Monday, August 11, 2008

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

I wanted to like the Piano Tuner.

Okay, I kind of liked the Piano Tuner. I liked it like I might like a blind date who’s nice, kind of pretty, sort of intelligent, dresses well—nothing wrong with her—but I know I’m not going to call her. No offense.

Here’s the skinny of the plot, cribbed from Powell’s Books. In October 1886, Edgar Drake receives a strange request from the British War Office: he must leave his wife and his quiet life in London to travel to the jungles of Burma, where a rare Erard grand piano is in need of repair. The piano belongs to an army surgeon-major whose unorthodox peacemaking methods — poetry, medicine, and now music — have brought a tentative quiet to the southern Shan States but have elicited questions from his superiors.

I bet you can’t guess what will happen. Will Edgar Drake become entranced with Burma, feel his blood burble with adventures, and possibly fall in love? I’m not telling.

I don’t mean to get into name calling, but the novel relies on two cheap premises. The character of the sugeon-major Carroll, strange and peculiar and heroic, is derivative of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness—too derivative because such a unique and compelling character shouldn’t be duplicated. Or if he is duplicated, the character should be damn interesting, an original, not as flat and watered down as Carroll is.

Secondly, the novel relies on a gimmick, the piano tuner traveling through Southeast Asia to tune Caroll’s piano, which affords plenty of opportunities, planted rather than organic, for long expositions on the history of the region, descriptions of the landscape, or details of tuning a piano—often gorgeous, interesting, but contrived in the end. In other words, the frame of the book is established for such writerly moments rather than for a more pure and organic storytelling. The novel reads like one that has been assiduously and gleefully researched.

In short, the novel doesn’t feel like a story so much as an exercise in selling a story. Daniel Mason, the author, is not only a doctor (at the time of publication, he was a med student at the University of California San Francisco), but a good businessman. And an adequate and sometimes flowery writer. And a somewhat adept storyteller. But not yet one who is a specialist in the human condition.

That is all to say that I felt only faint heartbeats in this novel, even though it pretends to be a novel of the heart.

Take the protagonist, Edgar Drake. Granted, it’s difficult to center a novel around such resigned, delicate character, but Edgar seems to always be pushing up his glasses rather than truly being in moments of life. He’s a stiff, erudite Englishman—okay we get it!—whose tie gets ruffled when he gets a crush on a local girl. He’s in love with his wife—as if he’s reciting the alphabet, the Lord’s prayer—but there’s a passion within his breast.

Will he risk it all?

Of course he will. He’ll push up his glasses, flex the nubs of his muscles, and say, “Damn it, I’m Edgar Drake, and I’ve had enough. I want to live!” But even when Edgar gets bold—Heavens!—his words, not to mention his emotions, feel scripted. His dreamy attraction to the jungle of Burma is assigned to him by the author, just as his love has been assigned to him. What does Edgar really want in the depths of his soul and loins? Perhaps those areas are off limits to a proper Englishman, but an author should have access to his characters’ nether regions.

Despite my gripes, the novel is adequate. I imagine that it will be made into a fairly large budget movie starring Raph Fiennes as the piano tuner. It will be the kind of movie that doesn’t rile anyone, and the scenery will be nice, and it will suffice as a way to pass an evening. No one will be too bored or too moved. All of the chords of the world’s music will seem more or less in tune.

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