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Novel take on celebrity, obsession and despair

To read Andrew Foster Altschul's "Lady Lazarus" (Harcourt, 2008), pretend you are at the circus. Much of the action takes place over your head, some of it out of sight, and you can only ever catch glimpses of what is going on behind the scenes. But you still leave the performance dazzled.

"Lady Lazarus" is the title of a Sylvia Plath poem, written a short time before Plath's suicide. It includes the lines: "Dying / is an art, like everything else" and finishes with "Herr God / Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware. / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air."

Altschul's Lady Lazarus is Calliope Bird Morath, daughter of punk rockers Brandt Morath and Penelope Power, characters reminiscent of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Like Cobain, Brandt Morath kills himself, his fatal shooting witnessed by 4-year-old Calliope. But where is he buried? Where is the body? What secrets is her mother hiding?

Like the relentless fans who transfer their hunger from father to daughter, Calliope becomes convinced that her father is alive. Her search is interwoven with chapters written by an obsessive and obsessed biographer named – in a postmodern touch – Andrew Altschul. Seeking to write the one true authorized biography of Calliope, in the process Altschul neglects his own son to such a degree that the boy grows up nearly as fatherless as the subject of the biography.

Calliope's trajectory through fame, scandal, crash – all the usual tabloid fodder – and her death and return as the avenging Muse is both a story and a mirror on our collective hunger that we seek to fill through the exploits of the famous.

Consider a scene wherein Calliope is recovering in the hospital. Her publicist promises a fan, who has disguised himself as a doctor and snuck into her room, that Calliope will appear at the window and wave to the crowd waiting on the lawn. "Wave?" says the fan. "You think they're waiting for Calliope to wave? ... They don't want her to wave.… They want her to jump."

"Lady Lazarus" is a sprawling canvas – integrating art, truth, reality, Buddhism, rock 'n' roll, literature, psychology (no Jung here, only Lacan), philosophy (Plato to Derrida), pop culture, mass media and bee-keeping.

Note: For the longest sentence in a modern English-language book, see page 121 of the hard-cover version – it's like a guitar solo about bougainvillea. Just last week, a professor at the University of Vienna told me how only the pillars and struts of German grammar can support sentences of 100 words or more. Then along comes Altschul's bougainvillea riff, floating as airily as the Millau Suspension Bridge in France.

Altschul (the author, not the character) taught a seminar at Stanford's Writers Studio about the problems inherent in the author-narrator-character merge, a technicality of point-of-view that beginning writers are blissfully ignorant of, and that advanced writers call wrestling with the angel. Purposely coloring outside the lines, Altschul collapses author and narrator, resulting in a third-person narrative that reads like a first-person account. The author's asides in the footnotes are often laced with humor. When the author writes about Calliope's first boyfriend, "heir to one of America's oldest pastry fortunes," the footnote snidely asks: "Does the phrase ‘Snack cakes filled with Grandma's patriotic goodness' ring a bell?

The humor sugarcoats a base of sorrow. One of the most haunting lines in the book is when Calliope says, "I can't trust myself. I don't know what's real." Altschul riffs on this theme many times in his book. What does it do to an individual and to us collectively when reality is manufactured? By showing us Calliope's despair, Altshul also shows us our own.

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