‘Sound’ Fogged by Stylistic Musical Renderings

"Sound" by T.M. Wolf '05 (Faber & Faber)

Shimwoo Lee

"Sound" is available in stores now.

Some novelists attempt to make sense of the world through their books, but in his debut novel, T.M. Wolf ’05 instead gives voice to the world’s confusion—he structures the very words on his pages to reflect the unpredictability of life. Wolf’s unique writing style sets a background of sound for the novel by structuring the pages to resemble music—sometimes the words look like notes on staff paper, for example, and sometimes like lyrics in a notebook. The entire novel is filled with artistic renderings of the words in the book. While these unconventional additions can be distracting, “Sound” is nevertheless an oft-emotional and descriptive debut.

Much of the book is even written using lines of words to create the illusion of a vinyl record. To cue a turning point in the narrative, black blots resembling scratches on a vinyl record litter the end. This use of visuals adds to the “sound” of the story; like the real world, dialogue is rarely as simple as two people exchanging words. In the novel, a baseball game, the radio in the car, and an argument at a table by the window offer some of the audio distractions. Following this story requires filtering out all the “noise” and instead listening to the core of the tale—in essence, its melody. Noise, in “Sound,” takes the form of changing fonts, sizes, and placement. The point of view also jumps every few paragraphs. From time to time, Wolf will throw in a “woop woop,” “knock knock,” or some other onomatopoeia to illustrate background noise. Wolf’s attention to this sense adds an extra dimension that brings “Sound” close to a multimedia form. Wolf even includes a link to mix tapes and songs that inspired the book, and his knowledge and care for music reveals itself in song lyrics every time a character is within earshot of a stereo, phonograph, or radio.

Beyond its unusual style, though, “Sound” is a fairly standard coming-of-age story set on the Jersey Shore. The philosophizing protagonist Cincy is constantly surprised by the world around him—he is both blind and aware. He barely notices the drug ring around him, yet a few lyrics launch him into reverie on the meaning of life. Though confusing at first, this style suits the musings of a man who is on a pause from academia and discovers that “the market for my eighteen-year-old self in Jersey was better than the market for my twenty-four-year-old self anywhere else”. The way Wolf writes his jumbled thoughts out of order, cut and spliced, represents post-college uncertainty better than any long-winded treatise.

Unfortunately, Wolf seemed to pour all of his authorial effort into Cincy. Other characters are merely caricatures; they float in and out of Cincy’s philosophical stream of consciousness. Vera, the dreamy girl from Cincy’s youth, is a vision of beauty and perfection. She works at a homeless shelter and is the focus of all men’s attentions. At his workplace, Cincy banters with a friendly-uncle type, a stoner teen, and a savvy, skillful blue-collar worker. He lives with a deadbeat friend, and his supportive parents show up only through phone calls and expectations. The police are brutal and suspicious, and a privileged kid is selling drugs. Instead of using these stock characters to frame Cincy’s inner dialogue, Wolf simply adds them as filler material.

Though some of his characters may be standard, Wolf’s descriptions of the Shore are anything but. Though “Sound” tries to bring a soundscape into the novel, its strongest feature is its physical setting. Though known by much of the world only as the setting of the MTV show, the Shore in summer is, for Wolf, the perfect place to set his confused protagonist and the past that he wants to remember. For Cincy, the wandering 20-something, the Shore in summer represents the carelessness of his past and a temporary respite from his academic work. Wolf clearly knows this place intimately and describes it lovingly, carefully, and thoroughly. From “the old-money Cape Cods that lined the western side of Ocean” to “the docks and bulkheads washed daily by the freshwater that flowed seaward from the Manasquan and Metedeconk Rivers,” Wolf paints a visual landscape that provides an anchor for the rest of the story.

The steady landscape is necessary, because the story is often dominated by the sound elements. Dialogue is so jarringly separated or mixed that multiple characters seem to melt into one giant voice speaking in Cincy’s head. Repeated phrases, instead of being emphasized, become redundant. All capitals, shapes, and misspellings for visual effect are used so often that much of the book’s page count is dominated by giant letterings of “COPS” or “Get em up now HIGH”. Lettering font and size seem not to be dictated by any sort of order, as volume, importance, and character shift from variation to variation.

Unfortunately, the confusion dominates the book instead of enlightening any inner struggle. Though Cincy “started listening tomusic the way [he] did—incessantly and immersively… [because] the music was space-filling,” the book takes that idea to its logical conclusion and fills the space with written sound. Unorganized, constant sound becomes noise, but “Sound” needs moments of silence to create written music.

—Staff writer Sara Kantor can be reached at skantor@college.harvard.edu.

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