Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The problem with rock&roll novels

As you may already know, the problem with most rock&roll novels is that they aren't actually ABOUT rock&roll -- they just use rock&roll as a setting 2 get-at other issues.
Nick Hornby's Xcellent JULIET NAKED was really about Finding True Love. Hornby's HIGH FIDELITY was (unfortunately) about Becoming A Grown-Up. Iain Banks's ESPEDAIR STREET was also about Finding True Love -- tho it took awhile 2 get there. Gael Baudino's marvelous GOSSAMER AXE was about Recovering Lost Love. George R.R. Martin's THE ARMAGEDDON RAG was about Remembering The '60s, And Getting On With Life.
John Eskow's SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING really WAS about the rock&roll life ... & was kinda boring as a result, because it didn't look at anything else. It didn't have any depth. Lewis Shiner's SAY GOODBYE really was about 1 woman's pursuit of the rock&roll dream -- but other than her drive 4 success, we never really got 2 know her that well. WHY she did it remained a mystery.
My favorite rock&roll novel ever -- Lewis Shiner's GLIMPSES -- is mostly about the music & its effects on people. But even that brilliant book took-on other issues -- growing older, failing marriage, loss of parents....
Andrew Foster Altschul's LADY LAZARUS (2008) isn't really a rock&roll novel either, tho it starts out in that setting. What it is instead is a Search For The Lost (Possibly Dead) Father.
& it is WAY TOO LONG.
Now, I don't think it's fair 2 review a novel I haven't finished reading, & I hardly ever do it. But Altschul's recent DEUS EX MACHINA (reviewed here a few weeks back) was SO good that when I found out his 1st novel featured a woman rocker/poet as the heroine, well I jumped on it.
But I'm a little over 200 pgs in (out of 555 pgs), & already this book is getting dull. I'm already further in2 LADY than DEUS was in total length. & I'm still hoping Altschul can pull it off & make me eat my words. But I may not get 2 the end 2 find out.
LADY LAZARUS is the story of tragic poet Calliope Bird Morath, daughter of the late superstar rocker Brandt Morath, whose band took over the world -- & who then suicided 2 years in2 his stardom. Something of a Kurt Cobain figure.
Tho Calliope saw her father take his life, there was no funeral, she doesn't know where the body's buried, & she's convinced he's still alive & is going 2 contact her.
& her mother, Penny Power Morath -- a sort of Courtney Love figure -- Won't Talk About It.
Calliope becomes a superstar poet in college -- her work stuns her classmates, her 1st reading causes a sort of riot on campus, her 1st book of poems is Xpected 2 sell a million copies....
But by the time this happens, it's already clear Calliope's life is out of control. Bad things happen -- her life & career R full of disaster, it's not always her fault, & she has a classmate/publicist who seemingly takes over her life & steers her toward more disasters, more things the young poet doesn't want 2 do.
Now, I'm only a 3rd of the way thru the book, but I'm already getting bored with Calliope's litany of disasters. They R vividly described, but.... In fact, the book is often brilliantly written. & I'm especially struck by the way Altschul keeps slipping in2 poetry in his descriptions -- the book just slides in2 verse & rhyme. Even when it's apparently not on purpose, the book seems 2 have its own ongoing rhythm, & that's pretty neat.
But it's pretty dark, as a couple of characters point out.
It's also pretty clever. There's a lot going on here. I wish I could say that's enuf 2 keep my intrest. I plan 2 keep reading, but I hope Altschul starts pulling some rabbits outta his hat pretty soon. Altschul is also a character in the book, so I can see that there might be a whole other level of cleverness & gamesmanship going on here.
I just hope it's worth it. So far, the best chapter in the book -- the funniest, best-written chapter -- is a fictional interview with PBS's Charlie Rose. I'm not sure of the importance of that yet, but it was a really enjoyable break in the rest of the story. I hope there R more interviews coming.
But 1st, some questions:
Who was the last superstar poet? Patti Smith? Bob Dylan? Rod McKuen? Sylvia Plath? No -- Plath was virtually unknown when she died, & the dark, scorching brilliance of her poetry didn't keep her from committing suicide.
What poet WOULDN'T love 2 have a book of her poetry sell a million copies? But how likely is that these days?
Rafi Zabor's jazz novel THE BEAR COMES HOME was really about Finding True Love, but The Bear had some pretty cool jazz-life Xperiences on the way there. & in places those Xperiences were brilliantly described -- so much so that I wondered why he needed a love life.
& tho it took me 3 years 2 get thru it, so far THE BEAR is a better music-related novel than LADY LAZARUS, & it's just as clever, has just as much stuff going on, & IT'S SHORTER.
LADY LAZARUS is in some ways a perfect novel 4 these days -- it's huge, post-modern, intelligent, there's a lot going on & a lotta levels in which it's trying 2 work, & you havta work 2 read it and get a handle on what's happening. & I can see it's going to get MORE complex here shortly....
But it's also long & dense & a lotta WORK 2 read. No matter how modern it is, it's endless & dark & it's wearing out its welcome.
If it helps, you can get copies 4 a penny + shipping at

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