I Can See Clearly Now: A Novel
by Brendan Halpin
Villard Books, 288 pages, released March 24, 2009
"Music had always been his escape from all the stress and problems of the rest of his life, a wonderful sonic space he could escape into, and now all of his problems - Pamela's insistent come-ons, what to do about Julie, how to make his parents proud of him, everything - it was all wrapped up in the music...All the songs he'd written in the last week contained all of his uncertainty and fear, so playing them didn't release him from it."
It's rare to read a novel reminiscent of oh-so-many conversations about creativity, community and commerce. Brendan Halpin's new book, "I Can See Clearly Now" examines the lives of four young musician/songwriters who take part in a network children's television project similar to "Schoolhouse Rock." Set in 1972, these songwriters smoke pot and write catchy songs about science, history, math and english.
Each character struggles with the dichotomy between creativity and money. Julie, the most experienced songwriter, spent her career writing commercial jingles. She lives in an expensive apartment on the Upper West Side, yet has no street cred as a "real songwriter." Levon, an African-American musician, quit touring with a funk band to join the project because it pays well. Peter is a garden-variety folkie trying to find his creative voice, and Sarah is sweet and innocent with absolutely no confidence. Funding for "Pop Goes the Classroom" comes from Clark Payson, network executive whose father has been pressured by the FCC to create more educational programming.
Locked in a recording studio with unlimited money and pot, boundaries blur. Sarah and Peter pursue a creative and sexual partnership. Levon and Julie pair up as well, without the romance. The structure of these relationships - or lack thereof - will feel familiar to those in community-created arts.
The group's leader is enigmatic folk singer Pamela Sanchez. Rather than encouraging her fleet of songwriters to create, she wants them to concentrate on the creative journey. The songwriters become enchanted by their own brilliance. This artistic self-indulgence is symbolized by Pamela's mentoring relationship with Sarah. After a meeting with Pamela, Sarah is inspired to focus on her own feces in an effort to "cleanse herself." She strokes Sarah's ego, telling her she is the best in the group.
Pamela manipulates each songwriter and her effect is immediate. With the exception of Julie, the songwriters turn out obscure, irrelevant work. Relationships become strained. When Payson wants to see what his money has bought, he is disappointed. Julie, the commercial jingle-ist, is the only songwriter who understands that her art needs to be relevant to her audience.
"Pamela sighed. 'Yes, dear, but Clark is not an artist. Clark is a pencil pusher. He has a feel for commerce, but not art. He hired me to make the artistic choices knowing that his artistic senses weren't as finely honed as my own."
Dingo, their recording engineer/producer, knows the challenges of being a working musician all too well. Now that he has a family, he would rather spend more time with them than touring with bands on the road. Witnessing Pamela's influence on these young songwriters makes him work on finding a solution to all of their problems. But can he do it without compromising his own values?
Each chapter is dedicated to a character's point of view. Halpin seamlessly transitions between these perspectives. This type of structure allows readers to understand the interior and exterior of each life. These people are neither good or bad. Their motivations and intentions are spelled out without the editorial judgment of the author.
Above all, that is the reason this novel works so well. Everyone asks the same question: How can you make a livable wage as an artist without selling out your principles? As in life, characters comes up with their own answers. Breezily written, "I Can See Clearly Now" is deceptively deep.