The definitive great American rock 'n' roll novel has mostly eluded writers, despite worthy attempts by Don DeLillo ("Great Jones Street"), Scott Spencer ("The Rich Man's Table"), William Gibson ("Idoru") and Zachary Lazar ("Sway"). What fictional musician is as memorable as Keith Richards?
Stacey D'Erasmo's exquisite "Wonderland" meets this challenge and succeeds, not through bombast but with beautifully measured, understated writing and meticulous characterization. The author of three previous novels, D'Erasmo has previously written about artists in "The Sky Below," but "Wonderland's" narrator, Anna Brundage, is so beautifully realized that I wanted to download her music on iTunes.
Anna descends from a musical lineage less familiar than the cliche vision of tough-as-nails, leather-clad singer-songwriters usually encountered in books or film: the distaff school of cerebral musicians such as Cat Power and Beth Orton, Laurie Anderson or Patti Smith. As "Wonderland" opens, Anna has just embarked upon a European comeback tour to support a new album, organized by her much-younger manager. Despite critical acclaim and an established fan base, Anna is anxious: She's 44, a carpentry teacher at a private girl's school on the Upper East Side. Seven years have elapsed since her last album tanked.
"Music is quicksilver, gossamer; careers are measured in butterfly lifetimes. My butterfly life ended seven years ago in Rome," she broods. "I'm on a tiny label, albeit a tiny one with some cachet, but I paid for 'Wonderland' myself. ... Am I a novelty act?"
Anna is not exactly a novelty act — she has hard-core fans who regard her as a muse, role model and legend. And while she's not above random sexual partners, casual drug use and a few diva moments, those moments tend to be defined by polite requests to turn up the heat in a concert space rather than public appearances wearing gowns made of raw meat or TVs tossed into the hotel pool. Readers hoping for a novel of debauched musical excess will be disappointed.
Instead, "Wonderland" is a distillation of what it means to be a working artist in the early 21st century and also of what it means to grow up in the shadow of a great artist. Anna's father, Roy Brundage, "crazed and beautiful," is a sculptor in the mode of earthwork and conceptual artists like Robert Smithson and Dennis Oppenheim.
In 1972, Roy reinvented sculpture by sawing an abandoned train in half in a field in Nebraska. Anna doesn't remember the event — she was 3 at the time, living in Chicago with her artist-mother. But she's seen the iconic image of her father lying in the belly of the broken train, an image that still appears in MOMA postcards, along with photos of Roy Brundage's other monumental achievements: a Texas prison, a lighthouse, a gymnasium, all cut into pieces.
"It made an opening for me. I have had the conviction for quite some time that if I could do in music what my father did in space by sawing the train in half, then I could solve the mystery of my life," Anna says.
"Wonderland" attempts to solve that mystery. Its narrative shifts between past and present, Anna's bohemian childhood in a household where Cy Twombly comes for lunch, and her later efforts to establish herself as a musician — first with a group called Anna and the Squares, then as a backup singer in a series of dead-end bands, and finally as a solo artist who "wanted my sound to be a spaceship or a knife, exploratory."
During the coked-out week when she records her breakthrough album, "Whale," Anna has a revelation of her own work as being defined by a sonic absence, just as her father's was defined by the space he carved from steel and marble and brick: "Not a silence but a potential sound … the last chord happens in the mind of the listener, as if he is remembering a sound which in reality he has never heard before."
Such descriptions of the abstract process of musical composition are beautifully balanced with more down-to-earth and amusing details of life on tour, especially of the other musicians Anna encounters. These include the star Billy Q, who "looks like a little monk" and wears layers of carefully deployed scarves around "his famous head … set in the scarves just so, like a precious stone or a billiard ball," and the junkie rock-god Ezra, so famous he needs only one name.
There's also Anna's backup band — bass player Zach, who makes sure everyone knows he's toured with Beck; Tom the drummer, who obsessively uses Purell; and cellist Alicia, who dresses like "Tinkerbell crossed with a cancan girl from outer space."
D'Erasmo displays a sly affinity for the sometimes twee magic of the contemporary music scene. Anna shares the stage with bands named Whether, Little Wars, and Frogs and Foxes, which performs a "loud set of songs that actually seemed to be about frogs, also zebras." Anna's own albums have trendy, minimalist titles like "Whale," "Bang Bang," "The Pillars."
But despite its dead-on sendups and depictions of the music scene, "Wonderland's" true subject is deadly serious and too rarely seen in current fiction.
It's about the search for transcendence through art, which "leaves you with an appetite for something the world doesn't necessarily have on offer — you know the door is there somewhere … but it might open if you press on the air just here … if you go down that alley, if you follow that sound, if you sleep too much or don't sleep at all, if you give up this lover or take up that one, if you spend all the money, if you hoard the money, if you make a sacrifice, if you wait, if you rush forward as blindly as possible, if you come to a full stop, dumbstruck. If you push harder. If you give up pushing."
Anna Brundage hasn't given up on pushing. Neither, to her credit, has her creator. "Wonderland" is a striking evocation of the artist's quest, as inspiring in its way as Patti Smith's memoir "Just Kids." It's a testament to D'Erasmo's gifts that I finished her novel wistfully, wishing I could stay up all night listening to "Whale" or "Bang Bang."
Hand's most recent book is the collection "Errantry: Strange Stories."
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 242 pp., $22