On my vacation I finally got around to reading Christopher Miller's hilarious, razor-sharp, strangely haunting novel Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects. It was originally published two years ago under the title Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano. It purports to be a set of liner notes for a box set devoted to Silber, an A-1 nutjob of a pianist-composer who combines aspects of Glenn Gould (he wears earmuffs when he plays), Kaikhosru Sorabji (he bans performances of his own music), and Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn (his hatred of vulgar humanity tilts toward madness and violence). The narrator is a stuck-up literary wannabe who hates his subject and aspires to be an aphorist-philosopher: “Some people shudder to think, and some think in order to shudder.” Miller himself has a gift for writing gemlike, cutting sentences, and the first few pages alone contain a half-dozen quotable lines: “He didn’t even want to be whistled”; “Simon Silber was a complicated person, a perverse chameleon forever changing colors the better to clash with his surroundings”; “’Believe it or not, I used to be even smarter’”; “He was the most — maybe the only — musical person I have ever known”; “The news of his demise was neither unexpected, when it reached me, nor entirely unwelcome”; “Never to have hated Silber would mean never to have known him.”
Miller isn’t a trained musician, but he knows his territory far better than most writers who try to fashion novels on musical themes. Consider the following eerily plausible portrait of the composers’ collective to which Silber cantankerously belongs:
The NCA wasn’t a ‘movement’ or a ‘school’; so far as I could tell, in fact, the only thing that our composer had in common with his fellow members was a lack of interest in all music but his own, including that of fellow members. Otherwise they were a motley bunch: Altschul, who had just finished the thirty-year task of composing a different suite of miniatures for every interjection in Webster’s (twenty-four Aahs, twenty-four Ahs, twenty-four Ahas, twenty-four Ahems, twenty-four Ahoys, twenty-four Alacks, twenty-four Alases, twenty-four Amens…); Battcock, whose instrumental works incorporated laugh tracks every time the music did something ‘humorous’ (though I, for one, have always been skeptical about claims of humor in instrumental music, like claims of flavor in cigarette ads); Cowlick, who for years had confined himself to the note of middle C — not just the key but the note, varying only the volume, duration, and instrumentation; Dunsmore, each of whose eight mammoth symphonies existed, according to their composer, merely to set up a single overwhelming moment (Silber compared them to flowering trees planted for the sake of the week or two each year when they blossom); Earleywine, who kept developing new instruments with names like the trombonium, the pseudobassoon, and the acoustic synthesizer, in order to be the first composer to write music for them; … and Webb — like Silber, better known as a performer, though unlike Silber he was still performing (and, presumably, like any serious musician, practicing several hours a day, every day, on his chosen instrument, the gong).
These composers compete among themselves in the genre of "megaworks," or works that last a very long time. Silber writes a day-long piano sonata, entitled Day. A man named Goodenough responds with a computerized symphony that goes on a year — "music by and for computers," he calls it. Silber then plans a piece called Century, which, alas, never comes to fruition.
Not always kind reviews have compared Sudden Noises to Pale Fire. Yes, there’s an obvious relationship to Nabokov's tale of a biography gone awry. But I was reminded much more often — and in my personal pantheon this is a higher compliment — of Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, which also has a fabulously daffy composer as a central character. What’s missing, perhaps, is the tone of compassion that underpins Jarrell’s savage satire of intellectual loserdom. Miller, by contrast, is a little too remorseless in his pursuit. Still, I’ll buy his next book the day it’s published.