Tyler McMahon’s debut novel relives and re-examines a celebrated musical era: grunge rock from America’s Pacific Northwest.
Play it again: In March 1994, after an overdose by Kurt Cobain, rumors began to speculate about the imminent dissolution of Nirvana. The grunge band had become legendary following the release of their albums Bleach (1989) and Nevermind (1991), however, despite the band’s popularity, health problems and heroin addiction had overwhelmed frontman Cobain. Then, on April 8, 1994, the unthinkable happened: An electrician installing security lighting discovered Cobain’s body. Toxicology reports showed his blood contained heroin—1.52 milligrams per liter—and the musician had also shot himself with a shotgun. Over seven thousand mourners attended his memorial, where, among other remembrances, Courtney Love wept, cursed her husband, and read from his suicide note, which ends “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
The Golden Age of Grunge—if such an era even existed—had come to an end.
But in Tyler McMahon’s new novel, How the Mistakes Were Made, readers can re-experience grunge through the eyes of Laura Loss, drummer for the Mistakes, a band that shares Nirvana’s meteoric rise and untimely end. Laura joins vocalist, Nathan, and guitar prodigy, Sean, whose condition, synesthesia, allows him to “see” sound. Like their doppelgängers, McMahon’s Mistakes find themselves worshipped, acknowledged by critics as the voice of a generation. From dive bars to sold-out stadiums, they become celebrities on a global scale. The book opens after their situation spirals out of control, and a catastrophe has fractured the band’s relationships, leaving Laura to defend herself by writing a “true” account of the Mistakes’ “rise and fall”:
Behind every dead rock god, there’s always some uppity female scapegoat. Why shouldn’t it be me? The public only sees love or hate. Fans aren’t capable of anything in between. So let them hate me; I can handle that. The part I can’t abide is having my history ripped right out from under me, my life rewritten by magazines. It’s true that I’ve made mistakes. But it’s also true that I made the Mistakes.
The novel-as-memoir brings McMahon’s readers directly into Laura’s mind. We see her thoughts as she interacts with homeless philosophers, disillusioned bandmates, dogmatic relatives, cynical journalists, and sleazy record executives. Through Laura’s voice, readers also begin to understand her relationship with the fans, by turns bored, vindictive, deluded, devoted, ordinary, and violent. As she contemplates her career, Laura also reflects on her time as a bass player in her brother’s hardcore punk band. These interspersed, second-person chapters, told in the present tense, force Laura to make sense of an earlier tragedy and to cope with her unorthodox childhood. Unfortunately, the novel’s social pressures and situations are entirely external to both readers and to Laura, which means that the larger implications of her conclusions—like the scapegoating of women behind “dead rock gods”—remain subjective, fixed to her viewpoint. Still, McMahon clearly knows a lot about the music industry, and he isn’t afraid to share some deeper, more complex ideas through Laura’s eyes.
As the novel unfolds, Laura’s memoir feels like a pretext to cope with her emotions. She’s struggling, and she’s desperate to understand how her choices have hurt her (and made her a pariah). Sometimes you can feel the tension between Laura’s voice and McMahon’s—one insisting on her reasons for writing the book, which feel hollow, and the other interested only in his mission to explore the human side of grunge rock. Throughout, McMahon’s writing is compulsively readable. As the novel progresses, the band’s music fades to background noise, a common language to move the story forward. Enthusiasts won’t find long passages about songs, instruments, and technical jargon. Instead, the grunge era shapes and is shaped by the Mistakes, but its most important function in the novel is to get people in the same room. Empathetic imagination, not minutiae, drives How the Mistakes Were Made—and that’s exactly the way it should be for readers who want to live vicariously through a novel’s characters.
Today, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind in an age of post-grunge nostalgia. Gamers can unlock Kurt Cobain as a playable character in Guitar Hero 5, and his posthumous Journals debuted at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List. Fascination with grunge rock continues unabated. But as reality fades further into the past, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate the true world of grunge rock from its idealized myth. Maybe this is the most important feature of Tyler McMahon’s novel: it’s an honest attempt to rediscover the human side of that volatile world, and to bring readers inside the head of a prodigy who excelled during the grunge era. Though their problems overlap with those faced by Nirvana—substance abuse, feuds with rival bands, and a self-destructive European tour—McMahon’s Mistakes ultimately emerge as unique and human: a fractured, ambitious re-imagining of alt-rock’s early years, a celebration of music, youth, energy, and the capacity of people to love one another despite the many mistakes they’ve made.