Lady Lazarus, Andrew Foster Altschul, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Andrew Foster Altschul’s newest novel, Lady Lazarus, is an in-depth look at the destructive forces of too much célèbre, too soon. It smacks of the Cobain family and the demise of its patriarch, of an author acutely aware of his own genius, and of a professor with certain interests that he lectures on over and over, but the first thing one notices about this novel is how exquisitely “English major” it is. Occasionally, overwhelmingly so.
Heavily laden with poetic inferences and nods to the masters (complete with index in the back of said poets and their works), the story is that of Calliope Bird Morath, the genius poet daughter of the dead Brandt Morath, lead singer of Terrible Children, and the surviving Penelope “Penny Power” Morath, former singer of Fuck Finn. Calliope witnessed her father’s suicide at the age of 4, and the story that follows is that of a brilliant poet eventually consumed by her own success and desperate search for her father.
The themes that Altschul sticks with and links throughout the novel include Buddhism, psychotherapy, and academia. Writing in third-person, Altschul also traces his (as the biographer of Calliope) own development as a writer obsessed with finding and writing the “Truth” about Calliope and her stormy existence as a media darling, first because of her father but eventually in her own right. It is also the distinctions between art and reality, celebrity and privacy, that he delves into, showing the reader a criticism of how célèbre consumes the object of its obsession. Of course, he is not immune from those criticisms; as the reader soon discovers, “the author” will go to any length to find out everything he can about Calliope. He spends time with her former therapist, discovering things about himself on the couch that help him in his hunt for Truth. He also spends time at the Mountaintop Zen Center, becoming a student of the tenets he has so long resisted, and with a former Terrible Children band-member.
However brilliant this book may be, it is not a book for the uninitiated in literary criticism and psychoanalysis. This author (meaning me, of course) has an M.A. in English and is therefore familiar with the poetic references as much as with the heavier elements of Lacanian theory, the Real, the idea of the Other…and yet, at times this text is so dense, so bogged in the psychoanalytic, that I would venture to guess the “regular” reader would get lost, perhaps even put the book down. And yet it is in the 2nd half of the text, during the “heavy” conversations and deep searching, that the point fully emerges in a session with Calliope’s therapist, the author comes to this point: “Then what you’re saying is that there is no reality, no Truth, everything is entirely subjective and without authority…[T]hat my attempts, for example, to tell the truth about Calliope are themselves some kind of game. That she, herself, is a mere symbol…” (400) Though the author “reject(s) that, utterly,” this thought seems to be the core of the obsession with this child of tragedy, this girl who becomes a poet in hopes of reaching the father she still, in some way, believes alive.
Calliope is a symbol: a symbol of what happens when a person grows up in the spotlight of a famous parent’s death; a symbol of the lost soul in all of us, searching for approval from the outside world. Altschul is not mocking this tempestuous relationship between the media and its darlings, but making very strong statements about the destructive forces that, though Calliope sought to control them, ultimately led to her final dissolution. His extensive use of footnotes and references throughout to famous poems and people (including Zisek) lend credibility to this novel, making it seem as though Calliope was a real person. This is the point: truth becomes Truth when backed up with credible sources, when it is created. Celebre is concocted in back rooms by people who, perhaps, are searching for something larger than themselves to pin their hopes upon, or to blame when things go wrong. This is a novel of many layers, many of which are simply too deep for the average reader, but for the brazen and initiated amongst us, it is absolutely a novel worth delving into.