T.M. Wolf’s debut novel Sound (2012) is an early 21st century bildungsroman: Cincy Stiles has dropped out of graduate school, unable to finish his dissertation in philosophy because after semesters of trying, he can’t unify his moods, his free time, and his thesis into something his university’s dissertation committee would continue funding. In other words, he has become just not that into philosophy.
Luckily for Cincy, unlike a lot of other modern ex-English or philosophy graduate students, he has a job offer from his old boss already waiting for him. So he jumps on a Greyhound to the south Jersey shore to become a shift manager on the docks, managing a motley crew of blue collar, non-union dock workers who unpack new yachts, clean barnacles, fix engines, and otherwise deal with Manhattan assholes who keep their boats docked south. (And by managing, I mean that Cincy surfs the net, awards time off, and locks doors.)
Even though Cincy is from the Jersey shore and his parents still own a nice home there, Cincy must stay in a neighborhood that “looked like a punch in the mouth,” sharing an apartment with his friend Tom above a laundry mat. Tom is a musician whose specialty is performing pitch-perfect covers: Springsteen, Journey, etc. He’s so confident, in fact, of his ability to mimic the original recordings so closely that he’s embarked on a kind of quixotic mission to replace the records in the jukebox of a local bar with covers from his own band. If he’s done it right, Tom says, nobody will ever tell the difference.
Within the first twenty pages it’s pretty easy to tell what will be the novel’s central dichotomies: authenticity vs. inauthenticity, your own voice vs. someone else’s, writing to reflect abstractions vs. writing to reflect experience. Cincy can’t force himself to write what we he’s not inspired to write (“philosophy stuff, academic papers”) and so he’s lost his voice. Tom was never inspired to write anything at all, yet his musical voice is abundant. In an early scene, as Tom asks Cincy to “rock the mic” in Tom’s living room in an effort to show off his recoding setup, Cincy balks, saying “that’s not my bag.” Meanwhile, Tom and his band will go so far in search of the elusive original sound that he’ll stuff his cheeks with cotton if he thinks it’ll make him sound more like the voice on the recording, and his bass player will bind three fingers to his hand because the original bass player had lost three fingers in an accident.
The drama in Sound is instigated by the corrupt New Jersey police department, and Vera, a girl whom Cincy meets early in the novel and is enamored by for the book’s duration. Anyone who’s seen the second season of The Wire will know what brings the police to the yard (though in Sound, criminality and corruption never rise higher than the bottom), and true to form, Cincy finds himself bothered by a Tony Colicchio-type, a hyper-alpha “punch first, paperwork later” undercover idiot who both literally and figuratively shakes up Cincy. Had the actors involved in the police drama had just a little more depth, I could have empathized more with Cincy’s stress and paranoia. But because the workers at the yard (save for one) are either invisible or space cadets, it’s not too difficult to figure out early who the rotten apple is. Unless Wolf wanted to inspire Sound by Kafka’s The Trial (evidence for which I could not find), Cincy’s fate in this plotline is never really in doubt.
Vera is the elusive, social-working, not-quite-ingénue spur in Cincy’s narrative. We learn from Cincy’s inauthentic ad-world friend that Vera is a flake, that Cincy should watch his back. Of course, Cincy hears this after she flakes on him, refusing to answer his calls after a couple dates of helping the homeless and listening to records. She keeps appearing and disappearing during the story, yet Cincy’s obsession—I’ll call it obsession, but here Wolf has done a good job of recreating the extended infatuation-phase most of us are familiar with—remains always present.
“I can’t call it.” Gone. She paused before she said yes. “We should listen to music at my place” “Sure.” No. “at my place.” “Sure.” Yes, a pause. She was never mine to lose.
After weeks without communication, any mention of Vera will recall to Cincy their tender moments, the words he’s too afraid to tell her, and what he imagines her reasons are for treating him the way she does. In the absence of real communication (and contact), it’s quite believable to have the same thoughts, the same images, the same fears. While it might be superficial, it’s certainly realistic.
What really has people talking about this novel, though, is its unconventional typography. Wolf has said that he took the novel’s formal cues from hip hop:
“I wanted the book to have layers; I wanted those layers to be bassed-up, to have a lot activity beneath the vocal surface that would punch through that surface; I wanted to mix harmony and dissonance; I wanted it to have flow; and I wanted it to loop, basically taking earlier parts of itself, remixing them, and spitting them out again.”
While it’s hard for me to say if Wolf has succeeded writing a story with “a lot of activity below the vocal surface,” he certainly has succeeded in rendering these metaphors through modeling dialogue, stream of consciousness, musical lyrics, and “distractions” on a kind of musical staff that allows him to illustrate simultaneous interior and exterior action.
It took me a little while to figure out how best to read Wolf’s score, but once I realized that each strand of internal or external sound has its own line and typeface (some serif, some non-serif, some bold, some not), and that the leftmost line, no matter how high or low it appears on the staff, occurs first in time, it became pleasurable to read. Wolf has a great ear for the way twenty-somethings talk to each other. In some scenes, during conversation, Wolf will have on the topmost line an announcer from a Yankees game, or the lyrics of a song on the jukebox, normally something we tune out during conversation, and so something that it’s not difficult to ignore here. Sometimes this noise is more intrusive, and Wolf renders this with a larger, darker typeface. Any mention of Vera sets Cincy’s mind to work, and Wolf very accurately renders Cincy’s reverie and fear parallel to his conversations about her.
Sound is teeming with references to classic and contemporary hip hop and pop. There are no digressions about the songs or artists themselves: they’re just alluded to or name dropped, in chapter titles or bits of lyrics rendered on the staff, overheard or remembered by Cincy. I get the sense, as I think is Wolf’s intention, that Cincy’s is a world influenced by music on a certain instinctual level. It’s a kind of acting out of hip hop, as Wolf has said: not the content of particular lyrics per se, but the attitude and audacity conveyed by hip hop’s formal elements.
I think audacity is a good way of describing what Cincy is growing toward. He awkwardly, painfully can’t tell Vera that he’s infatuated with her (what will she say? What will she do?), and so effectively loses her without much of a fight (despite the entreaties of Tom, the simpler one, who makes it a habit of telling a girl exactly how he feels). Once he’s lost her for the final time, Cincy’s voice opens up and his pen is moving again. But he’s not writing philosophy: he’s writing “thoughts that didn’t feel like they needed more proof. It was chaotic; it was contradictory. And it was the whole truth.”
After weeks of writing, he grabs the mic in Tom’s living room and this time he’s unafraid of using it. His first recorded words are the first words of Sound. At the end of his first phrase, “When the university,” we’re given a closing repeat sign. Which is to suggest that in (re)discovering his voice, a voice so influenced by the rhythms of hip hop and spoken word poetry, Cincy had to create a kind of formal mashup in order to render his experience authentically.
If this were a hip hop album, to sample from another genre would almost be par for the course. Since this is a novel, however, to do so seems ambitious, and in the spirit of the best hip hop, audacious.
The following playlist represents just a few of the songs referred to in Sound. I have included either an explicit reference from the text or a representative lyric to suggest an aspect of Cincy’s life on the Jersey shore and his relationship with Vera.
Let’s pour wine in coffee cups
And drive around the neighborhood
And shine the headlights on houses
Until all the news is good
Jay Dee – Make ’em NV
I’m in the booth, chain swingin, soundin like extra percussion
I’m tellin ya cousin, rock your jewels
If anything tucked, there’s the pop in full
Just to let ’em know you ain’t friendly
Let’s sparkle baby, make ’em envy
Marvin Gaye – Is that Enough
Vera: “I Ohh, I LOVE this song!”
I was a fool from the start
Fooling around with my mind instead of my heart
I was young and fine and you plucked me clean
Oh but you didn’t know that, I didn’t know that
You didn’t know what I mean
Iceberg – Where I’m From
Chapter 12: Where I’m From (Iceberg)
St. Vincent – The Party
There aren’t enough hands to point all the fingers
But I sit transfixed by a hole in your t-shirt
I’ve said much too much
D’Angelo – Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine
I wondered if the men in her past have treated her bad
But if I had the chance, I’d treat her like a Queen
Just like I do in all my dreams
Smokey Robinson – Cruisin’
Let the music take your mind
Just release and you would find, baby
We gonna fly away, plan to go my way
I love it when we’re cruising together
Stephan McCormick lives in Los Angeles.