Sentence by sentence, Stacey D’Erasmo is a gorgeous writer. I could persuade you to read her by just quoting. But then I wouldn’t be able to tell you what is so strange and good about her fourth novel. It’s as much, no, more, about the protagonist’s working life as about her private doings and relationships.
D’Erasmo has given a vibrant, idiosyncratic voice to her heroine, a pop singer named Anna Brundage. Anna is attempting a comeback, at age 44, after seven years away from music, teaching carpentry at a posh elementary school on New York’s Upper East Side.
That job, though it seems improbable at first, turns out to be one response to her father’s career. He was a demolition artist, cutting holes in buildings and once, famously, cutting a train in half. His life haunts her and haunts her vocation as well. Singing, like his artistic doing, exists only in the moment of the act. And Anna knows she’s not bankable and wasn’t even when she was famous “in certain circles.” But music has continued to bloom inside her. And so she goes back to work, with an eager-beaver young manager and the band he’s put together for her. Her new album is called “Wonderland.”
The novel is composed of fragments, stops on her current European tour in second-tier venues, with forays into the past; her childhood, failed marriage and a fraught long affair with a married man who loves her but. … Yet the tone is personal and intense only when she’s talking about rehearsals and shows. Her life offstage seems peculiarly offhand in her telling. The novel is very interior, all about her moods and feelings, but she doesn’t seem to understand herself or what she wants.
D’Erasmo accomplishes a tricky feat here, letting us readers get ahead of Anna, yelling, “Hey, Dummy, don’t you get it?!” Another stylistic triumph is how she conveys to us what Anna’s singing voice is like. It is the opposite of her stage presence, red hair “pomaded into a 1940s twist. Thick, shiny red lipstick. The overall effect is of a theatrical decadence that isn’t really sexy; it only references sex, references decadence. Real sex is curled up, dusty, within its citations.”
But from that artifice, a genuine voice tries to make itself understood. Recalling how she made one of her albums, “stinking and exhausted … I passed through the eye of the needle to wonderland — to the broken, the illogical … the in-between. It was such a small sonic shift at the time, an awkward half-note, like a single letter in a familiar word turned backward. And yet. It changed the entire thing. I saw all at once that my form would be to be in search of a form, like someone wandering, tracing an unpredictable path … the central importance of the unheard chord.” As the novel’s questing, questioning, melodic narrative shows us, phrase by phrase.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.