Double the Song

For a long time she had loved karaoke. Honestly, she had loved it too much. The love was frantic but also complex, a complexity born of her desire to expose herself and be known, and her concomitant dread of exposing herself and being known. Of all the forms this conflict had ever taken in her life, karaoke was the purest.

I know what a vibe is

Sarah Palmer, Mirror Dance. 2014, archival pigment print. 40 × 50". Courtesy of the artist and Mrs., Maspeth, New York.

Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind is out tomorrow, and available for preorder from the n+1 bookstore.

The party had gotten louder since Dorothy had been in the bathroom. More guests had arrived, or people who had been floating around in other rooms or smoking outside on the fire escape had come back. Dorothy squeezed behind a clus­ter of Gaby’s friends who she knew from years of Gaby events to reach a hand into the bowl of baby carrots. It was a bamboo bowl and less sturdy than it looked; she almost knocked it over but the bowl wobbled on its axis and righted itself. She ate the carrot, and another, breathing in the apartment like air. The secretary desk. The ten-thousand-dollar sofa. She knew what it cost because Gaby had told her what a great deal they got on it—it was actually worth more. The built-in bookshelves. Art by actual artists, people who gave it to Gaby when she, of all people, could have afforded to pay for it. Brass objects arranged on a shiny chrome table like a hotel lobby. The drinks and mixers were on a long table protected with a tapestry Gaby had dyed herself. Dorothy poured herself a vodka with a dash of tonic and looked around for a lime. There was no lime.

Gaby lived in a million-dollar apartment with a sofa that cost four months of Dorothy’s rent and Dorothy was supposed to put a lemon in her drink. What the fuck, thought Dorothy, and squeezed the lemon in. Seeds floated to the bottom of the cloudy cup.

An immigration rights attorney who Dorothy had not seen since Gaby’s baby shower was talking about her two-year-old son.

“Sometimes when he puts his face right next to mine I have the urge to French him,” the attorney said, raising her voice to be heard over the music. Her tone was confessional but the rapid way in which she delivered the confession made Dorothy think it was not a true confession, compelled to the surface in the imperfect moment, but a line that had been worked over and tested in front of smaller, more familiar audiences, before being rolled out on this festive occasion. “Do you guys think I’m a pedophile?”

A man with an athletic build and a square superhero jawline who was a partner in a litigation finance firm said, “If you really thought you were a pedophile, you’d never make a joke about it.”

The woman, the immigration rights attorney, shrugged. “I have thoughts,” she said.

“You’re bragging,” the litigation financier said again. His face was sweaty with the effort of repartee but he stood perfectly still. He didn’t hop a little from side to side. He didn’t scratch himself or touch his hair. But he seemed to be working very hard not to do these things. There was something vibrating beneath the surface.

“It’s very romantic,” the woman insisted. “I know what a vibe is.”

“Excuse me,” said Dorothy, although she had not really been part of the conversation, and went to find Rog in the living room, where he was talking to a cluster of people. In a deep bass voice, a man with a black beard was saying excitedly, “But that’s not what fascism means.” He was paunchy, and even though he did not look like any dentist Dorothy had ever visited, she could not shake the notion that he could or should be a dentist. Perhaps it was because his own teeth were so white and orderly, lined up like soldiers for inspection. His wide, bear-like hand was precisely shaped to hold a drill. Dorothy and Rog chatted with him until he looked over Dorothy’s head at something behind her. “I should go mingle,” he said, and walked away.

Around midnight, Rog nudged Dorothy and cocked his head. Gaby was hauling out a karaoke machine. The sight of the machine filled Dorothy with dread.

“Shit,” she said.

For a long time she had loved karaoke. Honestly, she had loved it too much. The love was frantic but also complex, a complexity born of her desire to expose herself and be known, and her concomitant dread of exposing herself and being known. Of all the forms this conflict had ever taken in her life, karaoke was the purest.

“Do you want to leave while we still can?” Rog asked.

“Yes,” Dorothy said, “but I think it’s too late.” Gaby was plugging wires into the TV with calm efficiency, a modern-day Hans Castorp “running” the gramophone in the sani­tarium salon.

They used to do it in private rooms. At first it had all been so new and enchanting: the sticky darkness; the bizarre ac­companying videos, about which someone always had some­thing to say; the caterwauling audible from inside the bathroom, when the nights other people were passing in other private rooms leaked into your own; and all this inside the dark and deep alcohol cocoon. Inside this cocoon her voice was so good, so strong. It was amplified and loud enough to fill her head. Her friends, and their friends, were so beautiful. She could see their souls shining; it was an un­bearable burden, to love them so much.

The problem with karaoke in those years was that it was so hard for it to end, and sometimes, depending on what kind of liquor she was drinking, in the later/earlier hours of the morning Dorothy became morose, or fell into a funk as dark and soft as dirt. She might rouse herself out of it if someone encouraged her to sing again, or she might keep falling if someone started to sing a melancholy song. There was a variety of funk that Dorothy liked settling into, aided by nostalgic songs, when she felt the fragility of her ebbing youth and the sweet ache of pleasures she had known or missed; there was another funk that was loneliness and grief, and sometimes these two funks blended together into an overpowering pang of life and death in which Dorothy expe­rienced the smallness of her being knit into the large, incom­prehensible whole of everything else. Great passions were expressed and mourned. She would come home wound up like a clock, pulsing with all the songs sung and unsung, run­ning on anxiety and regret, amped up and disappointed, wanting more and also wanting to have had much less.

That, too, was part of the love—the bitterness that it did not last.

Some time ago karaoke had stopped being fun, and then it had become a chore, and then a kind of poison that caused Dorothy’s internal organs to shut down one by one, but still she did it—sometimes it was even her idea. It was hard to stop doing something you had once liked doing. There al­ways seemed to be the possibility you could like it again. Could be the person you had been, who was now a stranger.

Gaby handed Dorothy the second microphone and put on an emotive ballad from their parents’ youth. It was way too early to go full throttle on this kind of thing, but it was part of Gaby’s charm that she never took the temperature of the room. Everyone else was engaged in cross talk or looking at their phones or, worse, a few people were staring at them, their heads idly nodding, offering half-smiles of polite en­couragement. Dorothy felt that they were all prisoners to­gether, but of what, she couldn’t say—the dictate to enjoy? Nostalgia for a time they had never known? The obligation to please the hostess? Their own mortality? Their parents’ mortality?

Gaby told Dorothy to stay up for the second number. It started loud and fast and high, and from the excitement in the room Dorothy gathered that this was a new song from a teen star that everyone except her had heard dozens of times and liked for reasons whose irony and sincerity could not be teased apart. Dorothy quickly passed the microphone to someone else.

“I’ve never heard this song before!” she shouted to Gaby, who was already belting the chorus. Listening to Gaby, Dor­othy felt herself expanding and also felt the reflected glow of nobility that always attended the admiration of a friend. Love for someone else’s karaoke performance was greater and more intense than love for a great song because it was love for the person singing. Karaoke involved destroying something significant and putting oneself into the place of the thing you had killed. Beautiful singing took you some­where, it transported you in a reverie, but it took you back to yourself—that was why people cried when they listened to beautiful music. Amateurism kept the focus on the amateur. It was about appreciating the artist, not the art.

Karaoke doubled the song. Even when you didn’t know the original song, you never heard just the version that was present; you were always aware of another version, a real version, a ghost version, to which the current version existed in relation. That was the pathos of karaoke. It was a way of striving, an imitation not in the cheap sense, but in the sense of the meaning that attends an imitation of God. There were, of course, people who put on joke songs and tried to distance themselves from the power, and Dorothy always felt sorry for them. We are all in the gutter, she always wanted to tell them, but some of us are looking at the stars.

The next drink Dorothy made tasted like metal, so she dumped it into the sink and opened a Tecate. The lawyer who had bragged earlier about wanting to kiss her toddler came into the kitchen and leaned against the counter. The lawyer was fully drunk now and feeling introspective.

“I was telling this guy out there,” she said, “about my kid’s tantrums. He didn’t understand at all.”

Dorothy drank the beer and ran her finger over the bot­tom of a glass bowl, picking up popcorn detritus. She could hear, from the other room, a group sing-along to “Wuther­ing Heights.” It sounded like feral cats being raped—in a fun way. Dorothy licked salt off her finger. She burped into her hand and smiled to encourage the lawyer to keep talking.

“The other day I asked him if he wanted cinnamon and honey in his milk and he said yes,” the lawyer said. “Why did I believe him? What the fuck does he know? I gave him the cup and he screamed for twenty-five minutes. It was like he was possessed.”

Dorothy said that sounded very hard. The lawyer put a hand on Dorothy’s arm.

“You get it,” she said.

“Later on I figured it out,” the woman said. “I remembered that when we got home, his stuffed monkey was sitting in his high chair. Of course I hadn’t put the monkey there. He had put the monkey there, the night before, at dinnertime, and he had taken my seat, and I had sat in the place we usually pile bags. But when he came home from school, he saw the monkey in the chair and just lost his mind. He took him down and beat him against the table legs, saying, ‘Push Alex.’ I don’t know if he felt replaced by Alex, or what. Maybe he was pushing Alex because he really wanted to push me. Then I gave him the tainted milk. I think he didn’t feel seen.” She said it again, her cheeks flushed with drinking and exhaustion and the heat of the party. “I think the milk made him feel unseen.”

“I’m sure you handled it fine,” said Dorothy, who, despite everything, really liked this woman. She had a way of telling a story. She was probably a good lawyer for her clients. And then there was something so relaxing about being around a talker. All you had to do was keep them going. “Alex calmed down eventually, didn’t he?”

“Alex is the monkey,” the woman said.

“Right,” said Dorothy, and Rog came in to say that Gaby wanted her back.

Gaby was handing out books with the song titles. She was a charming master of ceremonies, “dispenser of the entertain­ment” as well as star performer, cheerleader, and claqueur. A lesser host would have scratched the “wonder-box” with carelessness, would have turned up the echo to distorting lev­els. Some people Dorothy didn’t know performed anthems that Dorothy herself had performed many times at karaokes past and Dorothy got no pleasure from them at all. A flat meanness had moved into the atmosphere; the fun was rote, spoiled. People got up and risked themselves for the group and no one acknowledged or even watched them. Maybe that was the point; there was a tact or politeness to ignoring the spectacle that they were all purportedly gathered to enjoy. In the ancient past people had gathered around camp­fires to sing together and blend their voices but now, a ritual that was ostensibly revealing or cathartic enforced a zone of untouchable privacy. And yet unlike the solitude that Doro­thy knew was a good thing, the best thing, this privacy was only attainable in the act of exposure; as soon as the singers retired from the impromptu stage, the clearing of couches and tables, they were expected to drop their aesthetic and spiritual ambitions, to act as if they had never been in the clearing, tunelessly or tunefully reaching for transcendence.

Holding the microphone away from her lips to avoid pop­ping, Gaby commanded Dorothy to put in a song. As Rog strolled through a crowd-pleasing version of the Pet Shop Boys, Dorothy consulted the book and keyed in a numerical code. Someone got up and did a morose Smiths number that Dorothy wished she had thought of doing. The litigation financier accompanied his rendition of “Lola” with a staccato marchlike dance. Dorothy wondered if he danced this dance to all songs or was trying to communicate something specific about the sexual panic of “Lola.” While the financier desperately punched the air Rog put his mouth over Dorothy’s ear to be heard over the music.

“He seems so angry,” Rog shouted.

A trio of women Dorothy had never liked came up to do a song from the ’90s that Dorothy had never cared about, but she smiled and clapped, reluctant to diminish the experience for those who were provoked and moved by it. A woman in a sweater so loud it was chaotic briefly cleared the room with a frightening rendition of “Heart-Shaped Box.” Alex’s mom came in and did a disturbingly on-key Mariah Carey. People had secret talents; it thrilled Dorothy to be in their presence. After Gaby’s next song Dorothy started thinking there might have been something wrong with the karaoke machine, which was essentially a children’s toy. The sound had gotten tinny, like it was trapped inside something too small for it, but no one else seemed bothered or even to notice.

When her song came up, Dorothy didn’t recognize the opening drumbeat, and although the melody announced itself, she couldn’t find her way into it. It seemed to have no relation to the background pulsing of the synthesizer. She tried talking along with the words onscreen, but didn’t rec­ognize any of them, and even though Gaby sat at her feet, singing along to keep Dorothy on track, midway through the second verse Dorothy pushed the button to skip. A few peo­pled booed cheerfully.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know this song!” she said. “I thought it was a different song!”

She made a hapless gesture that she hoped made her neu­rosis seem charming, like she was a character in an indepen­dent film—the kind who wears a hat.

Gaby scrambled up and put an arm around her.

“Give it up for Dorothy!” she said.

“I’m next,” she added.

Gaby fixed her dress and did a little bow in front of the karaoke machine, summoning and supplicating its gods to her side. The percussion clicked quickly, on the run from something or someone.

“This is a classic,” Gaby intoned into the microphone, and pointed at Dorothy. “Also by the Boss.”

The synth came chugging on the drum’s heels, and Gaby was right there on the beat. She dipped low into the melody. She knew every inch of the song, where it curved and where it rode straight. Brian, who Dorothy had not seen the entire night, materialized and grinned with the unmistakable plea­sure of watching the person you love do something they excel at. Gaby raised a fist in a pantomime of the motion a singer makes onstage in front of hundreds of thousands but the way Gaby did it expressed her knowledge that she was in her own living room entertaining a handful of diehards and drunks who hadn’t drifted away into other conversations, and happy to be there. If Dorothy still loved karaoke she would be falling in love with Gaby all over again, but she didn’t. Dorothy was in her bathysphere, and Gaby was in her stadium.

What was the world behind the song, Hans Castorp had asked, which the motions of his conscience made to seem a world of forbidden love?

The answer was death. It was always death. There was no other song, really. The variety of earthly music was merely a reflection of the infinite ways there were to die. There were love songs, of course, but since love could kill you, they counted as death songs, too. The particular genius of this song was how fast it moved. It hurried like it was late to its own funeral.

From the book The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood. Copyright © 2021 by Christine Smallwood. Published this month by Hogarth, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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