There’s something particularly pathetic about a desperate man in the throes of an existential mid-life crisis. And unlike other desperate figures, instead of fostering sympathy, these men can all too easily come across as ridiculous.
That’s the central problem with George Rabasa’s latest novel, The Wonder Singer: for all that we may be encouraged to cheer for its dogged hero to overcome his personal obstacles, after a while you just want to slap some sense into him. As a character, self-described hack writer Mark Lockwood is far from the shallow vanity associated with the mid-life crisis cliché, but that doesn’t stop him from seeming pathetic. Though Rabasa is clearly exploring the very ordinariness of such a man presented with a seemingly golden opportunity to raise himself up from a middling life, the fact remains that there’s a fine line between underdog and unlikable, and by the time The Wonder Singer concludes, Lockwood has crossed that line.
The story begins with Lockwood as an average man given the chance to do something great. Having toiled as a writer for years and years, Lockwood has made a comfortable if modest living as a typewriter-for-hire, writing white papers, ad copy, reports, an advice series for the parents of teens—whatever assignment he can land, though all anonymous and rote. Then Lockwood’s agent offers him a shot at a plum ghostwriting gig penning the autobiography of Mercé Cassals, one of the world’s most famous living opera divas.
Lockwood is granted access into the private domain of the elderly and reclusive Cassals, who begins to tell him her life story as he takes notes and records her voice on cassette. Immediately, the potential of the project grips Lockwood—an internationally famous woman with a storied life, given to eccentricities and seclusion despite a lasting legacy and lingering public acclaim, willing to share her history with him exclusively, and told through his pen. It’s a huge leap forward from How to Talk to Your Teen About STDs. And thus is especially unfortunate for Lockwood that before she’s finished her life story, before he’s found the hidden gem at the heart of her tale that will give him his shot at a truly literary bestseller, Cassals dies peacefully in her bathtub.
This unfortunate turn sets in motion a chain of events that leads Lockwood’s life into chaos. While working with Cassals in her home, he’s entered into an unreciprocated flirtatious relationship with Cassals’ young, pretty nurse, Perla. It is they who discover the body. And on the death of the diva, when Lockwood’s unscrupulous agent demands that her turn over the notes and tapes of Cassals’ conversations so a literary heavyweight can take over the project, Lockwood sees his opportunity vanishing and enlists Perla’s help in hiding the tapes so he can continue the work on his own.
Problematic, though, is his wife Claire. Though Lockwood has come to view their marriage as dry routine, Claire is bemused when he confesses his attraction to the nurse and his decision to move out of their house so he can hide out from his agent and the increasingly threatening demands for the return of the tapes. As Lockwood goes underground to continue his research and endeavor on the greatest writing project of his career, he enters into a partnership with Perla, in part because of their bond through their unique contact with Cassals at the end, and in part because of his determination to consummate an affair with the nurse. Unsurprisingly, Claire decides to leave Lockwood and moves out of their house. And while Lockwood’s life continues to unravel, his partnership grows to a cadre as he falls into enlisting the aid of the diva’s “number one fan”, cross-dressing socialite Orson LaPrima, and Cassals’ estranged husband, Nolan Keefe, eventually moving them into his house to protect his interests in the biography.
In contrast to Lockwood’s downward spiral, Rabasa peppers the book with “excerpts” of Lockwood’s written account of Mercé Cassals’ life. Told in Cassals’ first-person narrative, these episodes detail the singer’s rise from orphan protégé to civilian during the Spanish Civil War on to her fabulous career, ruined marriage to Keefe, and long decline into old age. It is indeed an extraordinary life, befittingly dramatic for an opera singer. Rabasa is elegant in his descriptions of Spain’s mid-20th century, full of evocative details and tying Cassals to a vivid and tragic history. One passage about the burning of priests in the midst of revolutionary fervor is particularly terrible and affecting. The periods covering Cassals’ successes and post-fame life are less immediate, but it’s easy to stay engaged in her own personal emotional life, and the odd perspective from the inside of celebrity is interesting enough.
The problem is that none of these things synch up easily. In spite of the Cassals narration running throughout the book, The Wonder Singer is ultimately about Lockwood, and you wonder why. Each return to his present becomes more and more detached, for Lockwood and for the reader, as the writer clings more desperately to the obsession with his project, even weaving the singer’s life into his own delusions. If there’s supposed to be some great parallel between Cassals’ story and the crumbling of Lockwood’s life, it’s never clear what that is, even when the book reaches its uncertain, open-ended conclusion. And as the Cassals material winds up being more compelling—and thus more real—than the Lockwood material, it feels like the book gradually loses focus.
Then there’s the aforementioned issue that none of these people is particularly likable. Any sympathy that the reader may find in Lockwood dwindles as he makes increasingly odd decisions and his sanity erodes. It’s hard to care much for Perla or LaPrima, as their strangely cavalier nonchalance never yields a clear motive. Cassals’ husband, Nolan Keefe, is progressively revealed as shallow and spoiled. Even Claire is almost irrationally calm through the separation from her husband. At the opposite end of the story, Cassals herself as catalyst and epicenter occupies a space that’s hard to reconcile. She’s probably the most enjoyable character, but she seems removed from the other characters and their adulation. Lockwood clings on to the notion that Cassals saw something in him, as she’s told him so, but in the end that something remains undefined for the reader.
The saving grace here is that for all its flaws, The Wonder Singer is still well written. Rabasa uses language and detail skillfully to keep the reader going, and the distinctions between the Lockwood passage and the Cassals passages are clear, displaying Rabasa’s ability to inhabit different voices and styles. Little touches, like the way Lockwood sees memories of his wife in the small artifacts of his home life, are beautifully real and humanizing. But they aren’t enough to overcome how hard it is to care about the characters. Once Lockwood crosses the barrier into being more irritating than engaging, The Wonder Singer tests the reader’s patience, and ambivalence is unavoidable.