When Boston’s south end was largely gay, at a time when amateur artist-waiters could afford apartments with heat and a view, there was (still is?) open studio weekend. One such artist, Anthony, created these south-Florida bright kind of think bubbles. Pinks and oranges and the red of exotic flowers bubbling out and off the canvas. His work is playfully unserious and loudly hopeful. He shared space with a woman whose work seemed to extract the dark that frames the closest edge of the thundercloud as it moves into a bright, late afternoon summer sky. No lines, no boundary, no shapes, just a formless and threatening gray and black, compelling because the vague possibility of violence seemed to exist within the living formlessness.
During open studio weekend, Anthony would be flitting about the room, pouring wine, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Inattentive. The work of hosting fell to the gray, black and formless lady. And inevitably, several times an hour a person would look from bubble to storm cloud, bubble to storm cloud, and this puzzled look would rather quickly emerge. If the puzzlement was voiced, the question, in every attempt at neutrality, would be along the lines of: interesting, the way the artist explores color and…not-color. Then the realization: two artists, not one. Sighs from the onlooker, expressions of mental health concerns of the schizophrenia variety. Two artists.
A similar reaction results from a reading of Zachary Lazar’s two works: Sway and Aaron, Approximately. Superficially, that these two works come from the same pen seems implausible. A deeper reading, specifically focusing on themes of mimicry and masquerading, reveals the thread that binds the two. We’ll open with Sway, the more recent and technically superior work. (Sway, incidentally, operates as a perfect companion piece to T.C. Boyle’s [only?] great novel Drop City.)
Like bad acid, Sway gets into the heads of three pivotal 60’s guys: Charles Manson, Brian Jones (founding member, Rolling Stones), and filmmaker Kenneth Anger. As in Cormac McCarthey’s recent work, Lazar takes a sentence and, like with a torture victim, much of a sentence’s meat is stripped pretty-much from the bone. It’s a story you kind of know: Charles Manson captivates and compels impressionable young things to commit evil; Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards form a band and camp about as working-class toughs, while fame builds; Kenneth Anger invokes Satan the way a brilliant drag queen does Judy. Using beautiful Bobby Beausoleil as a thread (and a mirror) to tie the players together, we hear a counter-narrative of the 60s. “Everywhere,” Lazar writes, “there were groups of young people with nowhere to go and no money to spend. It was as if they were living in a fort or a tree house.” What emerges is a picture of the decade not as a time of these hopeful children rising against the powerful but as a time of impressionable kids unknowingly play-acting, unwittingly (like in a game) conjuring a very real darkness manifested in an inchoate violence: assassinations, riots, glee-filled murder.
Sway is the work of a moralist, even a religion-ist. The characters may be separated by geography or mode of escape, but like old junkies they are all stabbing away at the same rotting vein. Nobody fits in: cops impersonating hustlers nabbing also-masquerding Anger, periphoral Stones groupies impersonating cool, Beausoleil impersonating a killer. The novel’s power results from witnessing people we know, disparate characters, pretending to make their own choices to form a unique destiny, when actually all are connected by the invisible but not indifferent grip of History. Threads emerge where, before, there were none. In the end, evil is real and unleashed for reasons that would seem familiar to an old-school Catholic: laziness, a turning away from God, putting pleasure above all else. When we see evil, it is camp: “They spoke of evils wrought by humanity in the sway of a sly, sophisticated con man who in the end was just a bewildering reflection of themselves.” Evil isn’t outside and external, its in all of us and, as in a horror flick, when the right pieces of the box are unwittingly combined, evil breaks out. The grip of History becomes almost supernatural, the result being an inversion of the 1960s mythology. Consider the birth-like description of Jagger in the studio, doing Sympathy for the Devil: “He backs out and lets out a yelp, a monkey screech, saturated in echo,” Lazar writes. “He makes grunting noises from deep inside his chest…”): What is born (or re-born) is not the dawning not of Acquarius but of a Blakeian Lucifer. childish, beautiful, and coming back.
Mimicry seems to tie Lazar’s two works together, but stylistically his two works are utterly disparate. Aaron, Approximately resonates on a more personal level. Like so many of us, the boy Aaron comes of age in the endless sprawl that, mushroom-like, grows around our cities. For those of us whose youth was defined by a deadly serious for truth, and by “truth” I mean “cool,” this book will hold you in its Sway.
Aaron, the son of a TV clown, is his own kind of mimic, the object of the mimicry his self. “Before long, I would be impersonating even myself, and then the fraud would be harder to detect. Mimicking and bluffing, faking and improvising, I would run circles around the tired truth until the lie took on a reality of its own.” Boy Aaron’s impersonations: angsty teen, stoner chic, agro punk rocker, lovelorn rebel.
Kurt Vonnegut once advised that you are what you pretend to be, so be careful in what you pretend to be. But these youthful impersonations calcify into a truth, an identity, and the beauty of this first novel is in witnessing that calcification. Personally, I read the novel and remember a smoke-filled café in what Baltimore imagined as bohemia. I remember black coffee, Nick Cave and Tom Waits on the stero, walls painted black. I remember a teenage black, half-Jewish, gay guy who wore communist pins. “I’m black, Jewish and Gay…why not be a communist.” I remember a girl, Kate, who wore bones in her nose and hair. I remember people who were the very definition of cool doing heroin for the first time. I remember a candlelight vigil when Kurt Cobain killed himself, so somber, so pissy about the prep school boys who tagged along (of which I was one, masquerading.) These being some character-defining memories, little wonder that Aaron’s story has such a personal resonance.
With long, beautiful, introspective sentences, Aaron, Approximately offers intimacy and a comfort not unlike friendship. In Gimme Shelter, we see Mick Jagger watching the murder of a pistol-wielding black boy murdered by a Hell’s Angel, his expression impenetrable. We watch, we are right there, but the distance between us and Jagger is infinite. That distance, that cool distance is what characterizes Sway, to the point that the novels seem the work of two very different artists. One bright and vibrant, one dark as dark gets, and on-the-move.