Fiction in Counterpoint
A novel, Sound, notated like a musical score
In 2005, while waiting to pay in the Bob Slate stationery store in Harvard Square, Thomas P. Wolf ’05 spotted a Moleskine composer’s notebook with gray-lined staves on the pages. “It was something I wanted to mess around with,” he says. He bought it. Though no composer, he began to doodle in the notebook—with words. “Like a musical score, you could use it to display things happening simultaneously,” he explains. “Like people interrupting or talking over each other. You could show characters thinking things while saying other things.”
Years later, the doodling has evolved into Wolf’s first work of fiction, the recent novel Sound, published under the pen name T.M. Wolf. Its format is innovative: like a musical score, pages have horizontal lines that underline verbal “audio tracks”: dialogue among the characters (identifiable by typeface), ambient noise, song lyrics heard on radios (especially hip-hop), play-by-play broadcasts of New York Yankees baseball games, and characters’ unspoken thoughts. Like a musical recording, the layered tracks overlap. “If you’re going to try something new, you want to go all out,” Wolf says. “Still, it’s such a structured form—there are certain things you can’t say. You can’t write straight dialogue, for example.”
The layered tracks force a kind of immediacy on the reader, heightening awareness of sound and time. Furthermore, “Space on the page is important,” Wolf says, “and can be manipulated.” Paragraphs of conventional prose intermingle with the “audio” sections. For example, Wolf describes the seaside New Jersey town where the novel is set: “…demolition crews were imploding the burnt remains of the motels and apartment buildings that had once crowded the beachfront; in the place of whole blocks, craters; around the craters, chain-link fences; on the fences, a paper-thin city in watercolor and pasteboard, equally 1890s, 1920s, and 2020s; above the watercolors, new buildings in brick and steel and shiny green glass.” (Wolf constructed a “geographic remix of the shore” on his wall to help orient the narrative, using downloaded Jersey-shore images from Google Maps.)
Sound’s protagonist, Cincy Stiles, drops out of a stalled graduate-degree program and takes a job overseeing a boatyard in his hometown. He rooms with a high-school pal, an idiosyncratic musician; hires a motley crew of workmen; pursues an elusive love interest, Vera (named for Nabokov’s wife); and gets into mid-sized trouble with the law. Music is a leitmotif. “I listen to a tremendous amount of music,” explains Wolf. “Hip-hop informs everything I know about music since age eight.” For a few years in his early twenties, he wrote reviews of hip-hop releases for sites like okayplayer.com.
He grew up in Brielle, south of Asbury Park on the Jersey shore—Bruce Springsteen country. He attended Catholic schools before Harvard, where he was a “middling high-jumper” on the track and field team and studied intellectual history, graduating summa cum laude. His historical studies continued at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on a Marshall scholarship; next he took an urban-development degree at University College London before returning to the States in 2007. The next year he worked full-time as a field organizer for the Obama campaign. Wolf’s next graduate degree was a J.D. from Yale Law School (his father is an attorney, his mother a judge); he now clerks for a federal judge in Connecticut.
Something in the author’s name may correlate with stylistic originality: novelist Thomas Wolfe, A.M. ’22, and journalist/novelist Tom Wolfe both broke new ground in their literary forms. To deepen the confusion, Wolf’s publisher, Faber and Faber, is an affiliate of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG), Tom Wolfe’s publisher. To avoid confusion, Tom Wolf took the pseudonym T.M. (dropping the o from Tom) Wolf. Even so, on his first visit to the FSG offices, he confused the receptionist a bit by introducing himself as “Tom Wolf.” The spellings are different, so any ambiguity is purely in the ear—appropriate, perhaps, for the author of Sound.