One hundred or so pages in to David Abbott's surprisingly first novel, I paused to ask myself about its title, which seemed to lack obvious relevance to the story at hand. An allusion that I missed, perhaps? Something minor, but significant? As an accustomed reader of poetry, I'm equally accustomed to almost effortlessly missing the point when it comes to longer works of fiction. Like a stranger in a strange land, telling details leading one idea or sentence to a logical component, I misunderstand as lines enjambed, bespeaking metaphor or provocation, but rarely simple points of fact, such as, in order for Nessa’s character to avoid touching dead fish washed up by tide, she must adjust her gait along the shore. Straight as straightforward can be, to be sure, but if in any way disjoined by, say, a period or line break, at risk--in this reader's mind--of coruscating quickly into shimmering abstraction like a comet viewed by telescope as to ensure no basic threat or need to understand astronomy, as beautiful and thoughtless as it is almost entirely noncommittal to the author's vast intention or, in any case, the book that everybody else is reading, and, most certainly, talking about. (Sensibly, of course, with accurate knowledge of state capitals, correct tire pressure, well-balanced meals, and so forth.)
At least, if we're still talking about The Upright PianoPlayer, which I'm proud, most sedulously of myself, to say we are, or should be. For this novel (whatever its title suggests) is both a semi-linear narrative and a kind of meditation on the particularly inexperienced art of acquisition and investment of remorse-tinged time and effort in the face of utmost loss. Abbott (himself a former partner of the U.K.'s largest advertising agency) employs his brand newly retired, seemingly know-it-all protagonist and business legend, Henry Cage, to endure the deaths of those he was or will be closest to, compiled by a slur of unwarranted affronts on both his home and self. And yet, Abbott most charitably spares his miserable, more desperate even than he looks (or knows), not altogether innocent analogue the additional, insulting strain of having to appear as if the drama and the heartache of his life are all-consuming, all-but-ready to be fine chopped and displayed by category and degree of anguish, like some befuddled sensation of a tell-all talk show guest, smiling blithely, seconds after crying into the wrong camera, but nevertheless counting, in their head, down from 15.
In case that's any indication of what Abbott is or rather isn't up to, I'll just come right out and say that what most brings this book to life is its reluctance to treat characters like miniatures, whose only recognizable intent is to be forked around; a kind of pleasure one might understandably foresee, forgive and get as irresistible to any first-time writer, no less novelist. But then again, The Upright Piano Player isn't like most first-time novels, in the sense that it's so much more like a record of a life, in terms of what it is unwilling to or unable to say, and its acceptance, either way, of the elusions of experience one intuits in the world and fears but cannot access in themselves, at least not with any greater insight or profundity, no matter what's expected of most characters forced in and out of various states of dramatic hyper-consciousness. (Cue explosion, tears, dogs barking.)
Because unlike a water ride or rollercoaster, which to a first-person thrill seeker might embody the equivalent of one hundred pages worth of standing still in line, in order to get scared to death and lose their keys, the so-called "rising action" of this novel isn't brought about by waves or tangents of suspense, nor subsequently blown out on authorial hyperbole. THANK GOD! As in life, and life's relationship to time, it strikes you later that such moments of anxiety and failure are of comparable import. In Abbott's hands, it seems (and here's hoping he keeps at it), emotions are descriptively stifled (which is not the same as his just being British), in favor of distractions, not from the plot but into it, since the true telling of any life is not contingent on envelopment in misery, but reactions to and far away as possible from misery. Take for instance this simple, lovely, unusually informative last line to a dinner between Henry and his new love interest Maude:
When she thought of their future together, they were never in bed, but in Paris or Rome, walking by day, then dining at night beneath the trees, the heavy silverware catching the last gleams of a heavy sun.
And while I admit this particular sentence is a pretty much poor example, with its emphasis on cutlery and similarly stark irrelevance to what I am about to say, I will say Abbott's syntax also has a tendency, not to omit, but to reveal the most important information either last or later than, in retrospect, you might expect, again, in service to the weight of an implicative, however engrained moment, and that weight's necessarily shared distribution among all else occurring in the mind of Abbott's characters.
The blurb on the back of the U.K. edition is not a plain recommendation, but a paragraph pulled from the book, appropriately resonant with both the novel's tragic end and unimaginable beginning, which in concert help illuminate for us, as well as Henry, a certain lifelong numbness, an arguably more troubling than death realization that the whole of one's experience has been not only marked by tragedy, but paralyzed; a paragraph, ironically, to do with joy, and how joy, at its or our worst, can come to shape our expectations.
Thus removed from total joy or deprecation, we don't imbibe the drama and the heartache of this novel in one big gulp. We live with it and wait with it, at first for it to magically turn back into a carriage or a pumpkin, and finally with more than hope that change is at least possible, based on what we've read, from Henry's adamant and heartbreaking ambivalence to his more insistent pride in those he loved once and disvalued and those that he discovers he cannot love without, as if returning to his past; a past we know, thanks to this novel's tragic, perfect end is gone, which is, for once, rare but welcome news.