Ken Jennings


April 7, 2009

Arthur Phillips’ fourth novel, The Song Is You, is on sale today! I read a proof last fall, and it confirmed my suspicion that Phillips is the best Jeopardy! champion ever to write a novel, and the best novelist every to retire undefeated on Jeopardy!.

The Song Is You is an offbeat iPod romance, about a middle-age Manhattan commercial director and the up-and-coming Irish rock singer with whom he becomes obsessed. See, this is what I like about Phillips. His other three novels have been: a thinly veiled recollection of his own expat years in post-Cold War Budapest, an unbelievably dark comedy about a clueless amateur egyptologist, and a psychological Victorian ghost story. You sure can’t say he’s writing the same book over and over!

The Song Is You does bear the hallmark of all of Phillips’ books: intricate plotting, in which each chapter is a precise trickle of new details, most of which won’t pay off for another 50 or 100 pages. But it’s his first book to include a multi-day Jeopardy! champ as one of the characters! A supporting character goes on the show and has his life ruined by the resulting flame-out. Jeopardy! fans who have to TiVo through the show’s terminally awkward interview segment: read this book. You’ve never winced like this before.

I think many readers of The Song Is You will sigh longingly at the protagonist’s “romantic” pursuit of his Celtic pop idol. Phillips carefully calibrates the book so that this is one possible response. I actually read it as a borderline-creepy case of cyber-stalking, which makes me feel morally superior to everyone who thinks it’s just an adorably “quirky” meet-cute, including the people who make the inevitable movie adaptation with Anne Hathaway as the hot singer.

I had a couple reservations about the book. Phillips’ exaggeratedly elevated prose style, which was so hilarious in The Egyptologist and at-least-period-accurate in Angelica, is faintly ridiculous here, when he’s using the rhetorical heights of Wolfe or Fitzgerald to describe, say, the men’s room in a seedy Brooklyn club, or the comments section of a MySpace page. And speaking of faintly ridiculous: this is a novel about the Next New Thing on the pop scene, and it’s pretty clear that Phillips hasn’t liked a new band in at least 15 years. He halfway covers by making his hero an equally out-of-touch middle-aged sadsack, but maybe he should have dialed it back a little and made his enigmatic singer an on-the-rise fixture on the folk or jazz or alt-country scene–some hipster niche. I might have bought into that, but not a sensitive Irish rock-poetess becoming an international pop idol.

But he sure knows his Jeopardy!-contestant stuff backwards and forwards! Phillips’s next novel should move away from the music scene and dig into slice-of-game-show-life stuff. That’s what America wants.

Posted by Ken at 11:21 am