Andrew Foster Altschul's new novel "Lady Lazarus" attempts to be a commentary on celebrity worship and the meaning of art in a mass-appeal junk culture, but the former rock critic and Huffington Post blogger throws so many elements into this 564-page infinite jest that it's hard to pull a coherent sense of satire out of the mix.
This maximalist-style novel functions as a sort of Gen X answer to Don Delillo's boomer epic "Underworld"; it uses alt rock as a springboard to address all of the human condition much the same way that Delillo's beloved tome used baseball. But, like "Underworld," "Lady Lazarus" drags the reader down endless story digressions and explorations of meaningless side characters. There are moments of clarity and brilliance in "Lady Lazarus" and certainly much entertainment to be had at points in the story. But Altschul's multilayered and overlong work feels more like argument bait for future English majors than an important -- and readable -- entry into contemporary literature.
"Lady Lazarus" is ostensibly about a famous family based tightly on Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. The punk-rock-god dad shoots himself in front of their daughter and forever seals his daughter's fate as cultural icon. (In one of Altschul's many, many astute shadings, the act of the suicide and its attendant details become as sacred to fans as the martyred musician's body of work.) The daughter, Calliope, grows up unsteadily, warped by the public glare and the confusing affections of her grieving mother. Calliope becomes a poet in her teen years, and her work is received as sacred tablets by a public salivating for celebrity utterances. (English majors: Is Altschul's decision to make Calliope practice an art form [poetry], of which pop celebrity seems unlikely at best, a flaw in the novel or a clever conceit? Discuss among yourselves.)
Calliope alternates narration duties with her erstwhile biographer, a former rock critic named, yes, Andrew Altschul. As Calliope's story is revealed to be more and more apocalyptic, "the author" reveals himself to be less an unbiased observer and more an obsessed near-stalker.
Fictional characters interact with real characters, and many an unreferenced, are-you-hip-enough-to-know crumb (Kim Gordon, et al) is dropped for 40ish cool cats. Big things happen in "Lady Lazarus": Gigantic events are staged combining rock, poetry and Buddhism; Calliope guest stars on "Saturday Night Live" and freaks out on "Charlie Rose"; an undersupported strain of magical realism involving beekeeping gives Calliope the ability to control swarms of bees as she metaphorically controls swarms of fans. Using the mythology of Cobain as well as a little Jim Morrison and every other prematurely dead rock icon, Altschul contrives a spectacular death or disappearance of Calliope that sends the story into netherworlds of overwrought philosophy. But while we begin to tire of Calliope's long-forewarned demise, we begin to warm to her biographer's situation.
The gradual crumbling of the fictional Andrew's objectivity is one of the many wise and nuanced aspects of "Lady Lazarus." Alternately, Calliope's overwrought and climactic confrontation of her biological and metaphorical paternity is one of the many aspects that feels like the underedited product of a writer who had too many ideas to fit into a single effective novel. For the enterprising and patient reader, "Lady Lazarus" provides plenty to chew on in Altschul's kitchen-sink stew of themes and observations. But the lack of profound emotional and intellectual payoff after such an exhausting enterprise will likely prove unsatisfying.
Former Minnesotan Cherie Parker works at Idle Time Books in Washington, D.C. She blogs at thelitlife.com.