Friday, February 23, 2018
Books

The strains of fading fame

"I had just essentially slept with a fan," says Anna Brundage, the musician who narrates Stacey D'Erasmo's richly interior fourth novel, Wonderland. "And everyone knows that that's the beginning of turning into a crazy hag with breast implants and lipstick drawn way beyond the lips."

Anna is in her mid 40s on a last-gasp tour of Europe to recover a bit of the fame she enjoyed a decade earlier. In the process, D'Erasmo runs through the standard set list of rock-novel tropes: bad gigs, hard drugs, groupie sex. But the tensions in Wonderland more closely resemble those of a midlife-crisis novel. Should Anna hang up her stage dress and go back to teaching carpentry at a tony New York girls school? Keep going and open for the act that's about to tour Japan? Reconnect with the married architect from Switzerland she fell for a few tours prior? Would any option provide the meaning she craves? Appropriately, the first place she wants to go when the tour hits Prague is Kafka's birthplace.

The best novels about musicians center on emotional exile: Think of Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing, Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street or, more recently, Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia, books in which singular musicians despair of understanding the world except through art. Wonderland is in that tradition, and much of its force comes from Anna's struggle to navigate both the contrived, semimagical world of touring and songwriting and the real world clamoring just outside it.

It's never clear what Anna's music is like: Her hit debut, she says, "sounded simultaneously like a dress slipping off a bare shoulder and a girl falling down a well." (I imagined something Bjorkishly Joni Mitchell-esque.) But the scenes in which, fueled on cocaine and panic, she works to identify her sound show just how desperately she needs her music to order herself.

That need, D'Erasmo argues, was inherited: Anna dwells much on her father, a brash Christo-like installation artist who made his name (and wrecked his body) with feats like slicing a train car in half. The narrative pivots on an event involving him that throws Anna's tour off track and complicates her perspective on how much she can be sustained by art alone. "I've come unstitched from the rhythm somehow and I can't find my way back in," she thinks, both about her life and her music.

D'Erasmo doesn't offer a simple solution for Anna — or the reader of this novel. It's deliberately unclear whether Anna retreats to a steady paycheck or finds a different path. But in D'Erasmo's hands this doesn't feel like a copout.

Her novel is a reminder of how much art is awash in insecurity and instability. What makes Anna such a powerful narrator is her seductive desire to keep her options open. The real world is too boringly familiar. When Anna asks her drummer what's happening outside the tour-van bubble, he replies, "Oh, you know. Disasters and miracles. The usual."

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