Reconciling Race, Music, Time, A Cerebral Novelist Dazzles

The Time of Our Singing , by Richard Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 631 pages, $27.

Richard Powers is an integrationist. In novel after novel, he mixes apples and oranges, slots square pegs into round holes and sweet-talks the lion into lying down with the lamb, eager to heal our”endlessearthly schisms.” Mostly the incompatibles he’s working with fall on either side of the art-versus-science, “two cultures” divide: In his last novel, Plowing the Dark (2000), he yoked together the fine art of painting and computer-generated virtual reality; in Galatea 2.2 (1995), it was English literature and the technology of artificial intelligence; in The Gold Bug Variations (1991), it was Bach and genetics; in hisnewnovel, TheTimeofOur Singing, it’s music again, this time paired with theoretical physics. If those matchups sound almost too cerebral for fiction, consider that Mr. Powers is also always working on another reconciliation project: He wants to harmonize head and heart, understanding and empathy, to make his readers feel and think in seamless epiphany.

In The Time of Our Singing ,Mr.Powers tests his talent on still another divide, this one explosive: He traces the fortunes of a mixed-race family searching for a way to cut loose from black and white in postwar America. Delia Daley, an aspiring singer, a black woman from a middle-class Philadelphia home, and David Strom, a Jewish refugee whose family will be destroyed in the Holocaust, a physicist affiliated with Columbia University at work on high-flying theories about time, meet and fall in love at Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert on the Washington Mall. At a moment when interracial marriage is still illegal in many states and mixed couples are despised nearly everywhere, they settle in Hamilton Heights and attempt a noble, doomed experiment: trying to raise three children-Jonah, Joseph and Ruth-“beyond race.” The two boys become classical musicians; immersed in the “white” culture of lieder, hymn, madrigal and opera, they grow up almost willfully ignorant of what it means to be black in America (“twenty generations of remembered violence”)-even when, during the 1960’s, city after city erupts in racial rioting and the nation’s ghettos burn. Ruth rebels; she embraces blackness, repudiates her white father and scorns her brothers. Within the scope of Mr. Powers’ tale, the drastically premature hope of the parents-that a younger generation will somehow “jump clean”-is defeated by history. In America, then as now, race is the “wound that will not heal.” Yet there’s hope, always, for tomorrow.

Mr. Powers is notoriously brainy, but race is an issue that defies logic and intelligence. It must be understood by the gut as well as the intellect. (“There is no such thing as race,” David insists, rational to a fault. “Race is only real if you freeze time.”) So here’s the test: If Mr. Powers can make us feel racism-the way, for example, Louis Armstrongdoesin”(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”-perhaps he can shake the suspicion that dogs any novelist whose prodigioussmartsare loudlyandrepeatedly praised; perhaps, that is, he can shake the suspicion that clever and ingenious are, in fact, backhanded compliments.

TheTimeofOur Singing is narrated by JosephStrom,loyal younger brother and accompanist to the fabulously talented Jonah, about whom The New York Times will one day write: “it is not difficult to imagine Mr. Strom becoming one of the finest Negro recitalists this country has ever produced.” The Strom household does for a while manage to make a kind of haven out of the family devotion to music (Mr. Price is a wizard when it comes to transcribing the Strom sing-alongs: The tunes play loud and clear on the page); but that critic’s prediction in the newspaper of record serves as a kind of official reminder that racism is inescapable.

Mr. Powers makes us see every human shade. Here, for example, Joseph scans a mixed crowd: “Flesh casts slanted off everywhere, this way mahogany, that way walnut or pine. Clumps of bronze and copper, pools of peach, ivory, and pearl. Now and then, some extreme: bleached paste from out of the flour bin of a Danish pastry kitchen, or a midnight cinder from down in the engine room of history’s ocean liner.” But as David tells fellow physicists, it’s a mistake to “think with your eyes.” He explains, “You must learn to listen …. No one can see four independent variables mapping out a surface in five or more dimensions. But the tuned ear can hear chords.” This is typical Powers, a passage that links music and physics and, at the same time, suggests an approach to the far more basic problem of people hating other people because of skin color.

It’s intellectually satisfying to be led by an engaging narrative to the conclusion that color and pitch are both wavelength, and are both measured in time, that most elusive of concepts. It’s thrilling to be able to think of race as an unfinished melody. And it’s heartening to begin with a vision of racists as “the world’s relentless purifiers” and to end with Joseph’s credo, “I have seen the future and it is mongrel.” But though he does write movingly about the effects of bigotry (Delia and her two young boys being spat upon, literally, as they come out of an elevator; her father-a doctor-getting turned away from a 1945 Mt. Sinai conference because the guards in the lobby can’t conceive of a black man with a medical degree), Mr. Powers seems more intent on pulling off a dazzling last-minute resolution of a paradox about the nature of time than he is on trying to make his reader live with the bone knowledge of our most common enmity, our baseline hatred: the pulse of our tribalism.

Richard Powers is a wonder, and The Time of Our Singing , though huge, is beautifully, meticulously crafted. Not to be grateful and amazed would be churlish. And yet-I’m sorry to say it-to want more would be typically human.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer .