Sound, By TM Wolf

Experimental fiction gets into the groove

Reading an experimental novel is a gamble. Will struggling with the complexities of an avant-garde presentation pay off? Fortunately, in the case of Sound the answer is firmly in the affirmative. Nonetheless, initially at least, it does look like hard going. Wolf's conceit is to present us with a text that draws on the properties of a vinyl LP. Accordingly, page layouts and their contents reference sides, tracks and lyrics.

But that is not all. The dialogue is set out on ruled lines, in a fashion that refers to sheet music as well as vinyl grooves. Variations in fonts, meanwhile, denote speech from different characters. Now and then, the visual impact of blocks of text of differing shapes and sizes nudges Sound towards being a graphic novel, but mostly Wolf's approach is resolutely textual. His prose deploys extensive onomatopoeia to evoke settings such as amusement arcades and seedy bars. Where there is background music in particular scenes, he directly interpolates its lyrics. And at intervals there are repetitions of his narrator's key memories, making them into rhythmic refrains.

Fortunately, the typographic trickery is easier to master than it might appear and Wolf's formal inventiveness offers a beguiling, multi-layered narrative. His aural simulacra immerse us in his New Jersey setting while he tells a story which remains intriguing throughout. Sound takes place in a holiday resort blighted by not-so-genteel decay. The narrator, music-obsessive Cincy Stiles, grew up here. He's dropped out of his postgrad philosophy studies to return and work in a boatyard over the summer.

His colleagues are an odd bunch: they include a massive Afro-Caribbean man, Tone, who is a genius with engines; identical albino twins Oz and Deuce, who shun daylight; the pot-head Mike and the enigmatic, be-shaded Corey. After-hours, Cincy explores the town's dives and dereliction, and soon he is pursuing romance with an elusive local girl, Vera, in between wondering whether undercover cops have his workplace under observation – and, if so, what they are after.

Along the way, Cincy's thoughts often take a nostalgic turn, to which Sound's musical strata lend themselves with wistful effectiveness. Wolf is mining a fine tradition. The most illustrious literary experiment with music is the Sirens chapter in Ulysses. Wolf widens this modernist niche with gusto and the result is a novel that can truly be described as pitch perfect.

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