“What’s in a name?” According to Canaries, Dyanne Asimow’s shrewdly observed novel, just about everything — the culmination of self-identity, voice. Names tell our story. For Linda, an L.A. novelist facing writer’s block, Linda is “not the name she would have given herself — that name would have been Simone.” But Linda she is, and in the opening of Canaries, she finds herself losing her voice. So begins her quest to regain it, one that leads her to hire a voice teacher, have throat surgery and undergo a transformation in Death Valley that ultimately lands her at the Academy Awards.
Puzzled when her six-year-old, Sam, asks why he didn’t hear her cheering at his soccer game when she did, Linda hires Rosie, a struggling singer waiting tables, to help strengthen her voice. When Linda takes Daniel, her husband, to Rosie’s open mic spot at the Ground Bean coffee house, Rosie mistakes Daniel for the record producer behind that “one message that will change her life.” Directing her sultry singing his way, Daniel is so smitten with her siren song, he starts a guilty affair. The publisher of a successful online entertainment guide, he offers Rosie promise enough to sleep with him. Even Faith, Linda’s aura-seeing therapist, insinuates herself into Linda’s quest. So certain that her vision of “the agitated aura of colors … choking Linda’s neck” is what uncovers the tumor on Linda’s vocal cords, Faith wants to write a case study on Linda and “the role of intuition as a diagnostic tool.”
Like any good L.A. story, everyone wants something — sex, fame, validation — from everyone else. And we’re sure we know this tale: the unfaithful husband and self-effacing wife. The careerist therapist. The unknown Rosie who’s so “committed to an extraordinary destiny as a chanteuse” she stops her car on the top of Mulholland Drive and “above the … glittering Valley lights … spreads her arms in a big welcome to her future fans.” But despite our assumptions of the worn byways the story will take, Asimow subverts our expectations. Even if we know where we’re going, we want to go with her. The twists and delicious turns, not only of plot, but narrative voice compel us to turn the page. Commenting like a Greek chorus on what we’ve just read, Asimow’s authorial voice deftly makes us aware that we’re suddenly examining the construct of character, the artifice of story, and the myriad choices and power of the storyteller herself.
A simple adjustment can make a difference, a new character, a shift in plot. Or conversely, a wild, reckless throw of the dice, chance determining outcome. No. Not that. Linda isn’t ready for that kind of risk. Not today. Not yet.
There’s an erudite and slyly comic sleight of hand at work here. Before we know it, we’re learning about gospel churches, Schopenhauer and Wassily Kandinsky’s musings on synesthesia. A feast of knowledge is served and we eagerly accept each course. When we return to Linda’s tale, we’re a different reader, more educated, more astute, more attuned to the subtle nuances of narrative than when we left.
As Linda attempts to regain her voice, Canaries leads us to explore and to ponder voice, particularly the female voice: what type of woman’s voice is culturally valued and, in the entertainment industry, demanded? Linda cues us, early on. She apologetically tells Faith, “At fifteen, I forced my voice into a lower register, so I’d sound like a real actress.” When they met in college, Daniel found that Linda “had a soft sexy voice that kept him awake at nights, and that all the boys had crushes on.” Right before the surgery, a well-known director, whom Linda barely knows. calls her. “Don’t do it!” he says. “Your voice will be ruined. You’ll become one of those shrill, ball-busting women.” The poet and classicist Ann Carson’s powerful essay, “The Gender of Speech” comes to mind. In it, Carson traces how, since the ancients, the natural tenor of the female voice has been reviled by men.
After the tumor on her vocal cords is removed, Linda’s instructed not to speak. Anything she wants to say must be written. Silenced, but with the power of the pen, Linda begins to perceive her life more acutely. Daniel’s distracted. When he spurns her sexual invitation because the thought of her surgical incision kills his desire, Linda takes off on a Hero’s Journey to Death Valley, a place filled with fond childhood memories. Arriving, she claims her campsite with a pair of red stiletto heels on a yellow legal pad. Who needs words?
On her first hike, Linda enters Desolation Canyon. Asimow’s descriptions of the geography render us spellbound witnesses to creation.
Walls loom on either side. Horizontal layers across their face testify to the rise and demise of epochs. The roar of volcanic eruptions, the reverberations of shifting tectonic plates, the sibilant drying of inland seas, the screams of animals on their way to extinction — all articulated soundlessly in stone.
After a terrifying climb where Linda averts falling to her death, she heads for the more promising Golden Canyon. Alone, liberated by the canyon’s primeval silence, Linda takes off her clothes and lies naked on the sand.
[H]er skin exposed, she feels the air, the support of the earth … dazzled by beams and shafts of light, she wills them into her vagina … There is no wound … to scare off faint-hearted husbands … Her finger moves in a primal dance with her sun-god lover … As she climaxes, she is filled with a powerful brilliance in which boundaries vanish, and the earth and the sun fuse into liquid gold melting through her veins …
Who needs Zeus when you can fuck Apollo?
Tested and transfigured, Linda returns to L.A., where she confronts Daniel with his affair with Rosie and demands he end it. He does. But Rosie is not easily jettisoned, particularly with the Academy Awards arriving soon. She captivates an intern in Daniel’s office, deflecting his attention long enough for her to pocket the Academy ticket reserved for Linda. Although Linda customarily doesn’t attend, with her marriage on the mend, she decides to surprise Daniel at the event. What follows is a tour de force of a climax at the Dolby Theater, after which you will never look upon a crystal chandelier with casual disregard.
Like the canaries in the title, who each has its unique song, the characters in the novel find their own voices. And that, voice, in all its manifestations, is the real subject of this story. Voice as sound. Identity. As a writer’s mode of expression. Asimow raises fundamental questions about what constitutes voice. Do we need it? How much more might the power of silence be, or the right to remain that way? As Canaries addresses these questions, the answers create a mosaic that, when stepping back, you applaud how intricately Asimow has arranged each tile.
Susan Baskin is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to the Los Angeles Review of Books, her work has appeared in Transformations, Los Angeles Magazine and The Los Angeles Times Magazine. She has also written for film and television.