The strange and lovely music of The Secret Room

Lucas Weals-

From left to right, Sethea Seang ‘16, Evan Yi ‘18, Lidan Zhang ‘21, and David Lee ‘20.

The main stage of the Duke Family Performance Hall is tonight partitioned along its midsection by a thick red curtain, spread slightly at its center by shining stanchions, a doorway-by-absence through which we enter a set. The set, like the door, is negatively defined: it is everything that is not the circle of chairs. A single light-bulb dangles above the room’s navel—one of those old-timey Edison bulbs lately popular in upscale coffee shops & bars. Four gaps in the seating create four passageways, in which rest four black music stands. The stands will serve as podiums for a recitation of The Secret Room: a string quartet, written by Kazim Ali, McGee Professor of Creative Writing for the Fall 2017 semester, and directed by Ryan Rotella ‘17, a Davidson alumnus.

It is a curious work, and more curious still to write about. The Secret Room identifies itself as a “novel,” a word so diabolically ambiguous it seems almost to taunt you. So let us simply call it a book. It is a storybook and also a songbook; it is a poem and also a novel. The book tells four simultaneous stories, written as if on a musical staff, each character assigned a distinct line, a font style, and a musical clef. The text has ten movements, each with a musical name: theme, cantata, solos, etc.

As a piece of writing, it calls to mind Mary McCarthy’s famous moniker for Nabokov’s Pale Fire—a “centaur work, half poem, half prose.” Ali’s novel resists characterization, and this formal ambiguity resonates in every carefully woven line of the work itself.

Selah Saterstrom, author of Slab and Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, has praised The Secret Room precisely for the freedom it grants its readers: “This is a text that suggests not to worry about how to read it. Rather, it extends an invitation to allow the text to happen with us.” Which raises an urgent question for the type of staged reading Rotella has arranged: what might we gain or lose in formalizing the way we read the novel? If the work’s potency flows from the “ambient drift” we feel moving through it, how can performers retain that potency when they control our drift?

The answers are several, and complicated. Perhaps the most important is that Rotella has deliberately cast only readers of Asian descent. Though the readers’ ethnicities do not always match those of their respective characters—David Lee ’20, for example, a sophomore from Seoul, South Korea, portrays Pratap Patel, a South Asian—the results of Rotella’s casting are powerful: the polyphony of accents conjures meaning outside of the written words themselves, and the novel’s often painful explorations of identity, family, exile, and estrangement find vivid expression in the voices of people who make clear their personal relationship to those struggles.

Evan Yi ’18 gives an especially effective reading of Rizwan Syed, a young man haunted by the death of his aunt, whose funeral he did not attend. I have read and admired Yi’s personal poetry—published regularly in campus literary organs, including Libertas—and I feel in his Rizwan an evocation of ghosts that haunt his own work: Asian identity and culture, art and language as sites of crisis, and the dull ache of cultural assimilation.

The readers are all, in fact, magnificent, and it’s a joy to see them highlighted in an intimate and provocative work like Ali’s. Though not quite actors in the formal sense—this is, after all, a “reading” and not a play, although it should be noted that Ali was more than once referred to, in the evening’s formalities, as “the playwright”—they cannot resist acting the words they read. Li’s fine, resonant baritone (Pratap is written as a cello) stabilizes even the most hectic moments of cacophony. Sethea Seang ’16 gives her Jody (Jyothi) a practical maturity, a calm under which her own crises shine distantly and beautifully, like light through ice. And Lidan Zhang ’21—whose Sonia luxuriates in thoughts on music, silence, and souls, unhurried even in her most frenetic sections—has a voice so surreally suited to Ali’s poetry that it’s hard to imagine hearing those lines from another’s mouth.

This is a happy victory of the spoken text: though the stories are not written in the first person, it’s easy to access the characters through their avatar-performers; this isn’t so simple just flipping through the book, though there are more successful ways of reading it than others—try following a single character across a number of pages, then switching back, to allow yourself to build a voice and tone behind the words.

The performance works best, I’d argue, in these spaces of interpretive freedom: letting meaning coagulate in the air between the readers and their audience, between each of us and the text. Some more literal gestures toward synesthesia—like the frequent lighting changes at the mention of a new color, or the actual string music played in between sections—seem, on these terms, almost restrictive; though not without purpose, they call attention to the meaning-making, a process otherwise performed with little effort by the readers themselves.

In a conversation with the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the distinguished conductor Seiji Ozawa once remarked, “It’s our job as conductors to convert the music exactly as it’s written into actual sound . . . But above and beyond what is written, we are free.” Rotella is clearly an adept conductor, gracious in his respect for the text as a piece of cultural identity and sparse in his extra-textual additions. He could be sparser still and not lose a bit of meaning: the barest moments are the most affecting, and the most sacred.

During the climactic Concert movement—Sonia’s violin performance, an exquisite synchronizing device, weaving each character into a moment of silence and music—our readers announce, in unison, “we are not only speaking instruments.” And it’s true; they are not merely scored, they are part of “a book written as music / one in which no one knows the ending.” In Li’s honest delivery of those words there lurks what Saterstrom calls the text’s “invitation”—it asks you how it ought to end, and what in the world an ending to such a work even looks like.

This is also why I’m not too disappointed that the reading only happened once, that I can’t do the reviewer’s usual job and recommend you do or don’t see it. Derrida is quick to remind u that texts have no real past or present. The Secret Room deals not in ontology but in hauntology, a merging of past and present, an “out of joint” time without living or dying. As Pratap knows, his is “a book that never finishes / just drifts off into silence.”

So despite the fact that I can’t send you to see Rotella’s show (though I would), I can tell you to buy the book itself, which you should. I can also recommend you read it as it was first read to me, which is to say, out loud from four voices, simultaneously, in a quiet secret room with spare lighting.

(A “secret room,” like Brautigan’s America, is often only a place in the mind. It is the doorway to the set and the set itself: an absence of form, like Rizwan’s paintings or the silence before Sonia’s bow touches her strings, a place waiting to be discovered and destroyed.)