On an eerily warm October evening in a suburb of Detroit, a new father and struggling fantasy novelist named McPhail gazes at a honey locust tree. The sight triggers a memory of the sudden, inexplicable death of Hannah, whom he loved when they were both fourteen. So begins a year-long odyssey, in which McPhail becomes obsessed with recollections of Hannah, puts his job and his marriage in jeopardy, and fears that his “obsolete consciousness” is spiraling into apocalyptic religious and ecological despair.
Unable to complete the fantasy he is contracted to write, McPhail instead composes this “book behind the book” in his effort to re-enchant the world for himself and his growing family and to lay to rest old griefs along with more recent regrets.
Metaphysical, lyrical, elegiac, Absolute Music is a novel of consciousness that is at the same time grounded in memorable characters and shaped by a variety of landscapes from Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to County Clare and Japan. In the character of McPhail you might detect a distant cousin of Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling or Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, but he remains very much a man of our own time.
This is a beautiful book about the oldest story: the story of man and woman, expelled from paradise—the story of desire and betrayal, of anguish and delight, of exile and return. Symphonic and compelling, Absolute Music reveals the magic of the world behind the world—and our all-too-common inability to reach it.
Abigail Favale, author of Into the Deep and The Genesis of Gender
We live our lives and we read and we listen and watch, and yet it is somehow notable and wonderful to encounter a book that allows art—a whole lot of art—such a prominent place in how we consider our loves and losses. In Geltner’s gorgeous debut, a reader gets to move through it all with ease and grace.
Aimee Bender, author of The Butterfly Lampshade
In Absolute Music Jonathan Geltner takes the tone and self-exploratory rumination of contemporary autofiction and advances the form by going where his contemporaries cannot—into the twinned ineffability of the divine and the musical. This novel begins with the “locust,” a specific Midwestern tree that harks back to the Biblical plague—and a word that, phonetically, contains all-devouring ‘lust’ hidden within it. The novel is not just about music but musical in its words and ways. Structured in suites, it aches toward something higher than mere realism, toward the alta fantasia of a higher reality.
Amit Majmudar, author of What He Did in Solitary
Absolute Music is a book not so much for mere fantasy lovers as for those readers who have been in some way wounded—sweet, awful wounding—by fantasy. The novel hovers on fantasy’s threshold, finding affinities with works by Lev Grossman, John Crowley, Susanna Clarke, M. John Harrison, and Jo Walton. Yet it is everywhere itself: a cerebral, sorrowful fugue taking up everything from Kabbalah to the Ohio River Valley to Dungeons and Dragons.
Michael Weingrad, Professor of Jewish Literature at Portland State University