Inside the mind of a fully committed rock disciple
by Rob Neufeld
In her debut novel, “How to Talk to Rockstars,” Alli Marshall, arts editor for “Mountain Xpress,” turns her experience as a music reviewer into the exposed story of Bryn Thompson, a reviewer for whom relationships fail, but music prevails.
The story works because of its meaningful premise, that someone can use her one “superpower”—talking to rock stars—to achieve an ideal life, which seems to elude her for years.
The story also works because of its inventive storytelling style, a time-looping, poetic, professionally savvy, and confessionally philosophical immediacy.
Though the novel deals with such riddling dilemmas as how does one move past the rules of journalism—Bryn’s confining universe—to make romantic connections, the romance theme ends up dominating the book and making it more conventional.
Marshall presents her novel at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, Sat., June 20.
“How to Talk with Rock Stars” begins with a crush.
Bryn is about to interview Jude Archer, whose bio she has researched; whose latest album “Fly by Night,” she has listened to repeatedly; and whose story she has prepared for with a list of questions in priority order.
“The terrible truth, thinks Bryn,” Marshall writes about Bryn’s fantasy message to Jude, “is that I can close my eyes and feel you in the air around me. Heat of your skin, scratch of your beard, even though I have never been in the same room as you.”
Right from the start, we sense something achingly unsettled about Bryn’s personality. Yet, it’s matched by the musician of whom we get a glimpse in the book’s opening paragraph: “At the edge of the stage, in the limbo between darkness and spotlights, between anonymity and fame, Jude Archer knows two things: That he is a rare genius. And that he is a complete fraud.”
The phrase “star-crossed” comes to mind, as does the promise, “written in the stars.”
Then, Marshall does a nice thing. She backs away from that story line to write about her concerned-with-coolness youth; other rock star interviews; and her interviewing techniques (“Push through the stock answers...Listen for the answers that are begging to be spoken”).
It isn’t until page 39 that Marshall returns to Bryn and Jude, and that’s just to get us to her first question to him over the phone: “Let’s start with the name of the album, she says. We’ll start there and see where we end up.”
The second question doesn’t follow until page 63—after we learn about encounters with four other performers: Chelsea Blake, a hard-living mama; Dex Denson, a celebrity who stands her up; Robert Lamar, who leaves the stage and jumps in a car after an hour of show; and a jazz guitarist named Spike Robins, a brief boyfriend and another dead end.
I do find myself wishing that Marshall came up with some non-soap-opera names for her fictional musicians.
At any rate, the delayed gratification that Marshall imposes on us with her Jude story is long and perfect.
Speaking of performers’ names, Marshall gives us plenty of real ones, sometimes with a beatnik’s rap.
“At some point in Bryn’s life, she’d found Leonard Cohen. At some point she’d found Lynyrd Skynyrd. At some point, she’d found The Righteous Brothers, the Doobie Brothers, the Avett Brothers, the Sabri Brothers, the Pointer Sisters, Sister Hazel, Scissor Sisters, Twisted Sister, Sisters of Mercy, Twin Sister and the Thompson Twins.”
The love of music sprouts from Bryn’s body. At one juncture, she wonders, “What makes people love music? Why one band over another?” The answer is subjective, “like the Rolling Stones or Beatles question.”
Don’t look for musical analysis in “How to Talk to Rockstars.” The deep meaning is in the personal, and is represented by career arcs rather than stylistic arcs.
Marshall, through Bryn, comes closest to a musical capture of a performer’s style in telling about Tobias Bridge (whom Bryn beds).
“Tobias gave up on gentle folk at some point...and took up the cross of full-assault rock...He hurls stories. He bludgeons his listeners with words and images, with his bloodied heart, with his bruised fists. And then he grins his sweet boyish grin, wipes the sweat from his brow, looks like he wants to pull everyone in for a group hug.”
Search for a persona
The tension of the novel builds with Bryn’s movement toward transformation.
“All of this practice in professionalism,” Bryn muses half-way through the book, “What was it all for?...Is she regressing, returning to the girl she was when she was young and lonely?”
She considers taking on an alter ego, a brave, reckless woman who can dive down a rabbit hole.
It may be time to note that the drawbacks of using a small, local press (Logosophia) show up not only in the cover design (image not bled to the edge; YA typeface and use of stars; and other cues that say small press); but also in the short-of-perfect proofreading.
“What have you sacrificed at its alter?” Bryn asks herself about her music career. It’s one of four times “altar” is spelled “alter”; but, if you consider it a Freudian slip, it’s wonderful. Bryn’s anguish over her identity is the passion she experiences at her altar.
Marshall plays upon the theme of opposites that exist in one’s deepest wishes with literary depth. It is very enjoyable to follow Bryn’s thought streams, without a hitch, until the very end, when the resolution depends upon a supernova of poetry, like the blissfully phantasmagorical ending of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
To sum up, Logosophia does a great job with typeface and margins. They also have a high quality author list, which deserves a look that communicates such a status.
Marshall consistently displays a nimble fiction-writing talent and makes us want to see her continue her novel-writing bent.
Alli Marshall presents her debut novel, “How to Talk to Rockstars” (Logosophia, 207 pages) ay City Lights Bookstore, 3 E. Jackson St., Sylva, 3 p.m., Sat., June 20, 6:30 p.m. (586-9499). Also visit alli-marshall.com.
Photo of Alli Marshall by Carrie Edison