Sway - novel by Zachary Lazar

I have to be honest, if I had seen this on a bookshelf, I would have walked on by. I found nothing appealing to make me pick the book up, and even reading the blurb on the back, I thought, no! I wasn't a fan of the Rolling Stones, I've heard of Kenneth Anger but not seen any of his work, and Charles Manson? He was a complete "nut job", why would I want to read about him?

The book was a recommendation though, and quite frankly if you ask someone to recommend a book and you've told them you will read anything (especially if you put them on the spot and they're not expecting the question) the least you can do is give the book a chance and read it.

Sway entwines three symbolic stories charting the early years of the Rolling Stones, the life of the avant-garde film-maker Kenneth Anger, and Charles Manson and his followers during the decade of the 60's. It was a dark and disturbing novel, but for some reason it resonated with me. I loved it! Honestly I couldn't put it down, and it's made me want to have a look at some of Anger's films out of mere curiosity!

I had an idealistic impression the 60's, that it was a happy decade of peace, love and flower-power! It was the generation of the Swinging Sixties, social taboos were more relaxed, especially in terms of sexism or racism and there were peace loving communities.  We hear about sexual revolutions, the desire for more freedom for minorities and women, student uprisings over political events, people taking control of their beliefs, but as with all things, everything has to have an opposite perspective. This book reflects the darker side of the Sixties, perhaps the side of the era that people would want to forget.

Whilst the book focuses on the stories of the three parties mentioned above, the underlying narrative tackles the sociopathic, antisocial criminal activities which were fuelled by people succumbing to the mind numbing effects of both a drug induced party culture, and the solitary thoughts and feelings that can grip and take over the mind when you feel you don't fit into a society.

What was interesting about the book, is that from the start you think that Charles Manson will be the ringleader of the book, but in fact it's the film-maker Kenneth Anger that is the recurring party interweaving the stories of these disparate parties together. What Lazar has done with this book is thrown away the idealism of the love and peace movement, and dragged us kicking and screaming into the underbelly of the dark-side. The freedoms shown in the book are based on "outsider" characters, the people who have not fitted into society, the people always on the fringes trying to establish themselves with an identity; but as Lazar shows, trying to establish yourself as who you perceive yourself to be doesn't always come with a happy ending.

The Rolling Stones were a group of R&B musicians, living in squalor, unable to afford heating, and as they began to make their mark, all of their gigs ended up with mass fighting, often encouraged by the sound and performances of the band. People seemed to only want to go to gigs for the sheer enjoyment of being able to fight the band, people were not going because they were in awe of the music. In fact the band themselves had difficulties with trying to establish what sound they wanted as they all pulled in different directions, and became solitary individuals rather than a group of like-minded people. The music didn't bring them together, in fact it tore them apart. An interesting yet sad aside, is that as their popularity soared, their founding member Brian Jones' mental and physical self had started to deteriorate and he would be found dead in his swimming pool after a party, in which it wasn't made certain whether he drowned, or onlookers just let him drown, perhaps to put him out of his misery?

Kenneth Anger grew up as a lonely child, used to beatings by his dad. He knew he was different from an early age, making films from the age of ten, filming snippets of things that would evoke an emotional response from him, rather than a continuous storyline. He became preoccupied with men and thought it evil to give into the temptation where his body and soul wanted to take him, His soul became preoccupied with the occult, the symbols and diagrams of the zodiac and tarot an allure towards the darker recesses of his mind. Despite Anger's success in creating controversial films and becoming a talking point, the book still shows just how lonely he remained, still the solitary individual from childhood.

Bobby Beausoleil, an aspiring musician with devilish good looks, but not an overwhelming talent comes to LA looking for his ticket to fame and fortune. Instead he meets with Anger and gets cast in his films. and becomes his lover. He thought this would be stepping stone to a glamorous career, but instead the role had surprisingly appealed to him, however he left that world behind and moved to a commune run by Charles Manson. Beausoleil carries on Lazar's themes of solitude. Whilst the rest of Manson's followers hang on to his every word, Beausoleil keeps himself at a distance, he still has the power of his own thoughts, or so he thinks. Beausoleil would later be sentenced to death for the murder of Gary Hinman, an associate of Charles Manson, the sentence later being reduced to a life behind bars.

Despite the dark themes of the occult, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality and the pessimistic belief that life has no meaning (you're fated to die so if you have no purpose you can go on a voyage of self-destruction) this is a very sophisticated book. Whilst the three parties involved are real, it has to be remembered that this book is an interweaving of stories from Lazar's imagination combined with real life events. It's an interesting and imaginative book, viewing lost souls trying to find their way and one that I am really glad I took the time to read and digest.