Death artist

At last, a term for the self-destructive celebrities that so fascinate (and dominate) American culture: death artists.

Whether it’s Jim Morrison or River Phoenix, Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, Anne Sexton or Anna Nicole Smith, Freddie Prinze or Heath Ledger, the rush of the self-destructive star—and the amazing outpouring of mourning and fascination that follows their rocky lives and tragic deaths—is the stuff of legend. That’s particularly true when, as in the cases of Morrison, Cobain and Sexton, their work is full of references to the futile ugliness of life and the promise of death.

So it might seem that a novel like this is just one more example of the paparazzi at the funeral, but Lady Lazarus is about more than the cult of (dead) celebrity worship. It’s also about the commodification of art, whether that occurs in the high prices charged for a “definitive boxed set,” the creation of artists in graduate programs or the anointing of “stars” in the popular press. Andrew Foster Altschul covers a lot of ground here, and it’s our entire culture—both high- and low-brow, pop and academic—that he rests his sights on.

Constructed as a pastiche, the novel alternates between two narrators but also contains transcripts of television shows that never aired, citations from scholarly and popular works that were never written and interviews with people who don’t exist. The center of this novel, Calliope Bird Morath, is a young poet. The daughter of a Kurt Cobain-like rock god and a minimally talented but outrageously self-promoting rock goddess, Calliope is destined for stardom.

Then, when she is 4, her father kills himself in front of her.

Most of us can only imagine that particular circle of hell, but Altschul has come up with a way to make it oh-so-clear for innocents. Calliope is struck silent for years. When she begins to speak, it’s in poetry.

Calliope narrates some chapters, while others are filled in by her biographer, an alt-weekly journalist who met her father before his death and became obsessed with his daughter. While it might otherwise be easy to have some sympathy for an alt-weekly journalist who specializes in music, this fellow is so pretentious, self-important and self-deluded that he chokes off many a finer impulse.

The character is closer to stalker than biographer, which is another layer of cultural critique. After all, what is biography but a form of historical window-peeping? We know how invested biographers become in their subjects, and the character’s urge to write a hagiography is only balanced by Calliope’s ever-more-distressing fall into madness.

Altschul skewers everything from the contemporary graduate poetry workshop (which he’s obviously seen from the inside) to the way that the media (frantically) and academia (disingenuously) jump on the fame bandwagon. In between, there are delicious parodies of magnificent poems, including some by Sylvia Plath, Sexton, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Charles Baudelaire, Frederico García Lorca … and the list goes on.

While it doesn’t take a graduate degree in English to follow, recognizing the allusions no doubt adds to the fun. This is irony, not sarcasm, and as such, it can get pretty subtle. But what’s most intriguing about Altschul’s writing is the obvious empathy he has for his characters, especially Calliope. He’s not poking fun at people, but at pretensions.

This is a novel of ideas, but Altschul has drawn from the ideas a very clear emotional picture of a human being in distress. It’s worth bearing in mind the next time Britney or Amy or Lindsay is in trouble and the media is all over it.