BOOK REVIEW / Play it again, without fingers: 'Sing the Body Electric' - Adam Lively: Chatto & Windus, 15.99 pounds

ADAM LIVELY is up there in the ranks of the Best of Young British Novelists 1993, and Sing the Body Electric is the new work by which he may be judged. A novel about music and manipulation, it's apparently driven more by a set of ideas than by love of language or a passion for storytelling. The characters, though coloured with care, manifestly represent conflicting points of view. This would be fine, and could be fascinating, if Lively's argument were more plausible. As it is, the chill with which he delineates his thoughts spreads itself into the reader's heart.

The novel conforms to the basic rules for science fiction. It is set in the future, roughly a century from now, and concerns an imaginary machine called a neurorch, which translates natural 'brain music' into audible sound. Lively traces the political implications of such a device, and despite its potential as an instrument of torture, has the big authorities attempt to eliminate it.

At the same time an underground movement develops the neurorch as the channel for a universal language-beyond-language; but there is apparently 'something hard' about these idealists who want to use it to end all power (if not illogical, one might add).

Equally important in Lively's scheme of things is the idea of the neurorch as aid to musical inspiration. The 'morbidly sensitive' young composer, Paul Clearwater, at first resists trying one because it will tap his gross material nature, in the form of billions of brain impulses, rather than tending towards sublimity. He then realises that he can use the neurorch as a musical instrument for playing his mind (there seem to be no feedback problems). He is thrilled to think that he can at last bypass the disgusting physicality of fingers on piano keys. This dichotomy between soul and body is nowhere seriously questioned, though a piano player may also communicate his or her soul, and though listening is substantially a physical experience.

Lively's thinly imagined future doesn't seem to provide him a set-up where his musings give us insight into the present. His fantasy is implausible as it stands, but scarcely fantastic. Sonic hallucination has long been a standard form of altered consciousness, and music is blatantly a kind of drug in the forms it takes already: Clearwater succeeds in creating sounds which function as a drug so powerful that he can make people sniff each other 'like dogs'. In the sentimental and corrupt utopia of Wellfleet, these powers are diverted to gain small-scale political influence over the burgher elite. This is the most highly developed thread running through the novel, but it goes no further.

In between spells of doping the burghers, Clearwater is also working on a symphony, 'like the wet, heaving otherness of the ocean itself' and 'the most wonderful music in the world'. Despite the recommendation, there is apparently something 'cold' and again 'hard' about this private neurorch music. The symphony is in five parts. The novel itself is in five parts. But the parallel between the composer's efforts and Lively's own artistic endeavour isn't something he has thought through to the point where it forms an integral part of his argument.

In the third section of the book Paul Clearwater finds himself in love, and reflects on the fear that a composer who hasn't known sexual love cannot write a great slow movement. This section is Lively's own slow movement, and yet the sexual involvement of his characters is reduced to a little hanky panky, a blank space, and, 'Much later . . .'

It is almost a pity that he could not find a coherent excuse for treating music with similar verbal embarrassment. One of the key reasons the book falls down is that Lively stumbles over the problem of invoking music in prose.

Unlike the Walt Whitman poem from which the title is taken, Sing the Body Electric severely lacks sparkle. Lively's views on mankind would seem to justify this absence; but so much the worse for the views, and so much the worse for the book.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own