Reviewed By Geoff Kronik
- Melville House (2017)
- 336 pages
To appreciate the intricacies of Underground Fugue, Margot Singer’s compelling debut novel, a close read of the title is useful. While some titles telegraph with relative clarity what or who we are about to encounter—say Don Quixote, or The Handmaid’s Tale—it is the very opacity of Singer’s title that compels us to continue past it. Only later does it dawn on us how precisely it articulates the book’s geographical, structural, and thematic concerns.
First, London’s Underground transit system is essential to the novel: the July 2005 terrorist attacks that occurred there figure prominently. The subterranean, in both the literal and figurative sense of what hides beneath a surface, applies to the book’s characters and events. Meanwhile the concept of fugue is as central to the book as London’s geography, as its dual definitions inform the narrative’s design and psychology. First, there is musical fugue, in which a phrase introduced by one part gets taken up by the others and gradually unites them all: “To Bach,” Singer writes when Esther, the protagonist, attends a concert, “the fugue was puzzle and enigma, both a reflection of the sublime order as well as the ineffability of the divine. It embodied the flight of the soul towards God.”
This first definition of fugue, of individual parts gradually coalescing, is a metaphor for the book’s internal architecture, while psychiatric fugue—a state of compromised identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environs—is a metaphorical guide to the book’s emotional landscape. Indeed, the novel opens with someone thus afflicted: in northern England a mute, amnesiac, and unidentified man appears. When shown a piano, however, he plays for hours and so becomes known as “Piano Man.” He serves as the book’s opening gambit, but is not a central character per se; rather, as in musical fugue, he is the introductory phrase that gets taken up and developed by Esther, Javad, Lonia, and Amir, the book’s four main characters. Like Piano Man, each has issues of identity and loss, and each has limited awareness of events around them.
As the protagonist, Esther is responsible for marshaling the other characters into the story that gradually takes shape around her. Her biblical appellation is no accident—like her ancient namesake, she is a Jewish woman in exile—and she comes to London to care for her dying mother, Lonia. Lonia is also no stranger to displacement, having narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in her youth. Her story, rendered in riveting flashback, is the book’s historical spine, a through line for a Europe whose troubles started long before Islamism.
Lonia shares a two-family house with Javad, a Persian-born doctor haunted by his own exile from Iran and who is struggling to understand his son, Amir. Early on, Amir becomes a source of suspicion for Esther: “She doesn’t see the figure approaching until he is nearly in front of her, climbing the steps next door. A young man . . . his eyes are what she will always remember . . . the eyes of a Byzantine icon: large and heavy-lidded, nearly black, intense.”
Singer uses Esther’s suspicion as fuel for a plotline that lends the book, though it is not a thriller per se, the tense atmosphere of one. Each of the four main characters headlines a chapter in turn, a decidedly fugue-like structure, and one that successfully manages individual players whose discrete stories overlap and converge. In Javad’s first chapter, we learn the young man Esther saw is Amir: “You were out late last night,” Javad says, “what did you lot get up to?” Amir answers, “just hanging around,” and Javad thinks, “children are like the vestiges of light from distant stars. By the time the rays have crossed the light-years of the galaxy to reach your retinas, the stars have long since disappeared.” The passage is typical of Javad, who is portrayed as elegant and cerebral, as well of Singer’s accomplished and often arresting prose.
Our initial impression of Esther is of someone not up to the caregiver’s task confronting her. “Esther is not good with illness. Gil was always the one who held Noah over the toilet when he was throwing up, picked out splinters with a blackened needle, dabbed peroxide on his bleeding cuts.” In Lonia’s house Esther wonders “if she’s gotten in over her head,” but because she has recently been upended by a family catastrophe, we already see her as over her head in life. Part of her aim in caring for Lonia seems to be the redefinition of her own sense of purpose.
Lonia calls Javad “the Arab,” and Esther’s disapproval of this proves ironic later, as her suspicion of Amir, bred in the post-9/11 world of New York, will be more consequential than Lonia’s verbal bigotry. Javad has a failed marriage behind him, and as Esther does also, we wonder if a union between them will occur. Singer trusts the reader, here as elsewhere, with the patience to wait many pages for the answer, and along the way her scholarly attention to detail is noteworthy. Javad, a neuroscientist, is asked to examine Piano Man, and suspects a condition known as conversion disorder. “It was all in the anterior cingulate cortex, in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.” Esther, an art conservator, reminisces about her early career with “eyes squeezed up to the Zeiss magnifier or hunched over the work table, scalpels and swabs in hand.” Singer’s talent for accuracy also shows in her portrayals of Amir’s urban explorations and Lonia’s disturbing flashbacks to her flight from the Nazis.
If Singer’s intent was to write a novel that does justice to its own abundance, and in fewer than three hundred pages, then the ambition alone is impressive. The book offers a quartet of differentiated characters, set against a background of terrorism, Islamophobia, the Holocaust, and personal loss. Meanwhile the narrative is part recent history, part social comment, and part thriller. Whether Singer succeeds in forging unity out of complexity, and whether that matters, are interesting questions to ponder. There is no definition of what a novel must be, and so in one with multiple complex characters and a similar abundance of themes, readers may choose to locate their reading experience in the sum of its parts, or in a narrower but no less meaningful focus.
Some readers may find ample satisfaction in how Singer eventually lets us know what Amir is up to before Esther does. “She is afraid of what will happen if she speaks. She is afraid of what will happen if she does not.” Meanwhile we know what Esther should do, and that we see an impending error but cannot stop it is the sort of vicarious anxiety that makes reading this book a pleasure. Likewise we grasp Amir’s nocturnal absences before Javad does, which flatters us with a feeling of insight and amplifies our sympathy for and identification with Javad.
Other readers will appreciate Singer’s focus on the July 2005 London terror attacks, as the passage of time since them may have diminished our recollections. We may have forgotten their horror, and their influential role in raising our consciousness of global terror, but Singer insists we remember: “On the television screen is the blown-up double-decker bus, empty now, looking like a broken toy.” And still another category of readers will be captivated by the book’s details: for example, the vivid portrayals of Amir’s urban explorations, which take him to London’s forbidden places, whether underground, at street level or high over the city. The book’s closing scene at the famous Battersea Power Station is breathtaking.
Ultimately, as the story is primarily Esther’s, there is the question of whether, through her, the book has resolved the issues that concern it, or at least stated them in a way that creates a shapely open-endedness. “Moving back to the states then, eh?” a mover says to her as Lonia’s house is being emptied. “Maybe,” Esther says; as she was at the beginning, so she is at the end: adrift, uncertain. Readers who crave character transformation may want more of it; others will accept the ambiguity. Underground Fugue is not trying to provide easy answers because it deals in questions for which there are none. It conveys a sense that it was an urgent book to write, and its chief success may be the various ways in which it allows readers to feel like participants in that urgency.
Geoff Kronik lives in Brookline, MA and has an MFA from Warren Wilson College. His fiction and essays have appeared in Salamander, Blood Orange Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Common Online and elsewhere.