For a major artist, David Bowie has always shown a surprising lack of introspection. His best work, made throughout the ’70s, found him perpetually dressed in an armor of aesthetics, exploring diverse musical genres (glam, soul, ambient) and playing outlandish characters (Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke). Bowie only approached self-reflection on 1999’s dreary, musically pro forma ‘Hours…’ (see “Thursday’s Child”), though the gesture felt false coming after nearly two decades of hollow work. In 2004, a heart attack put an end to his touring, and his musical output suddenly dropped off. Apart from some occasional tastemaking (talking up TV on the Radio, playing live with Arcade Fire, etc.), his career seemed finished.
Then, in January of 2013, Bowie announced his first record in ten years. Called The Next Day, its cover referenced—and erased—one of the most famous images of Bowie’s career, and the plaintive lead single, “Where Are We Now?”, suggested an artist ready to step back and assess his life—to offer up a thought or two about what it all has meant. After a lifetime of donning costumes and playing characters, only one character remained for Bowie to play: himself.
In this respect, The Next Day didn’t exactly deliver. Although it’s a solid rock record, it lacks some depth. Its interest in the past proves mostly superficial, asking fans to spot gestures to earlier records (some guitar tones that recalls “Heroes,” some singing that recalls Ziggy, some ambience that recalls Low) in a sort of musical word search. Overall, the record is a return to good, not great, which suggests something disappointing: maybe, after a ten-year absence from making music, David Bowie still has nothing to say about himself.
Simon Jacobs’s Saturn—a 36-page collection of flash fiction, each piece starring Bowie—attempts to dig inside the artist’s mind, allowing him the small moments of introspection that his cagy public personae have always obscured. Many of these pieces present Bowie doing something relatively mundane (emphasis on relatively, since he’s still David Bowie): watching TV; attending a charity event hosted by his wife; playing Omikron: The Nomad Soul, a video game featuring himself; having a nightmare. When Jacobs shows Bowie making art, it’s collaborative: Bowie works, in one piece, with Damien Hirst; in another, with Tilda Swinton.
These are not stories in the conventional sense; they function more like poetry, or like third-person lyric essays. (All the facts of Bowie’s life check out.) This obscure, experimental bent won’t surprise anyone familiar with Jacobs’s publisher, Spork Press, whose handmade chapbooks and online content tend to poke around within literary and cultural ellipses. (Full disclosure: I was once, very briefly, a fiction editor at Spork, although I had nothing to do with Saturn.) Ultimately, Jacobs’s form and structure help him to avoid the tedious clichés that most people would stumble into if they tried to fictionalize Bowie’s life.
Jacobs portrays a Bowie who, in large part, views himself as a figure constructed for the public. “David Bowie has become the ‘elder statesman’ of rock,” Jacobs writes, “an old man left to passively herald in the new as his voice goes reedy.” At one point, the author imagines a scene in which Iman, Bowie’s wife, asks him “if he is intent on spending the rest of his career remolding the faces of a past he’s promised time and time again to leave behind.” The fictionalized Bowie doesn’t have a very good answer, and it’s not difficult to imagine the real Bowie struggling with this idea—with his own “myth”—each day, even if he seems reluctant to explore it in his art.
Fittingly, these pieces find Bowie confronting his own aging by looking at—and relating to—the art of others. Sometimes this looking is literal, as when Bowie watches the scene in Tony Scott’s The Hunger in which the character he plays, John Blaylock, ages 200 years: “The Hunger found David Bowie at his physical peak. Today, the film is an omen.” Elsewhere, Bowie stumbles upon his cameo in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and, in bed later, whispers into his wife’s ear in his southern accent from that decades-old performance. The title Saturn refers to Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son, which Bowie finds himself drawn to (and perhaps drawn into), attracted to Goya’s representation of “the manic hunger of old age.”
So where, in his old age, is the real Bowie’s manic hunger? Jacobs doesn’t answer this question. Instead he suggests the outline of a man grappling with aging and his own legacy in a way that Bowie has never done himself. And as scholars continue (rightly so) to deconstruct David Bowie’s career, Jacobs offers a glimpse of the man underneath all the costumes and personae—a quiet, thoughtful sixty-seven-year-old at home with his wife, watching TV at night, and wondering what it all means in the moment or two before dozing off on the couch.