T. M. Wolf’s debut novel, Sound, is a book, a film and a swirly, scratching record all in one. Writen by a young New Jerseyite, the ‘experimental’ novel is a story about everything that you don’t say, all with dialogue, thoughts, memories, ideas and background sounds set out like musical notation.
Cincy, the narrator, has taken a break from college with little clue what he’s doing, he gets a good job in a shipyard and a small room in a messy flat. He meets Vera and is enthralled. So far, so cliché: the struggling, unsure philosophy major, little bit too thinky, little bit less doey. This is what Wolf wants to write (let’s be honest, it’s probably about himself) but he doesn’t write the novel he’s expected to, he changes it in a way that makes what could have been a moany, contrived disaster into a visual, loud and heavy clash.
When the book is first in your hands its squarish shape makes you think its home should be on a coffee table or unread under some student’s bed; but you soon see that the box is the shape needed for Wolf’s art-like prose style. Don’t expect a linear read, expect to have your eyes moving up and down around the page as you try and process all the description happening simultaneously around you – expect trying to work out where each sound is coming from while your mind is blasting through vivid, listed descriptions.
Description is everywhere, everywhere but with Vera; who for some might seem oddly unsympathetic for a protagonist’s love interest. You wonder why Cincy is falling for a girl who seems fickle and bland but in fact the narrative has a ring of truth: Cincy is falling for the first girl who shows him interest because he’s lost; it might not make sense – Vera is a woman with no answers, only fast-piling questions – but we can believe it. Other critics have slammed Vera as badly written and maybe my ideas about her are imagined but as Cincy’s mind whirs with his recurring, invented and recounted thoughts you can see that Vera’s mind only questions.
Cincy is probably quite like a lot of us, especially those reading book reviews. A bit arty, a bit unsure of ourselves, we quite like vinyl and want a girl who likes vinyl too. Part of a postmodern generation lost for originality. Though the story is a little commonplace, the format transcends the meme, and keeps you tied up in the flash lights of the New Jersey seafront.
There are times when a theme of a book can coincide with the subject of a personal impasse. For anyone who knows the thoughts that can run through your mind when in the middle of a confusing relationship Sound has it down in words for you. Wolf shows an understanding that a character can’t ever tell you what’s on their mind because, much like the rest of us, their mind is a medley of thoughts, memories, stories and repeating scenarios.
With its mixture of narrative style, rolling phonic stream of consciousness and heavily visual descriptions elsewhere, the novel is a brave attempt at bringing a new wave and a new way of writing. If the story T. M. Wolf had written was a little less common and a little more interesting he might have sparked a taste for this peculiar storytelling style. We must hope that next time his chosen subject-matter is a little more engaging.
Artwork by Matthew Dale