Novelists rarely engage in typographic adventures. There are exceptions, some of impressive vintage. Laurence Sterne depicts death with a black page in Tristram Shandy. Late-twentieth-century Scottish writer Alasdair Gray (also a painter) has his type go mad just when his characters do. Even more recently, Mark Z. Danielewski has built houses out of text. Jonathan Safran Foer’s obsessive characters have given us, by turns, blank pages filled with thoughts, single sentences occupying a whole page, and words typed over words. (I often wonder if such exceptions would be more frequent, had Faulkner gone through with his plan to color-code the temporal strings in The Sound and the Fury.) But now T.M. Wolf, in his debut Sound, has created an exception among exceptions, combining experimental typography with a device from another art form: the musical staff.
Sound’s protagonist, a philosophy-PhD dropout named Cincy, loves rap music. For Cincy, hip-hop tracks “never let things extend indefinitely; they looped and repeated finite bars…They made circles and ovals out of straight-line time, swirling over and over with slight changes. They were futuristic and historical simultaneously, the true present, flipping the old into something new, or something old-new.” Daily conversations, filtered through Cincy’s perception, take on the controlled chaos of hip-hop samples. Nearly every page of the novel is lined, loosely resembling staff paper, and the dialogue is suspended on this staff like notes. Within this textual-staff system, speakers may exchange words politely—or overlap, or switch off in counterpoint.
Such a perspective is appropriate for a young would-be philosopher. Cincy is intellectually intense; he analyzes his world like a complex text. Yet when we meet Cincy the content of his surroundings is distressingly simple. He has just lost his university funding and, with nowhere else to go, has returned home to the Jersey Shore. He picks up his old high-school job—shift manager at J.D.’s boatyard—and moves in with his childhood friend Tom. Cincy and Tom live in a neighborhood that looks like “a punch to the mouth.” Tom spends his days recording cover songs with his band. He and Cincy spend their nights at bars on the Circuit—the town’s oceanfront avenue—comparing lives with old friends. This is where Cincy meets Vera.
Vera is beautiful. With her job at a homeless shelter, she seems to have a heart of gold. Cincy falls in love with her instantly, and begins to pursue her. At a time when his life has seemed to loop back on itself, Vera becomes Cincy’s only focal point forward. Of course, she doesn’t make herself easy to catch. She draws him in, then pulls back, then does the same thing again. Their courtship is charming, quintessentially Shore—filled with record-listening and boardwalk-strolling and nights in the car by the water—but, much to Cincy’s anguish, it never takes hold. He replays his moments with Vera over and over. Snippets of past and present sit side by side on Wolf’s textual staff, showing that, in Cincy’s mind (indeed in all our minds), memories overlap and interrupt each other just like voices.
Meanwhile, Cincy’s once-simple life is becoming complicated in other ways. He comes to the boatyard one morning to find the locker room broken into and trashed—but nothing taken. The police do more harm than good and after a certain point take on a menacing presence. The trusty boatyard crew are an uneven team of five—a wandering Marine technician, a teenage pothead, a pair of albino twins, and a man who carries a Xeroxed speeding ticket in his wallet as part of his “paperwork”—and Cincy must attend to their varying reactions while trying to solve the crime at hand.
The criminal plot of the novel comes on a bit strong. Wolf dutifully presents a series of clues and red herrings, starting immediately after the break-in—a “swatch of white T-shirt fabric clung to a jag of fencing”—and concluding with a solid whodunit. It’s difficult not to view such maneuvers as genre, an odd situation for a reader of an experimental novel. Still, this subplot does yield a police-station scene that showcases Wolf’s textual-staff technique at its strongest, mixing overheard voices with recordings and phone calls and computer spam into a dizzying collage.
The novel’s overall relationship with collage and texture is perhaps the most important aspect of Sound. The various plotlines, while self-sufficient, ultimately become part of the larger impressionistic wash set in motion by the textual form. It doesn’t matter so much what happens—what matters is how these events repeat, loop, scream, whisper, and overlap.
Is this enough? For a character like Cincy, it seems to be. He is a young man who is learning how to process experience—a lifelong endeavor, and while we’re at it, a working definition of philosophy. Wolf has invited us to learn with Cincy. We’re happy to come along for a while.