I finally finished reading Luda, the first novel from celebrated comic scribe cum chaos magician Grant Morrison. Anyone who's read Morrison's comics knows that they're a master of mind-bending counter-culture; anyone who's read their non-fiction book Supergods or any of their newsletter outings knows that they have an absolutely impeccable, dare I say delectable grasp on English language prose.
Luda is a perfect marriage of these two aspects of Morrison's work. It's both delightful, and a lot, in every way possible. Whether that latter descriptor is a good thing or a bad thing is up to your personal taste.
Luda is narrated by an aging drag queen named Luci LaBang (ní Graeme Mott). Now her fifth decade, she's hyper-aware of her own sagging body, even as she takes an exciting role in a new hit theatre production debuting Gasglow (sic) titled The Phantom of the Pantomime. Phantom is a play-within-a-play-within-a-novel: a metafictional drag send-up of Aladdin, in which Luci appears as the Widow Twankey, with a 4th-wall-breaking Phantom of the Opera-esque subplot as a framing device to the story.
You with me? Like I said, it's a lot, and we haven't even reached the main hook yet.
The lead actress playing Aladdin (in drag) is mysteriously injured, and that's when Luci first meets the eponymous Luda — a young, mysterious, gorgeous drag queen (possibly/arguably a transwoman? Unclear.) who reminds Luci of her younger self. Luda gets cast as the new Aladdin, and the meta conceit of a boy playing a girl playing a boy is both central to the storyline, and also the least of our concerns. Luci takes Luda in as a sort-of apprentice, teaching her the ropes of what Luci calls "The Glamour," their sort-of drag mashup of occultism and philosophy that Luci has relied on to transform the world, and herself (is it actually magic? Again, unclear). It's All About Eve, it's A Star Is Born, it's Merlin and Nimue, but a lot more queer.
Luci's complicated relationship with Luda drive most of the story; she is both attracted to, and jealous of, and motherly towards her new genderqueer apprentice, all at once. It's a messy relationship, but one that feels incredibly true as a sort-of found family of queer folks. The ongoing preparations for Phantom of Pantomime serve as the B-Plot that slowly takes over, as things in the rehearsal room start to go increasingly, horrifyingly awry, thanks to either a ghost haunting the theatre, or (more likely) Luda herself.
The story of Luda is regaled as if Luci is telling it while applying her drag face in front of the mirror. This gives the narration a very lived-in, participatory feel; it can also be a bit much. Luci is sassy, caddy, and frequently bitchy, with a penchant for verbosity, snark, and meandering tales. Take the scintillating wit of Oscar Wilde and make it simultaneously more flamboyant and more insecure (which in turn contributes more to the mask of flamboyance). Morrison's prose as delivered through Luci's monologuing is delectable; it fills your mouth with words, and doesn't wait for you to ask for seconds. Frequently, it also fails to consider whether you needed that many words to describe that particular random detail. I can't count how many times I reached the end of a gorgeous, multi-pronged, 100-word-long sentence full of luscious detail only to stop myself and think "Okay but why." The language in Luda is a character itself, with clauses like a hydra's head — you cut one off, and two more will take its place.
I'm a writer, so I tend to enjoy the occasional overwrought prose; and, like I said above, Morrison has a masterful control over rhythm and wit. But a quick glance at the book's GoodReads reviews confirmed my suspicion that it might be a little too much for some people. I'll even concede: I'm a huge fan of Morrison, and this book took me longer to finish than I wanted it to, just because I wasn't always in the place to devour all those words.
One of the things that kept me reading through the book (aside from that compelling to understand just what Luda's mysterious deal really is) was just how vulgar it was. Luda has a very late-80s punk rock queer counter-culture vibe to it — think early Vertigo comics (which Morrison themself was of course involved with). This is a book about outsiders — people who couldn't fit in with society even if they tried. And they don't want to try; they're quite content to shock the normies, as it were. This isn't Modern Edgelord vulgarity that's edgy-for-the-sake-of-being-edgy. This is self-defensive vulgarity, giving it a freshness alongside that Vertigo nostalgia. The sex and violence are shocking not for for shits-and-giggles, but because they're real, and ugly, both because of and in spite of Luci's magical Glamour.
As a result, there are some parts of this book that I suspect some people will find … problematic, to say the least. Luci's constant mean-spirited fat-shaming of Float, the director of Phantom of Pantomime, is both painfully in-character for an aging drag queen embarrassed at her own wrinkles, and also, frankly, really mean. I suspect this is at least partially intentional — Luci is an enjoyable protagonist but certainly not a likable one — but it's still uncomfortable. The book also spends a lot of time interrogating, exploring, and deconstructing ideas of gender performance and/or identity. This is honestly some of the most fascinating stuff in the book; but even as a cisgender man, there were moments that made me raise an eyebrow. Also a cisgender man, I'm not well-versed enough to comment on it at length. I would argue that there is value in challenging certain accepted orthodoxies; I also suspect there may be some things in this book that upset some people. At the same time, I believe a lot of this is an accurate portrayal of some of Morrison's own world view as a non-binary / gender non-conforming person, and I think it's just as harmful to dismiss someone's lived experience just because it defies some currently accepted conventions. But again: the vulgarity here is part of the charm. (I actually think Elizabeth Sandifer's review says it all perfectly.)
In the end, maybe the best way to describe Luda is by saying it's the kind of book that a lot of BoingBoing readers would probably love … but the ones who hate it are also probably right it. Either way, it's a fascinating work of art that will stick with me for a long time.
Luda [Grant Morrison]