In The Songs Isaac “Iz” Herzl, famed activist folk singer, is fading into obscurity and old age. He is a narcissist, a celebrity famed for his support of justice, but neglectful of his family, particularly his three children. The oldest, Joseph Martin, is in his fifties and has only spent twenty minutes in his father’s company. He’s the songwriter in a moderately successful musical writing duo with his childhood friend Alan. Alan’s wife Shirley was also his childhood friend, the three of them a tight unit. Meanwhile, his teen half-siblings may have been raised by their father, but they do not spend time with him. Rose and Huddle are brilliant teens in a world of their own, neglected by Iz and the other adults in the household. Rose is mostly focused on Huddle and his struggle to live as much as he can while Duchenne Syndrome, a form of muscular dystrophy, slowly kills him. The story follows Joseph and Rose as well as Shirley. We also follow Maurice, a strangely vehement young boy whose friendship with the young Iz Herzl changes his life forever.
The Songs struggles to connect these people. Perhaps it is more accurate to say readers struggle to connect these people. Even the familial connection between Joseph and Rose is weak, without even idle curiosity to maintain it. Joseph seems to believe he does not deserve a happy life. Shirley is trapped in past tragedy. Maurice is a zealot. Rose is the only one I really came to care about. Herzl himself is a background figure, an old man upstairs who is fading away, surrounded by hangers-on, ex-wives and lovers who are grotesque in their indifference to his children. Herzl is equally grotesque when he meets Joseph for the one and only time. This failure of heart is never explained though it is manifest in all the adults in the Herzl household. Yes, we learn the great secret of Iz’s past, but it does not explain his indifference to his children unless the author’s idea is that ideological commitment incapacitates one’s emotional commitment.
Still, I liked Rose. I liked Shirley, too, or more accurately, I sympathized with Shirley. I liked Rose. She’s brave. She’s smart, and she knows how to love fiercely and well. I felt pity for Joseph, but found it hard to feel sympathy when he is so self destructive.
One of the biggest flaws for me is that we are supposed to believe Herzl is a great song writer and activist, someone inspired by Joe Hill, someone who is known worldwide and beloved worldwide, of the stature of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez, but the songs are embarrassingly bad. The best song is a ditty by Joseph, a parody of an already existing song which gives it some sense of rhythm.
This is not a book for people who love the music of protest and resistance. There isn’t anything close to music in it. It seems completely unsympathetic to resistance, portraying everyone who is part of the world of protest as narcissists. For example, because two members of the Herzl household want to use the kitchen at a specific time, they want Huddie’s meals to organize around their needs. Of course, this is not possible as he needs his meals on a regular schedule, prompting one to say he would have more self respect if people did not treat him like an invalid. This is when his Duchenne’s has progressed far past the point of needing a wheelchair to where his muscles for breathing are weakening.
People like to pretend that people who care about the world cannot care for individuals, that’s a lie, but it is the animating bias that drives this entire story. It also ruins the story because it makes everyone in it false and inauthentic.
The Songs will be released June 6th. I received an e-galley for review from the publisher through NetGalley.