Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Matthew Gallaway writes a stunning novel about life and art.

A friend recommended this novel to me, and I can honestly say that I haven't enjoyed another novel from 2010 as much as I have enjoyed this one.

The Metropolis Case

Matthew Gallaway’s debut novel, The Metropolis Case (384 pages, Crown, $25), is a stunningly beautiful fantasy that defies the limit of the realistic novel to make a profound statement about life and art and the truth that they offer.
The story has three centers of focus, which become complexly interwoven as the narratives develop. The end result is astonishing and deeply satisfying. Gallaway almost defies expectations by pulling all these strands together so effectively.

In the story that begins closest to the contemporary moment, we are introduced to Martin, an unsatisfied lawyer who began life in a band and then wrote music reviews for a time. Law was a desperate alternative when he worried about where his life was going; and when we meet him, he is just about fed up. He is seriously considering early retirement—he has reached the ripe old age of 41—when 9/11 happens. After a truly harrowing day, he decided to retire anyway. And then he starts trying to put his life together.

An HIV positive gay man, Martin has had little luck in dating or finding a life-partner. His experiences have, if anything, jaded him, and he has begun to feel that love is a lovely fantasy when you are young but that it has no bearing on the meaning of life. Then he takes in two cats, one has been hanging around the neighborhood and he sees another in the pound. In any case, he devotes his life to these two creatures, and through caring for them and engaging with them, he begins to think, as strange as it might seem, that he can experience love.

Another vivid and compelling figure is Maria, who, like Martin, grew up in Pittsburgh, and like him, was also an adoptee. We see her in the 1970s and 1980s, when she is first finding her talent as a singer and later working with the Julliard singing teacher and former Wagnerian soprano, Anna. The relationship between these two characters is key to the meaning of the novel, but also key is Maria’s search to find her voice and accept herself as a great singer.

Gallaway tells a similar story about a nineteenth-century Italian boy, Lucien, who, as he grows into a strapping lad, also shows signs of being a great opera singer. Gallaway makes this story compelling, too: he shows how Lucien is taken up by the local aristocratic lady, how he finds his way to Vienna, and how at last he finds himself singing in the premier of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

This opera, it turns out, is a link for all these characters. Early in the novel, after a memorable performance of the opera in which she stars as the female lead, Anna is offered an original score of the work. Lucien and Maria also mark the performance of that opera as the high points of their careers. Because the opera is about true love, and these characters are singing about it without necessarily experiencing it in their lives, the opera always leads to soul-searching of the most compelling kind. Even Martin, who is not himself a singer, attends a performance that sets him on a change of life-course as well.

Gallaway manages to bring all these strands together in surprising ways. If at first you feel that certain things about the ending might seem forced, simply allow yourself to give into it and you will find that the novel takes you places where few novels do.

I have nothing but praise for this exciting debut, and I can only hope that Matthew Gallaway will treat us to another masterpiece soon.

Matthew Gallaway

The Metropolis Case available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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