In ‘Sound,’ T.M. Wolf’s experimental debut novel, dialogue that reads like musical notation

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T.M. Wolf's debut novel, 'Sound' is out now (Nora Wolf)
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Writing dialogue is hard, but replicating the awkward pauses, short interjections, and false starts that occur in nearly every daily interaction—just the things most masters of dialogue strip away—can be even harder. 

Sound, T.M. Wolf’s debut novel, out this week from Faber & Faber, takes a formally inventive approach to evoking those spaces and stutters and ums and ers and likes that form the rhythms of everyday conversation. He sets the dialogue on the page as though it's musical notation. It’s a bold choice on Wolf’s part, and one that fits in neatly with his overall style, a densely written prose that creates an immersive sense of place. In the midst of all of this is a comparably conventional plot—a mid-twenties coming-of-age narrative laced with some traces of low-level criminal activity at the margins—but the stylistic risks that Wolf takes and his ability to create a vibrant sense of place more than compensate for the moments where the novel's central action feels mundane. 

“[A]s it turned out, the market for my eighteen-year-old self in Jersey—the one who knew his way around a marina, who could operate a winch and weatherwrap a boat—was better than the market for my twenty-four-year-old self anywhere else,” writes Wolf, neatly establishing the position of narrator Cincy Stiles as the novel opens. Just after dropping out of graduate school, Cincy has returned to his Jersey Shore hometown, holing up with his friend Tom, a musician engaged in a project to record historically accurate covers of every song in a local bar’s jukebox. (Wolf, who grew up on the Jersey Shore, recently graduated from Yale Law School, and has worked for a number of years as a music journalist—explaining his choice of musical notation and copious rap references through the novel.)

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It’s when the novel opens out, introducing the sights and sounds of the wider world, that the true allure of Sound becomes apparent. Like David Peace’s GB84, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or Zach Dodson’s boring boring boring boring boring boring boring, Sound is a novel in which the arrangement of text on a page is as critical to understanding the novel as the words themselves. For the first few instances of dialogue in Sound, Wolf's approach can be a challenge to read, but that approach is ultimately rewarding both for the sense of location it imparts and the insights it provides into Cincy's mental state.

At times, Wolf uses the notation style to evoke barroom or car-stereo sounds: as the color commentary for a Yankees game or a Bruce Springsteen song drowns out Cincy’s beloved hip-hop, the font indicating the last of these becomes smaller and smaller, or the text of the lyrics simply cuts off. It's an ingenious system, something like a Robert Altman film as seen through text alone.

Cincy’s thoughts are sandwiched between the book's many lines of dialogue, each charted on a series of lines evoking a musical scale, with each speaker designated by a note, a choice of font, and a position on that scale. While that might seem overly clever as an idea, it’s very effective in practice both in evoking the way people really speak without being boringly laden with indirection and interjection, and in conveying Cincy’s sometimes-scattered state of mind. At times, flashbacks occur in the middle of conversations; at others, Cincy finds himself envisioning alternative outcomes to conversations and other personal interactions, a touch reminiscent of some of Richard Yates’s fiction. The use of dialogue as an ambient element recalls the writings of ambient music scholar and critic David Toop, whose work draws a connection between immersion in sound and immersion in landscapes. In the larger context of the novel, this approach to dialogue mirrors Wolf’s method of overwhelming the reader with images and sharp details. 

Midway through the novel, Cincy travels up the Shore with Vera, a woman with whom he’s begun a relationship. Their trip takes place over the course of a paragraph, winding up here:

[S]liding into Sea Bright, the beachside disappearing behind a story-high sea wall separated by the roadway and a narrow shoulder from the shore homes nestled on the sound side of the narrowest part of the island, barely a block and a half from the Atlantic, an inch high at best above sea level.

The level of specificity in Wolf's depiction of New Jersey's coastal towns is impressive (and can be overwhelming as it comes at the reader in cascades), whether summoning up the sights of a particular boardwalk at night or taking the reader through the daily activities and sights of the boatyard where Cincy works. All of which makes his decision to leave the town where this novel is set unnamed somewhat baffling. It has characteristics of numerous Shore towns, including Asbury Park and Margate City, but Wolf seems to have opted for a more conscious composite that coexists with existing spaces—a sort of Shore counterpart to Richard Price’s Dempsy. Except that in this context, it feels more like a sort of ur-Shore Town; when one character gets a call from the “Jersey Shore Police Department,” it comes off as stylization gone perhaps a step too far instead of a decisive argument for the uses of ambiguity. 

The boatyard where Cincy works ends up being placed under surveillance by the local police, and Cincy and his coworker Tone get harassed by the cops with increasingly high tension. Wolf does include some well-done scenes of the massing wrongness in Cincy's work and life to convey his growing concern that the cops might be onto something, and that one of his coworkers might be up to something pretty bad. Yet the gathering sense of menace, the odor of corruption never seems to affect Cincy at his core, and he ultimately appears as little more than a spectator when the whole situation reaches its denouement.

Meanwhile, the course of Cincy’s relationship with Vera, which starts beguilingly before becoming halting and finally reaching its own denouement in the novel’s second half, also feels somewhat arbitrary—neither Cincy's nor Vera's romantic motivations or disappointments are satisfactorily explained. Fundamentally, the warning signs that accumulate in Cincy’s failing relationship and his workplace seem linked, but the connection is left unexplored and Cincy seems a passive non-actor as the novel winds to its somewhat anticlimactic end around him. 

Even with these frustrations, however, Sound makes for a bracing read. Wolf’s talents at evoking a lived-in world—and the ways in which he puts Cincy on the fringes of that world—create a space to explore Shore life close to what it really is like (rather than, say, through the trashed-up window of reality television). And every once in a while Wolf will throw in a gorgeously-written naturalistic passage to balance his more experimental stylistic moves. For all that Wolf does to modify and play with the form in order to tell his story, he also has his storytelling basics down, making for a fine balance of innovation and tradition.