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Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case (Crown) is an ambitious, heady, intelligent and engaging first novel about the healing powers of art (with the healing powers of spontaneous combustive sexual couplings between musicians running a quick, close second).
In Gallaway’s “Case,” music is the particular healing art form that is central to the book’s four protagonists—three of whom are leading opera singers, the fourth a music critic.
Yet readers won’t need a special grounding in music, or in the specific operas which are central to Gallaway’s plot—Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” and Leos Janacek’s “The Makropulous Case”—to fully appreciate this novel.
Especially as The Metropolis Case solidifies into a page turner, and better still, delivers on a wide range of concerns that go far beyond the musical interests that center the book’s narrative.
Wagner’s operas were described approvingly by critics as music dramas, and Gallaway’s rapid-fire quadrant of story lines could as easily wear this label.
The book’s succession of time-trotting and seemingly disjointed chapters grabs the reader and cycles him through four paralleling stories, and in the course of the first hundred pages makes clear that the book’s main characters will be united by more than their shared passion for music.
Their interweaving storylines—occupying multiple times and places—are an artful means of conveying something of Wagner’s broad genius, whose use of recurring musical themes to represent both people and ideas began our era of modern music.
Likewise, The Metropolis Case uses a series of echoes and recurrences to create something musical – in league with the musical lives of its characters. Its structure has a unity that is both deceptive and surprising.
It’s easy to imagine that a much more detailed analysis of correspondences between this novel and its operatic wellspring, as well as the novel’s many musical and literary references, would be rewarding and multifaceted. Certainly, Gallaway has woven such a spell that implying such correspondences is its own form of rewarding magic.
Gallaway’s leading female characters are outsize and notable perhaps in their having been created by a male author. They mostly dominate this book with their life force, out of proportion to their number of chapters.
Gallaway’s strongest and most interesting female character to me is the youngest lead, Maria, whose life we follow from first arrival home with her new parents to her triumphant operatic performance of Isolde that caps the novel.
Maria is a complex character who treasures her independence and is so wholly dependent on others; to follow her life’s progress from child to adult and to artistic fulfillment, in service to the novel’s larger story, is Gallaway’s singular accomplishment.
That the book ultimately proves to be as much about the author’s own healing should come as no surprise. This postmodern work allows Gallaway to have a stand-in, in Martin—the one main character who is not an opera singer.
Martin is a New Yorker living through the World Trade Center attacks; his HIV status marks him as well. His concerns are literally life and death. Yet in Martin’s storyline – the only one taking place in the 21st Century – life’s basic connections to others prove to be the way through this cataclysmic event and this difficult time in history.
That these connections are again subsumed within Gallaway’s circling, interweaving structure adds to their depiction. And while it’s clear to me that Gallaway has written his own story of healing, and by extension a healing narrative for his readership, I’d come to dread the chapters when Martin was due to reappear in the narrative.
Still, Martin’s story was no doubt the most meaningful for me; I was also at work in Manhattan the morning of 9/11 and felt death and panic around me and saw the totems of the city’s past fifty years destroyed as summarily as if they had been unplugged.
Yet Gallaway’s humor and focus go the distance in describing lives permanently altered for the worse. Consider this brief conversation with the veterinarian’s receptionist soon after the attack, when against all former instincts, Martin has taken in a stray cat that must be treated.
“Do I look insane to you?” he asked the receptionist.
“Yeah, kind of,” she answered. “Do I?”
Reassured by this exchange, he sat down to wait…
Martin and his fellow protagonists—further united as the book progresses —take a long road back. If Gallaway’s first novel is only occasionally heavy handed, as first novels often are, a great deal of pleasure (along with a good deal of effort) awaits.
Gallaway’s frequently moving language is also extremely demanding of readers. A deeper reward—the witnessing of a process of reconciliation and reclaiming of a divided self—also awaits.
THE METROPOLIS CASE
By Matthew Gallaway
Hardcover, 9780307463425, 384pp.