AN enigmatic rock star named Kurt C has been found dead in the novel "Artificial Light," and the exact circumstances of this death are shrouded in mystery. Sound familiar to anyone?
Any similarity between the character and Kurt Cobain, the late singer-songwriter of the rock band Nirvana, is entirely intentional in James Greer's novel. Yet in Greer's world, Kurt's death remains unsolved, and a 22-year-old associate named Fiat Lux has gone missing, her journals left to tell the story. Recovered from Kurt's residence and published by a university, these 21 notebooks are presented in their entirety, reprinted faithfully down to Fiat's occasional spelling errors.
The content of the notebooks is disparate. They begin by describing Fiat's life in Dayton, Ohio, arriving at her association with the fictional Kurt. Soon, Fiat implicates herself in his death, which takes place in Dayton in a decrepit mansion formerly owned by Orville Wright (Cobain's body, one may remember, was discovered at his home in Washington state in 1994).
The blurring of truth and fiction is a central concern for Greer, and although such mystification eventually pays dividends, it comes with initial difficulties, the most obvious being the curious decision to call upon Cobain in the first place, to transplant him from his native Pacific Northwest to the Midwest. At first the novel never seems fully invested in utilizing Cobain, either as a method of revealing Fiat herself or, as the novel would suggest, as a subject for her to investigate. Early on, Fiat claims: "I'm slinging secrets like hot rocks into the sky-blue sea, now that nothing matters," yet her depiction of Kurt C never ventures beyond territory made familiar by the media frenzy around Cobain's life.
Greer's Kurt is always on the periphery of events and his characterization is familiar, consistent with the withdrawn, reclusive figure portrayed in another fictional Cobain touchstone, Gus Van Sant's 2005 film, "Last Days." As the novel progresses, it seems that the story does not need Kurt, much less the creation of concern over the truth of his death as it occurs in the book. This attention also acts as a distraction from the core of the novel: the loneliness and alienation that dominates the lives of those around Kurt.
It is here that Greer's prose shines. Although Fiat's narration is sometimes hampered by a tendency toward flippancy, she nevertheless grants the reader access to the deep recesses of the lives she invents -- including, perhaps, her own. We learn of Fiat's passion for books, particularly unwanted discards, her restrictive childhood, the death of her mother. When writing about her fellow Dayton barflies, her prose transitions seamlessly from third person into first, and also from the outside world to the inner, revealing their turbulent existences. These sections explore the travails of a midlevel indie-rock band on tour in Germany, the peculiarities of the mainstream publishing industry, the crushing emptiness that follows when a life's work is realized at an early age.
One of the more affecting of this cast is Mary Valentine, whom Fiat portrays as emotionally detached after pursuing one empty relationship after another. She is haunted by the trauma of a breakup with a boyfriend, a fellow scenester named Michael Goodlife, and thinks that "it was like he retreated to the part of yourself that you keep from everyone, except the one person you love, and so in retreating you're declaring your lack of love." It is in moments such as this that the writing becomes urgent and truly moving. These moments also serve as pieces to a larger puzzle because the novel regularly presents bits of intersecting information, providing the reader with clues to a larger truth that is contingent upon recognition of these instances.
Irony is an important theme in this process. One irony is that in the end this narrator, whose name denotes illumination, doesn't prove to be all that illuminating -- at least in a sense that provides immediate gratification. Yet Fiat's reticence transforms the novel into a wry commentary on the nature of celebrity, specifically the sense of privilege that often accompanies the public's voyeuristic tendencies.
To disrupt such expectations, the real Cobain was known to create stories about himself as well as his bandmates: He invented a mythology that suggested an intensely private nature at its center. In the novel, the university editor who is charged with assembling Fiat's notebooks suggests that everything in these pages is best regarded as fiction, yet followers of Nirvana will recognize the public Cobain in Fiat's elliptical storytelling. That she manages to remain true to this secretive personality while being an entertaining storyteller is an irony and a grand truth, for it appears that this is the way the real and the invented Kurt would have wanted it.