Anna Smaill’s Chimes


While the opera season has not quite arrived, some great musically-minded books have come across my desk lately to pass the time.

As a narrative device, music allows for a flexibility in space and time, opening holes in the sequence of events where characters can experience delusions about when and where they are (such as Forster’s Helen Schlegel, who sees goblins walking end to end over the universe while listening to Beethoven’s Fifth). This is very different from, say, Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which uses music as its subject matter but not to drive its narrative beyond that—basically, it’s a story that happens to be about an opera singer, not a story driven structurally by elements of opera or sound. Rarely, a story will have both music as its central plot and its guiding narrative device.

In Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, which I happily finished this Labor Day, music dominates a post-apocalyptic world as a powerful weapon that controls memory (mostly by erasing it), but music also acts as a device that loosens the rules about what a story can do and still make sense to a reader. Melody, counterpoint, harmony, and disharmony work as a mode of communication, suppression, liberation, and revolution. Characters carry flutes as they would machine guns; a character is sentenced to die at the dominant layer (as opposed to the tonic) of a music-making device; they describe movement as “lento,” “presto” and “subito”; when someone hums a tune, it is the same as tracing a map or recalling a memory. “I get myself lost and tuneless for a while before finding at last a way out, a tiny rivulet of melody that pulls me through,” the protagonist says (170).

But unlike most novels that deal in sound, music is strangely self-aware here as a narrative device. Because music centrally controls memory in the story, it draws from the same narrative flexibility that allows Helen Schlegel to enter a realm of goblins and gods while simultaneously attending a matinee in a concert hall. As another character muses: “Why does Chimes deaden us, our memories? Infrasound, the vibrations in the air. But something else as well. When you don’t grasp something or remember something…your mind gets to welcome that deadening. That’s what I believe anyway. Half of our memoryloss [sic] is by choice” (171).

It’s a novel that acknowledges what music allows temporally in a narrative by design and then plays on that effect by making it part of the plot, a kind of double-sided performance that is more curious and unsettling the more I think about it.

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