The opening chapters of Sarah Pinsker’s novel, A Song for a New Day, build up to the last big concert of the “Before.” Before a cascade of devastating terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and pox plague shut people in their homes for good. Before StageHolo, a holographic concert pay-per-view service, took over the live music business. As news of the first horrific bombing hits lead singer Luce in the green room of The Peach—and the first hints of anti-crowd paranoia start showing—she has to decide whether to cancel her scheduled show or play. Send the audience home, where they’ll be safe, or offer the ones who decide to stick it out something bigger than safety. Connection. Transcendence.
Is it even a choice? Rock on, am I right??
But before that, just before the before-Before, the book’s very first scene tweaks a classic trope of the rock-band road story: the wrecked hotel room. Here, it’s Luce ripping into her band-mates for trashing a nice room, while she’s been up since five a.m. promoting, troubleshooting merch logistics, being responsible—a canny inversion that introduces the fine line Pinsker will walk for the rest of A Song for a New Day. How do you balance a celebration of rock’s defiant ethos with a mature understanding of its limits? How do you stick it to the Man without sounding painfully naive—like a relic of the irresponsible generation that got us into the mess we’re living now? Is it possible to embrace rock’s anarchic liberation, with all its limits and transcendence?
Readers who know Pinsker’s Nebula-winning novelette, “Our Lady of the Open Road” (which we saw in her debut collection earlier this year, Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea), will recognize Luce Cannon and her ongoing friction with StageHolo. They’ll recognize the world where paranoia keeps people isolated and cars with actual drivers off the streets. New is Rosemary, a dedicated employee of the mega-everything-store Superwally, who lands a dream job as a talent scout for StageHolo. Rosemary, raised under the anti-congregation laws, takes it for granted that cities are riddled with disease and terrorism. She panics in tight crowds, which makes it difficult to scout the underground clubs where musicians still illegally play live. That’s where she meets Luce, defiant as ever.
The dynamic between Luce and Rosemary dials up that ambivalence from the first scene to eleven. Pinsker’s prose excels at capturing the vitality in Luce’s live performances, her lyrical style at times taking on incantatory cadences, as Luce describes “the elusive collision of a song, a performance, a moment; the agreement that I would try to reach them, and they’d open themselves up to being reached.” “Live songs have teeth,” she says later, “and teeth are messy things, tearing and rending and helping spit ideas into the world.” If rock is to survive the apocalypse, it couldn’t ask for a better prophet.
Rosemary, though, makes a different case. At first, it’s the familiar counterpoint from all rock dramas about selling out to the corporate labels: StageHolo gives bands a platform to spread their music and reach more people, get the recognition they deserve, yada yada. But Rosemary goes a step further: what does your angry integrity do for people like me?
“You want to burn it down, but you’re not interested in saving the people inside before you light the match? … You’ve given up on ninety-nine percent of the people out there, Luce. You’re playing to the people who know to come find you. You would’ve missed me entirely. Or I would have missed you. I don’t even know which it is.”
Those underground clubs are vital spaces, but narrow ones. Without some empathy, they risk becoming esoteric and exclusive—“a wake for music you think is dead”—spaces that keep out the people who most need shaking up. Some people like the way the world is, Luce comes to learn. “Of course it made sense to trade company for safety,” she realizes. “To trade jobs as makers for jobs as consumers, consuming from the comfort of our homes. We’d set ourselves up.”
Scrappy misfits overthrowing joyless dystopias is all very well, in other words, but that fantastic triumphalism seems off-key these days. If these last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that one person’s dystopia is another’s utopia. Pinsker stands out in trying to reconcile the two vantages, without sacrificing the integrity of Luce’s objections. And I may be biased, but I think it takes a queer voice to do that well. Queer writers, especially ones as keen as Pinsker, have a special talent at rejecting the world as it is without pretending we don’t see the appeal.
Luce made the same journey herself, leaving behind the insular Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn that couldn’t accept a gay woman, but, Luce remembers, provides so much strength, connection, and safety for the ones it does serve. “I’d loved all of that,” Luce admits, “even when I knew I couldn’t stay. … I can miss those things and those people and still know I didn’t belong there.” It’s that candid, hard-knocked compassion that gives Luce’s anarchy its truest integrity—and Pinsker’s novel its transcendence.