Zachary Lazar, author of the critically acclaimed novel Sway and the nonfiction book Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder, is a new member of Tulane University’s English faculty and resident of New Orleans. Sway is an imagined account of the Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger, and the Manson Family, which the New York Times Book Review called “your parents’ nightmare idea of what would happen to you if you fell under the spell of rock ‘n’ roll … A brilliant novel about what’s to be found in the shadows, the most terrifying crannies of twisted souls.” Evening’s Empire is a literary account of the death of Lazar’s father, who became embroiled in an Arizona land-fraud community and was gunned down by the mafia.
Lazar will read on Tuesday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. at the Columns Hotel as the inaugural participant of this year’s 1718 Reading Series, which is organized by students at Tulane, Loyola, and UNO.
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Lazar about Sway, conducted by author Christopher Sorrentino, which appeared in the spring 2008 issue of BOMB Magazine.
Christopher Sorrentino: From out of the blurring of those distinctions [of race and gender; and the bombastic qualities of rock ‘n’ roll] came a kind of anything goes sensibility—sometimes quite liberating. But Sway gives the sense that at some point the cup ran over—suddenly it isn’t as simple as dancing naked in Golden Gate Park—it’s Charles Manson exhorting his followers to “do something witchy.”
Zachary Lazar: Yeah…there’s that famous Whitman line, “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” And the William Blake quote about the road to excess leading to the palace of wisdom.
CS: Cleanse the doors of perception, that kind of thing. You use several such quotations as epigraphs to your book’s sections.
ZL: William Blake was full of those exhortations to do anything and everything to expand the realm of consciousness or possibility. Of course he was William Blake. Walt Whitman was Walt Whitman. You take a bunch of 17-year olds and give them that kind of advice, it’s not surprising that some things happen that are not only far from sublime but in some cases sociopathic. A lot of different forces came together in the ’60s that allowed young people to get into more trouble than they ever could get into before, all of which was sanctioned by a philosophical outlook. You had it in the ’50s, to a certain extent, but not on that scale.
CS: To a more rarefied extent, though, in the ’50s. I think it was happening to people who were older, people who had served in the armed forces, married, whatever. The desire for new experience really was a reaction against a way of living they’d become inured to. But there’s a point in Sway when you’re talking about the ’60s, London in particular—you write that everybody is a model, a designer, an actor, a photographer, or a rock star, and that these are people who’d never known hunger, service, war, never even really known boredom. They insisted upon novelty as a birthright.
ZL: It’s interesting the way the impulse for novelty or sensation goes down these different branches. You must have thought a lot about that when you were writing about Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army in Trance.
CS: In her case I thought it very likely she was bored stiff with who she’d been born as. And the SLA had quasi-cult appeal. In a way, the ’60s were one cult of novelty after another, or one big cult with dozens of different factions. The ones announcing themselves as cults—Children of God, and so on—were only the most klutzily obvious.
ZL: It’s bad McPop spirituality. There was some quote I came across by Harold Bloom talking about American religions, and he said that for a very brief period of time there was a new religion which was rock and roll and lasted for about one year: 1968. It’s an interesting but exaggerated claim. There’s something that connects the music that the Stones were making during that period, which was openly messianic and openly satanic, with the kind of mentality that could lead to what happened with the Manson family. It’s hard to put your finger on; one of the reasons I wrote Sway was to make it so it wasn’t a ridiculous conceit. Just because these psychological undercurrents are vague doesn’t mean that they’re cartoonish.
CS: Again we’re talking about murder as a kind of self-expression.
ZL: One of the horrifying things about those murders is their aesthetic quality, their sensationalism. That’s why they’re so creepy, and part of why those people will never get out of jail even though so many other murderers are paroled. Aristotle includes spectacle as one of the five aspects of art. Raymond Pettibon has done a lot of Manson stuff that addresses just this point. It’s hard to understand exactly what Pettibon is doing with his drawings of Manson, but they show Manson as a celebrity, a Satan figure, a charlatan and a buffoon. So many different kinds of irony going on that it’s very confusing, very disturbing.