At least since The Gold Bug Variations, Powers has been trying, in his own words, "to get those two inimicals, the head and the heart, going at the same time." He accomplished that beautifully in Galatea 2.2 (1995), the story of a computer so zealously programmed with imaginative literature that it develops emotions and suffers a broken heart. Since Galatea, Powers has been cerebrating more than he's been feeling, but with his latest book, as if in wild overcompensation, he has led with his heart and entirely lost his head.
In The Time of Our Singing, Powers constructs a huge chronicle of the Strom family: David, a Jewish-refugee physicist from Hitler's Germany; Delia, the vocally talented daughter of an African-American doctor from Philadelphia; and their three interracial offspring, Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth. The parents meet at Marian Anderson's outdoor recital in Washington, in the spring of 1939—an event described with such stiff lyricism that the pages seem like a museum diorama.
David and Delia become estranged from her father, Dr. Daley, when they try to raise their children "beyond race," inside their own tight, musical family. "Singing," Powers writes, "they were no one's outcasts." Powers has always favored archly precocious dialogue, and the Stroms' gnomic exchanges sound as if they're coming from some miscegenated version of the Glass family. On the advice of David's fellow physicist Albert Einstein, Jonah and Joseph are sent to Boylston Academy, in Boston. There, and later at Juilliard, despite others' bigotry and incomprehension, Jonah develops into a gifted concert singer of classical music, and Joseph into his more modestly talented accompanist.
Alas, what Jonah and Joseph really develop into is a boxed set of lamentations, the soundtrack for an entirely predictable indictment of race hatred in America. In addition to any successes they have, they must also be slighted, roughed up, thwarted, disowned, loved insincerely, and exiled. This is their real experience; any happiness is too transitory and inauthentic to rate much focus. Forgetting his observation in The Gold Bug Variations about character creation ("I looked for a postulate, completely missing the empiricist's point"), Powers plays his people like thematic violins. He is unable to maintain any real tonal difference between Joseph, who does most of the narration, and a disembodied third person that takes over whenever the story cuts back to its earliest events. Both voices are offered as fundamentally reliable. Joseph's anguished perspectives —he is by turns obedient, self-loathing, quietly resentful, and grandiosely guilty—ought to be indications of his limitations and individuality. But everything he says carries Powers's clear endorsement; he is the messenger of whatever obvious point there is to be made. "Violence accompanied us, nightly, on our hotel televisions," he says. "I stared at the collective hallucination, knowing I was somehow the author of it." He might as well be the author, period. We never believe in him because Powers doesn't either. He's a public-service announcement, not a person.