Andy Mozina opens his debut novel with an irresistible character description that manages to set the scene, the character, and the problem. His third sentence tells us, “I grew up to be six feet one, cube-headed, block-shouldered, an average white male with no vowels in my last name, and I fell in love with the harp, of all things.” Of all things, indeed.
Contrary Motion describes the days leading up to Matt Grzbc’s audition for principal harp chair in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which is business as usual for him because, he tells us, “for twenty-five years now, I’ve dedicated myself to winning a principal harp chair in a top-drawer orchestra.” Matt tells us this off-handedly, in the second paragraph, as if it’s no big deal. But there is nothing casual about his pursuit.
I chose a musician’s life, which has proven difficult because at every moment—and for reasons I’m still trying to understand—I go about my business with a deep-seated sense that I am about to fail. This has undermined me both as a harpist and as a person, not to mention as an American.
Over the course of the novel, Matt seems to struggle at everything. He fails at being a father, a son, a lover, an ex-husband, a straight man, a gay man, an employee, a not-employee. He even fails at being the caretaker of his beloved harp. In addition to the existential angst that the musical life produces, there are obvious material sacrifices. As Matt says:
You can practice audition excerpts till the cows come home, do your chamber concerts and recitals, sub for the principal harp in the Chicago Symphony, make recordings, and lord it over neophytes at music camps throughout the Great Lakes region; you can shape all these things into a sense of yourself as a rising musician—all of which I’ve done—but if you want to pay rent and put gas in your car, you must, whenever possible, play brunch.
At the end of the long list of Matt’s impressive accomplishments, with the one word, “brunch,” he topples from the sublime to the absurd. To win that principal harp chair, Matt endures the constant displeasure of the food and beverage manager at the Marriott’s Green Terrace Restaurant, plays obnoxious pop tunes, and suffers an audience of diners who are more interested in their eggs benedict than the music. All this so he can pay cheap rent for a one-bedroom apartment in a questionable neighborhood.
Mozina is both a literary writer and a funny one. Matt summarizes his life by telling us, “I moved to Chicago, got educated, degreed, and married, had a daughter—Audrey—and finally, sixteen months ago…” What do we expect to come “finally” after this? Probably not, “drove my wife, Milena, into divorcing me.” That one word, “finally,” makes all the difference.
Contrary Motion surprises us into laughing at the main character, but he is not an incompetent boob. Matt is an expert in his field. And when Matt thinks about music, he shines; “I now have fifty-four days to perfect the twenty-five audition pieces for St. Louis, which range from a twenty-three second cadenza in Ravel’s Tzingane—arguably the most exciting twenty-three seconds in all of harping—to a six-minute excerpt from Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.” Everyday life may get the better of Matt, but music does not.
This book is as unassuming as its Midwestern setting. It is a simple story about a musician who wants to win a principal chair. But it’s a pleasure to read an author who cares enough to pay attention to the simple things. Mozina’s competence is as quiet as Matt’s.
And in its unassuming way, this book performs social work. The fact that Matt’s chief concerns are romantic relationships, raising children, and helping the dying—issues traditionally believed to be “female”— puts pressure on social norms, while the two main female characters in the novel take on traditional “male” roles. They are the ones with successful careers. They call the shots in their relationships with Matt. These strong women are harassed by their male bosses, by their lovers, and by unequal childcare responsibilities. Matt tries to “save” them, but the women quickly dismiss him.
Matt is not exempt from the privilege of being a white male. He may struggle with the same concerns of work-life balance that women do, but at the end of the day, he does not have to pay the same price. Nonetheless, Contrary Motion makes an important contribution to the conversation about gender equity. It’s a rare book with a male protagonist that values child-rearing and intimacy as much as careers and adventures.