Book Review: Luda by Grant Morrison
I have a weakness for comic book writers who turn their hands to writing long-form prose, so I jumped at the chance to review Grant Morrison’s new novel, Luda. A sort of gender-fluid All About Eve wrapped in a Phantom Of The Opera shell, this dazzling debut follows drag artist Luci La Bang as she rehearses for her victory lap/homecoming stage run in the self-referential, half-experimental pantomime that she’s led to Tony-winning success. This production, titled The Phantom of the Pantomime, revolves around a panto staging of Aladdin where all the actors are mysteriously murdered one by one, with only the phantom killer left standing at the end.
After Molly Stocking, the pop star ingenue taking on the role of Aladdin, has an unexpectedly debilitating accident, Luci and her director Dominick Float must search for a replacement. They’re quickly floored by the impromptu audition of a young actor calling herself Luda. Luda has no stage experience and has seemingly walked in off the street, but has that certain “It” factor that Dom and Luci both recognize as the prerequisite for stardom. With Dom’s encouragement, Luci takes Luda under her wing, training her in stage- and trade-craft—or The Glamour, as Luci calls it—and transforming the young runaway into a drag daughter worthy of one of the most brilliant artists of their age.
As Luda grows in confidence and skill, Luci finds herself in the strange position of becoming increasingly concerned as to her protégé’s uncanny progress. After spying on Luda’s attempts to imitate Molly via a series of pop videos, Luci worries:
But there was something else, as a more disturbing thought came to mind; there are plants, bee orchids, that mimic the shape of sexually available insects to attract pollinators.
What if Luda was a mimic, an imitator, a synthesizer sampling, filing, and replaying a repertoire of natural human behavior for her own ends?
In her inventory of gestures, I now recognized some of my own–that sort of thing happens, doesn’t it? We find ourselves imitating traits we admire in the people we like enough to spend time with. We rub off on one another, it’s only to be expected, but somehow this felt intrusive, intimate, unsettling.
Soon enough, the other members of the theater troupe begin to fall, one by one, to injury, imprisonment or death. Luci must set aside her fondness for the young queen who reminds her so much of herself in her youth and confront with a clear-eyed honesty what’s really happening under the skin of their pantomime production. But will she be able to bear looking into her own past and present, and seeing the real reason she doesn’t want to believe the worst of her bright-eyed, cold-hearted disciple?
Written in unrelenting prose that’s as arch as a drag queen’s stage-honed patter, replete with diamond-sharp wit and the nth-tuple of entendres, this novel pings merrily from one aside to another in a polymath’s delight of pop culture, theater and that fantastic city known as Gasglow, not to be confused with the Scottish city on our own pedestrian maps. Fueled by The Glamour and, more prosaically, mind-altering substances, Luci and Luda match wits and wills as they vie for supremacy. It’s a fascinating cage fight, made more so by Luci’s self-reflection as an elder queer and consummate performer:
For me it was always about the drag.
What am I? Where do I fit on the scale, or the spectrum? How would I know? I’m sure I don’t have time to be a narcissist–I’m too busy checking my makeup in the mirror.
My head was, still is, a half-built haunted arcade of shifting selves and liquid identities, voice impressions, disguises and shadows, reflections and lightning among the rafters.
These moments of introspection are cool emotional oases amidst the shocks that come either sharp and quick, or slowly with the unbearable tension of dread in this recursive puzzle box of a thriller. In all honesty, I don’t think I quite understood the ending, though I fully appreciated everything else until then. Hopefully, this will only be the first entry in a new subset of Mx Morrison’s expanding and ever compelling bibliography.