‘Definitely worth a look’ – Sound by TM Wolf

An innovative novel that promises to re-invent the form. How many times have we heard that before? But in the case of T M Wolf’s debut, Sound, it just might be an accurate description.

The narrator, Cincy Stiles, drops out of university and returns to his old home town on the Jersey Shore. He takes summer a job as a shift manager at a boat yard owned by his father’s friend. Cincy hopes something will happen in the course of the season to give him some direction in life. In the meantime, he shares a flat with his old school pal, Tom, a musician dedicated to playing perfect pitch versions of old songs. Over the course of those few beachside months, Cincy meets a mysterious girl, Vera, gets hassled by violent cops, and followed by shadowy figures.

So far, not so startlingly original. Rather, it is Wolf’s method of telling the story that makes this novel unique and interesting. He splits each element of the narrative into tracks, much like those on the kind of audio editing software that the flatmate, Tom, uses. Dialogue, internal monologue, background sound, music and even internet searches are separated over lines drawn across the page that gives it the look of a school notebook in places.

This fragmented form takes a while to get used to it. The first line of dialogue, for example, is not necessarily on the top line. Your eye has to skip maybe five lines down to the text aligned most left, then up perhaps three lines to find the speech that starts where the last one ended, then skip back down two lines for the next, and so on. If a character is present but not talking, they get an empty line with empty quotation marks. In an attempt to make it easier to identify who says what, each character gets a different text font.

Hi, I’m Cincy.

                                         beautiful. Really beautiful.

                        Nice to meet you, I’m Vera.

“                                                                            ”

It sounds confusing, and it’s certainly difficult to accurately reproduce here to show how it looks, but it does work. The layering of thoughts and memories over the dialogue provides a sense of Cincy’s emotional state at that moment in time, showing what he wants, or doesn’t, and indicating the trigger for a particular idea or reminiscence. It suggests the connections being made in the narrator’s mind, and how he works to hold back his emotions from those around him. It is, at least, a refreshing replacement for the usual speech attributions where a character says something ‘in a worried tone’ or the author tells us that his ‘thoughts travelled back to that day in high school’.

But the confusion caused by presenting the text in this way is a definite disadvantage. So Wolf keeps the story straightforward. There is a mystery: who is Vera, why does she keep disappearing, and why is an unknown surfer dude watching the boat yard. There are no great intricacies, no intrigue or investigation. In fact, since its told from a first-person perspective, it’s difficult to know if Cincy is in any real danger, or if a crime has been committed, or if anybody is trying to find out what’s going on.

And sometimes the telling can be a little too simple. The plot points often seem forced, flagging them up as something to look out for later. At the close of one early chapter, and apropos of very little, Cincy’s boat yard boss picks up a video tape and points to the security cameras. ‘You never know when they’ll come in handy,’ he says, but somewhere, a few chapters further along, is probably a good guess.

Wolf might lack subtlety, but his writing is proficient. He perfectly conjures up the atmosphere of summer days spent on the boardwalks of the Jersey Shore, with sounds, obviously, playing a big part.

‘Sounds like a crowd of bathers escaping from a shark sighting, a surf line of stampede noises, grabbing each other by the head, shoving each other down, surging forward and falling … thumping bass; car horns; idling engines; crunching driveway gravel; propeller planes overhead, dragging yards of flapping banners…’

To then format all those lines, literally, of dialogue, music and memories, around the prose, must have taken an enormous amount of work, and for that Wolf (and the typesetters) deserves great credit.

Any Cop?: Sound is an unpretentious, entertaining novel told in a refreshingly imaginative way. I wouldn’t like to see every author adopt this form, but the use of ‘tracks’ throughout the text suits this story, and works well with the Cincy Stiles character. Definitely worth a look.

Jim Dempsey

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