There’s a picaresque strangeness to Jonathan Geltner’s delightful new novel, Absolute Music. After a visit to a grove of honey locust trees evokes in McPhail the memory of his unfulfilled childhood love for Hannah, we get this odd introduction: “I spoke the words of the preceding eight paragraphs, or the gist of those words, to my wife, Kew….” Such self-referential pronouncements occur throughout the book, which is told in a series of suites reminiscent of a musical composition.
McPhail is a Catholic convert of Jewish heritage who was once an accomplished cellist. When he pulls out his ruined instrument one afternoon in his basement, he muses that “someone standing in front of me…might have thought that the cello and I made a bizarre Pieta.” He is far behind on a promised sequel to his first book, an erudite fantasy novel, but he spends most of his days tutoring home-schooled students while his wife Kew, a Celtic beauty not unlike Hannah, pursues a successful academic career. They live in Michigan with Kew’s ailing mother and their small son, but they long to return to some sort of home, whether in Kew’s ancestral Ireland or in Cincinnati, where McPhail grew up and where Hannah died at fourteen. Meanwhile, McPhail ranges over such things as The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, Dungeons and Dragons, Don Quixote, and even Babette’s Feast—a discussion of which will cost him his tutoring job—even as he reimagines the landscape of his beloved Cincinnati in the context of the founding of Rome on the seven hills.
In this novel, a sort of infused coincidence is key. Having discovered that he and the author of The Neverending Story share an interest in Japanese culture, McPhail pulls out his copy of a book by Matsuo Basho. “I flipped first to the maps of Basho’s various wanderings. This led me to get on Google Maps and zoom in to the place on the coast of Japan where Basho reached the northernmost point of his famous journey into the deep north. I am at a loss to explain why I selected this particular journey….” As it happens, this point is at exactly the same latitude as the place of Hannah’s death in Cincinnati three centuries later.
This mysterious connection recalls Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark, whose narrator becomes obsessed with the Tel Aviv Hilton, where she will encounter an alternate reality not unlike the world evoked by McPhail’s locust trees. “To me, the names of trees seemed to possess a kind of magic,” McPhail says, “as if they were ciphers or shibboleths that could, if only I were canny enough to wield them aright, decode or gain me entry to the other world that lay all around, the invisible, fantastical world where everything that was important—everything that was real—happened, or could happen….”
Moving backward and forward in time, McPhail tells of his previous marriage and his key friendships; he sins and confesses; he and his wife undergo a serious crisis of faith. He dwells on the natural world and the nature of memory. After watching a nuclear submarine put out to sea, McPhail says, “Sometimes I think that that thing—that one and all the others of its kind prowling around the oceans ready, at a moment’s notice, to wipe out nearly all the life on this planet—I think it’s the secret mechanism of this world, the embodiment of some truth about ourselves, our fallenness or delusion.” In what may be the most tender passage of the book, McPhail and his mother share an early morning conversation not long after the birth of his second child: “’What makes the seasons beautiful and meaningful,’” McPhail says, “’is that they repeat, but not in the same way. They circle in a spiral, like going up a mountain. And I think that’s how we perceive the eternal, the sacred. I think it’s why we have memory.’” McPhail will later say that the landscape of Cincinnati, with its fossils that are the earth’s memory, has formed the bedrock of his own mind.
There is a Proustian delight in these pages; Geltner’s sensibility, at once sweeping and immersive, roams with equal tenderness over the banal and the sublime. But at times, a man’s most immediate concerns—his wife and his child—are allowed to languish; and while Kew’s pronouncements have an almost oracular quality, there are long stretches in which she doesn’t appear and rarely intrudes on McPhail’s thoughts. No matter his talent, no husband and father could really retreat to a cork-lined room—or even a basement—for so long.
But what dissonance there is can be attributed more to occasional unwieldiness than to thought; and any failures in storytelling are marvelously outweighed by the overall success of the composition—especially the ending, which beautifully draws together so many threads. Like a well-turned sonata resolving itself in the end, Absolute Music is numerically satisfying.
Absolute Music by Jonathan Geltner
Slant Books, Seattle, WA, 2022
Joan Bauer holds a master’s degree in English and has worked as a trust officer in a bank. Her work is forthcoming in Amethyst Review. She is currently querying a novel, THE BICYCLE MESSENGER, which was longlisted for the 2022 Virginia Prize for Fiction sponsored by Aurora Metro Books.