Although not a singer herself, the character of Calliope bears a striking resemblance to female pop stars of the hour, such as Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears, whose most memorable performances recently have had less to do with their musicianship than with their penchant for self-destructive public behavior that has lured the paparazzi, fueled the gossip mills and ensured that the artists remain fixtures in the tabloid headlines.
Altschul has had success as a short fiction writer and essayist, publishing for McSweeny's, Esquire and the Huffington Post, and his work has also been included in anthologies such as "Best New American Voices 2006" and "O. Henry Prize Stories of 2007."
He currently teaches creative writing at Stanford University.
However, it is the worlds he inhabited previously — as a radio-show host, music-magazine editor and former graduate student in creative writing at UC Irvine — that lend confidence, depth and credibility to the satirical tale he spins in this novel.
The story alternates between two narrators who together manage to create a complete and somewhat disturbing portrait of the symbiosis between the obsessive fan and the attention-starved artist. The first narrator, though fictional, bears the name of the author and is a music journalist who becomes so consumed with writing Calliope's biography that he loses touch with his own teenaged son, who is ultimately driven to start his own rock band.
Altschul portrays his alter-ego in the novel as a fan/biographer whose obsessive desire to uncover and illuminate the "Truth" (with a capital T) about Calliope is repeatedly undermined by his blind devotion to her, which causes him to overinflate her importance as a literary figure.
The second narrator is Calliope herself, a clever wordsmith with a highly melodramatic streak and a similarly overblown sense of her own importance. Her desire to authentically express herself and forge a place for herself as a legitimate artist repeatedly bumps up against her realization that her value to her audience depends more on the celebrity image she fashions for herself than on the quality of her art.
When the novel begins, we are introduced to the celebrity couple Penelope and Brandt Morath and their young daughter, Calliope. Her innocence is shattered when she witnesses her father's gory suicide and whose world is further corrupted as her ambitious and media-savvy mother seizes on the hype surrounding her husband's death and immediately takes on a role as the puppet-master in helping use the memory of her dead husband to facilitate her daughter's rise to stardom.
After early years spent shrouded in silent mourning over the loss of her father, Calliope emerges as a sensitive and dramatic poetess who gains an expansive fan following for her thin volume of poetry, which is revered primarily because it serves to further fan the flames of myth and drama surrounding her famous father's death. As her quest to understand her father takes on greater urgency, she is caught up in the throes of her own suicidal and self-destructive impulses.
Altschul writes in gorgeous, fluid prose with a slyly ironic tone, as when his alter-ego Altschul brings out his treasured autographed cassette tape of music performed by Calliope's father and attempts to share his reverence for the musicianship and artistry with his adolescent son.
"'What do you think?' he asked, when the tape ended. 'Don't you find it amazing that someone so troubled was able to sublimate his emotions into art, that despite misery he was able to make music the whole word adored, that he took lemons and, as they say, made lemonade?'
"The author's son, inexplicably, was unmoved.
"'Whatever,' he said, and left the room."
As satirical figures, both Calliope and Altschul's alter-egos fail to inspire the degree of sympathy that more realistically portrayed characters might.
However, graduate students wearied of sifting through dense pages of literary theory who are likely to find comic relief in Altschul's ironic take on the biographer and literary historian, and Gen X'ers who came of age during the late 1990s resurgence of grunge and punk rock should also connect with the passion and nostalgia for that phase in pop music history.
This story contains 774 words.
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