True romance

Despite her fearsome reputation, Lady Gaga knows how to charm a crowd.

By now, even the most gentle readers among you probably have heard of Lady Gaga, stage name of the 24-year-old New Yorker Stefani Germanotta. In the past 18 months, she has sold an astonishing 12 million albums worldwide (no mean feat in these days of declining record sales), become the darling of both the broadsheets and the tabloids, and has just added yet another British date to her Monster Ball tour.

This week, she played two nights at London's O2 Arena. I went to see what is it about Gaga that attracts her Little Monsters -- the provocative, colourfully clobbered young fans that worship at her altar -- as well as the audience of conventional rock fans, and mothers and daughters, that make up her shows.

At the end of evening, I had a theory. At the same time as Gaga manages to shock and provoke people with her outlandish behaviour, she simultaneously cossets and welcomes the people who follow her. Also, unlike Madonna, the pop predecessor to whom she is always compared, she tells her audience to be themselves -- and that peculiarness is part of who we really are.

Her live show, for example, addresses mortality (which has suddenly taken on deeper resonance this week since rumours surfaced about her being diagnosed with lupus). There is one striking routine in which Gaga's dancers tear at her body, leaving her neck and chest covered in blood, which she doesn't remove. She also stops stock-still after songs for 20 seconds at a time, breathing heavily, as if issuing a death rattle.

Stage oddity

Even in her skimpiest outfits, Gaga foregrounds ugliness rather than prettiness, which shows us that her presentation is nothing to do with sexiness, and everything to do with the acceptance of weirdness. Among contemporaries of hers like Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé, as well as Madonna, this is unique.

Then there is Gaga's personal way of talking to her fans on stage. She talks at length about what their love for her means to her, her speeches sounding born of a hunger for friendship and acceptance, rather than a desire for dollar bills. She also tells her fans things they want to hear, but far too few pop stars tell them.

"You don't need money or plastic surgery to be a star," she says. "Reject the idea of not being good enough, thin enough, blonde enough. Like every motherfucker told me."

Whether they are straight or gay, black or white, anarchic or everyday, she tells her fans constantly to accept their odd qualities.

At the Monster Ball, Gaga says, everyone can be free.

There are other things that make Lady Gaga a great pop star, that people of all ages and backgrounds can see. There are her musical talents: the piano-playing with her fingers as well as her stiletto boots; the way she can make her voice growl and soar as well as soothe.

And there are songs like "Bad Romance", the set's dazzling encore. A five-minute epic that exposes the agonies of lust, and culminates in the most melancholic vocal in the pop canon for years -- "I don't want to be friends", she wails, desperately hinting at those times in our lives when we have all craved the opposite -- it reveals the high, dark drama in our real worlds. This is what Lady Gaga is all about. Long may we all be her monsters.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era