Rock ’n’ roll might very well be nonsense. Maybe all art is, but rock in particular — a combination of music and attitude conjured from three chords and a beat — is more a creation of the chaotic subconscious and less a well-considered discipline than most, particularly in the hands of Blake Lear.
Blake — real name James Lewis — is the lead singer and lyricist for the Wonderkids, a fictional band at the heart of musician/author Wesley Stace’s new novel. To Blake, this identification isn’t insulting: Nonsense is his art.
After failing to get his degree at Cambridge — largely because he decides to write a nonsensical dissertation rather than a scholarly work on Lewis Carroll or his two soon-to-be namesakes, William Blake and Edward Lear — he decides to create his own type of absurd art.
His less scholarly brother Jack has already fallen in love with the guitar, and so in the footsteps of the Kinks’ Davies brothers and Oasis’s Gallaghers, the two form a band, creating beautiful punk-tinged anarchy that, coincidentally, is also a lot of fun.
What happens next is both a believable yarn and a reasonable allegory for the conflict between art and commerce.
Thanks to a misbehaving child, the band’s demo tape gets heard. And when savvy record-label executives steer the band toward a child audience, anticipating niche success, Blake accepts the shift, as gleefully as he does most every random turn of fate.
He recognizes that the joyful abandon of rock is perfect for children — “We’re the ‘ids’ in ‘kids,’ ” he says — and fame ensues. Along the way, he also adopts a 14-year-old-orphan, Edward Sweet, whose recollections form the book, although which one is the adult and which the child can change on a beat.
Unfortunately, Blake’s embrace of chaos is all too real, encompassing everything from food fights to the kind of naughty pranks that appeal both to 8-year-olds and exhibitionist rock stars.
And when Blake enjoys one too many stunts — the final one involving a faked Jim Morrison-like exposure — his real taste for mayhem will overwhelm all the best-laid marketing schemes and even, ultimately, the band.
If Stace’s latest novel, his fourth, rings true, it’s because he is writing what he knows. For 25 years, he performed smart indie rock under the pseudonym John Wesley Harding, a precaution he initially took to protect his academic career.
Stace has now given up the nom de rock, releasing an album, “Self-Titled,” under his own name last year. In a way, this novel seems the next step out from behind the curtain.
This isn’t necessarily a positive move. Because like Blake’s, Stace’s art works best when he leaves rational sense behind.
It wasn’t just that Stace’s previous books were more fantastic. They were — mixing elements of the surreal with historical fiction — but they were also richer, even as they trod similar ground.
Consider the gender-fluid Dickensian adventure of “Misfortune,” his 2005 Guardian First Book Award nominee; the ventriloquist’s dummy at the center of his second book, “By George,” a 2007 Booklist Editor’s Choice pick; and the murderous love triangle in “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer,” named a 2011 top 10 book of the year by the Wall Street Journal. All of these works played havoc with the idea of family and fame.
Steeped in detail, these were dense fictions that rewarded careful and repeated readings.
“Wonderkid,” for all its insider insight, is a simpler work — as if making Blake Lear a character had drained some of the anarchic impulses from Stace himself.
The result, however, is not strictly straightforward.
Although there is now a flourishing field of kids’ music that includes rock ’n’ rollers like Dan Zanes (who is name-checked here), the Wonderkids’ child audiences are also clear stand-ins for our own freest adult selves.
But this is a much less whimsical book than the others and also less profound. “Wonderkid” may be a great rock ’n’ roll novel, but it doesn’t have the depth of the author’s earlier work, and it isn’t as fun.