When Anna Brundage, the heroine of Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland, was three years old, her father sawed a train in half and pushed it over a cliff. It was 1972, and the art world was rocked: Critics declared that he had reinvented sculpture. A postcard of the gored, upended car became a dependable seller in the MoMA gift shop. But like any creative breakthrough, Roy Brundage’s sawed-in-half train is its own kind of curse; he will spend the rest of his life attempting to recapture the unassuming wildness of that piece. He tries, prolifically, muscularly: He breaks an abandoned Texas prison in half; he bashes gaping holes into a lighthouse. (His wife, also an artist, paints on a slightly more delicate medium: glass.) More than thirty years later, when Roy drops dead of a heart attack, his two daughters come home to his studio to assess the pieces he was working on in his last days. They’re appalled. The man who spent his life “laboring to open a seam in the world” and loved to knock Monet for “pandering” (“If I ever do that,” he tells a young Anna as they stand in front of Water Lilies, “shoot me”) had taken to painting tepid, Thomas Kinkade–grade landscapes. As an artist herself, Anna is particularly shaken by what she sees. Is creative decline inevitable? How could someone who once knew how to make rubble and twisted metal sing die with—she flings this phrase with disdain—“a mouth stuffed with wildflowers”?
When Wonderland opens, it’s 2014, and Anna Brundage is a forty-four-year-old musician who was once “a certain kind of famous”—a minor rock star with an influential sound and a devoted cult following. She has a sawed-in-half train haunting her, too: her fervently adored, critically acclaimed debut album, Whale, which she made quickly, cheaply, and sleeplessly when she was just past thirty. Anna did to pop songs what her father did to sculpture: “Around the indie recording studios,” she recalls, “I became, for a season, a verb. ‘Brundaging’ meant tearing up the sound, erasing half of it, sending it skittering over the abyss.” Whale strikes a chord. It becomes an unexpected underground smash, and, after a whirlwind European tour, Anna signs a contract with a major label and records a follow-up in an idyllic château.
But—there’s a reason the phrase sophomore slump is so enduring—with all eyes on her, Anna can’t quite tap back into the raw, desperate vibrations of Whale. After two more albums, both flops, she settles for a job teaching woodshop to “a hundred little girls in safety goggles, holding hammers” at a private school on the Upper East Side. Most of the time she feels fine, if a little wistful and restless. Every once in a while, parents corner her outside the school to tell her how much Whale meant to them in college. As if to smooth over the disappointments and dashed dreams these encounters unearth, they usually tell her that she looks great.
Wonderland follows Anna as she decides to return to her music and embark on a tour across Europe. (She has sold a piece of her father’s art—a chunk of lighthouse no bigger than her hand—to fund her fourth record.) “Comeback” suggests a return, but D’Erasmo is much more interested in capturing Anna in a moment of transition. Most of the book takes place on the road and finds Anna in between one thing and another—the molasses-like hours between sound check and set time, the monotonously pastoral train ride between Göteborg and Berlin. “Where are we?” might be the most common sentiment in the novel. “Germany?” offers the cellist. No, “that field is so totally Swedish,” says the bassist. They are probably both wrong.
With all this time spent between stations, Anna has plenty of opportunities to wonder where her life is headed (she’s offered a three-month slot opening for another band in Japan and Australia, but she’d have to quit her teaching job to take it) and, of course, to ruminate on decade-old regrets (there’s Simon, the married Lebanese architect she called for a good time whenever she was in Europe, and the baby she might have kept if she knew she’d eventually fall in love with him).
Over three lyrical and inventive novels—Tea, A Seahorse Year, and The Sky Below—D’Erasmo has experimented with new ways of representing her characters’ internal worlds. She wrote Wonderland in a tense she calls “the meditative imperfect,” which proves a brilliantly effective way to chart tour time on the page. Anna’s story unfolds in flashbacks, candid letters to her sister, and reports of the previous night’s show she records in her notebook. They are often quite short. Wonderland flickers by in transient vignettes—each one feels like a nap-time dream, a one-night stand, a tauntingly gorgeous country you’re in for such a brief time that you don’t even bother adjusting your watch. That you never quite get your footing in these chapters is a stroke of D’Erasmo’s mastery. It means you know very well what it feels like to be Anna Brundage—unsettled, and in pursuit of an elusive artistic greatness.
In many ways, she’s always felt this way. Anna’s childhood had a similar rhythm: sublet apartments with living-room swings in London, Istanbul, Rome; casual encounters with famous people (Cy Twombly, one of her father’s friends, always brought her posies); fleeting friendships with the other “dirty-kneed” gypsy kids. Wonderland is—among many other things—an evocative account of what it’s like to grow up with artists for parents. What is freedom, when you’re born into such a wild world? How do you rebel? Anna always assumed that the answer was becoming an artist, just like her father. But as she gets older, she realizes that her sister Lila, who defied her parents by moving to Wyoming and starting a family, might have been the brave one all along.
And yet, as Wonderland’s swift pace attests, Anna doesn’t waste much time brooding. There’s a lightness and ease to her narration that suggests the Wonderland tour is for her a moment of self-acceptance; she takes full responsibility for—and enjoyment in—the life she’s chosen. Anna likes sleeping with men she meets on the road, though this is not something she makes a fuss about. Anna is part of a literary lineage of women artists who seek freedom as a pleasure in its own right. (Colette haunts the novel in scattered references, and about halfway through I suddenly felt sad that she died just as rock’n’roll was really taking off.) It’s implied, though never belabored, that there are different rules for men and women (and especially women past forty) in the music world. Sexism and double standards hover in the air, but they stop short of materializing. “What band are you with?” a roadie asks her in Slovakia—for a second you think he might have taken her for a backup singer, or a groupie—but the moment passes without incident when she answers him simply, “Mine.”
D’Erasmo’s most recent work is The Art of Intimacy, a sharp and evocative meditation on the many varieties of intimacy in fiction—the kinds that spring up between characters, and also the kind between a writer and her audience. “I have noticed that the intimacy we feel as readers is often generated less by characters turning to one another and saying intimate things . . . than it is by a kind of textual atmosphere,” she writes. “Atmosphere” is a good word for what D’Erasmo creates in Wonderland, in which the prose constantly achieves the magic trick of seeming both weightless and grounded.
It’s a fitting paradox for Anna Brundage. Unlike Lila and many of the women around her, Anna has none of the things we associate with traditional domesticity: no children, no husband. Anna’s memories of Simon are powerful, and Wonderland devastatingly recalls their downfall. But D’Erasmo is more interested in exploring the less obvious intimacies and bonds that Anna’s freewheeling lifestyle enables. In the confined spaces of the tour bus, her band bickers, banters, and shares inside jokes. They become a family of sorts—temporary, perhaps, but for now deeply bound by music, which allows the band members to engage in the fantasy, power struggle, and unpredictability inherent in all family romance. “Music only I could hear, now produced in the bodies of these strangers,” Anna marvels during one of her band’s practices. “I never imagined them, how could I have?”
Music is Anna’s most faithful love, and some of the book’s most sensual writing comes when she’s onstage. There are plenty of bad, fumbling nights—the room is half empty and the audience comatose; the bassist storms offstage. But when Anna and her band are on, it’s easy to see why she’s put her secure life on hold in order to pursue her music, which at its best sits suspended somewhere between intense effort and effortlessness:
The sound lifts. . . . Alicia is the rain. Zach is the earth. The sound fills the room like the blood in our ears. The sound finds our pulse, the backs of our knees, the roots of our hair, our hearts, our lungs, the insides of our elbows. I can’t really read music, but I can find it with my hands, groping blind. I can pull down the notes I want from the air, like stealing fruit from someone else’s garden.
Like any novel concerned with present-day pop culture, it’s tempting to try to super- impose a living, breathing face onto its protagonist. Anna’s career arc reminded me of Liz Phair’s, her bone-jangling sound called to mind PJ Harvey, and her flame-red coif made me picture Gillian Welch. It’s to Wonderland’s great credit, though, that I gave up this game about thirty pages in. Anna, for all her disappointments, is a genuine original. This isn’t a book about the music industry so much as an evocative exploration of universal themes: the anxieties of middle age, the bittersweet freedom of the creative life, the burden of the legacy a daughter inherits from her father. It’s difficult to make territory as familiar as rock stardom feel this fresh, but Wonderland is a breakthrough in the style of an early Brundage—a novel that takes what we think is solid, and splits it open at the seams.
Lindsay Zoladz is an editor at Pitchfork.