Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo


Life for a musician on the road is wildly erratic. A cliché, though no less true. The high of selling records and playing to packed houses of adoring fans in back-to-back cities. The lows accompanying too much sex and drugs, too little sleep, and a dwindling bank account. Reading about these euphoric ups and paralyzing downs can feel predictably invigorating. But if you’re expecting a typical rock n’ roll road novel, Stacey D’Erasmo‘s Wonderland isn’t it.

For starters, take the book’s narrator. Though clearly rock babe material with her fire engine hair, giraffe legs, and sassy attitude, Anna Brundage is far from a glamorous front woman. She snorts coke, racks up one-night-stands, and complains about measly ticket sales or inattentive audiences with the rest of the band as they flit from Copenhagen to Prague to Berlin to Riga, but there’s also some effort to her madness.

At 44 and on a comeback tour though Europe after seven years spent teaching carpentry to little rich girls in Manhattan, Anna’s not sure she still has what it takes to attract a crowd and put on a good show, that maybe’s she’s become irrelevant. What makes matters more complicated is her vanload of baggage: A divorce. An abortion. An ailing father. An ongoing and unresolved affair with a too short, seemingly happily married Lebanese man she picked up on her last tour. Not exactly light reading.

You see, Wonderland isn’t so much a novel about making music as it is about staking a claim on dreams. Or staking a claim on something. Though there is a fair amount of “[blowing songs] through the back of [rickety concert halls] 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,” those adrenaline-infused, sweat-soaked concert scenes take second fiddle to the ones concerning Anna’s ardent search for self.

Not surprisingly, her wallowing can feel clingingly self-indulgent, especially as it’s delivered in first-person. In contrast to the rich, often tender chapters describing her relationship with her father — a sculptor who courted fame sawing buildings in half and calling it art — the melodrama swirling around Anna’s obsessive attachment to the undeserving Simon (the adulterer) grows too stale too quickly. When her band members tell her they didn’t sign up for his tagging along to gig after gig, it’s hard not to nod our heads in agreement.

Despite these narrative shortcomings, Wonderland is addictive fare. As seen in her previous novels, Tea, A Seahorse Year, and The Sky Below, D’Erasmo’s fierce, inventive prose — Anna’s manager has a “face like a chipped white plate,” the band’s cellist is “Tinkerbell crossed with a cancan girl from outer space” — is on full display. The novel’s other bonus is its fragmented structure. Written in choppy chapters spanning different times and places around the world, it’s gratifyingly easy to get the sense that being on tour with Anna is like getting caught up in some, well, wonderland.

In preparation for writing the book, D’Erasmo read musician’s autobiographies, like Juliana Hatfield’s When I Grow Up, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and Keith Richards’ Life. She hit up friends in the music biz in New York and interviewed people like Jennifer Charles (of Elysian Fields fame). And she became a roadie/groupie for the band the Scissor Sisters while they toured through Europe. No, D’Erasmo isn’t a rocker. But her book? To risk another cliché, it’s worthy of at least one encore, if not more.

Originally ran in the The Oregonian (May 12, 2014)

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