I love books that have a unifying element, like The Secret Garden, in which Mary’s growth is mirrored in the rescue and tending of the neglected garden. Stork’s choice of music as the unifying element of Marcelo in the Real World echoes Marcelo’s challenges, struggles, and growth.
At the outset, Dr. Malone is intent on understanding what Marcelo’s mental music, or “internal music”--IM for short--is like, as compared to what Tony, another doctor, calls the “real stuff”-- music “that is piped in through the speaker in the machine” (p. 2). Marcelo describes IM as “coming from inside the brain.” (p. 3) It’s an integral part of him.
As Marcelo learns more and more about the “real world,” he finds it harder and harder to access the IM:
I don’t know why it is harder to reach the place of the IM. It is impossible to listen to the IM at work even on the rare occasions without anything to do. It is like the IM is afraid to be heard for fear that it will be ridiculed. (pp. 93-94)When Marcelo has successfully navigated the real world of the law office and friendship with Jasmine, she asks him to tell her about his internal music. He says, “…now it is harder to find it. It is almost all gone, I would say.” (p. 255) What he has found instead are the sounds of the real world, “all the sounds the lake makes. And also the sounds of Jasmine trying to fish.” (p. 255)
And later, when he is driving with Aurora to see Rabbi Heschel, he realizes “The IM has stopped. It will never come back.” He feels lost, with no “way of knowing what to do about Ixtel, about my father, about Jasmine.” (p. 268) But when he is with the rabbi he hears the music of the real world. “We both look up toward the sound of a robin’s double whistle: Pheee-Pheeeu. Pheee-Pheeeu. Pheee-Pheeeu” (p. 271) Music is a metaphor for Marcelo’s growing connection with the real world.
Stork uses musical references throughout the novel not only to reflect Marcelo’s growth, but to define the characters in relation to one another. The music of Marcelo’s world is very different from that of his father’s--when Marcelo is with his father at the gym, Marcelo notes, “there is a white speaker above us blasting popular music.” (p. 97). Marcelo refers to the music as “strident,” reflecting his disconnect with his father—he would rather lift weights, but Arturo wants to have a “chat about how things are going.” (p. 97).
Stork also uses music references to clarify setting. For example, when Marcelo arrives in Lawrence to visit Ixtel he
begins to see more and more signs in Spanish—storefronts, restaurants. The beat of Latin music fills the air. (p. 192)Musical instruments add tone to the settings. In Jasmine’s studio apartment, “At the end of the bed, on the side closest to where we stand, is an electric keyboard that I can tell has all eighty-eight keys of a regular piano” (p. 144). In Robert Seely’s house Marcelo notices a “red battery-operated keyboard that contains only eight keys” (p. 202). The piano in Jasmine’s childhood home is the only acoustic piano in the book: “Jasmine comes out to the living room where I am standing by an upright mahogany piano.” (p. 225) It has a “mellow sound,” and it is “in tune,” foreshadowing Marcelo’s decision to go to Vermont after he graduates, where he can play “his counterpoint.” (p. 311)
Even music-related props serve a function in the story. Take headphones, for example. Sometimes headphones define characters--in his tree house Marcelo says: “On the desk I have a CD player, headphones, and my laptop” (p. 26). Other times they link characters together--as Marcelo scans the mail room, even before Jasmine has spoken to him, he notices the larger wooden desk in the room “has a white CD player with headphones connected to it” (p. 48). And headphones even serve to differentiate characters—“Sometimes I wonder what Belinda was like and whether Jasmine would put her headphones on if Belinda were working here instead of me” (p. 75).
Music illuminates the theme of the book. When Marcelo asks Jasmine, “How do I know the next note is the right one?” she responds: “The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong.” (p. 169) Marcelo remembers this conversation when he’s sitting with Jerry Garcia, wondering what he will say when the lawyer asks him why he has come.
"The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong,” I remember Jasmine saying. And so I listen carefully now and try to detect what I hear inside, trying to listen for the note. (p. 187)At the lake, when Marcelo has made a decision with regard to Ixtel, he says, “I hear the right note. I recognize the wrong note.” (p. 253) And at the end of the story, when Jasmine says that he has to make sure he comes to Vermont for the right reason, Marcelo replies:
“It has to be the right note.”Marcelo says that Aurora used to watch him sort the daily mail, and that she sometimes could not figure out his logic.
“Yes, in the overall piece.”
“But how do I know the next note is the right one?”
"The right note sounds right,” she says, laughing. (p. 312)
It must have been hard [for her] to find the one unifying element amongst many possible ones. (p. 152)Stork selected music as the unifying element of his novel. It’s an apt choice, as Marcelo comes to understand and appreciate the melodies of the real world and grows into a harmonious relationship with Jasmine towards an ending that still resonates after the final chord.
StorySleuths Tip #46: Choose a unifying element that is integral to the story, then use references to that unifying element to clarify characters, setting and theme.