Sounds Like Titanic, a debut memoir by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, is the definition of an overdeliver.
It starts off with a killer premise. Hindman describes her four years working as a concert violinist, from 2002 to 2006. But the twist is that her music was never actually audible. At her first performance, she realized that she had been hired to play in front of dead microphones — everywhere from malls to a PBS concert special — while a prerecorded performance from another violinist blasted out of the speakers to the audience. And the audience at these performances, Hindman gradually realized, never knew the difference.
The sheer idea of a concert ensemble playing madly and completely silently in front of a rapturous crowd is so surreal, so reminiscent of an acid trip that is also a didactic children’s fable, that Sounds Like Titanic got its hooks into me immediately.
With an idea that compelling, the rest of the book really didn’t have to be better than passable. But then Hindman ups her game.
She isn’t just using her experience as a fake violinist as a wacky story. In her hands, it becomes the starting point for bigger issues. She explores questions about gender, and about how and why, as a young woman, she was only able to feel respected when she was playing her violin in front of a crowd. She explores questions about the economy, and how the student debt crisis drove her to keep working as a fake violinist even as it caused her to lose her grasp on the difference between fiction and reality.
And more and more as the book goes on, Hindman delves into questions about America’s endless appetite for comforting fakery, and how that desire for comfort played out in the post-9/11 era and the runup to the Iraq War.
Sure, that’s a lot. But Hindman — who holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University and is now a professor of creative writing — is more than up to the challenge.
And on top of her ability to mine unexpected resonances from a story, she writes marvelously lucid prose. That her voice is strong enough to pull off the impossible horror that is lengthy chapters written in the second person is just icing on the cake.
Hindman argues that for young girls, playing the violin offers a rare opportunity for respect
Hindman began playing the violin at age 8, because she loved the violin music she heard in movie soundtracks — and because she wanted to work. In her Appalachian hometown, work is “the one thing that is most revered by the adults,” and so, she writes in the second person, “you aim to get more work done than any other kid, for this will surely result in you being more loved than any other kid.” Hindman is exactly that kind of people-pleasing, neurotically hard worker, a textbook case of millennial burnout waiting to happen. “Your goal,” she writes, “is to be the best at everything and the most liked by everyone,” and she applied herself to the violin with characteristic diligence.
She practiced assiduously throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school, traveling four hours round trip (on a good day) to her weekly lessons and performing at school assemblies. Within a few years, it was clear to her that she wasn’t a prodigy, but she was at least the best in her town.
And with the onset of adolescence, she found that the violin offered her an unexpected bonus. People tend to think of violin music as serious and worthy of respect — Hindman notes that one of the most common signifiers for “genius” in a movie is to have the genius character play the violin — but respect is not something that is generally on offer to young girls. And so, she finds, “When you play the violin you are able, for a moment, to leave the female body in which you are contained, the body that signals sex, whether you want it to or not, yet is somehow never sexy enough. … It is almost as if, by attaching a violin to your body, you can become a dude.”
Hindman eventually made her way to Columbia, where she studied to become a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East. (She was in Egypt on 9/11 and stayed in the country for months afterward to learn all she could and rack up a few early clips.) When she saw a job posting for a professional violinist while she was still a student in 2002, she applied on a lark, and was wildly thrown when she landed the gig. She knew she wasn’t good enough to be a professional violinist — but she loved music and its associated respect too much to turn it down.
Hindman hated how fake everything about her job was — but she thinks that’s what audiences liked about it
Once installed at her job, however, Hindman found that its charms faded rapidly. Essentially, she was required to spend her weekends shuttling around the country in an RV and then “perform” for stretches of up to eight hours at shopping malls and craft fairs and local PBS stations. At each stop, she would stand in front of a dead microphone, playing her violin as quietly as possible while music from another, better violinist blasted out of the speakers.
This ploy had a few advantages for Hindman’s boss, whom she identifies only as the mysterious “Composer” but whose real name is not exactly hard to find. Hindman was cheaper to hire than a more qualified musician would have been. And she didn’t complain about her poor treatment: not about bouncing around every weekend in the back of an unsafe and unsanitary RV, not about being forced to play for eight painful hours at a stretch with few opportunities to rest.
“The only reason anyone stays in this job,” one of Hindman’s fellow faux-musicians tells her, “is because they’re desperate.”
Hindman was a kid from small-town Appalachia trying to make tuition at Columbia University, and she’d already donated her eggs. She was desperate.
But she also hated her job. She hated the music she had to play, which she describes as essentially the Titanic soundtrack with just enough tweaks to avoid violating copyright law. (“Sounds like Titanic!” craft fair customers would comment.) Playing the violin for such long stretches of time was physically painful: The endpin bruised her throat, her hands cramped and trembled, and her shoulders hunched.
And gradually, the stress of pretending that she was performing when she wasn’t overwhelmed her so much that she began to become periodically convinced — onstage, in airplanes, in elevators — that she had to pee and that soon she would all lose control of her body and wet herself in public, only to realize as soon as she fled to the bathroom that she had never actually had to pee at all.
She was eventually diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. It was based, she learned, in an existential terror: “You have spent years working hard under the belief that hard work matters, but you are suddenly struck by the idea that nothing you do matters — because everything is fake.”
After graduating from Columbia, Hindman continued her work as a fake violinist, because despite her Ivy League degree, despite the Iraq War looming over the country, despite Hindman’s deep belief that America should understand the Middle East if it was going to go to war there and that she had the expertise to help America achieve that understanding, she could not find a newspaper that was hiring a Middle Eastern war correspondent. At least the violin gig paid.
What Hindman eventually concludes, though, is that America did not want explanation in the years after 9/11. America wanted soothing. And that’s what the violin tour she was faking working at had to offer: It gave the appearance of a live performance of a knockoff of a movie soundtrack about a historical tragedy. And in so doing, it “strengthened [Americans’] resolve to believe that even the most shocking national tragedy will evolve over time, become a story told by old women with good senses of humor.” It was deliberately fake, and it was deliberately bland, and it was comforting.
Sounds Like Titanic, however, is never bland. It’s a rich, powerful book that is never content to rely on the wackiness of its premise but instead keeps digging. It does the hard analytical work that shows not just that a weird fake music tour happened for a period of years but why it might have happened, and what its audience got from it.