'Luda' isn't a book you read — it's a book you experience
Grant Morrison's Luda is a wildly entertaining drag show of the highest intellectual order. No, scratch that: It is a blitzkrieg of ideas wrapped in a celebration of language. Wait, that doesn't do it justice. Luda is a narrative concerned with the passage of time and the magic of performance. Ah, I left out the supernatural elements and endless playfulness even in the darkest moments. Okay, we'll go with this: Luda is a magical, multilayered, intoxicating story about identity, stardom, performance, lust, and death that could only have come from the prodigious mind of Grant Morrison.
Luci LaBang is flashy, funny, and sexy. A veteran drag artist who has conquered screen and stage, Luci, now starting to worry about what age is doing to her looks, lands a leading role in a hit musical. The rehearsals are going well, but then Luci's co-star has a mysterious accident and they're left scrambling for a replacement. After many letdowns, a new face who wasn't even on the list waltzes in, steals the show — and a chunk of Luci's heart and mind — and gets the role. Luda is witty, gorgeous, and charming, all of which remind Luci of herself before the ravages of time dimmed her inner light. Luda is also a fan of Luci, and she begs the legend to show her the tricks of the trade and to initiate her in the ways of the Glamour, "the original name for magic," which Luci describes in many ways, including "a method whereby we could put makeup on the dullest moment, transforming it into its own best self."
Unfortunately, as Luci tutors Luda in the magical ways of the Glamour, their fellow actors and crew members begin having strange accidents and meeting untimely demises, which makes Luci wonder if Luda has mastered the Glamour too well and is using it for nefarious purposes. What follows is a bizarre journey that spirals into the dark, monstrous heart of the city of Gasglow as Luci and Luda's relationship grows and shifts, their fellow actors keep dropping like flies, and Luda morphs into a bigger, stranger, deadlier, more mysterious version of everything Luci was.
Morrison does many things well in Luda. In fact, discussing all of them would turn this review into a novella-length rumination on a plethora of subjects. Luckily, there are elements that emerge as the most crucial because of their power, timeliness, or flawless execution.
The first of these elements is identity. Morrison shows just how fluid gender is while obliterating the idea of identity as an established, monolithic thing. Luci and Luda are men, women, men that play women, and women that play men. These leads to a master class in the use of pronouns that delivers lines like this: "She's a boy playing a girl playing a boy" and "He'd done her research." Gender, identity, fluidity, and constant transformation — for performance purposes and for life in general — collide in Luda in beautiful ways, and Morrison presents all of it with heart and unwavering clarity.
The second element here that merits discussion is the storytelling itself and how Morrison makes Gasglow and the Glamour take center stage, which is no easy feat in a narrative with two larger-than-life characters at its core. Gasglow is a magical city that Morrison brings to the page with enough memorable imagery and history to turn it from place into character — and then from just character to unforgettable character. And then there's the Glamour, the magic beating at the heart of this novel, the "dazzling cloak we threw over the ordinary world to make it shine and dance and live up to its potential." Oh, and then there are simple lines about little things that pop off the page. Take, for example, this description of dawn: "Unwilling to stay spiked beneath the tombstone of clouds, the sun had risen from the grave like Dracula, sick ghost of itself in a gray shroud on that pale and rainy vampire dawn in late August."
Lastly, there is an underlying obsession with time and aging that permeates the story. Luci is afraid of what time does to us, and the inevitability of it haunts her:
"Time's tricky. Invisible, never satisfied, time holds us fast as it tracks us through the waving elephant grass of our imagined days, our estimated hours. Time's fangs coming closer, always there, camouflaged in the momentary stalks, its steady approach detected first by the older or the weaker members of the herd, the outliers who need to stay alert to say alive...whom no one listens to any more..."
Luda is about many things, and it shows Morrison at the peak of their powers. This book talks to you, to itself, to being, to flowing identities, and to everything from H.P. Lovecraft, makeup, and Max Ernst to Batman comics, aging, and Freud. Many books you read; Luda is a book you experience.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.