BOOK REVIEW / Trance to the music of time: 'Sing the Body Electric' - Adam Lively: Chatto, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS Adam Lively's fourth novel and it has the makings of a big one: important themes, bold time-scale, broad formal and tonal range. It also takes big risks, and as the central character - a young composer manically striving to create a masterpiece - is painfully aware, the gap between the imagined and the achieved can be wide.

The year is 2064 and subsidiarity has gone mad, spawning idiosyncratic little local democracies all over Europe. Venice long ago sank beneath the waves, but is commemorated in a new city built in a flooded English valley. Its architects (one of them the composer's father) envisaged a shimmering expression of Utopian socialism; the reader sees a sort of floating Milton Keynes. The latest techno-toy to hit New Venice is the infelicitously named 'neurorch', a Walkman lookalike that lets the user plug into his unconscious and make music without recourse to talent or instruments. Paul Clearwater, who prefers old- fashioned inspiration and effort, has retreated to the coastal resort of Wellfleet, a technology-free heritage zone where the burghers wear period costume and hold musical soirees.

The book's first section consists of Paul's letters to his sister in New Venice. Writing in finely orotund Victorian cadences - a sure sign these days of literary seriouness - he describes his entree into the town's ossified social circles and his tortured attempts to compose a majestic Sea Symphony. Failing to write great music, he writes about it, grandiosely and at length, stopping only when his well-meant dabbling in local politics goes disastrously wrong and he flees once more.

Back in New Venice, an opera he has written is hijacked by a smarty-pants impresario who decides to 'democratise' it by incorporating the neurorch. Before opening night, the authorities wise up to the gadget's subversive potential (it lets people read each other's minds) and ban it. Collapse of all parties. It is left to a new character, a painter systematically churning out portraits of the Wellfleet worthies, to discover years later the bizarre fates of Paul, his sister and the surviving neurorchs.

Lively's themes are the eternal, antithetical ones - life and art, corporeality and transcendence, collective and individual obligation. To keep them under control, he compartmentalises them, not just in the opposing citadels of Wellfleet and New Venice, but in the characters. Each represents a different but rigid philosophical stance. They spend more time outlining their positions - Paul's romantic idealism gets the lion's share - than interacting. When they get off their soap-boxes the narrative lights up, but it is usually left to the language to supply colour and momentum. The artist in the final section is a welcome relief because, in a novel built around assertion and counter-assertion, he represents simple open-mindedness. 'Politics is about certainty,' he says. 'Painting is about doubt.'

The reader's patience is stretched in other ways. All information about New Venice and post-millennial life is teasingly withheld until after the opening section, which accounts for nearly a third of the novel's 440 pages. Our pleasure in Paul's wonderfully windy letters is undermined by mounting desperation to know why this 21st-century bloke sounds like a 19th- century curate. The whole fiasco of Paul's opera is itself written as a libretto, complete with love interest, dastardly scheming and thudding rhymes: a witty concept, but arduous to read.

If Adam Lively's large gestures disappoint, his smaller ones never do. The novel is punctuated by comic set-pieces, ironical twists, puns, resonant images, vivid sketches of minor characters and vibrant descriptions of place. Of course, what the author most wants to describe is music. But language, a marvellously pliant tool for capturing the visual universe, stalls badly when trying to render complex sound. Perversely, one of this novel's successes is to remind us that music occupies a territory where words - even the heroic armies of words deployed by Adam Lively - cannot go.