Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo

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“If I could do in music what my father did in space by sawing the train in half,” says Anna Brundage, the hero of Wonderland, “then I could solve the mystery of my life.”

Brundage’s father is a New York underground artist who has made a career of splitting buildings in half. Brundage herself, in Stacey D’Erasmo’s meditative, beautifully crafted new novel, is a New York underground rock icon who made her mark by “Brundaging,” “tearing up the sound, erasing half of it, sending it skittering over the abyss.” At the beginning of Wonderland, that moment of fame is seven years in the past, and she has embarked on a self-financed tour to promote an album that shares the book’s title. She is trying to outpace not only her self-doubt—has she become merely a nostalgia act, or worse, utterly irrelevant?—but also the ghosts of a self-destructive relationship with a married man, and of her father’s artistic and physical impotence after one of the buildings he splits collapses on him.

The real ghost with whom Brundage must come to terms, of course, is her past self, her own half-realized ambitions to “break the train,” and Wonderland’s real subject is of a middle-aged, mid-career artist facing questions about herself, her audience, and the ineffable space of art “just beyond my fingertips.” Wonderland finds D’Erasmo meditating on how to survive as an artist: how to follow the “flicker” of longing and “echo of desire” that is, for Brundage, the source of art, without becoming ensnared in longing; how to keep working as an artist against death and finitude in this space of unfulfilled desire. “Wonderland. A riddle: the sea in which we never drown.”

That her protagonist is an insecure, middle-aged member of the bohemian elite, who has financed two of her tours with her parents’ money; that she is famous only in the most recherché sense (“I was famous only among certain people. The smart people, the people who pride themselves on being smart.”); that she enacts clichés of rock stardom (ingesting “piles” of cocaine in her glory days; on occasion still having anonymous sex)—all of this allows D’Erasmo to approach Brundage’s existential and artistic dilemmas from a slightly ironic distance. Like Gabriel Collins, the artist manqué of her 2009 novel The Sky Below, Brundage is not always an easy person to like (though she is easier to like than Gabriel, and perhaps less fully realized as a character).

D’Erasmo gently spoofs the floating world of demi-fame in which Brundage travels on her comeback tour, personified by Billy Q, a Michael Stipe-esque figure who appears at key moments in the narrative to dispense artistic and career advice: “[T]he word ‘job’ … sounds so strange when [Billy Q] says it, as if he’s saying ‘Could you get another yellow-bellied platypus?’” D’Erasmo is also slyly perceptive about the distance between artistic inspiration and execution, especially when the artists are on “lots and lots and lots of cocaine:” “The sound we could hear so well inside all our heads … was happening all the time and everywhere, except on any known recording device.” Brundage’s sister can admit that paintings her father spent his last years doing are “totally empty,” but Brundage herself is apt to make excuses, to smooth things over, to doubt herself—a flawed artist-hero.

And yet the existential and artistic stakes for Brundage are very real, and familiar to anyone entering middle age in a state of quiet desperation—which is to say, almost everyone. Her family money is gone, and after this tour, she faces a return to her job as a grade school art teacher, a final negative verdict on her artistic ambitions. She is still haunted by the failure of her last album, and by the end of her adulterous relationship with Simon during the same ill-fated tour, and her father’s loss of his health and artistic drive. The narrative returns obsessively to Rome, where both of these losses of potency took place. These are the traumatic losses, the sources of longing that threaten to capsize Brundage’s spirit and career, as it has her father’s.

What is the way out, or through, this trauma? If Wonderland is The Artist’s Way for obscure middle-aged indie rockers, or for those of us who just imagine ourselves as such, what practice and aesthetic does it suggest?

In Tea, D’Erasmo’s coming-of-age debut novel, Isabel Gold discovers herself through theater and experimental film groups. In The Sky Below, Gabriel Collins, obsessed with artistic visions, finds his apotheosis—improbably, and brilliantly—in the community of a faith healing center where he has gone to cure his cancer. For D’Erasmo, the artist’s way is one of incessant and fearless self-transformation, and art can only have meaning, can only exist at all, in moments of collaboration, like the proverbial tree falling in a forest. Here, the collaboration is between members of a band. Some of the novel’s best scenes show Brundage’s various bands struggling, and almost always failing, to convey “the ineffable sound of our union.” Yet artistic and even personal intimacy, D’Erasmo seems to suggest, is only possible through meeting in the space of art, whether it be walking in a circle with Billy Q in his experimental, unexplained movie (“We touch forehead to forehead, breathing hot breath together … It is like a kiss.”), or in Brundage’s memories of viewing Monet’s Water Lillies with her father: “[L]ike pornography,” her father says, abhorring the painting’s prettiness. “[A] huge pair of fake sugared tits.” Brundage’s destructive relationship with Simon is the opposite of these unions. Sex as a means to intimacy—and there is a good deal of sex here—is treated skeptically. Meeting in the space of its sublimation as artistic work is where true intimacy occurs.

Wonderland’s turning point takes place after Brundage’s father’s death, when Brundage has to take control of her band. She does this the old fashioned way, through rehearsal, and the sound of her band, unheard by any audience, beyond description to Brundage herself, is a fulfillment of her past ambitions: “Seven years of sound, of music only I could hear, now produced through the bodies of these strangers.” Toward the end of the novel, the band plays a triumphant set—it is, after all, a band story—in Rome, returning to the site of Brundage’s various traumas and mastering them through art.

Which might suggest that Wonderland is about artistic mastery as mastery of trauma, but this would simplify the book’s view of how art is made. Brundage goes on a hero’s journey, of sorts, but her mistakes are just as vital to her moment of transcendence in Rome as is her conscious application of artistry. “Wonderland,” the song, has “more questions than answers,” and D’Erasmo’s openness to her characters’ contradictions fuels the art of her novel as well. Brundage can’t get to that moment in Rome without heeding the “awful yearning” that sent her band in search of the sound that could not be captured by “any known recording device.” Her artistic ambition to “break the train,” as her father did, is spurred by an awareness of her own failure: “That longing … to cross that last few inches, to get up, over, or behind the note, topple the train open. The way some people long for the divine, I longed for that.”

The aesthetic of brokenness, of jarring incompleteness, stands against the perfection of Water Lillies, or Brundage’s father’s last “empty” paintings of a field, where his own ashes are scattered after his death. It’s an homage to the jagged aesthetic of underground music itself, a tradition that stretches back past the Sex Pistols to the Dadaists. But this also implies a more fundamental view of how artists keep creating. By the end of the novel, Brundage accepts that there is nothing to be hoped for except this incompleteness, and the possibility it creates for more work, for more possibilities: “I cannot begin to understand what it is to feel the weight of the work drop away and be unable to retrieve it … I cannot understand it, I do not want to understand it.” In the work of art itself, Brundage says, we “salvage what we can”—echoing T.S. Eliot: “These fragments I have shored up against my ruins”—a paradoxical act, an act of rebellion against both loss and permanence.

Wonderland is built of fragments—scraps of memory, of the peripatetic life on the road, of sex and drugs and rock and roll as art—as it must necessarily be, to convey its hero’s passage into maturity. In chronicling her journey, D’Erasmo has again given us a wise, wonderful gift.

A former Stegner Fellow and recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Thomas H. McNeely’s fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and other magazines. Ghost Horse, his first book, will be published as the winner of the Gival Press Novel Award in October 2014. For more information and links to his work, please visit his website: thomasmcneelywriter.com More from this author →