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September 20th, 2006 Paige Richmond | Books
 

Artificial Light

"Let there be light" in the dark, postmodern world of '90s alternative rock.

     
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You can't judge a book by its cover, right? Well, maybe not its cover jacket. When the back of the book claims that what's inside is better than "the last dozen Thomas Pynchons, the last nineteen Don DeLillos, and the last forty-three Vonneguts," one would anticipate a novel commenting on pop culture through language games and distorted history. Or when Stephen Malkmus calls the book "a brutal reveal," it should have a good handle on the '90s alternative rock scene.

Former Guided by Voices bassist James Greer's Artificial Light (Little House on the Bowery, 338 pages, $15.95) lives up to its own hype: a girl with a funny name, an unveiled conspiracy and a text-within-a-text add up to certifiable postmodern fiction. According to the "Editor's Note" at the beginning, this novel is the publication of 21 notebooks belonging to Fiat Lux, a 22-year-old librarian who had a close relationship with "Kurt C," front man of a legendary rock band, "N." After Kurt's suicide, Lux leaves the notebooks at a university library in Dayton, Ohio, and disappears. The notebooks are written from different perspectives (Lux herself, members of the Dayton alt-rock scene, and Oliver Wright's unpublished diaries), allowing Greer to speculate on what led to the death of both Kurt and alternative music.

More like Tom Robbins than Vonnegut, Pynchon or DeLillo, Greer would rather tell a story than play language games; it might be worth sifting through the hype and technique to uncover the sociological commentary, but heavy-handed literary allusions and a plot with no consistent thread become confusing after a few chapters. Greer keenly crafts his characters to make each voice distinct, but some of the perspectives feel unnecessary (like the opium-addicted, housebound Wright) and others are transparent: The notebooks of Trip Ryyvers—intended as a manuscript of his band's experiences in the '90s alt-rock scene—are a threadbare disguise for Greer's own musings. (Greer's last book, Guided by Voices: A Brief History, was a history of GBV and Greer's own experiences in the Dayton scene.)

While Greer does offer an insider's view of alt-rock, it's not exactly an illuminating one. He offers several quotable but unremarkable lines: "Rock will not kill you or make you stronger, it will simply strain every life-affirming instinct from your soul." There's no shortage of theories about how (and if) alternative music and poster-boy Kurt Cobain truly died. Maybe Greer's intent was never to reveal something new about '90s alt-rock, but just describe it in a different light—even if that light is (wait for it...) artificial.


Greer reads from Artificial Light at 7 pm Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Reading Frenzy, 921 SW Oak St., 274-1449. Free.
 
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