A glance at the cover blurb would at first suggest an easy categorisation for Lola Bensky. A high-school dropout rock journalist obsessed with diets might slot in as young adult fiction but, continue to read the blurb and you will see we are heading back to those wild rock days of the late sixties; of Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix and Mama Cass.
Ah, right, you think. It should appeal to those popular-culture junkies of a certain age who would have loved to share a drink with Jagger or talk to Janis Joplin about sex.
But categorisation – in this instance – just isn’t that easy.
I’m going to start with some things I liked about Lola Bensky.
Lola is self-deprecating, confused and more than a little awkward (a la Bridget Jones) and that makes her endearing. It is easy to sympathise with a fat girl in fishnet tights whose self-worth has been battered by a thoughtless mother and an unforgiving society, even as we envy her sitting opposite Jimi Hendrix:
He had a slow gaze and a languid half-smile. His lips made lazy, playful movements when he spoke. (3)
As a young journalist surrounded by hedonists, Lola can be thoughtful and insightful. ‘Smashing’ was a much-used word at the time but Lola found it confronting. ‘It had an inbuilt violence that bothered her’. (44)
The voyeurist in me enjoyed reading about Mick Jagger’s ‘slow and leisurely’ movement about his apartment (yes, it is fiction but I think I might be forgiven for assuming some authenticity, given the author’s experience) and accompanying Barry Gibb on a four-suit shopping spree.
But, there were a number of things that left me cold, so here’s the flip side:-
Let’s start with the voice:
It’s a juvenile voice that speaks to us in staccato sentences which might have worked wonderfully well if Lola was interviewing the likes of ‘One Direction’ and lending false eyelashes to Katy Perry instead of Cher. But those of us interested in Jagger, Hendrix and Jim Morrison, are probably looking for a little more meat in our literary sandwiches. The repetition of names in full becomes tired after the first couple of pages and, by the final pages, I thought if I had to read ‘Lola Bensky’ one more time, I might just scream.
Then there’s the duelling subject matters:-
Lola goes from the light fluffiness of musing on Jagger’s ‘scruffy, rebellious, lawless, licentious, bad boy’ demeanour and asking him about his reportedly depraved behaviour to – in the next paragraph – her mother’s [too vivid] recollections of rape and violation at the hands of the Gestapo. I would have preferred reading about one or the other, the two together didn’t work for me. Maybe I’m wrong; perhaps other readers might find the shock value is increased by this strange juxtaposition.
‘Show, don’t tell,’ is a popular maxim in writing workshops and courses. It doesn’t always need to be the case (sometimes brilliant writers are so good at the ‘telling’, that’s what we want from them) but, I think it is a safe bet to say readers should not be subjected to both.
He whined about the quality of pop music. ‘There’s no quality in pop music.’ (29)
You might think a journalist of Brett’s apparent experience would be aware of words like ‘that’ creeping into places where they just shouldn’t be. And even if Brett missed them, a good Editor should have struck them out.
‘How he got the sounds that he did…’ would have worked fine without ‘that’ (How he got the sounds he did) especially when another one follows almost immediately. ‘Lola had asked him the question because she knew that there were readers of…’ Take out ‘that’ and it’s a smoother sentence.
And what about the genre?
Lily Brett was a journalist in the era she has chosen to plonk Lola Bensky. Presumably some of Lola’s experiences are drawn on Brett’s own so I can’t help but wonder how much more I might have enjoyed a memoir from this author. I can only imagine that libel or defamation laws made it necessary to couch her words in fiction. Perhaps too, living through the sixties surrounded by rock stars, could leave one’s memories a little hazy so better to tell a few tall stories than command truth.
At times, Brett shows she is capable of writing with insight and style. Snatches of it shine through in Lola Bensky, like the description of downtown New York, with it’s ‘thin coating of something less than wholesome’ (65) and a moody Jim Morrison unbuttoning his shirt:
He looked as though he not only wanted to shed his clothes, but would have liked to remove his skin. (100)
Lola Bensky is an odd-ball of a book, difficult to categorise and repetitious. I never warmed to its central character and, given that I found the blurb so enticing, I was personally disappointed.
Brett, Lily. Lola Bensky, Penguin Group (Australia), Melbourne, 2012.