Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

5/5 stars

Who, among us, doesn’t love a good scam? Whether it’s Fyre Fest or the Grifter Heiress, I can’t get enough. So when I heard about the premise of Sounds Like Titanic, I almost began frothing at the mouth to get a copy.

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, raised in West Virginia, dreamed of becoming a professional violinist. Until she arrived at Columbia in the late 90s and realised she wasn’t, well, that good. At least not good enough to be a professional. Desperate to scrape up whatever funds she could to cover the gaps in her financial aid, she resorted to night shift jobs, donating her eggs, and the focus of this memoir–playing in the ensemble of a man she only refers to as “The Composer”. The music is swelling, emotional, and sounds exactly like the soundtrack of the movie Titanic, shrill Celtic-y pennywhistle and all. But Hindman isn’t actually playing at all–in this ensemble, the musicians pretend-play their instruments along to a recording being blasted from a Walmart CD player backstage. They play across the country, sell CDs on PBS, bring audiences to tears, and even embark on an international tour of Asia. But it’s all fake.

Hindman is a Columbia Creative Nonfiction MFA and a professor of English, and her writing style is atmospheric and compelling–this reads like a taut novel rather than a recitation of events like some memoirs I’ve tucked into recently. And this really is a memoir that proves truth is stranger than fiction–one of the best moments is when Hindman is on tour with “The Composer”, turns on an MP3 of Beethoven’s Fifth, and, amazed, he says he’s never heard it before.

A quick Google search will all-but-confirm that “The Composer” is Tim Janis, who seems unfettered by these accusations and has a robust YouTube channel of “soothing” and “relaxing” compositions, trying to frame himself as a middle-aged answer to those lo-fi YouTube study playlists. And yet, Hindman’s memoir isn’t really about music–it’s about the culture that surrounds the music, from the post-9/11 chaos Janis’ music attempts to address to the complicated status of a classical musician in the age of Baby Mozart to playing music that sounds like the soundtrack of the biggest movie in the world, a 3-hour epic that everyone goes into knowing how it ends. She is celebrated in her small West Virginia town as a musical genius when she struggles through a Haydn performance as a teenager. She struggles to fit in at Columbia, surrounded by students enjoying the late-90s excess while she struggles to scrape together funds. She dreams of becoming a war correspondent as a Middle Eastern Studies major studying abroad in Cairo in the fall of 2001, but as she finds when the US engages in war with the Middle East, Americans aren’t too interested in accurate information about the region.

The narrative often cycles around and around to her tour with the composer in 2003, called the “God Bless America Tour”, with crying fans telling Janis their music helped them cope with 9/11, to the backdrop of imminent war, to the earlier shows she played at craft fairs and shopping malls, where the ruse was a bit harder to keep up–people would start to question why a quartet was as loud as a full orchestra. She often uses second-person narration, putting you right into the action of her millennial malaise. And honestly, looking around at other reviews of this book, there does seem to be a generation gap in who enjoys it–I think Hindman’s narration captures a very specific millennial feeling, of being so ground down by ‘the hustle’ that it rapidly becomes dangerous, of impostor syndrome (even as a literal impostor), of the cyclical malaise of the gig economy. For Hindman, all she can do is play on.

It might not be for everyone, but that might be Hindman’s point–as you can tell, I loved this, and even if some of the themes seem distant, it’s worth a try.

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