Dead Heroes: Review of God Save My Queen II, from American Book Review, Jan/Feb 2005

Sean Thomas Dougherty
God Save My Queen II:
The Show Must Go On
Daniel Nester
Soft Skull Press
133 pages; paper, $13.00

What is one to do with Daniel Nester’s prose?  Where to situate its lineage, or lack thereof—dubbed a work of fiction in the front, Nester’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed God Save My Queen: A Tribute (2003) riffs so many genres in its dizzyingly understated complexity, questioning the borders of genre—what are these God Save My Queen books?  Fiction?  Prose poetry? Journalism?  Informal notes? A bizarre fusion of them all?  Beginning with a “coy apology,” Nester has created a kind of cultural commentary on the band Queen that transforms page by page into a diary/meditation on youth, aging, sexuality, and idolatry. Nester’s fictive voice urges an inquiry into what it is to move out of “young,” to watch the “exit” of “our heroes then, through brick walls, lips sealed, fake smiles.” At times, the text transforms into a kind of sketchy prose poem, a kind of skewed academic exegesis, a kind of miniscule music journalism, like the writer Lester Bangs who compared Van Morrison with Lorca.  It is the extension of the persona created in the first book that justifies this “follow-up” book (album?), though one might call this book as much of a remix as anything as it reweaves the obsessions of the first, reworks its territory of youth, and expands its almost aphoristic insights into obsessive near-angst.  As in the first book, Nester’s persona is obsessed with the under-told anecdote and the little-known fact. We begin to realize the text as much about the inexactitudes of language(s) and subjectivity as it is about Queen.  For example, in the cliché-titled “Friends Will Be Friends,” quoted here whole, the reader becomes jumbled in the fragmentary, the stuttered:

John, again, in this second verse volta—your Dear John letter, if you will—who exactly “stole his number”? I might’ve been drunk that day. And I hate my hair, too. But let’s start with the possibility of your attention. And mine. And this is why I love you darling—

It’s the anthemic things you do from time to time.

What is to make of this jagged, undetailed notation if you are outside the Queen discourse?  What is the relationship of each building phrase to the previous ones? The speaker provides footnotes that reveal his confusion: “Emblematic?  Of what? Arrows?  Tutus?” It is here in the confusion/fusion of quoted sources (“anthemic things” is quoted from a video by Brian May) that a multilayered voicedness reveals itself where lines become written not simply by the persona but by a variety of sources fused through the persona—some summarized, some copied, some fragmented, some commented upon. Adding to this near confusion, by its use of footnotes, its “real” referents to cultural iconography, the book merges into biography. The footnotes (smartly paced so that some things are referenced while others remain only accessible to the diehard fan, thus creating an exquisite level of subjectivity that implores the novice to read the sections for their lyricism) riff the structure of an album’s liner notes as well as obviously creating  a reference to rigorously overworked theoretical academic discourse.  But many of the liner words also work as funny asides, puns, and in-jokes. Take, for example, this exchange from a footnote to the piece “Man on the Prowl”: “Whaddya mean, he doesn’t play piano at the end? What the fuck? And where is he—whassisname, Fred Mandel [checked, no response from fan clubs]—where is he now?”

This colloquial mix is counterpointed throughout the piece, both in footnotes and prose blocks. This mix of the informal, the academic, the journalistic, and the poetic often occurs on the same page.  This in addition to sampled commentary and dialogue.  I’ve never seen a text hold so many types of language—some fragmented, some falling into humorous, tender narratives as in the following, “Is This The World We Created”:

 When I think of the 1980s, when I think of skinny ties and big hair, when I think of many, many sweatbands and teal pants with white drawstrings, I think of Queen. The 1980s marked the band’s descent, its overblown, Fat-Elvis epoch.

And throughout the decade, I remained the loyal fanboy, through the critical drubbings, through the ballet slippers, through the moustache-singing pyrotechnics. I stayed with them even after all their followers had forsaken their new fat-synth sound—

Nester follows this passage with an explanatory on Live Aid that ends with the bitterly ironic, “And oh yeah—people were starving somewhere.” Just when the speaker begins to get a bit too dysfunctional, he gives us some sly observation of witticism. One gets the illusion of a text constructing itself, or as the speaker offers us late in the book, “I’m also outside of myself, a third person taking notes.”

In the end, what this all amounts to is the creation of one of the more interesting personas I’ve seen emerge in recent prose. Nester’s voice creates the overly obsessed fan, bitter yet world-weary and still exuberant, someone awed with nostalgia, wondering how his icons have fallen into the bargain bin—his lighter flicked stadium of icons, his falling decades of failure “when one’s Hero dies,” and in order to keep going one has “to cast myself as the Hero.”

Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author of six books of prose and poetry. He teaches in the BFA creative writing program at Penn State Erie.

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