Saturday, March 22, 2008

Zachary Lazar's "Sway": Book Review

"They're trying to be serious and sarcastic at the same time, emotional but also cool. All the helpful distinctions are being made pointless by their grating, persistent music." (31-32) Lazar here sums up one of the first concerts by the Stones, but this perception of their aesthetic carries into the whole narrative.

The review by BookReporter posted earlier {as this review has been to Amazon US today} gives the gist of the plot, so I will instead provide what earlier comments have not, a sense of the book's flavor. Lazar writes cleanly and sparely. You get little sense of the physical realm in which his characters roam. Brian reflects on their mid-decade endless tour which "had turned out to be a kind of endless tantalization, a way of traveling the world without ever really seeing it. What they had seen was duty-free shops, swimming pools, parking lots, ashtrays." (97) But, you enter their minds.

Watching Anger's "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" film, Keith & Mick hear: "'Mortify the spirit in order to more purely inhabit the body,' a voice said in the darkness. 'Enter the nightmare until it loses the veneer of credibility.'" (133) The characters, whether a chillingly realized Manson and his sway over Beausoleil as the first chapter opens (and the only one with Charlie M. in it directly; the novel includes the murders through secondary means, which was a relief considering how intense many of the scenes had been with Anger and the Stones, even these dancers on the edge of a volcano luckily far from that man's evil); a floundering Brian, a shy Keith, and a calculating Mick; lonely Kenneth and a cocky Bobby: they all try to be, "an exception" as everyone below thirty by the end of the decade appears to be to whatever the rule had been.

The omniscient voice indirectly enters into the mentality of protagonists. Manson seems to Bobby to play a role that he makes fun of even as he dares his follower to believe him believing his own acting. No less than Mick, the everyday kids also enter into this attitude of life as trying on one costume after another, to break the mold, to shatter the complacency that rattles them and pursues them. This edginess pervades the whole novel. As filtered through the somewhat older observer-participant, 1969 Kenneth: "They were calling themselves the Love Generation now: these kids who didn't doubt themselves even when they were wrong, who would try anything, who acted as if life was an idea and not a block of time with a beginning and an end." (170)

That passage captures the tone of much of the narrative. This book will not prove soothing. It's sharp, prickly, and feverish. While I wished fewer dreams pervaded the storyline, I suppose it's almost archetypal in its deserts of California and Morocco, and their clash with suburban Cheltenham and Chelsea. It's not hectoring, but it can be relentless, for it repeats the downfall of hope, and the ascension of despair. It's judgmental, as Mick provides along with echoes by the weaker Anger a dissection of the era's utopian yearning. Those who triumph manage to subsume hippie innocence into a dystopian confrontation with reality, the harder-edged zeitgeist that will enable the stronger to survive what overwhelms Bobby and Brian, and which threatens to drown Kenneth and Anita. We know what happened to Manson, Jagger, and Richards.

It's also a sign of Lazar's confidence that he can mix such iconic figures into an imaginative evocation of an era that's so filtered through albums, art, fashion, drugs, excoriation, and nostalgia. Anger films the Hyde Park concert and thinks about "the new death cult in the Aquarian style" how "it was the logic of thanatomania, not a sequence of cause and effect but an underlying current, a unifying style. With each death, the mystery of death took on more and more glamour, the romance making the human world feel less and less bound to the earth." (187) Again, you feel the spare quality of Lazar's voice.

As I mentioned, not an easy novel to like, but one to admire. He's done his research, tinted it with his own imagined journalism deftly, and colored the whole psychedelic trip in colors that convince you. It's most memorable in its afterglow-- one that haunts more than comforts. Not a long book, but the arrangement of chapters, the selection of events, and the detail of the inner demons may blunt the impact for some. This may be verisimilitude, for Lazar's taken on the difficult task of recreating the come-downs after the highs. Necessarily disorienting and dispairing, therefore; the studied langours of the middle of the narrative may have lingered too long in our passages into Brian's addled mind, or in the placement of a rather awkward coda of Anita and Kenneth in 2002.

Yet, Lazar takes on Altamont and conveys it to you vividly, he interprets the Manson Family's fall intelligently, and he gives you a sympathetic without sycophantic portrayal of the Anita-Keith-Mick-Brian tangle, the spell that captures Bobby, and the magick that lures Kenneth all into the evil eye that's got them in its sway.

Lazar at his best can distill the essence of many of his already well-biographed characters with elegance and compassion. For instance, a 1962 Keith "knows every lick from every Chuck Berry record ever made, an indication of how much time he's spent alone." (24) The omniscient narrator on Mick as fame takes hold: "It's a face he's had all his life, one that has molded his personality, and now it's a face that carries him as the personality begins to fade." (48)

Or, Kenneth's view of Mick as he will appear on the American tour: "He could see Mick onstage in either [of two props, two top-hats, one black, one an Uncle Sam starred-and-striped hat} of them, moving toward the microphone, raising his fist. The devil in the top hat-- they were associated somehow. The god of power-- money, politics, war. The sly, sophisticated con man who in the end was just a bewildering reflection of all the people who were looking at him." (207)

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