In Roman mythology, Echo is a nymph who is powerless to speak except to repeat back what is said to her, a curse placed by the goddess Juno in retribution for Echo's interference in a marital tiff. Echo's unrequited love (the result of both her inability to communicate her feelings and the self-centeredness of her beloved) for Narcissus causes her to waste away until nothing but her echoing voice remains. In punishment for thoughtlessly spurning Echo, Narcissus is condemned to fall hopelessly in love with the next person he sees, which happens to be his own reflection in a pool of water. The metaphor illustrates the ephemeral nature of love as well as the destructiveness of self-absorption. This realization is too much for Narcissus to bear and, like Echo, he wastes away on the bank besides the water that revealed to him both his selfishness and the suffering that comes from unrequited longing. While his soul in Hell continues to stare unfulfilled into a Stygian pool, his remains by the river bank are transformed into a beautiful flower.
In Mark Siegel's electrified riff on this famous fable, an up and coming rock band is named Echo and Narcissus. Siegel has a pretty good grasp of the rock ethos, particularly that of '80s mope rock. The female singer, Echo, has the uncanny ability to mimic a range of vocal styles. While the band's lead guitarist is able to conjure evocative emotions through his instrument, he is incapable of an enduring emotional relationship with the many people (of both sexes), foremost among them Echo, who adore him. Hence, the "Narcissus" of the band and the book's title, though the guitarist's actual name is Max. And "Max" he is, in the classic rock 'n' roll sense of maxing out in the lifestyle of drugs and groupies.
Echo and Max owe their initial musical partnership to an organized crime figure who features them at his New Orleans clubs. So far we're not that far removed from the shadier realities of show business. But Siegel integrates an "urban voodoo" storyline, reminiscent of Nalo Hopkinson, in which a crime lord known simply as "Z" (suggestive of Zeus, the Greek version of the Roman god Jupiter, husband of guess who?) owes his power in part to the hoodoo of his paramour (you guessed it) Juno. When Echo unwittingly betrays Juno, she is hexed with the fate of her namesake (while retaining the ability to sing without prompting). Max, whose emotional disability is also the result of a Juno curse, decides he and Echo need to escape Z's clutches, and so they head out for Los Angeles, where they begin their careers as the next new rock sensation.
Science Fiction and Fantasy seem to have a special affinity with the rock mythos. Charles de Lint, William Gibson, Emma Bull, Lucius Shepard, Mick Farren, Richard Calder, John Shirley, and Elizabeth Hand -- to name a few -- all infuse their work with pop musical motifs and references. It works the other way, as well. There's a new book edited by Janis Ian and Mike Resnick entitled Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian. A band named itself Valentine Smith after Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land protagonist and then, of course, there was David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona and sfnal rock album. The thrash band Blöödhag dedicates itself exclusively to science fictional subjects.
Back in the '60s, before it became just another marketing tool, rock music had pretensions of saying something significant and demanded cultural respect equal to that of older art forms, in much the same way that the New Wave asserted that genre fiction was a literary form equal to its more established predecessors in artistic potential. It is not surprising, then, that many of the SF/F writers who came of age during that period would incorporate these musical references in their work, the same way the Beats embodied the syncopation of jazz, the musical lingua franca of their own particular movement against the status quo.
Siegel doesn't attempt to mimic a rock 'n' roll prose style akin to, say, Kerouac's attempt to give the appearance of improvising on a theme like a jazz sax player, but he does offer some keen insight into the stylized dramaturgy of rock performance:
"You were supposed to wait for everybody to fiddle around with their instruments, to cross and curse themselves, to bitch about the sound system and grumble Who The Fuck Stole All My Picks? And you were supposed to wait for the recorded music to fade out and for an announcer to clue the crowd that a band, a bunch of artistes deserving their attention, was preparing for the difficult task of entertaining them for a few hours. Fuck that. Max's guitar screamed 'Scuttle Buttin.' He moved up to the front of the stage, where he stood, legs apart, young muscles rippling in the sleeveless red shirt, a small smile of shared pleasure shining out from his blond pretty-boy face. . ."
Also before it became a way to sell beer, rock 'n' roll was known as the great tempter and destroyer of youth: its tribal rhythms led directly to sin and corruption. (Which was a great thing for white middle class kids who really wanted to be debauched but didn't quite have the nerve to go beyond playing their music loudly.) So it's an effective vehicle for a fantasy of corrupted spirit, as well as egotistical excess.
The ego on display here is that of Max, the primary focus of the novel and the only fully fleshed out character, one who remains sympathetic despite his substantial shortcomings. While Max's actions wreak havoc on those who care for him, ultimately it's not his fault, it's the fault of his magical curse. Max doesn't suffer for his excesses, he can inject all the heroin he wants, drink to oblivion, and have unprotected sex without risking physical debilitation because the magic also somehow protects him. He manages to have all the fun without the consequences. Other people suffer them for him.
In a recent Locus interview (June 2003), Charles de Lint says, "I make a strong point of avoiding having magic solve problems -- I don't want people reading my book and thinking 'Oh, if only I had magic then I'd be okay like these characters!'" To his credit, Siegel doesn't take this easy out and, true to the story-arc of the myth he hangs his tale on, Max's redemption -- and knowing sacrifice -- comes only through his own conscious effort. The problem is, the other characters (as well as the fantasy situation) too often seem mere cardboard props intended to move Max towards his self-actualization and destiny.
For example, there's a scene in which Echo and Max confront an evil emanation in a Vegas casino with a Wizard of Oz theme. Okay, it might be a cool setting for the movie version (and the description of the monster strikes me as something a television mini-series with a limited special effects budget might come up with), but beyond that, I didn't see the point. So there's one clever line, "Pay no attention to the monster behind the curtain," which at least is better than the more common, "We're not in Kansas anymore." But the scene doesn't illuminate the characters or the moral or the situation in any way that I can figure out beyond serving as a knowing wink, and an obvious one at that, to the reader. The casino could have been a Harrah's for all the difference it would have made to the narrative or thematic pacing.
It's as if Max's inability to relate to other people reflects the author's lack of interest in his subsidiary characters and situations. Interestingly, Siegel reveals in an afterword that the book is based in part upon stories written by his son (you guessed it, Max) during a turbulent period of his adolescence. (Indeed, the opening epigrams to each chapter are lyrics or poems penned by the real Max.) Perhaps it's appropriate that in a novel based not only on the Narcissus myth but adolescent fantasies, subsidiary characters are, at best, only sketched out. After all, in both cases, what underlies the egocentric's delusion is that what happens to other people is only important insofar as it affects "me."
All of which is not to say that Siegel hasn't produced a fast-moving and at times compelling tale. It is to say that it is perhaps no deeper than the pool in which Narcissus stares. Though, I'd say, still certainly worth a look.
Copyright © 2003 David Soyka
David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art. To contact David, email email@example.com.