The Time of Our Singing

by Richard Powers

Published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux

631 pages, 2003





Not Just Coffee With Cream

Reviewed by David Abrams


Like a three-hour German opera, Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing can be both exhausting and exhilarating.

Powers' novel about race and classical music is big as anything Wagner ever composed. Not only in its more than 600 word-dense pages, but also in the breadth and depth of the themes crammed between the two covers. We could expect nothing less from Powers whose novels are an intellectual grab-bag, tackling such unlikely subjects as molecular genetics (The Goldbug Variations), cognitive computers (Galatea 2.2), chemicals, capitalism and cancer (Gain) and a Beirut hostage whose story merges with that of computer programmers working on a virtual-reality chamber (Plowing the Dark). Though he comes across as an evangelist for the pocket-protector set, Powers should earn his largest audience with this, his most accessible work to date.

The Time of Our Singing follows the Strom family as it steers through the 20th century. Delia, a young black woman studying classical music, and Joseph, a white German Jewish refugee physicist, meet on the Washington Mall during Marian Anderson's prejudice-defying 1939 concert. Both are as enraptured by each other as they are by the soprano's voice warbling from the Lincoln Memorial. Against the country's prevailing attitude and Delia's disgruntled parents, they fall in love and marry.

Their three children -- Jonah, Joseph and Ruth, each progressively darker in skin tone -- grow up in a house whose parents want to raise them "beyond race." This unintentionally turns the entire family into a disastrous experiment, fracturing its members. The youngest child, Ruth, joins the Black Panther during the 1960s, while the two lighter-skinned boys find success in the white man's world of classical music.

The novel moves restlessly across history like a needle skipping around a scratched record, opening in 1961 as Jonah symbolically sings Dowland's "Time Stands Still." Throughout the book, moments are paused in the rush of history. Powers keeps circling back to key events in the family timeline as if the characters were caught in a kinked time warp. "Prophecy just remembers in advance what the past has long been saying," Joseph writes. "All we ever do is fulfill the beginning." Powers neatly loops the novel backward in its final pages as we watch past and present merge.

Midway through the odyssey, Jonah, whose tenor voice is "so pure, it could make heads of state repent," takes his talents to a music conservatory, then later to a recording career. Joseph, his accompanist and the novel's narrator, is swept along in the wake of his older brother. His talents at the keyboard are just as good as Jonah's vocal chords, but he smothers his ambition in order to foster his brother's career.

After Jonah's professional debut, the New York Times calls him "one of the finest Negro recitalists this country has ever produced," a review that rankles him with its backhanded racism. "I won't be the Caruso of black America. The Sidney Poitier of opera," he insists to Joseph. He wants to be "something other than hue-man."

Such is the thorny racial thicket Powers navigates, but the effort of cutting his way through the bramble sometimes shows the strain of its ambition. The high points of civil rights history -- Anderson's concert, Emmett Till's murder, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the Watts riots, the L.A. riots, the Million Man March -- are all there as if Powers wrote with a checklist beside the computer. And that's when he's not objectifying his characters with coffee, cream, and salt and pepper shakers. It's a painfully clumsy trick that stands out in otherwise fortissimo writing -- like this paragraph describing Marian Anderson's concert in Washington D.C.:

The crowd condenses. It's standing room only, flowing the length of the reflecting pool and down West Potomac Park. The floor of this church is grass. The columns of this nave are budding trees. The vault above, an Easter sky. The deeper Delia wades in toward the speck of grand piano, the stickpin corsage of microphones where her idol will stand, the thicker this celebration. The press of massed desire lifts and deposits her, helpless, a hundred yards upstream, facing the Tidal Basin. Schoolbook cherry trees swim up to fill her eyes, their blossoms mad. They wave the dazzle of their pollen bait and, in this snowstorm of petals, fuse with every Easter when they ever unfolded their promissory color.

The Time of Our Singing is a busy, complicated novel that teems and buzzes like a crowd on the Washington Mall. Powers' impressive talent seems boundless as he grasps at many different strands (race, family politics, music, physics) then swirls everything together like a chocolate-vanilla ice cream cone.

By its exhilarating, exasperating, exhausting conclusion, it's difficult to say whether Powers himself is able to reach a conclusion about race relations in America, but for a time he sings spectacular harmony in voices that, like one of Jonah's choral concerts, "cartwheel around one another in unleashed synchrony." | March 2003


David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.