Belongings are useful to novelists, for obvious reasons. They can be hoarded, handed on, lost, stolen, used instrumentally or inappropriately and, most importantly, become the vessels of feelings we can’t or don’t want to understand. Their materiality illustrates issues of manufacture, decay and social and historical context; our attitudes towards them lay bare our habits of consumption and interest in ownership and provenance.
When the object is something not quite inanimate, as in Chris Cander’s tale of a Blüthner piano, an extra dimension emerges; ideas of potentiality, and of the interplay between human and thing, come in to play. Like Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, The Weight of a Piano imagines what might happen if something designed for the nonverbal expression of thoughts and feelings were pressed into the service of speaking for a range of characters.
Cander’s central subject is parental loss; both Greg and Clara have suffered the deaths of parents
Two substantial stories alternate: that of Katya, a woman living in the Soviet Union with her brutish husband, who trades her precious piano in order to fund their escape to America; and that of Clara, a young car mechanic in California who has eventually become the Blüthner’s owner. When a combination of straitened circumstances and whim prompt Clara to sell her piano, it is bought by Greg, a New York photographer who plans to escort it around Death Valley, capturing images of its silence; what he is interested in is a visual representation of the absence of sound, in particular the quality that exists immediately after noise has ended. His plan does not find favour with Clara, who has had a change of heart and tracks him round the desert, ostensibly ensuring no harm comes to the piano but, as quickly becomes apparent, also being confronted by her unresolved emotions.
Cander’s central subject is parental loss; both Greg and Clara have suffered the deaths of parents, although in strikingly different circumstances, and each has experienced issues of attachment and abandonment; neither has been able to settle easily into locations or relationships. In this way, The Weight of a Piano veers towards the schematic, as the reader waits for the chief protagonists to descend further into their turbulent family histories and psychological hangovers and begin the process of figuring them out. Complicating that process are the stories of their parents – in particular, Katya, who regards herself as an exile, not an escapee, from the USSR, and can never adjust to the blinding California sunshine – and their own spiky relationship with one another.
There are briefly glimpsed subplots; perhaps most teasing is that of the former member of the Waffen-SS who ends up in Zagorsk and whose death brings the piano to Katya in the first place; he also plays the piece of music, Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No 2 in G-Sharp Minor, that recurs throughout the narrative, sounding to the young Katya “like a story she’d never heard before”. Decades later, she invents her own story, that of a young woman stopped from playing the piano by a violent and jealous husband and thereafter imprisoned in a coffin of frozen tears, which she repeatedly tells her young son.
If the novel is primarily concerned with transgenerational trauma, the outcomes it suggests are necessarily provisional and partial; the past cannot be altered, simply accommodated. But the specifics of how we address its physical remains – those objects that we imbue with the uncanny and as communicants of the lives of the dead – is a matter for individual reckonings; whether to enshrine them or to treat them as mere accessories to the great human drama is an uneasy and often painful area. Cander’s novel, although it falls occasionally between starkness and sentimentality, is an interesting exploration of an abiding dilemma.