There has never been any doubt about Richard Powers' bold
ambition. When minimalism was all the rage in the '80s, this writer dared to
think big. In his very first novel, "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance"
(1985), he married the untamed imagination of Thomas Pynchon, the intellectual
firepower of Saul Bellow and the vivid storytelling of John Irving.
Each of the successive six novels, from "Prisoner's Dilemma" through
"Plowing the Dark," demonstrated a willingness to grapple with big themes.
Often they sprang out of Powers' scientific education, wrapping around
explorations of artificial intelligence, cyber-reality and genetics. Others
displayed the depth of his knowledge of classical music (he is also a trained
cellist) and the history of American�capitalism. Clearly, here was the
brainiest of novelists.
Ironically, Powers' very intelligence has sometimes been used against him.
However thoughtful and well-conceived, detractors argued, the books were marred
by a lack of passion. Subordinate to theme, his characters could seem not
altogether real, even bloodless.
Yet there is no denying the man's enormous talent. Powers is an authentic
American original. His latest book, "The Time of Their Singing," filled to the
brim with passion, is not only one of the best novels ever written about race
in America but one of the best ever written about the joys of music.
To encompass his mighty themes, Powers creates a truly all-American family
out of black and white, native and immigrant. Two classical-music lovers meet
accidentally at Marian Anderson's legendary 1939 concert on the Washington Mall
(after she's been banned by the racist Daughters of the American Revolution
from its nearby concert hall).
David Strom is a German Jewish refugee, a physicist pondering the
conundrums of space and time at Columbia University. Delia Daley is an aspiring
classical soprano, out of Philadelphia's Talented Tenth. They marry, to the
astonishment of her family (his has been swallowed up in the Holocaust), have
three children, and then must suffer the consequences of breaking the color
If David works on the frontier of atomic physics, the Stroms are an
experiment in racial pioneering. Their hope is to banish the very idea of race,
to refuse to be constrained by its boundaries. When little Jonah and Joseph,
his brother a year younger, ask their parents what race they belong to, Da
replies with a benign smile, "You have to run your own race." Mama says, "You
two boys are one of a kind."
While the children are young (Ruth is born four years after Joseph), home
schooling keeps the world at bay. And making music together makes home a wonder
"After dinner, they came together in tunes. Rossini while washing the
dishes, W.C. Handy while drying. ... They'd do workhorse Bach chorales, taking
their pitch from Jonah, the boy with the magic ear. Or they'd crowd around the
spinet, tackling madrigals. ... In old music, they made sense. Singing, they
were no one's outcasts."
Soprano wunderkind Jonah is sent off to a Boston conservatory and then, at
Juilliard, evolves into an extraordinary tenor. The not quite as talented but
more reflective Joseph, a steadying influence on his volatile brother, follows
along, settling into a career as his devoted accompanist.
No matter how committed they are to transcending race, their venture into
the world means confronting the world's racism. Even as they march from one
concert triumph to another, they encounter slights and prejudice. In the
story's background, we also hear the rumble of African America struggling to be
free - from the quasi-integration of U.S. troops in World War II to the
Million Man March at the end of the century.
Like Dr. Strom ruminating on time curving in space, Powers conjures up two
narratives, one hurtling forward with the Strom offspring, the other bending
backward into their mother's past. Thus the author fashions his story into a
great churning boil of a debate - the past and the future arguing ceaselessly
over the present.
"I'm tired of racial thinking, Mama," Delia complains in the early '50s.
"You just tired of being colored," her pragmatist of a mother scolds.
Though Jonah yearns to break into opera, he turns down the Met in 1968 when
he's offered a leading role as "The Negro" in a new work. "I won't be the
Caruso of black America," he fumes. "The Sidney Poitier of opera."
He flees to Europe, that perennial refuge of black artists, where a career
in medieval and renaissance music eventually results in rave reviews and a
recording contract, even a Grammy, for the group he founds, Voces Antiquae.
Meanwhile, the partnerless Joseph flounders, playing the piano in cocktail-bar
hell. Worse, Ruth renounces classical music and her white father ("He
humiliates her just by being"), drops out of college and casts her allegiance
with the Black Panthers.
Toward the end, as if this gargantuan undertaking were exhausting even its
author, the novel loses some of its juice, and the undoing of Jonah is too
patly, too bizarrely emblematic. The Stroms themselves, however emblematic,
aren't emblems at all but richly imagined, full-bodied characters.
No one should underestimate Richard Powers' achievement. This is a major
novel, harrowing and haunting in blending such intense beauty and such great
sorrow into one great, unforgettable American symphony.
THE TIME OF OUR SINGING, by Richard Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 631