Yes, the publishing industry is growing more concentrated, and, yes, the bestseller list tyrannizes readers’ choices, but despite those alarming trends, all is not lost. The chorus of modern fiction remains reassuringly open to new voices. Without any design on my part, I’ve now reviewed three debut novels in a row, a small sampling of extraordinary new talent that should encourage anyone concerned about the health and diversity of our literary culture.
The first was “No One Is Coming to Save Us,” by Stephanie Powell Watts, a novel that recasts “The Great Gatsby” as a tale of African American despair in North Carolina. The second was a dystopian novel set in the late 21st century called “American War,” by Egyptian-born journalist Omar El Akkad. And now comes “Underground Fugue,” by Margot Singer, a story about grief and race punctuated by the 2005 bombings in London. These authors, hailing from different backgrounds and writing in different registers, illustrate just how creatively fiction is illuminating our past, present and future.
Singer’s novel travels up and down the scale of sorrow, reflecting the musical and psychological connotations of her title. The epigraph is a quotation from Glenn Gould describing Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”: “For me, these pieces contain an endless range of gray tints.” That subtle palette perfectly reflects this haunting story, too, which feels suspended in a murky state between memory and presence, happiness and despair.
At the opening, an American woman named Esther arrives in London to care for her dying mother, Lonia. Despite her best intentions to be strong, the hospice setting disturbs Esther, who is still in shock over the death of her teenage son — one fresh loss bleeding into the next. “She wants to give up, go home,” Singer writes in a voice infused with Esther’s thoughts, but still coolly distant. “She has come here to help, but she’s not being helpful. She isn’t up to it — the worry, the tedium, the pain.”
That plot wouldn’t seem to promise much movement, but next door, life persists: A British Iranian brain scientist lives with his son, a college student fond of “urban exploration.” Unbeknown to his father, he and his buddies go spelunking in “storm drains, utility tunnels, conduits, construction cranes” — the neural networks of London.
The chapters rotate through these four characters, though Esther remains primary. It’s her plight that dominates the novel, her struggle to cast off the enervating blanket of grief. She watches the nurses work; wanders the streets; fantasizes and worries about her Persian neighbors. The memory of her son’s death and the anticipation of her mother’s passing render her alternately blank and astute.
“She listens to the sound of hissing,” Singer writes. “So this is what it came down to: air in, air out. Air moving over the esophagus, across the diaphragm, into the lungs and out. It sounded like breaking waves. How many more breaths would she take?
“ ‘This isn’t the way I thought it would be,’ Esther says. ‘I thought I’d be ready. . . . But I’m not.’ ”
Capturing the stasis of mourning in a compelling way is more treacherous to pull off than it looks. Only the quiet, humble beauty of Singer’s prose keeps these sections aloft, but that’s sufficient.
Surprisingly, given her proximity to the undiscovered country, much of the novel’s drama comes from Lonia on her deathbed. Clouded by morphine, her thoughts drift back more than half a century to those harrowing months when she and her brother fled from the Nazis, leaving their family behind in Czechoslovakia. “Only her dreams are vivid,” Singer writes. “Only the past is real.” The horrific context of her escape is vast, of course, but Singer lets our historical memory supply almost all of that background. As Europe catches fire, she keeps these chapters focused on the displaced teenage girl burdened with life-or-death decisions.
Those World War II scenes contribute to the novel’s contrapuntal treatment of ethnic violence. For the elderly Jewish women who come to visit Lonia, the Holocaust is still a fresh and ever-present threat. This time, though, the aggressors are Islamic terrorists, who have already destroyed the twin towers in New York and keep threatening to strike again.
It’s in this climate of fear and suspicion that Esther meets that charming Iranian scientist next door. Might he be the person to draw her back to life? Perhaps, but Singer carefully marks the dates so that we anticipate with swelling dread the atrocity that will rip London apart — the same sense of doom that hangs over so many novels set in New York during the summer of 2001.
Singer, who teaches English at Denison University in Ohio, has won a Flannery O’Connor Award for her short stories, and her skill with that concentrated form is evident in this book’s perfectly formed chapters. Indeed, the parts of “Underground Fugue” are somewhat better than the whole. By the end, it seems to dissipate rather than achieve the piercing sense of longing that so powerfully concludes many of its smaller sections. But good endings, like good deaths, are rare. That shouldn’t keep anyone from being moved by the tenacious spirit of this novel.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
By Margot Singer
Melville House. 290 pp. $25.99