Wonderland/Stacey D'Erasmo: Reflections

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Stacey D'Erasmo: She did me in. She wrote A Seahorse Year, and I loved it. She wrote a new novel called Wonderland that I've been aching to read ever since Stacey and I talked—privately and then publicly—in Decatur, GA. I was already a huge fan, as readers of this blog know. I became a forever fan in Decatur. There are just some people who know more, see deeper, write better. Stacey, who teaches at Columbia, is one of them, and she brings no arrogance to the aura of her appreciable talent.

But Wonderland—oh, what a book this is, a book richly steeped in the twin geographies of movable time and malleable possibility. It's the story of a rock star of sorts—of a singer named Anna who had once made it quasi big, whose second album bombed, whose chance at doing it all again is now or never. She chooses now. She chooses life on the road, strangers in her bed, the elusive high of a song sung right, an audience discovered. She is the idiosyncratically trained daughter of a sculptor of some renown, and she has been married and she has loved and she has lost, and she's only getting older; she will be forty-five when we see her last. She dyes her red hair now. She loses lines. She sleeps with the wrong guys, or maybe they are the right guys—it can be hard for her to tell. She remembers what she was, others remember who she became, but also, always (beautifully, tragically), she imagines what and who she might have been had she made different choices. When we meet her in Wonderland, she is running out of choices.

I read this book in exile from a storm that had darkened my corner of the world. I read it rivered through with that joy I feel when I've encountered art—real and actual. D'Erasmo doesn't just write gorgeous sentence after gorgeous sentence. She takes an enormous number of structural risks—forges a novel out of wildly imagined fragments without ever losing an ounce of coherency (do you know how hard that is?). Readers of this book get not just a vivid character, Anna, but a full-fledged story and a brilliant meditation on second chances, second-tier careers, secondary love affairs, and fame (borrowed, tenuous, earned?):
And why was I famous, anyway? Fact: I wasn't famous to everyone. I was famous only among certain people. The smart people, the people who pride themselves on being smart. Part of it—let's be honest—was the glamour of my pedigree, and the history to which that pedigree alluded. Everyone knew who my father was. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that everyone who loved my music also loved who my father was. You can't separate the dancer from the dance, and anyway, I never tried. 
The other day, in class, I showed two portraits to my students, asked them to write a single sentence about each that told me what they saw. Capturing the physicality of another is hard stuff; we'd already determined that. Going beyond the obvious, tripping away from cliches, digging in. We want language to be equally alerting and clear. Wonderland is so alerting, so original, so improbable, so spring-water clear. I envy the readers who look forward to reading the novel for the first time. I envy the writers who will study it to shake loose new truths about structure, sentence, form.

And my students? I'm excerpting this, below, for them. Look at how physicality gets done. Look at how much room there still is, if we are patient enough, to render another fully see-able.
Ezra, chatting, laughs his famously peculiar laugh, a kind of Aussie Woody Woodpecker sound. I can't see the stroke on him, the overdose. He looks to me so unmarked, or, more accurately, he is already so marked that I doubt I could tell the recent marks from the older ones. He is not a handsome man, never has been. His face, in the half-light, has an ursine, lumpy quality. What can be seen of his hairline plunges, Ben Franklin style, nearly to his ears; his fringe of hair is wispy, of indeterminate color, and coarse. His face is pitted with acne scars. His eyes are small, tend toward the red. His magic emanates in part from that, from his unregenerate ugliness. He looks like a creature of the night who can hold his own with creatures of the night.
Stacey D'Erasmo, congratulations. This image, taken in Berlin of a young metal-working artist, is for you.

Wonderland will be released from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 6. I received this galley at the ALA Midwinter event. Begged for it, basically.


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