December 2012

Patrick Nathan

fiction

Two-Part Inventions by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

In an early episode of The Simpsons, when Lisa fears that she will soon fall victim to her genetic "dumbening," she goes out for one last night of culture and inspiration. At the Jazz Hole, she enjoys an electric violinist's solo performance. The man sharing her table isn't so appreciative. "Sounds like she's hitting a baby with a cat," he says. This doesn't appear to faze her. "You have to listen to the notes she's not playing," she explains.

When I saw this, as an ambitious teenager, I took it as a challenge. What if I composed a piece of music wherein the only notes not played comprised the melody? What if, in my pirated sequencing software, every note in the piano roll's octave was played save for those supposedly resembling music? It sounded atrocious. Needless to say, the whole musician phase didn't last more than a few years. It was just another manifestation of some innate creative impulse. I love the idea of composing music, even today, but the technical aspect defeats me.

It was music, I admit, that drew me to Two-Part Inventions, Lynne Sharon Schwartz's fifth novel. Inspired by the controversy surrounding the death of Joyce Hatto, a gifted pianist whose husband, a recording engineer, had produced over a hundred critically acclaimed recordings of what was allegedly her work, Schwartz's new novel imagines the consequences of an artistic career built on fraud and calculated ambiguity. Calling itself a "psychological novel" that contemplates "the nature of truth, marriage and the pursuit of perfection," Two-Part Inventions opens with the premature death of its star pianist, Suzanne Markon. Her husband, Philip, discovers the body (turning off the screaming teapot before he checks her pulse), and within five pages goes from shock to grief to a bitter acceptance: the stroke, according to the doctors, "might have left her partially paralyzed had she survived it," and besides, now she won't have to "face the speculations... that had begun on the music websites." These speculations will be the undoing of Suzanne's reputation, and the revealing of her career for what it is -- a fraud.

We soon learn that technicians, musicians, and recording engineers have noticed familiar trills, tones, and even entire movements in Suzanne's recordings -- the work of other musicians blended seamlessly into her own. It's not that Suzanne doesn't have the talent. Her "gift" wins her recognition, first from her father, a loving tyrant hell-bent on her success, then Richard, a gay outcast neighbor who takes it upon himself to coach her (despite her insistence on falling cluelessly in love with him), next a world-renown pianist who accepts her into Juilliard, and so on. What puts a stop to an otherwise standard success trajectory, we're told, is her anxiety, or "the baffling weakness that overcame her unpredictably." We later learn that Suzanne's debut concert in New York, in her early twenties, was underwhelming, botched by a panic attack: "There was no fooling herself -- of course it was happening. She was sweating. The wet was seeping under her arms. She could smell her own fear. She was in panic's grip and would remain there for the entire concert." Suzanne, far from being a mediocre pianist, is simply so introverted that the mere thought of anyone watching her aside from the three men in her life -- Philip, Richard, her father -- overtakes her and turns her into a bumbling synthesizer, hitting all the notes but unable to bring the music to life.

Philip did her a favor, he tells himself. For years he hid the fact that with his recording company, he regularly patched subpar sections of her work with samples from other pianists. He's won for her, he tells himself, "the recognition she'd spent years struggling for, that she deserved," and yet never once told her the truth about the extent of his involvement. Suzanne, we're told, saw no point in listening to her own music, and thus never noticed what she had and had not played. Despite the oncoming scandal, the lawsuits, and the notoriety spelled out in Schwartz's "overture" to the novel, Philip remains as smug as ever, knowing that Suzanne died happy. "Over the years his love for her... had become layered with a protective sympathy, the kind of sympathy one must feel for a child, unjustly handicapped, wistful, unable to run around with the others."

The reader, of course, has met enough narrators from the last hundred years of literature to understand immediately that Suzanne has not died happy, nor was Philip's "protective sympathy" all that different from ownership. From the overture, we go backward in time, glancing at Suzanne's and Philip's respective childhoods as they unfold, Suzanne the talented and shy girl "troubled by the notion she might not be real" and Philip the newly orphaned nine-year-old who vows he'll "never endure a life of disappointment." We follow Suzanne and Philip through their early education, the nascence of their romance, their falling out, their reconciliation as young adults, their struggle to launch Suzanne's career -- their entire life, in short, that culminates in Suzanne's death at fifty and the inevitable souring of her name within the artistic community.

In this way, Two-Part Inventions comes across more as an algebraic equation than a novel. If you start with y, what sort of x needs to happen to a and b in order to balance out? Schwartz has absolved her characters of guilt and responsibility. In fact, the last time Suzanne exercises any sense of will or acts on her own desire is at the age of thirteen, when, to thwart her demanding father, she passes off to ignorant relatives a bit of Rachmaninoff as her own composition. "Do I really need to explain to you why what you did is wrong?" Richard chastises her, after she confesses it. "Claiming someone else's work as your own? It's stealing." After that (notably convenient) scenario, Suzanne's life seems as scripted as the fiction in which she appears, passing from one authority to another until she's not much more than a fibromyalgic miscarriage-surviving shut-in who loves to cook. In this damaged state, she's unable to understand her friends' concern for her, intolerant of their admonishments when they confront her with the obvious inconsistencies in her interviews: little white lies about her education and experience, encouraged by Philip, who might as well be wearing an iron key around his neck to remind us of the metaphorical tower in which he's locked this helpless princess. But he lost his entire family in a car accident, remember, so how can we blame him for wanting to exert control over his loved ones?

I don't mean to be so flippant, but a novel that illustrates so devastatingly the artist's confrontation with failure, yet offers such mechanical construction, is both frustrating and confounding. Schwartz hits all the right notes, you might say, but is unable to bring them to life. When Richard finally confronts Suzanne with Philip's plagiarisms and her own false sense of success, he asks her, "Would it have been better if [we] hadn't told you? Then you'd be satisfied with an illusion?" Suzanne evades the question and its reality, but it's now clear, as we've long suspected, that what she's really after is the reputation, not the music itself. She wants, and has always wanted, the simple recognition, the proof that she's really there, in front of people, and wholly visible. Her problem, at heart, is one of proving her own existence, something so heartbreaking and beautiful and universally human that, when one listens to the notes Schwartz is not playing, the novel is a potential masterpiece. But potential is all it has, like a piano muttering to itself as it feels the weight of your passing footsteps. As the man in Lisa's jazz club says, "Psssh. I can do that at home."

Two-Part Inventions is an honest look at a desire so strong that pursuing it warps it beyond recognition, and yet with such confined characters merely acting out their parts, it's difficult to read it as anything more than a morality play. Pride is deadly, honest work is redemptive, all that Greek stuff. It's a pity Suzanne doesn't live the rest of her life in her own fantasia of artistic renown -- that she doesn't, in fact, die happy -- because then we'd have a genuine moral dilemma on our hands. We'd have to wonder if happiness borne from illusion is still happiness. Instead, the gods get their way, yet again.

Two-Part Inventions by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Counterpoint
ISBN: 978-1619020153
288 pages