Criticism & Features

Year 2019: 30 Books

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman: 2019 Autobiography finalist

By Mark Athitakis

Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman (W.W. Norton) Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman (W.W. Norton)

In 2002, Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman landed a job with a successful composer who needed a violinist for his touring ensemble. It seemed like a dream gig: simple melodies, simple tempos, the simple joy of a steady paycheck for a would-be musician in desperate need of one. Growing up in Appalachia, Hindman aspired to be a professional classical musician but sensed early she didn’t have the chops; pursuing a career in journalism seemed similarly destined to failure. Finally, the dispiriting rituals of long practices and accruing sizable student debt didn’t seem so pointless.

But the dream gig that Hindman chronicles in Sounds Like Titanic is just that– a fantasy, and one that symbolizes the fraudulence of a whole host of institutions. The “Composer” who Hindman signed up with for four years delivered PBS-friendly pablum that all but outright plagiarized the soundtrack to James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic, yet audiences eagerly lapped it up. (“Sounds like Titanic!” cry attendees at a fair where she performs; hence the book’s title.) Moreover, she’s not actually expected to perform, just play-act as a violinist as a CD recording blares nearby. And she is expected to do this for hours at a stretch, cohabitating with her fellow “musicians” in an RV that’s criss-crossing a country that’s willing to turn a blind eye to fakery when it’s not actively pursuing it.

Sounds Like Titanic is a funny book: Hindman is keenly aware of how her predicament is at once a matter of dumb luck and utter absurdity. But its humor is tightly braided with anger, her fury over how she, along with a whole generation of well-intentioned, ambitious young people, have been misled. Young women punish their bodies, work long hours, take on debt, study hard, play the game of internships and entry-level drudge work, only to collide with a culture that simply wants you to cheat.

Hindman writes much of the book in the second person, not to recruit the reader into her predicament but to better suggest she’s not alone in it. The experience takes both a physical and emotional toll: “Something inside of you broke down, disintegrated, evaporated. Poof. Something inside of you shed its soft skin and became tough. Too tough.” Sounds Like Titanic is a remarkable chronicle of both the damage, the toughening, and its broader meaning.

— Mark Athitakis