If the great author F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said that the test of first-rate intelligence is “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” then author Andrew Altschul is scary-smart. In his debut novel, Lady Lazarus [Harcourt], Altschul plays with plenty of ideas at once, including Zen Buddhism, the high-minded literary theories of Lacan and Derrida, psychoanalysis, romantic and familial love, and the idea of structure itself, all juxtaposed against a backdrop of poetry and alternative rock.
Lady Lazarus is the purposefully thin-guised story of the Cobain’s, lavishly interwoven with poetic and personal details of the great poet Sylvia Plath’s life. Think of the premise as this: Alt-grunge superstar Brandt Morath (Kurt Cobain) and his psycho-bitch, punk-rock wife Penelope “Penny” Power (Courtney Love), have a baby girl they call Calliope Bird (Francis Bean). Brandt commits suicide, Penny goes Hollywood between tantrums and drug binges, and Bird grows up to become, as Altschul said in his recent reading at St. Louis’ Left Bank Books, “the World’s most famous poet, which is not to be confused with the World’s greatest poet.”
Initially, at least for Plath-freaks who also know a little something about Nirvana (and doesn’t everyone know a little something about Nirvana?) Lady Lazarus feels a bit like a game: Oh! Electra on Azalea Path! The Earthenware Head! Courtship with a bite on the cheek! The Double Self! The Beekeeper!
Ah, but that’s just Altschul setting the mood. Fifty pages in, you’re entertained. A hundred pages in, you’re hooked, if not yet on the story itself, then on the gorgeous prose, the snarky voices, and the subtle commentaries on higher education, public relations and the power of Saturday Night Live, publishing and cover bands. It just gets deeper from there; layers and layers of meaning, “a million filaments”, each like a different color silkscreened onto this canvas of the whole 555-page, postmodern structure picture. And if all that wasn’t enough, it’s metafiction too: he’s inserted the story of an obsessed biographer into the mix, coincidentally named Andrew Altschul, who misses the point, is not as cool as he’d like to be, and endearingly blunders his way toward what is Real, what he feels, and what he knew all along—if anything, in fact, is real. Sort of a Wizard of Oz for the spirit.
If you want to know the fabula (a word Altschul taught me—the framework of events), read Sylvia Plath’s famous poem, “Lady Lazarus.” But if you want the beauty of the greater meanings, and how these meanings weave together and complement each other; if you want something to sit with and think about for days; if you want something great enough to warrant –no, to demand- a revisit, read this book.