Sunday, May 18, 2014

An Indie rock star gets the tour of her life in WONDERLAND, a story about an artist's come-back

In WONDERLAND by Stacey D'Erasmo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014) Anna Brundage is caught between her rock n'roll desire and a hard-won security. At 44, she's a knock-out, tall and thin with long red hair and huge sensitivity. Anna is attuned to the essence of  places and people, whether Janus-faced, loving, limited or something else entirely. She comes by this perception, and the habit of sifting reality, from her father, an art world immortal, whose family's life was an itinerant journey from one country to another, one site to the next, as he made art by destroying derelict buildings. When Anna inherits a piece of his rubble, a valuable relic of this mythic man, she's given the means for a second chance.

Anna, who had several albums, walked away from fame for seven years. Now she lives in a tiny but enviably cheap apartment in Manhattan and teaches carpentry at a girl's school. Besides the apartment, she's got an amiable ex-husband, colleagues and students, and gnawing memories of her performing life. At night she writes songs and, when she's got enough, contacts a tour promoter. Though she believes she's old, past it, surprisingly, the promoter takes her on. Am I just a novelty act, nostalgia fix, she wonders, but then he talks about the lasting success of her album, Wave. He calls her legend.

So Anna sells her rock for one last tour and auditions musicians. She finds platinum haired Alicia, artist of the bass fiddle, and Zack, guitarist and Juilliard drop-out, who she thinks of as her "kids." Her drummer is not a kid and knows his chops, but Anna realizes her band lacks synergy. Sounds and psyches are turned inside out before the band comes to inhabit her songs. Ready for the Wonderland tour, also the name of the journal Anna keeps, they hit the road.. In the bubble of tour life with nightly performances in different places, Anna records in her meandering journal, recollections of  previous tours and her childhood wanderings--a collage of people and places, as well as emotional upheaval and lost opportunities.

Amid the mood swinging burn out of performance, party, crash, Anna slides into the "what ifs" of alternate lives she might have lived in this place with that person. If the usual task of mid-life is to reconcile oneself to what's lost, Anna's is to consolidate her beginnings, the artist she aspired to without knowing it, the performer she became, then the wife and teacher she grew into and almost last, the daughter and sister she always relied on. Yet on tour, she evolves and devolves. Hard to tell which, when she wakes up in a hippie village in Denmark, spots a handsome man fixing a bike, and falls into sex with the stranger.

It feels a familiar, almost comforting pattern of tour sex, a pattern of road life she's not experienced for years. More introspective now, she tries to sift her feelings, even plays with the idea of what a future with this guy might be like, but she's onto the next city. What's left is a memory of the feet of the bike guy, which remind her of a married man she loved passionately, and, despite the years of distance, she feels there's a reckoning due.

Fan-based rooms, noisy clubs, concert halls; each venue has it's own weather inside and outside.. As they travel to Prague, Berlin, Latvia, Rome, the act's mostly a hit. But Rome evicerates Anna. A bad luck city for her family, where her father's near fatal accident occurred, it's also here she met her lover over the years, who fit perfectly and wasn't right. Anna sifts remembered images, as her immediate self meets her lover on the Wonderland tour. Making sense has more urgency than making love.

WONDERLAND is a road trip but in its rock n roll heart, it's about the soul of an artist. Anna looks for reality in green rooms, places to dress and wait, noting plush carpets and  mini-bars, run-down peeling paint and beer smell. One minute the band's holding hands before the show, the next they are ecstatically spent from performing and moving through fields of fans. Anna's working all the time for the moment when she's not working; when the song's hit a chord throughout the room, when she's lost in the sound of her band. And sometimes they're off, way off, and it can be her fault. Some emotional crack that's come through to the others, or a sense of fragmentation.

The kaleidoscopic truth-telling in her journal includes her failures. Her promoter can barely tolerate her lateness for sound checks and rehearsals. There's the time she let herself get lost onstage. Though she's the leader and boss, so allowances are made, grief--when her father died--evokes Zack's mutiny and Alicia's vulnerability. In an artistic sense, they are her kids and she's responsible for her show. And sometimes they just can't pull it off. When they try to record in a chalet, there's no coherence no matter how hard they try; when they got flooded out of a outdoor concert, when a pristine venue with affluent preoccupied people shows no engagement.

But Anna does pull it together in a big way. One night she runs into an old colleague, Ezra. Homely and brilliant, famous and strangely obscure, drug addicted yet long lived--he's an international celeb. When Anna sings with him onstage at a club to a chanting mesmerized audience, her comeback is certain. Toward the end of WONDERLAND, she better navigates the phantasmagoria that is her tour but looks forward to its end. There's rest in a return to her tiny apartment and she enjoys the girls she teaches. Then, with success behind her, Anna finds herself with a more final decision to make. Will she choose home or take an offer to go to Tokyo?

Will Anna continue the touring life or opt for stability?  The decision has to be made completely on her own. Was she a success?  Ann was certainly again a star. But what did that mean, in an era always looking toward the next new thing?  She was old and became new, why? Anna knows she's a fool to her sister, living a safe family life, that her mother, remarried to a genial man, worries about her. In the end, Anna is her father's daughter. It becomes incidental that he never liked her music, as she defines her spiritual inheritance.

Stacey Erasmus' brilliance is that she also looks at Anna's father, who was undone by his art. In the mystery of why he never recovered, is the secret of Anna's come-back and the call to her art. WONDERLAND is the sense memory of an artist's life. The tour has a kind of phantasmagoria aspect. And it's fitting her father's present is her way back to not just find what was lost but to consolidate herself as an artist and a woman..

This is an ambitious book. I have never read an account of a female rock and roller at mid-life again finding herself. And, since life is a continual come-back, you hope she'll have some happiness but know she will inevitably falter and perhaps recover herself. Wisely, Erasmus didn't wind this up tidily. We don't know what will happen to Anna. But then neither does Anna.  The drugs, sex and rock and roll  are actually depicted without being cliche. I found WONDERLAND more authentic in showing the interior life of a rock star than the Jim Morrison biography, No One Gets Out of Here Alive. Recognition of Stacey D'Erasmo's everywoman was sheer pleasure.

S.W.