John Keats wrote, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter." Simon Silber, the mad composer at the center of Bennington College professor Christopher Miller's first novel, would agree; by the end of the book, he's "lost what was left of his mind in the desperate pursuit of a silent music, a music that would spare the ears of posterity."
As readers, we can be grateful that, as with Keats' Grecian urn, the novel evokes Silber's music without making us listen to it. Despite his love of silence, Silber has composed audible music. Sudden Noises purports to be liner notes for a four-CD set of his complete works, commissioned by his wealthy sister and authored by his official biographer. (The book was first published in hardcover under the title Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano.)
This is, of course, a literary conceit. Silber and his CDs are figments of Miller's imagination. And even within the book there's a level of deceit: The (fictional) Silber can't quite boast the national reputation that the existence of the boxed set might suggest. And the hired biographer who narrates the book, an opinionated character in his own right, is determined to have the last word.
Commentary that swamps the thing it's supposed to comment on is a familiar postmodern literary device; Vladimir Nabokov pioneered it in Pale Fire. Readers who are leery of avant-garde fiction, however, shouldn't be put off by the liner-notes format of Sudden Objects. First and foremost, it's a wise satire of the avant-garde itself, with laugh-out-loud slapstick moments and a protagonist who might best be described as the Napoleon Dynamite of the NPR crowd.
Silber was reared for greatness. Home-schooled by a father who had developed -- so he thought -- a foolproof system for producing musical prodigies, young Simon was shielded from ambient noise and frequently banished to a basement room where Beethoven was played on a continuous loop. His career as a concert pianist came to an abrupt end at his first competition, when he attacked an elderly judge who had upset his hypersensitive ears by yawning. When biographer Norm comes on the scene, the 40-ish Silber is living alone in a vast house full of rooms he's boarded up in order to escape their unpleasant associations. He's stuck at 5 p.m. in the real-time "daylong piano sonata" he's been writing for nearly 20 years.
The most tolerant of biographers might find Silber a prickly subject -- a control freak, he composes only for solo piano "because he didn't trust anyone else to interpret his works... He didn't even want to be whistled." But Norman Fayrewether, Jr., a self-described "philosopher" with problems finding gainful employment, has an ego to match Silber's, though his own delusions have been squelched by disappointment. In painstaking, pedantic prose, Norm gradually reveals that he considers himself Silber's rival.
The kinship between Norm and Silber becomes clear when the composer, who's banned the biographer from his house, condescends to stroll with him in the neighborhood. On their walks, each man carries a pocket tape recorder into which he murmurs or sings, saving his inspirations for posterity while ignoring his companion. It's a perfect image of solipsism. Many writers have explored the thin line that separates genius from madness, but Miller explores perhaps a more crucial distinction: the line between a genius and the annoying guy who mistakes a monologue for a conversation.
Silber might be taken in part as a satire of conceptual modern composers like John Cage -- who in 1952 premiered a piece that consisted of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But no musical literacy is required to enjoy Norm's descriptions of such compositions as a transcription of the neighbor's wind chimes or a minute-long opus that consists, for the most part, of the destruction of a Steinway. As Silber's compositions become more and more bizarre, we may wonder if his problem is that he has recognized, as Norm puts it, "his own damning normalcy."
There's more to the plot, including a twist involving Silber's underachieving identical twin. It's all so wickedly amusing that I suspect Miller of being on a one-man crusade to tweak the egos of all the unsung "geniuses" and coffeehouse eccentrics in America, much as Cervantes scolded the readers of chivalric romances. Still, it's not the dream of artistic greatness per se that Miller satirizes, but the megalomania that so often accompanies it. He captures the strange pathos of people who have more interest in connecting with "posterity" than with their neighbors. Norm says aptly of Silber, "Although he claimed that he wrote music in order to 'communicate,' the sad truth is that in opus after opus he just dialed his own number and got a busy signal."
SEVEN DAYS: You did a lot of research for Sudden Noises. Did you encounter any pieces of music as odd as Simon Silber's?
CHRISTOPHER MILLER: Since the book came out, I've encountered some odder. There's a piece by John Cage called "As Slow as Possible," and a group of German composers have mounted a performance of this that's supposed to last 500 years. They chose the organ as their instrument because it takes so long to inflate the bellows. Right now they're probably in the middle of the first note or something.
SD: Norm's narrative includes some choice bits of academic satire. How does your teaching at Bennington College mesh with your writing?
CM: My first year -- I'm in my third now --
I was so anxious about teaching that I got hardly any writing done. Now I find that I get more writing done during the school year than in vacations. It feels like more of a privilege, stealing time away from class prep to write. Teaching made me more productive -- I say that to other teachers and they look at me like I'm crazy.
SD: What are you writing now?
CM: I'm working on a nonfiction book about dream as metaphor -- the different ways of representing dreams in movies, painting, classical music. I'm also working on a novel about a failed novelist that takes the form of a compendium of commentary on his life and work. I've talked to other writers, and they say they have the same problem I do -- in your first novel, you're trying not to resemble too flagrantly the authors who influenced you; in your second novel, you're trying not to imitate yourself. This character is different from Silber. He's kind of based on [science-fiction writer] Philip K. Dick, who wrote eight straight mainstream novels he was unable to get published.
SD: Do you think Norms and Silbers can be found in every coffeehouse in America?
CM: I've known more people like Norm than like Silber. People who are willing to sacrifice the good life in exchange for their art are not as common as people who just think they're geniuses. And of course there are always more people who think they're geniuses than geniuses. It's funny and sad at the same time.
SD: The blurb on the cover of the paperback edition of Sudden Noises says that the novel was optioned for film. What's happening with that?
CM: Well, the option wasn't renewed. Leonardo DiCaprio optioned it, actually. I never had envisioned it as a film, because it seems like such a bookish book. The language itself is necessary. But I did sometimes imagine Wally Shawn playing Norm, with a lot of voice-over. [Imitates a wispy Wally Shawn voice:] Evening was approaching as I entered Forest City for my first meeting with Simon Silber...
SD: What do real composers think of the book?
CM: It always irked me that reviewers describe it as an attack on contemporary music. Insofar as I was satirizing, it was the writers I knew -- their vanity and self-delusions. But it seemed too solipsistic to write about a novelist when I hadn't yet been published myself.