From the opening pages of Art Garfunkel’s sort-of-memoir, What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man (Knopf), you’re either hooked or you’re repulsed. Either you’re buckled in for Garfunkel’s wild, careening journey down the roads of his many lives — actor, singer, lover, reader — or you’re yelling for him to let you out of the car. As in an epic poem, Garfunkel starts in the middle of the journey — “I was a nervous wreck as I packed my things in the middle of the night on January 2, 1969 … I was leaving the life of four years of a girl-chasing studio rat — a life of global good fortune — to cast my fate among actors.” This leave-taking, as we all know, won him no kudos from his then-partner in making music, Paul Simon, and Garfunkel tells his side of the tale: “Paul’s writing changed from ‘I know your part’ll go fine’ — words of a deep friendship (“The Only Living Boy in New York”) — to ‘Why don’t you write me?’ — words of frustration.”
Garfunkel does his best Newt Hoenikker imitation over the next couple of paragraphs, pointing out, like the character in Vonnegut’s novel, that there’s “no damn cat, no damn cradle” when it comes to this moment with Paul Simon. He diverts the conversation quickly to his singing gift: “I have these vocal cords. Two. They have vibrated with the love of sound since I was five and began to sing with the sense of God’s gift running through me. In the sixth grade I made a friend who added sexy guitar rhythms and vocal harmony to my singing. We were twelve at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. In our twenties we made a few special recordings. They delighted our ears and those around the world, I put my name and copyright to these lovely things. Why didn’t I write him? ... Who throws the stone and who throws the return stone? Whose stone is imagined? Whose real?” Garfunkel then meanders off — yes; he’ll draw scenes from his and Simon’s rise to stardom, their music, their decline — into a philosophical and literary reverie more a la Rimbaud, and we can follow him or not.
If we choose to dance along with him on his peripatetic musings, we’ll stop as he reveals one of the many facets of his personality, such as his love of lists and numbers. Growing up, he “loved to chart the top thirty songs. It was the numbers that got to me. I kept meticulous lists — when a new singer Tony Bennett came onto the charts with ‘Rags to Riches,’ I watched the record jump from, say, #23 to #14 in a week. The mathematics of the jumps went to my sense of fun.” Garfunkel’s penchant for keeping lists accompanies him even now as he keeps lists of the books he’s read during over the years, and he shares portions of those lists with us. So, from February 1999 to January 2006, Garfunkel read 179 books, and he reports that 26 stood out, among them Zola’s The Debacle (1870), Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), and Groucho Marx’s Love, Groucho (1992). He then waxes poetic about his books in a tongue-in-cheek bit of verse (and he prints here his poems in bold print), “Today I’ll judge my books by their covers./I’ll watch a pot, count unhatched chicks,/I’ll fix the unbroken, hold secret gods divine.”
If J. Alfred Prufrock’s life was measured out in coffee spoons, Garfunkel’s is measured out in lists: of songs on his iPod, of his greatest achievements, of the things he’s devoted to, of the setlist from his 2007 Paris solo show. The songs on his iPod are by artists ranging from Stephen Bishop and James Taylor to Maurice Ravel and Enrico Caruso. The ten reasons he’s in awe of his wife, Kim Cermank, include: “she has the silhouette of a nubile Egyptian princess”; “she never cooks a bad meal”; “she possesses a considerable range of great kisses”; “she’s a kickass actress, and she loves me.”
Eventually, his making of many lists wearies the soul and the body grows restless. Yet, maybe, just maybe, that’s the beauty of this book. Garfunkel’s told us in the first few pages that his book sings; his vocal cords vibrate with love. No wonder then that he modulates from measure to measure, rarely stopping to catch his breath, and leaving us a little breathless along the way. If we’re listening, we might hear a few of the notes in this cacophony, and we might just hear those golden tones reveal love and mercy and awe and light. But, we have to listen closely.