Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014: Maximum Shelf: Wonderland

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Wonderland by Stacey D'Erasmo

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Wonderland by Stacey D'Erasmo

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Wonderland by Stacey D'Erasmo

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Wonderland by Stacey D'Erasmo


by Stacey D'Erasmo

Wonderland, Stacey D'Erasmo's fourth novel, embeds the reader in singer and guitarist Anna Brundage's quest to reignite her indie-rock career with a new CD and a European tour at the age of 44. It's a percussive, lyrical and multisensory proxy walk on the wild side that also digs deep into Anna's past and artistic process.

Anna's childhood was bohemian in the extreme. Her father, an avant-garde sculptor who "preferred to cut things up that were already half ruined, left for dead," and her mother, a painter of "strangely ominous, strangely exposed, strangely linked groups of women on glass," prioritized travel and exposure to interesting people over schooling. Anna's younger sister opts out at the age of 13 for boarding school and traditional higher education, whereas Anna, who fell in love with a guitar at the age of six, remains diploma-free and "loyal to the family business of being outsiders, drifters." Her medium is musical, not visual, but she has internalized her father's artistic ethos: "I have had the conviction for quite some time that if I could do in music what my father did in space by sawing the train in half, then I could solve the mystery of my life."

In her 20s, Anna starts and loses a band and works as a singer-for-hire. In her 30s, when all she has to her name is "a vague ambition," about $1,000 and a sound-wizard friend with studio access, Anna gambles on a self-produced album. On the sixth night of a cocaine-fueled week searching for the right sound, Anna passes "through the eye of the needle to wonderland—to the broken, the illogical, the roads that double back on themselves" and she finds the small sonic shift that changes everything, the "awkward half-note" that will be Whale's signature and its appeal. The album that emerges "sounded simultaneously like a dress slipping off a bare shoulder and a girl falling down a well," and it launches Anna as a major indie rocker in 2002. Her initial tour for Whale is successful enough to get her signed by an "adventurous sub-label of a major label" and boost her first European tour. In Europe Anna performs a duet with a mega rock legend on stage at Glastonbury and makes the connection that will nab her entrée into a surreal chateau-based musical incubator for her second album, Bang Bang.

Anna's international rock-and-roll ride lasts until she is 37, when her third album fizzles and a high-intensity love affair ends. Beset by artistic doubt, Anna retreats to her tiny East Village apartment and drops out of the music scene for seven years. She marries Jim, a virtuoso fiddler, but the relationship does not survive her fallow period. What does survive is the job Jim helps Anna find: as a teacher of carpentry (a skill she learned from her father) to rich little girls at a private school on the Upper East Side.

When Anna decides to take a leave from her job and pursue a comeback, she has but one way to finance the new CD and a portion of the European tour: by selling her 21st birthday gifts from her father, a rare piece of rubble and a sketch from a famous work. To record Wonderland, she recruits her ex to help with the arrangements and to play some of the instruments. When the novel opens, Anna is already in quirky Christiania, Denmark, with a new young manager and a hired band. Anna/Alice's adventures in Wonderland are about to begin.

D'Erasmo's elegant, lush and precise language, funneled into a highly immediate, first-person stream-of-consciousness point of view, makes Anna's Wonderland tour entirely accessible, from the European locations to the intra-band dynamics to the encounters with other musicians to the sudden intimacies. Some sentences mimic thought, with phrases that lap and pile onto each other; others describe surroundings with singular details that make each setting memorable.

Remarkably, Wonderland offers an articulation of musical performance that is simultaneously abstract and concrete. Here's Anna at her first comeback performance in Christiania: "I blow the song through the back of the rickety concert hall and out into the night, folded, gleaming, fast, faster, unbroken, alive, whirling inside the secret chamber, rose and gold, unstoppable, irresistible, straight into the veins, hair-raising." When a performance goes wrong in a Hamburg dinner club, Anna susses out the drummer's dereliction on Wonderland's peculiar beat: "The unexpected shifts have grown all too expected; in fact, he's dropping into them a little too soon.... he wants to skip to the end, he wants his own dinner."

The through line of Wonderland is the tour, but the novel gains additional range and depth when Anna riffs on the past in chapters set off by past-tense narration. Anna's mental spelunking probes her musical breakthroughs and failures, vivid moments from her vagabond childhood and previous tours, vignettes from her life in New York and scenes from a love affair that may or may not be over. The question of whether she will return to her teaching job is charmingly embodied in the recurring image of "a hundred little girls in safety goggles, holding hammers," a mutely responsive chorus that pops up in Anna's mind at crucial tour junctures.

Literary without being difficult, and bracingly thought-provoking in its existential passages, Wonderland is replete with lyrical detail. There are trasmogrifying waves and tilts and recurring tactile talismans, such as the father-sculptor's red corduroy pants, the Brundage sisters' homemade hussar's coats in tulip red and sky blue felt, Anna's long red hair (sometimes loose, sometimes braided, sometimes pomaded), the sand of dunes and the sand of cocaine, a half-twisted slug of metal that Anna takes from her father's pocket--this is a novel rife with things in evocative halves: trains, musical notes, maps, gloves, truths.

Wonderland provides a thrilling and satisfying immersion in what it would be like to be Anna Brundage rocking her away across Europe, hanging out with iconic musicians, falling in and out and back into love and finding out where her second chance might take her. --Holloway McCandless

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22, hardcover, 9780544074811, May 6, 2014

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Wonderland by Stacey D'Erasmo

Stacey D'Erasmo: Life's Improvisational Music

Stacey D'Erasmo is a recipient of Guggenheim and Stegner Fellowships, the author of three previous novels (Tea, A Seahorse Year, The Sky Below) and a book of nonfiction, The Art of Intimacy. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, Bookforum and Ploughshares, among others. She teaches in Columbia University's MFA program.

You've written about various types of artists in your previous novels, but Wonderland's Anna Brundage is your first musician-protagonist. Who or what inspired you to create Anna's life and career?

I had noticed for a number of years that there were these female musicians--Patti Smith, Linda Thompson, Vashti Bunyan--who left the scene, sometimes for long periods of time, and then came back, basically successfully. I was fascinated by that, and fascinated, too, by the particular freedom and challenges of that kind of performer's life. The way that musicians perform, in the moment, with both body and mind onstage--I was really interested in getting inside that experience.

Did you consciously decide to make Anna a songwriter as well as a singer?

Oh, certainly. I always wanted her to be the maker of all the parts of her art. And songwriting, of course, isn't just the words--it's the notes and chords and breaths.

Are you also a musician in addition to being a writer, or did you acquire Anna's musical vocabulary through research?

I'm not a musician, not even a little bit. If you ever heard me sing, you would feel a mixture of pity and terror. I don't play any instruments. In figuring out how to create Anna, I read a number of musicians' biographies and autobiographies--Dean Wareham's Black Postcards, Juliana Hatfield's When I Grow Up, Keith Richards's Life and so on--and I talked to some musicians about their lives and experiences. I started from the idea that she was more or less a self-taught musician, so her way of describing her own work wouldn't necessarily be all that technical. She's often talking about trying to get to a certain kind of unique sound that she hears in her head, a sound that wouldn't already have a name. So I tried to approach her musical ideas that way, as freeform poetry, maybe.

You went on tour with Scissor Sisters to get some background information. Which countries did you tour, and what were some of the most valuable--or surprising--things you learned in terms of writing about Anna's tour?

I was on tour with Scissor Sisters for a little more than two weeks (which was as long as I could afford to do it), and we went to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia, Austria, Norway and Germany. It was totally invaluable for small details, like the way people put their shoes in the hallway of the tour bus at night outside their bunks or what a soundcheck is like. But in a larger sense, it surprised me how much stillness and drifting downtime there is on a tour--many hours of driving, or flying, or waiting backstage. It feels, often, very suspended in time, as if one is in a universe where time itself works differently.

How did you settle on Wonderland as the title for both Anna's comeback album and your novel?

That was always the title. I've loved Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ever since I read it as a child, and that idea of voyaging into a different world felt really right to me when writing about this kind of musician on the road. It is a wonderland, which doesn't mean it's always pretty. It can be strange and scary as well, as it is for Alice.

Unlike your first two novels, your more recent work, including Wonderland, uses first-person narration. Why?

Because I must be some sort of masochist--first-person is really hard to work with, and it threatens to go wrong, to get claustrophobic or stagey or just boring, at every turn. In both The Sky Below and Wonderland, I was interested in characters telling a story about themselves that they're trying to understand even as they're telling it. They're trying to understand why they did what they did, why they made the choices they made. Telling that in the first person increases the sense of doubt and mystery. There is no overarching narrator who knows more about them than they do.

Wonderland inserts fragments of Anna's recent and distant past into her comeback tour. The influence of her bohemian childhood, particularly the work of her father, who "reinvented" sculpture, emerges through these fragments. Did you write the novel in the same order that the reader experiences it?

I did, actually. Every juxtaposition and break made a kind of sense, or music, to me, and the order wasn't interchangeable. In revising, I moved things around a bit here and there to increase tension or simple narrative sense, but overall those associative leaps and shifts were always in that pattern. The past, the present, the future and the future that never happened (that scene where she walks through the Roman Forum with Simon and Maya) are in some sense happening simultaneously.

How do you think Anna ranks the importance of intimacy vs. music in her life?

I'm not quite sure what that question means, and I have to ask, Would that be asked of a male character in a similar situation? Did anyone ask Bucky Wunderlick, of DeLillo's novel Great Jones Street, how he ranked intimacy vs. music? Also, it isn't a "vs." for Anna at all. In life and in art, she's trying to figure it out, to get to the next part, to find a chord, emotionally and musically, that feels true. They aren't separate journeys, and both literally and figuratively, they aren't ranked. In the most basic way, she's doing both at the same time, body and soul.

What is the significance of the epigraph to Wonderland: "The obvious analogy is with music." --Lyn Hejinian, My Life

Hejinian is talking about her life--it's a great, unclassifiable book, that one, I highly recommend it--and I think she means that a life makes its own sort of improvisational music. But it's only ever and can only be an analogy, an approximation. Anna's life is music, and her music has a life, but the meaning of either is never reducible. It's always an approximation, a rough translation.

Has your work as a critic affected your work as a novelist?

Not in a direct way in terms of style or form. What it's affected, and generally much to the good, is my perception of how vast, wide and deep literature is. If you spend even a small amount of time reading other writers working now, you see right away how many fantastic choices can be made and how many ways there are to write. My work as a critic has given me an extraordinary amount of permission to write as I wish.

Please name a few of your favorite writers, perhaps the ones most relevant to Wonderland.

Well, Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, certainly. Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, all of Jane Bowles, Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red and--this may sound odd--all of Graham Greene. I'm fascinated by the way his characters have to make moral and esthetic choices.

If you could inhabit the life of any currently performing musician for a fixed period of time, whose life would you choose, and for how long?

Beyoncé, without a doubt. I want a month, on tour, as Beyoncé in all her different costumes and personae. I would give anything to be that many extraordinary beings in that short a period of time, and to take audiences to that place. I'd love to know what that feels like. --Holloway McCandless

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