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

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The Independent Culture
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.