Pub: May 6, 2014
Houghton Mifflin HarcourtPre-Order
A breakout novel from acclaimed writer Stacey D’Erasmo, Wonderland drops us into the life of an indie rock star at that moment when she decides to go all-in or give up on her dreams. Anna Brundage was a sensation. Not a one-hit wonder, but a fast-rising star who hit the top and then walked away for seven years. Now 44, she sells a piece of her famous father’s art to fund one more album and tour, and a last chance to cement her place in the life she chose, the life she struggled for, the life she’s not sure she can sustain. Wonderland takes us deep into that unknown, dreamed-of world—music, fame, and art. It examines the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize. It stares boldly and steps bravely into the wonderland that is the future of anyone facing change.
There is a man fixing a bicycle, or attempting to fix a bicycle, in the lane. I am sitting by the bluish window of a borrowed apartment in Christiania reading a paperback mystery badly translated from Italian. I bought it in the Copenhagen airport. It has something to do with boats — someone was murdered on a boat, salty types haunt the harbor — but I don’t care about boats.
I do find that I care about Christiania, which, though I’ve never been here before, feels familiar to me, as if I’ve dreamed of it many times. A good-sized island in the center of Copenhagen, surrounded by a river, it was taken over by hippies in 1971 and declared a “free state,” with communal property, no cars, and drugs openly for sale on the main drag, helpfully named Pusher Street. It has been a free state ever since. Now it is a leafy, semi-occluded place, with dirt roads, peculiar hand-built houses — some look like shacks, some look like spaceships — a few streets of stores selling crafts, and a climate all its own: it is warmer and damper here than in Copenhagen proper, as if one has stepped into a vast terrarium. Christiania, shaggy and rural and utopic, is a collective wish, under constant threat of being torn down by the government or turned into condos. There was a riot last week, apparently; a building was set on fire, it isn’t clear by whom, the anarchists or the cops. Christiania’s signature, its export to the unfree world, is innovative, handmade bicycles. Some of them look like the bicycles people, or aliens, might ride on Jupiter. Some of them look as if they were made by Dalí. Some appear to be anticipating a time when people will be much taller.
Christiania’s melancholic hope loops around my heart. It is the ruins of the future. As soon as we got here, the very first stop on the tour, my comeback tour — coming back from what to what, anyone might well ask — I wanted to stay. But we’re all leaving in the morning. We’re taking the train to Göteborg, whatever that is. In the living room of this borrowed apartment, five enormous windows made out of salvaged glass look onto the dirt road below. The light blue of the glass makes me wonder if it was salvaged from a church. Otherwise, the room is all bookshelves, a long curve of modernist red sofa, and two enormous, identical sleeping hounds with coarse gray fur. The old man with pink gauges in his earlobes who let me in told me not to worry about them, which I don’t, but I wish they would wake up. Instead, they lie on a chartreuse blanket on the floor, paws twitching in twin dreams. It’s cold in here. I would like to wrap a sleeping dog around me for warmth, but settle for a pair of fingerless knit gloves that I find on one of the bookshelves.
The bicycle wrench goes cling clang . . . clingcling clang. A loud screech, a ping. The man swears. I don’t speak Danish, but by the propulsive sound of the word he makes I know he’s swearing. I look out the window. Short, choppy yellow hair; tools and a sweater on the ground; a bicycle turned upside down, gears to the sky; his round face; a bit of a gut on him, though he’s young. Youngish. He drinks from a dark brown beer bottle, a slender wrench dangling from his other hand. He has stripped down to a T-shirt in his exertions; the indigo blue edge of a tattoo is visible on one upper arm. He is handsome — almost too handsome.
My new young manager, Boone, looking, as usual, like he died two days ago, clatters up the wooden stairs and into the room carrying a small velvet bag. “Are you ready, Anna?” he says. “Sound check in an hour. Why did you turn off your phone? You should see where the rest of us are staying — this is nice.” Boone has a face like a chipped white plate. Small, round, questioning dark eyes. An ambivalent beard. A concave chest. He can’t settle, doesn’t sit down, hovering a few feet away. I would like to put him in my pocket and feed him crumbs.
“It’s cold,” I say.
“Not really,” he ventures. Boone is still trying to find his way around me. “Take a look at this.” He opens the velvet bag, unwraps tissue paper from a porcelain figurine — a vaguely Turkish-looking man who appears to be singing, smiling face uplifted, and playing a tiny porcelain guitar — which he sets on the coffee table. “Only a hundred fifty euros.” He rocks on his heels.
“Huh,” I say in what I hope is a neutral tone. Something about the figurine makes me uneasy — its uncanniness, its exorbitant price, its sentimentality. What is actually going on in the world if this kitschy thing is valuable?
“There was another one there, a Schiffener, but it wasn’t nearly as good. Why did you turn off your phone?”
“I don’t know,” I say, because I don’t. The jet lag makes me feel a beat or two behind myself. I pretend to go back to reading my book. Sardines, a bloody handkerchief. The pensive, hard-drinking, salty-tongued detective. It smells like licorice in this room; where did I leave it? I’d like some licorice.
“Anna,” says Boone. “I’ve been trying to call for an hour. What are you doing? Whose dogs are those? They look like van Stavasts — do you think they could be? It’s a really rare breed.”
“I don’t know.” I turn a page. I hate Boone, I think. “It’s too cold in here.”
Boone sighs. “Anna. Are you freaking out?”
I don’t respond. I’m not exactly trying to torment him. It’s just that, for one thing, I’m cold. I hate being cold. For another, I resent the implication, which underlies every exchange we have, that I should be grateful that he agreed to take me on. He’s said I must know how major I am, but we both know I went to him. All of Boone’s other acts are much younger, their beardless pallors glow, they have some sort of Icelandic/Berliner/post-polar-ice-cap handcrafted glamour, they wear peculiar Amish-like outerwear and badly fitting pants, only maybe two of them are junkies. They are all, of course, very serious. Brilliant, even. Their music is the music of the new world, coming over the waves, half translated. If you told me that they cobbled their own shoes out of scrap leather made from the tanned hides of cows they had butchered themselves with knives made in their own smithies, I would believe you. Many of them claim to be my lifelong fans, too, to have the lyrics from Whale engraved on their hearts, to be unreasonably devoted to my very shadow, but I can’t help feeling that if I were taxidermied and tied to the front of their tour buses, I’d be equally as lovable to them.
In my darker moments I feel like the Queen of England, bound and gagged by reverence. Tin-crowned and irrelevant. Perhaps I should stay here in Christiania, take up my other life, pass through the hemp-scented membrane of this place and become another Anna Brundage, maybe a better one. An Anna on a distended, futuristic bicycle. Also, for yet another thing, this entire idea was along the lines of a disaster. Music is quicksilver, gossamer; careers are measured in butterfly lifetimes. My butterfly life ended seven years ago in Rome. No one gives a shit about what I do anymore. I’m on a tiny label, albeit a tiny one with some cachet, but I paid for Wonderland myself. I begin to feel queasy. What have I started? I eye the sentimental porcelain figurine, singing so witlessly. Why did Boone agree to take me on? Am I a novelty act?
“I’m just cold. It’s too cold in here,” I say. “How’s the house?”
He scratches at his chin, grimacing. “Online sales are all right so far. It was a holiday yesterday, everybody was out drinking, we’re expecting more at the door. I mean, given who you are it’s going to be great, but it is the first one, and there’s a big World Cup match on TV tonight, you can’t —”
“Isn’t there any way to turn the heat up?”
Boone zips his sweater up to the neck in the way of a man who would like to strangle someone and is strangling himself instead. He puts the terrifying figurine back in its wrapping, its little velvet bag. “I have no idea. It isn’t my house.” He’s so aggravated that he’s barely speaking above a whisper. “I don’t even understand where we are. Is this island some kind of commune deal?”
“But I can’t sing if I’m too cold. You know that.”
“Anna. Darling. Put on a sweater. There will be heat in the theater. This place — it’s dirt roads, did you see that? It’s not so surprising that the heat doesn’t work that well.” He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “But everyone is playing the Bee Palace right now. Right?” He regards me. “This is good.” How young he is. His beard barely on his face, he might scratch it right off one day. But he does work hard, he does.
“Christiania is a free state,” I offer as an olive branch of information. “The last one in the world, I think. We’re in the ruins of the future. Can you check on the heat at the theater?”
“Yes,” says Boone. “If you turn your phone on. Anna, it’s nice in here. You have the best one.” He gives me a significant, managerial look and clatters out. Also proving my point about the gratitude thing.
Beyond the salvaged blue window, the man is squatting next to the broken bike, smoking a cigarette and drawing lazily in the dirt with a stick. He is definitely almost too handsome. Daring myself to open the window, I open the window. I whistle. He lifts his face.
“Hey. Want to come up for a beer?”
Apparently he speaks English, and he’s thirsty. He does have a gut, it turns out, but in a while I discover that over his belly button, unafraid and rather large, are the letters AMOR. “Who was this for?” I say, tracing them with my forefinger, still in the cut-off gloves, my hand just beneath the hem of his rucked-up T-shirt. I am nervous, not nervous, nervous, making my way down the steep slope into the first valley of the M. This is where the tour properly begins, right here, where the point of the M is lost in a fold of this stranger’s skin. This is the way in. I like the way he smells. My pulse quickens. I used to do this; it was part of it, part of the mystery of it. Not a dare, not a conquest, more like heading down an unnamed street.
He shakes his head. “No one. Long story.” I ask him, my forefinger moving slowly around the O, which team he’s rooting for in the World Cup, and he tells me, and I instantly forget. Ohio? Oostan? He watches my face, holding still, while my finger coasts around the belly of the R. He pulls his shirt all the way over his head, smiling.
We move to the borrowed bed. There, on his back, his eyes change. I can see the wolf in them. He doesn’t ask me who I am or what I’m doing here or why I called out to him. When I kiss him, he puts his arms over his head, looking me in the eye. The scent of him wafts up. He has a small, old scar just above his left eyebrow. His expression is cool, appraising — partly as if he expects this, but also as if he might believe that the world is like this, it can kiss you or kill you at any second, and you must never turn away from either possibility. If a woman whistles to you from a blue window, you go up, no matter what might be waiting at the top of the stairs. Perhaps he has his unnamed streets as well. Or maybe it’s because we’re in Christiania; in the ruins of the future, you do whatever. Or maybe he knows this house, knows who lives in it. Maybe it’s his house. Maybe they’re his sleeping dogs. Or maybe he grew bored of not fixing the bike. I am pleased that I remember how this goes, that I can still do this, the ride is starting, though before — before, everything moved much faster somehow, things were blurrier.
Now the clock ticks in the cold room. The moments unfold with each tick. His hands are large, warm. His breath smells of beer and tobacco and of a spice I don’t recognize. I am naked, but I keep the gloves on. The sheets are rough. His belly is still cold. He turns us over and I get a shock. His feet are Simon’s feet: wide-toed, flat. I bite my lip, getting goose bumps. I stop, then I rally. Fine. Is this Simon’s joke on me? He’s got Simon’s feet. I’ll give him Simon’s fuck. The thought seems to warm me up a little.
He pauses, looks into my face. “You’re on the poster,” he says. “In the square. Wonderland.” His r is so soft, buoyed on a long bridge of air, it all but disappears.
“Yes.” I see now that he is older than I thought, perhaps in his late thirties, early forties. Like me. Small lines around his eyes, smoker’s teeth. Is that Simon’s tooth, too, that pointy, faintly yellowed one? I try to pull him closer, but he holds himself away, looking at me.
“You are the singer?”
“Yes. I guess. It’s been a while.”
“I used to sing, too,” he says. “It’s been a while.” He smiles. His hand cups my breast, he puts his mouth there as well; his fingers are chapped, one thumbnail is black-and-blue. Simon’s feet churn at the bottom of the bed, too far away. I try to touch Simon’s pointy tooth with my tongue, but I can’t find it. I look harder, getting warmer. If I can’t have Simon, I want the wolf, though the wolf keeps darting away, turning into the bicycle-fixing man, then back into the wolf, then back into the bicycle-fixing man. I chase the wolf, biting his ear, his shoulder, a kind of whistling for the animal, the animal arrives, he springs AMOR skims my belly.
But just then, carried by the wolf, I am pierced by sadness. As if the wolf has bitten. My knees shake. I grip this other man’s shoulder blades with my half-gloved hands.
He turns back into the bicycle-fixing man. The wolf is gone, Simon is gone. He rolls over, sighs. “Maybe I will come to your concert,” he says.
“Sure,” I say, though I don’t want him to. I want him to leave now. I feel tired. What time is it in New York? What time is it here, for that matter? “What’s your name?”
“Mads.” He spells it, but it sounds like maaas, moss, mass, an exhalation, a conjunction.
“I’ll put you on the guest list, Mads. Listen, I’m already late.” I kiss him. Animal scent. The smell of coffee from downstairs subsumes it. I sit up, wrap the blanket around myself. It is soft and finely woven — someone’s indulgence. It smells faintly of Mads’s sweat.
Mads puts his shirt on last, disappears down the stairs. Shuffling to the kitchen in the blanket, bare feet on the cool floor, I empty what’s left of the beers into the sink, set the bottles on the wooden counter. There is the licorice on the counter — black twists, loose, like flower stems. So unlike the far more slender, never entirely straight white lines of the past. I take a black twist and put it in my mouth. The long gray hounds haven’t woken up this entire time, as if enchanted. Are they van Stavasts, as Boone said? Schiffeners? If they have another special name, a special breed, I don’t know what it is. A utopian breed, I guess. I kneel down to stroke them, feel their heavy, rough paws. One wakes up and licks my hand. Not wolves, either, these two. Are there wolves in the free state? In the thickets of trees somewhere? Are they happy? When I stand up and look outside a few minutes later, the bicycle is still there, upended, solitary. The front wheel, spokes shining, turns slowly in the breeze. It occurs to me to take the bike, box it up and send it to Jim, my ex. A little girl with blond hair leads a white horse, bridled but unsaddled, down the dirt lane. The horse flicks his tail. I feel jittery, skittery, unsatisfied, though I am not, technically, unsatisfied. I wish I were as round as that wheel, but instead I am like the seeking line of a graph, graphing something that is rising and falling unevenly. If Mads is Amor, does that make me Psyche? She went on the road, too. She had a journey to make.
Best of Year