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Beautiful Children

By Charles Bock
Random House, 2008

Lady Lazarus

By Andrew Foster Altschul
Harcourt, Inc, 2008

Book lovers, who sometimes make a point of disowning their televisions and affecting a studious ignorance of popular culture, may like to think of themselves as immune to the manipulations of the media. They look upon fads and fleeting infatuations from their restful aerie atop Parnassus. They can’t be deceived by trends because their view is of eternity.

Tell a fashion connoisseur or a movie buff that his tastes are influenced by the trends of the time and he’ll probably respond, “Naturally”; but the reader’s affable conceit is that Madison Avenue and the latest preoccupation in Glamour or Maxim play no part in the books he reads, much less the books he loves.

The truth, obviously, is far more banal. We read what other people are reading; more to the point, we read what other groups with which we identify are reading. It doesn’t matter whether you’re one of the last, grim holdouts who steadfastly refuses to lay a finger on anything recommended by Oprah Winfrey. It doesn’t matter if you’ve boastfully given wide berth to Harry Potter. Spend five minutes with any experienced bookseller and that bookseller will be able to tell you with horrifying accuracy what you’ve got on your bedroom bookshelf, just as the same fashion maven can deduce based on your personality alone where you shop for clothes and how much you spend.

The further banal truth is that what groups of people read is to a great degree determined by the promotional exertions of publishing houses. In a world that nurtures such people as Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi, book promoters are a harmless enough bunch, but they are still, by job description, total liars. Yet their word (abetted by the book-jacket encomia of biddable writers who are half the time the author in question’s friend) is often all the public has to go on.

This is most painfully the case when it comes to debut novels. With classics and books from established writers, it’s still possible for the committed reader to blaze a more individual path, but if you want to sample the wares of a new and untested talent—as everyone from time to time should—who is there to guide you? A trustworthy critic if you’re lucky, an ambitious friend if you’re luckier—but otherwise there’s only the publisher’s voice, broadcast like a carnival barker’s, absolutely guaranteeing that his young man or woman is the next best who must not be missed by anyone who cares about fiction.

There’s no choice, then, but to bend an ear to the buzz, and recently the buzz has led many readers to pledge their money and, more importantly, their Sunday afternoons to a book called Beautiful Children by Charles Bock, and by all indications it will do the same for another debut to be released this month, Lady Lazarus by Andrew Foster Altschul.

  Beautiful Children, from its unfortunately maudlin title (you will correctly intuit that the children who appear in it are ugly, angry, and disaffected, and that our author is nevertheless sensitive to their inner beauty), begins not with a narrative scene but with a large block of information. We learn that a 12-year-old boy named Newell Ewing has disappeared—the initial implication is that he’s been kidnapped—and is likely at large somewhere in Las Vegas. Shortly after this introduction in a scene that takes place before the kidnapping, we see Newell ominously in the company of Kenny, a reclusive older boy who draws pornographic cartoons, and a professional artist with the mortifying name Bing Biederbixxe, who, we are informed, is secretly sympathetic with the Columbine High School murderers and possesses a “firsthand understanding of the ways in which an act of destruction can be viewed as a piece of creation.”

 
Bock’s interest, it is immediately clear, is not in telling us a story but in presenting a raison d’être. The kidnapped child, the allusions to molestation and school shootings—these well-known, theoretically newsworthy topics are raised (though scarcely dramatized, as we shall see) in a continuous effort to justify Beautiful Children’s existence. The novel is also technically about a couple’s anguish over losing a child and their struggle to preserve their marriage in the face of such tragedy, but in reality this theme is given no more flesh and blood than the bullet-pointed précis that likely introduced it in the book proposal Bock sent to the publisher. We are asked to feel for Newell’s parents, Lorraine and Lincoln, as they compulsively watch home movies of their son, but then we are told that “as far as Lincoln Ewing was concerned, things had started veering south when Lorraine had stopped putting it in her mouth.” Lorraine responds with the following utterance:

It’s just, if I’m going to have it in my mouth, I need the act to be organic. Not to have it in my mouth because you want it there, but because the beauty of the moment dictates that my mouth is the natural and correct place for it to be.

To say the very least, this isn’t an ideal way to kick off a novel. When you read this sort of stuff, sentiments and words that bear no earthly relation to anything any human has ever thought or said, whatever flickering spell the author may have conjured to get you to care about made-up characters is broken, and the book you hold becomes simply a means for a young, somewhat puerile, rather showoffy person to talk at you for a long time. Not only do the scenes concerning Lorraine and Lincoln’s grief read like arid writing exercises, but you get the soiling sensation that Bock wants you to draw upon your own personal tragedies in order to actually feel the sadness he keeps histrionically invoking.

Likewise, Beautiful Children is “about” Las Vegas, Bock’s hometown, but only in the most superficially promotable sense. The juxtaposition of the city’s famously seedy downtown with its more recent sprawl of pre-fab suburbs makes for a promising setting, but when Bock gets down to describing this world that he knows from years of personal experience, the product usually resembles casino stock footage:

Along the row, [Kenny] saw baggy retirees chain-smoking and playing two machines apiece, rotely jabbing a left-right sequence of buttons on one machine, then repeating the sequence on the other. Their faces were uniformly drained from extended bouts of concentrated anticipation, yet still focused on the screens in front of them. Kenny watched a husband and wife playing their machines side by side. He watched friends wasting the night hanging out and drinking and playing. Groups of people that were ostentatiously together, yet they were separate together.

It’s bad news when italics, used strenuously throughout Beautiful Children, are put into the service of emphasizing clichés. This generic vision of Las Vegas—where, as Bock unsyntactically puts it, “every amenity the mind, on a whim, might invent, is available”—is eventually occupied by a rogue’s gallery of discontented side characters with names such as Cheri Blossom, Ponyboy, Lestat, and Jabba the Hut (we’ll not dwell on the person called the Jew’s Daughter). These characters are never able to overcome the obstacle of their names (which make them sound more like novelty sandwiches) to emerge as remotely believable people—and this is because none of them ever do anything. Even the approaching kidnapping, which seems to insure some amount of action, is brusquely downgraded to a case of a runaway child. In the last pages of the novel, Bock records that

Tonight Newell had already sprayed one woman with fire extinguisher foam. Tonight he had lied to his parents and broken his curfew. Newell had won money on a nickel slot machine that he was not legally allowed to play, while trespassing inside a casino that he was still a good seven years from being legally allowed inside.

This mundane little litany contains precisely everything that Newell does over the course of a 400-page book. In the vacancy of a plot and dramatized scenes, Bock offers crushing quantities of explanatory exposition in halting, overwritten prose. The farther along you progress in Beautiful Children and the more aware you are of what trial its going to be to reach the end, the more keenly you notice what little heed Bock has paid to the reading experience of his putative audience. There is no narrative momentum in this novel to push you along from one scene to the next; the scenes themselves, such as they are, are scattered about with all the logic of a spilled handful of pick-up sticks; and the language is willfully discordant and obscure (cell phones are frequently referred to as “devices,” for instance, and “chicken embryos” stands in for the word “eggs”—inaccurately, as it were, since the eggs we eat are not fertilized).

The absence of plot, and the attempt to paper over that hole with a fragmented structure and consciously arty prose, is commonplace in debut novels for a simple reason: plotting is hard. Doing it requires not only intelligence and sensitivity but skill. And in spite of the typical palaver about breaking rules of conventional narrative and daring to experiment, the author who disdains to tell an interesting story is timidly avoiding a difficult part of his job for fear of embarrassing himself, like a doctor who knows a lot about illness but feels awkward interacting with patients and so refuses to do so. For such a doctor, who is really fascinated by medical history, diseases, medicine, and internal organs, the fact that there exists a patient with feelings that have to be considered is an irksome matter. There is a strong sense reading plotless novels like Beautiful Children that the reader is to the author an equal nuisance. The author has genuinely laudable ambitions—he wants to stretch his imagination, he wants to explore people and emotions he’s observed and felt during his life, he wants to provide a stage for his ingenuity, he wants, perhaps, just to prove that he can write a novel—but he is always plagued by the vexing expectation that the book he writes actually be good to read.

This is ultimately also at the root of the trouble with Andrew Foster Altschul’s worthier debut Lady Lazarus. Altschul’s novel is about Calliope Bird Morath, the daughter of a famous rock star and infamous suicide victim who herself becomes a famous poet and infamous cause célèbre. The easiest way to picture the fabulist world that Altschul has created is to imagine that a rock star even more iconic than Kurt Cobain (played in this case by Brandt Morath, lead singer for a group called Terrible Children—the possibility that his publishers had to warn Altschul away from calling the band Beautiful Children seems very real) killed himself in front of his daughter, who absorbed her father’s troubled brilliance and then amplified it in her poetry and in a series of increasingly audacious public scandals.

It’s a gamesome premise, and the best thing about Lady Lazarus is its spirit of play. Altschul has gone overboard in providing biographical details for his characters, making up dozens of song titles, scores of poems, and hundreds of magazine citations and talk show appearances to give Brandt and Calliope an air of Internet-era verisimilitude, and he’s very clearly had the time of his life inventing it all. It is often hard to suppress a smile at Altschul’s extravagances. In one chapter, for example, Calliope appears on The Charlie Rose Show and winds up French-kissing and then assaulting her dapper, aged interviewer. The scene is completely silly, but it’s so earnestly outlandish that you feel an affinity for the writer who couldn’t help but indulge in writing it, assuredly with a smile on his face.  

 
Still, the most patient reader can only swallow so many silly indulgences, and the truth is that Altschul reaches his quota on around page 20. The over-the-top media obsession with this badly behaved celebrity-poet is ripe material for comedy, perhaps satire, at least farce, but Lady Lazarus is governed by two neurotic narrators who preclude any such growth in those directions. One narrator is Calliope, who is, predictably enough, a shrieking, self-absorbed primadonna more devoted to enlarging her legend than shining light on it. The second is a besotted music journalist (you’ll be depressed to hear that his name is Andrew Altschul) writing Calliope’s unauthorized biography. And in both cases the perspectives are completely ludicrous.

Altschul, in his guise as a groupie biographer, informs us, for instance, that the term “‘Titanium Album’ was coined” for Terrible Children, “gold and platinum not precious enough to measure their success.” Terrible Children is a screaming, nihilistic rock band whose biggest hit is called “Dirtnap” and most famous lyric goes “Life is a farce we all have to lead!”: the notion that their albums would outsell those of ‘N Sync or even The Eagles reveals a discrediting blindness to the pandering ways that pop culture very obviously works.

But far more serious is Altschul’s claim that Calliope becomes “perhaps the most famous poet in American history.” It’s a statement the reader can only blink at, but by all the evidence in Lady Lazarus it appears we’re supposed to believe it. Anyone foolish enough to try to do so is broadsided by the very first poem that appears:

I should have been a Monk and not a Bird—
I’d tickle the ivories in five-spot clubs and play
My voiceless heart out, never say a word—

I wish I were a potter, not a bard—
I’d plunge my fancy elbow-deep in clay,
Mute earth between my hands turning to shards—

How nice to be a you and not a me—
To live this distant life and never say
What’s on my mind. At last, I might be free.

The poem goes on, but to little purpose since it’s now impossible for anyone to take seriously the proposition that Calliope would ever be even marginally esteemed as a poet—indeed, that she would be looked at as anything but the narcissistic, burnt-out daughter of a celebrity. But Lady Lazarus does take the proposition seriously, for nigh on 600 pages. What we get is the baffling sort of picaresque that would have resulted if all the other characters, as well as Cervantes, had been convinced that Don Quixote really was a great knight.

The disjunction between what appears in service of the good of the book and what appears due to the whim of the author runs across the breadth of Lady Lazarus, marring even the prose. The voice of the fictional Altschul is a forced combination of a hyperventilating fanboy (“and what of the poet’s inner life, that strange country of unscaled peaks, arid expanses, wild protean jungles, of secluded moors and churning seas and chaotic cosmopolises knowable to us only through the medium of words, the serpentine vehicle of syntax?”) and a tweedy academic (“despite the suggestive content of her poetry, there is little to suggest these were physical relationships and not the wholly innocent affectations in which all young persons indulge.”) Altschul seems to have landed on this voice because it struck him as amusing, blithely unconcerned with what excruciating reading it makes for the people he wants to buy his book.

And once again, Lady Lazarus is very nearly plotless. It has events, but they are just conjunctive, one thing after another after another. In the book’s coda, obedient to the modern writer’s tendency to recapitulate his own novel as though it were a dissertation, Altschul writes,

What is a story? What defines it and gives it shape? A causally related sequence of events, a beginning, middle and end—is story merely this Aristotelian movement from point A to point B, encompassing some significant action, some irreversible change?

The word “Aristotelian” is in this passage to imply that telling a story is an arcane, fuddy-duddy activity that went out with Big Band music, but it’s that word “merely” before “significant action” that tells us Altschul’s attitude about the job of a novelist—and it’s this attitude that drains away the last of the goodwill we had initially felt towards him. To a writer like Altschul and to his publishers, the answer to the rhetorical question is apparently no, “story” does not need to have “significant action”; it can just be a lot of stuff that happens, so long as that stuff is topical, or inventive, or dressed up in literary-sounding language. But to the reader, the answer of course is yes, a story must have significant actions, and those actions must be meaningfully and dramatically connected, for the superbly obvious reason that if it does not, there is nothing to make the reader give a damn. So in the end, despite Altschul’s evident talent, Lady Lazarus is no more readable than Beautiful Children.

I’m aware, for all this, that the judgments rendered in this review are scarcely likely to please anyone. Just as it’s obnoxious to be blitzed by a publisher’s exaggerated claims for the greatness of a debut, a democratic sense of justice makes it seem somehow unfair to dismiss a debut based on a negative review. Many people will read all this and still decide that the only honest thing is to yield to the buzz and try the books for themselves—and since that’s what I did, I can only respect the decision. Even so, take up these books with the warning: you stand in peril of your Sunday afternoons.


Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.