Saturn by Simon Jacobs
Saturn by Simon Jacobs
Paperback, 43 pages
Saturn is a series of 19 short narratives in which David Bowie features as protagonist. Yep, that David Bowie: bona fide megastar, androgynous shape-shifter, and tireless Bowie trademark. Author Simon Jacobs is fascinated with Bowie, perhaps even obsessed—at the very least, he’s a fan(atic). And Saturn is fan fiction by definition–stories about characters written by a fan of the artist’s work, but more like fable by deed. Jacobs inhabits Bowie so that Bowie can watch Bowie as he constructs a new Bowie among the many, for the megastar has reinvented himself perhaps more than any other contemporary artist. Bowie’s career has been one of perpetual trial and error, a collage of personalities and styles. He changes characters like he changes costumes at a performance. But what happens when you constantly reinvent yourself? Bowie himself said it best in an interview: “I got lost. I couldn’t decide if I was writing characters or the characters were writing me.” In Saturn, Jacobs (re)writes Bowie.
Driven and inspired by his intimacy with the David Bowie biography, real and imagined histories he subverts for his own pursuits, Jacobs pulls at the threads of his fanaticism cultivated by a love of the music and inspired by the complex narrative of a man whose music John Lennon called, “rock-n-roll with lipstick on.” But these hybrid fictions don’t pit its hero against aliens or put him in bed with the author or another rock star (Mick Jagger anyone?). Jacobs instead spins his own variety of fan fiction to present a more pedestrian, and occasionally mythic, Bowie—no more, no less mythic than the flesh and blood Bowie, but a Bowie who considers his own mortality when he looks in the mirror and wonders if he’s not “just another picture of him[self]?”
The brief narratives in this hand sewn, creepily but aptly-illustrated book depict Bowie as he bids on art, broods over his reflection in the window of his “sizable Manhattan apartment,” watches himself in a movie, lies with his Somali supermodel wife Iman (“for whom he has written songs,” a refrain we hear throughout as if Bowie needs to remind himself who he is and whom he’s married to), shows off a new house to his family, recalls his daughter Lexi’s birth, and attends the premier of his son’s latest movie. But then he’s suffering a massive heart attack, building a Minotaur with Damien Hirst out of volunteers’ heads, hanging out with the likewise androgynous Tilda Swinton, and orbiting the earth on a commercial space flight.
You don’t have to know anything about David Bowie to understand and enjoy Saturn. But it doesn’t hurt and maybe even helps (Jacobs seeds his stories with Bowie Easter eggs other fans might recognize – even his speculative fiction relies on Bowie truths). As a rock-n-roll enthusiast myself, I enjoyed the recognizable bits about the pop star, some direct links to the songs I love, and then the bits I went and looked up and connected to documented history. Has Jacobs then just fancified and condensed a rock-n-roll bio for other fanatics? It’s more complicated than that. Saturn takes us beyond the trappings of straight history and into the intimacies, fictional and otherwise, that tell another story. Like the man himself, Jacobs reinvents and reinterprets Bowie as if Bowie were watching himself on television wondering who is that guy? Reinvention as art in order to illustrate and understand a great pretender.
The opening chapter, “David Bowie Bids on a Piece of Modern Art,” sets up Bowie’s dilemma: “There is a time when he stops measuring the distinctions between them, when the colors darken and smear into the background, the brow slopes down the forehead, the left pupil dilates, and it becomes just another picture of him.”
In “David Bowie Watches His Own Cameo in a David Lynch Movie” we witness the Bowie who’s always trying out new voices. Yet, later, while “staring out [and in, at his reflection] the window of his sizable Manhattan apartment,” he “wonders if the swiftness of its [the city] sinking is due to the combined weight of so many icons buried in a single tract of land.” Bowie is made up of a “host of faces,” of shifting identities as multifaceted as the city below.
“David Bowie Examines Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings Shortly After a Massive Heart Attack” pairs Bowie’s fear of obsolescence and death with the painters’, an allusion that gives us both the title and an image of Bowie, like the god Saturn devouring his son to preserve his own life, devouring personality after personality in order to preserve himself.
“David Bowie Sleeps with 1001 Arabian Nights Next to His Bed” compares Bowie’s “serial reinvention” as preservation with that of Scheherazade who dances a different dance each night in order to stay alive. Jacobs writes, “David Bowie wonders if Scheherazade ever lost herself among the frayed ends of her legends.”
The final story of David Bowie is written thus: “David Bowie Devouring His Son,” a return to the Goya allusion, suggests Bowie, like his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, is consumed by the very thing that made him. But good literature asks us to look at ourselves too. So I’m going to make a leap here and suggest that there’s a little of Bowie in all of us. Bowie once said that he couldn’t “stand the premise of going on in jeans and being real… it’s not normal.” It’s not. And that’s why constant reinvention keeps us alive, devouring one personality so that another may live. That the twenty-something Jacobs recognizes this old man’s story now is a good sign of what’s to come. He’s found something of wonder in David Bowie as he pulls at the threads of obsession to explore identity. The best of us are going through life pretending, it seems, crafting identities out of thin air, surviving on reinvention and reinterpretation. It’s the way of Bowie, even if Bowie does it better than we do. It may seem a cynical view but it’s human, and it works. Let’s hope Jacobs pulls on the threads of some more of his obsessions. This is good writing with lipstick on.