April 9, 2008


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Gloria Lenhoff has a captivating voice and a catalogue of over 2,000 songs in her memory, but can’t add two plus two. Toni Cicoria, after having been struck by lightning in a telephone booth (he was calling his mother), develops a sudden, intense desire to listen to and play piano music — constantly. He becomes so obsessed, so dominated by the music, he gets divorced.
Oliver Sacks relates Gloria’s and Toni’s stories, among dozens of others, in his newest novel, Musicophilia, with a well-balanced mixture of science and story-telling. In a genre he seems to have created for himself — let’s call it scientific narrative — Sacks delves into the case histories of dozens of individuals with an array of diseases and gifts that affect musicality. In the style of an academic old uncle (perhaps a tad obsessed with mental disorders) he tells the stories of his own bona-fide case histories.
In this latest edition to his ever-expanding work, Sacks explores the origins of absolute pitch (being able to tell the pitch of any note without pause to reflect or compare) as well as retarded but immensely talented musical savants. Though the chasm separating the Mozarts and autistics of the world seems difficult to cross, the connections made in Musicophilia are all fluidly metered by the effects of music on the brain.
Sacks’s relaxed and almost conversational tone make Musicophilia a delight to read (a pleasure improved, I might add, with Debussy or Billie Holiday serenading in the background). Though he is scientific, his work is readable — even for those of limited scientific backgrounds. This stellar combination of an amiable tone, ease of reading, and mind-boggling honest-to-goodness-true stories makes Musicophilia a fun and well-crafted read. It’s even divided into mini-chapters that can be read in between lectures or waiting in line for coffee — perfect for the over-achieving Cornellian’s schedule.
Most impressive, however, it Sacks’s ever-present awe of his patients, which sets this book apart from others of its genre. His true talent resides in his uncanny ability to humanize his scientific subjects — get personal, but remain respectful. In each case, he hones in on the individual, not the disease. Mr. Sacks infuses each case study with a fascination of the mind’s capacity to listen to, compose, play, hallucinate or even ‘lose’ music (as he explains: during one car ride, for about a minute the music on the radio stopped being music to him and became a grating clash of sounds; for a moment, he ‘lost’ all sense of music).
Sacks imbues the narrative not only with first-hand accounts of his patients, but also first-hand experiences, unlike his past novels, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or Awakenings, which dealt exclusively with patients. He tells about his own musical hallucinations, “intracranial jukeboxes,” and how he lost “the joy of music” following his aunt’s death. (Don’t worry: He later found it in a piece by Jan Dismus Zelenka.)
As he composes himself into his narrative, Sacks subtly constructs a bridge, allowing the reader to identify more deeply with the ‘characters’ in his studies. By situating himself as the first-person narrator viewing the musical world from the perspective of his subjects, Sacks encourages his readers to do the same, and it works.
Most notably, Mr. Sacks questions the limits and normalcy of the musical brain. Why can’t everyone recognize when someone sneezes in G? Why don’t we all taste the bitterness of minor sevenths that some synesthetics experience? I suppose the rest of us will simply have to buy a pitch pipe to find out if dad really does sneeze in G.