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Book Review: Lady Lazarus by Andrew Foster Altschul

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In life as in art, the mythology surrounding a person or thing often becomes the thing itself. It’s too easy, especially in the modern information age, to create a narrative that works and stick with it, even if this muddies the “truth,” if you will.

For example, a rock star like Kurt Cobain spends most of his adult life creating music that has personal meaning, and as the public consumes and demands more from him, it becomes too much; Cobain commits suicide, and suddenly it is the myth of the man, the larger-than-life musician who suffers for his art that becomes his legacy. What is forgotten is that his every move was marketed and packaged by a corporate entity, and that his band Nirvana would have been nothing if it weren’t for pure luck and a bit of cash thrown at them.

The personal difficulties of an artist in this modern age are put on show for the consuming public, and over time, it’s difficult to split the artist from the art itself. As much as the artist may say it’s not about him or her, it’s about the art, the public sees it all as one package. When the celebrity, the myth, if you will, becomes bigger than the art, things just get more and more absurd. For example, would we rather read about Britney Spears’ latest custody battle or actually force ourselves to listen to her music? Which one, when we’re honest with ourselves, is more entertaining?

Andrew Foster Altschul’s Lady Lazarus is a novel that takes the idea of celebrity and turns it upside down. Written like a rock biography, Lady Lazarus follows Calliope Bird Morath, a young poet and daughter of the now infamous Brandt Morath, former lead singer of fictional rock band Terrible Children who blew his brains out in front of the young Calliope (or so legend has it). Using Kurt Cobain’s life and suicide as his guide, Altschul creates an absurd world of rock star excess that collides with the literary establishment as filtered through a sensationalist mainstream media. While Calliope’s life takes center stage, Altschul shows there is no discovery of biographical “Truth”; instead, the narrative is clouded by the mythology surrounding her and the excesses of her life.

The novel begins with Altschul putting himself in the middle of the biography. The narrator, Altschul himself, seeks to find the truth about Calliope’s life that begins with her as the daughter – and therefore rightful heir – of Brandt Morath’s artistic legacy. She becomes the figure shining in the window of her home, who, after her father’s tragic suicide, is greeted by Terrible Children’s fans as a shining beacon of artistry. One of those fans is the narrator, who further clouds the memory of the Morath family even as he seeks out the “Truth” as he sees it.

As the biography continues, Altschul interweaves Calliope’s own narrative into the story, and her prowess as a poet takes center stage. As she tries to make sense of what her father left behind, she also creates a world of her own making, a poetic landscape that seeks to find meaning in a meaningless word. Eventually, even poetry will become an abstraction, and she will be left feeling disillusioned of the inadequacy of the written word. Just like the craziest members of the Terrible Children fan base, she comes to believe her father is in hiding and that her memory of his death is flawed.

With this, Altschul reveals the absurdity of the postmodern art world. He lampoons the rock biographer for seeking the truth of the artists life when he can’t even see the truth of his own, and then he goes after the establishment: the media for ruining Calliope’s artistic vision, the literary critics for not seeing past their own ideologies, and the poet herself for her attempts to deconstruct and abstract her own poetry. In the end, Altschul has created a wonderful work of postmodern satire. As it wraps you in further and further, he reveals that the rock biography was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place.

Lady Lazarus is also a book full of obscure references to 20th-century art, and everyone from the poet Sylvia Plath (recognize the title?) to TV talk show host Charlie Rose get wrapped up in the narrative. In fact, there are so many references to real life stuff that Altschul included an “Attributions” at the end of the novel to help you make sense of it all. While it is difficult to remember where every reference comes from, it’s all completely recognizable, creating an even more believable fake biography.

Lady Lazarus is a novel that forces the reader to question the notion of art and the importance of the artist. Altschul has to mythologize Calliope as the transcendent artist who becomes the art, just like her father Brandt once did. In the end, is it the artist or her art that is more important? Does it even matter? Altschul’s mature debut novel doesn’t provide answers to these questions, but it does create an excellent satire of the ambiguity so often found in postmodern art.

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About Kevin Eagan