers has the prose, the architecture and the research skills to provide compelling meditations on all these topics. He also manages to directly address racism without depicting a single bad guy, a feat that proves racism’s awful power—no matter how hard we try to believe in a colorblind future, we are all at the mercy of what came before us. The ending—a medley of music and physics with a dash of magic realism—evokes that mix of pain and joy found in all the best art: Yes the impossible future exists, and no, nothing has changed.
If the book has any flaws, it’s that Powers, who is incredibly adept at capturing the auditory on paper, gets too rapturous too frequently about the musical experiences he depicts. He has no shortage of fresh, superlative metaphors, but essentially he says, “This was the best music ever.” Then, ten pages later, “No, wait, this was the best music ever.” And at 631 pages, that’s a lot of best-music-ever. Nevertheless, I have to say: This is the best book ever.