I have followed Grant Morrison’s work, on and off, for something like three decades now – ever since Kathy Acker told me I had to read him. Morrison’s run on the comic DOOM PATROL became the template and inspiration for my own first attempt to think about “postmodernism” in the 1990s – I titled my own book DOOM PATROLS. Since then, I have read a lot of Morrison’s creator-owned comics titles, and some of his revised versions of canonical (and corporation-owned) superheroes. I also liked the tv series HAPPY!, based on Morrison’s comic of that name, and made by the director Brian Taylor in collaboration with Morrison. (I think I may be the only academic who has published book chapters about both Morrison and Taylor; though I didn’t write anything about their collaboration).
LUDA is Grant Morrison’s first novel — their first narrative consisting of words only, without illustrations — i.e. formatted as prose fiction rather than as a comic or a “graphic novel.” I got an advance copy from NetGalley, with the obligation to write an honest review. This is it, though it is hard to be objective and judgmental about a book like this. I found it utterly delightful, but it is not easy to explain why.
LUDA is a novel about drag queens. The first-person narrator, Luci LaBang, is an aging drag performer, trying to come to terms with the brute fact that you aren’t as glamorous and beautiful at 50 as you were at 25. (As somebody who is close to 70, all I can say about this conceit is, 50 still seems relatively youthful to me). We get all her reflections about her life and career, her past and her present, with scenes ranging from her childhood infatuation with women’s garments, her stint as a glam rock star, her brief attempt to go straight in a heterosexual relationship, her later career as a washed-up ex-star on a reality/game show hybrid television series, and her present as a drag performer in a “pantomime” (which seems to mean, in the UK, a live musical theater entertainment mostly for kids). Luci is a lifelong resident of “Gasglow” (which I presume is a deliberate misspelling or re-spelling of the Scottish city of Glasgow; I have never been there, and I do not know how the novel’s cityscape relates to the actual cityscape, but the city is certainly a major character, as it were, in the novel).
The eponymous character of the novel, Luda, is a much younger drag queen who sort of becomes Luci’s protégée, though actually it is much more complicated than that. Luci does give Luda advice about drag performance, about magic, and about life. They meet because they are supposed to be costarring together in a pantomime called “Phantom of the Pantomime” (which sort of combines “Phantom of the Paradise” with “Aladdin”). But their relationship is also one of a continual, and usually underhanded, power struggle. The novel suggests multiple frames of reference (the “All About Eve” plot of a younger diva supplanting an older one is one of them), but it always manages to subvert, or to turn inside out, the conventional genre twists that you cannot help expecting.
The novel is dense with nested narratives: we get Luci’s life story, Luci’s attempt to uncover Luda’s life story, the story of the pantomime being rehearsed, the story of the continual problems that come up in the course of rehearsing it, and so on. These all resonate with and echo one another. Drag is not presented as exotic or weird, but just as something that the narrator and her object of fascination do.
Evidently we are in the realm of fantasy and pretense, but part of the novel’s point is that pretty much everything than any of us do is really driven by fantasy and pretense. Desire is never simple and straightforward, it is rather why human beings in general most emphatically are never simple and straighforward. It is a case of universalizing, not by generalization, but precisely by emphasizing the particular in all its minute particularity. We get the ins and outs of Luci’s life and career, in both its glamorousness and its abject failures, in its everydayness but also in its extremities. We also get Luci’s cares and worries, her misunderstandings and illusions, her pain and depression as well as her episodes of happiness and enjoyment. It is this insistent particularity, or singularity, that makes it possible to “identify” with Luci (though I am not sure that “identify” is the right word here, or indeed ever).
LUDA is often quite funny. Its extravagances and outrageous twists of reality (such as one would always expect from Morrison) are themselves often quite funny. But there is also a lot in the novel that is quite disturbing, and even horrific. I don’t ever like describing a narrative as a “romp”, as some reviewers tend to do. But if you go into this expecting a romp, then after being flattered into enjoyment in this way for a while, you will eventually find yourself in for a bumpy ride. This is a novel about frustrated desires, about alienation, about unrealistic fantasies, and ultimately about horrific abuse. None of this is freakshow-like, in the sense of something that puts unconventional lifestyles on display for straight delectation. No, the straight people in the book are really the ultimately most horrifying ones. Drag is a desire as straightforward AND as twisted as any other, but not more so.
The book left me with both a keen sense of enjoyment, and with a depressive sense of desolation, both at the same time. Morrison is masterful in the way they reel out twists and surprises, and in the way they sneakily insinuate things you weren’t expecting, yet that seem inevitable once they are revealed. The narrator is both narcissitic and deeply self-deprecating; both charismatic and exposing herself to our contempt and disgust. She is always talking directly to her audience, aware of the reader’s presence, teasing and alluring us, only to end with a sucker punch (or several) of desolation — only to follow that by tying everything together with a dazzling series of ironic (?) postmodern flourishes that pull the ground from under us (even after we thought we had had the ground pulled from under us and reached the lowest level of bedrock possible already).
I said that this is a novel about drag queens. I found myself delighted by its total rejection of gender norms — without even having to mention it or make an argument about it. But– AND THIS IS CRUCIAL — I do not know how it will read to readers who are trans, or genderqueer, or already far less normative than I am. I am unable to step away from my own predilections enough to even guess.