Sway, by Zachary Lazar, is a swirling and episodic novel that incorporates the Rolling Stones circa 1969, the avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and Manson Family associate Bobby Beausoleil in a dizzying but effective exploration of the rise and fall of 1960s mysticism. The lives of these real people are the basis of fictional characters refashioned according to Zachary’s whims.
Sway’s framework doesn’t defy the major known events of the fictional characters’ real-life counterparts. It uses such events as a mechanism to fill interior thoughts and give depth to private actions. The way Zachary details these thoughts is so intimate and specific that there’s no way even the actual figures would’ve been able to recall with such clarity what they had been thinking or doing at these very specific instances from the past. I assume a careful balance of research and plausible imagination is what makes this book resonate so well.
Of course, this combination of research and imagination goes into books of all kinds—but here it feels like the approach is similar to the way an actor might prepare for an historical figure. One can exhaustively research, reading every last bit about his or her subject, but eventually there will come moments, scenes, and character questions that cannot be adequately informed by the research. This is when the artist needs to step in and fill in the blanks.
Stepping into the shoes of history to fill out the emotional and imaginative interior life of a character (particularly one based on an historical figure) is always a very delicate act. It’s also one that excites me as an actor, writer, and director. The act of adaptation of previously incarnated material, while sprinkling on one’s own artistic fairy dust, is deeply rewarding.
Using ekphrasis—a device where one artistic medium is used to capture the spirit of another—as a mechanism for storytelling is a daunting proposition that most modern writers avoid. When executed properly, it provides a sort of meta-contextualization that cannot be achieved through fictional storytelling alone.
Sway is the first book in recent memory that nails it, using the films of Anger, the music and acting of Beausoleil, and the music of the Stones to reveal deeper truths about its source material. This is a similar technique to what a biographer or memoirist might use to fill in certain gaps (an obvious example being Keith Richards’s autobiography, Life). But by successfully tempering the material and its interpretations into a fictional narrative, Zachary makes the reader feel as if he or she is actually inside the characters’ heads.
He does this by circumventing prior nonfiction interpretations, eschewing scholarly analysis and critical theory so that they do not impede the story Zachary wants to tell, and allowing the reader much more room for personal interpretations of the work without years of critique stacked on top.
It’s important to note that Zachary isn’t trying to jump off into fantasyland with his interpretations. He very much wants his portraits to resemble the figures that we know and love (or hate)—but his fictional universe frees him from the constraints of having to qualify the interpretations as conjecture. Instead, it is gospel.
For instance, instead of the inevitably unsuccessful guessing game played by a critic trying to extrapolate what was going on inside Kenneth Anger’s head when he was making Scorpio Rising or Lucifer Rising or Invocation of My Demon Brother, Zachary can tell us what his version of Anger was thinking when he made them. And, all things considered, this interpretation is much more poignant than anything published by a university press or film magazine. No matter how far off base it is from the real-life Anger’s actual inspirations, it is an absolute truth in the alternate universe of Sway.
I recently worked on a project with the 87-year-old Anger, who told me he had never heard of Sway. This confirmed my suspicion that Zachary didn’t attempt to consult the book’s subjects directly, instead relying on biographical information and fictional interpretations of their artworks. A tricky proposition, but this is also precisely why the novel succeeds.
Furthermore, the main actions of the characters in Sway revolve around the collaborative process. These collaborations serve as the narrative’s tent poles—they intertwine the characters’ lives in myriad ways. More often than not, Anger and his work are used as the connective tissue, resulting in both creative fruition and personal strife. The Stones synthesize disparate musical styles, influences, and attitudes to reinvent their sound once again; Anger uses arcane religious rituals and imagery to inform the transcendental mood of his films; and Beausoleil is a strange, shadowy figure who finds himself in the right and wrong places at crucial times—twisting the story in different directions.
What plays out largely follows the historical narrative of the characters’ real-life counterparts, but in a way that allows the reader to reconsider the truth of what actually unfolded by making the whole thing seem like an out-of-body experience. The Stones create indelible music, but Brian Jones and Keith Richards clash over a girl, and Brian Jones ends up fading away with drugs and then drowning in his pool (murdered?) after being fired from the band.
Bobby Beausoleil begins his career as a musician, eventually wandering into Anger’s life and being cast as the principal of Lucifer Rising. But living up to the mythos surrounding him, Beausoleil absconds with the project’s film reels during production and purportedly gives them to Charles Manson, who buries them in the desert.
The reader follows Anger—a true practitioner of Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory—as he discovers a groundbreaking approach to film that incorporates personal homoerotic material, documentary-style footage, and occult imagery that relies on visuals rather than dialogue-driven narrative to tell a story. He is, in turn, celebrated by such avant-garde figures as Cocteau but mostly ignored by the greater public. He gains the attention and respect of cultural juggernauts like Mick Jagger while the performers in his films berate him with charges that they are owed payment for their contributions.
It’s almost as if Zachary uses this carefully select continuum of art and creative figures at a specific cultural moment as outlines for figures in some weird coloring book, in which he has intricately added colors that weren’t reflected in real life. At its core, Sway gets to the truth—or a truth—about what it takes to make true art and to be a true creator. In the end, it isn’t exactly pretty.