The rise of the internet and the widespread availability of digital technology has surrounded us with endless sources of distraction: texts, emails and Instagrams from friends, streaming music and videos, ever-changing stock quotes, news and more news. To get our work done, we could try to turn off the digital stream, but that’s difficult to do when we’re plagued by FOMO, the modern fear of missing out. Some people think that our willpower is so weak because our brains have been damaged by digital noise. But blaming technology for the rise in inattention is misplaced. History shows that the disquiet is fuelled not by the next new thing but by the threat this thing – whatever it might be – poses to the moral authority of the day.
Rather than a study of stardom, the novel turns a spotlight on the jobbing players, the ranks of professional musicians who gamely keep on swinging but who never get the big breaks. It’s all the more effective – and poignant – for that.
It is remarkable that O'Brien captures an extraordinary and almost holy innerness in each of her characters, however minor, and then plants those characters amidst the terrible velocity, the terrible pull of world events. O'Brien is truly at her best when she describes the private corners of minds, those quiet and wild corners, our meditative and our inspired selves, the self that Virginia Woolf called "a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others." It is that place, that private silence, that O'Brien catches, like catching a cloud.