It’s one of the most stressful brushes I have with popcultural artifact, and yet time and again I immerse myself in that song. My concern is valid, palpable, but an hour or so later, completely forgotten, like Coca Cola from my taste-buds. And the next time I play “Graceland”, there it is again; what happens to Paul Simon’s traveling companion.
You don’t need to know the song to get at its inner workings. “Graceland” is about a life in the midst of breakdown, a perpetual breakdown. “Losing love is like a window in your heart”, Simon reminds us, “everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow”. Simon’s in the wake of a breakup with a woman who’s clearly resisting the idea of breaking up. And yet, just clearly feels the irresistible urge to the situation driving them towards breaking up. It’s Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn in the sublime dramedy The Breakup.
At the same time “Graceland” is a riff on the oldest of coming-of-age dramas, The Wizard of Oz. At the very end of the song, Graceland itself looms. Elvis’s Camelot, built by hand, here on earth. You can almost imagine how, just when Simon croons out those last lyrics, “And I may be obliged to defend every love, every ending or maybe there’s no obligation now”, that he finally reaches his destination. And yet, just as much as Dorothy’s journey ends in a positive transformation, Simon’s is unresolved. “Graceland” is the search for absolution, for deliverance.
Somewhere near the beginning of the song is that majestically injurious trap of conscience. Somewhere near the beginning is where Simon throws me into that existential fear. “My traveling companion is nine years old, he is the child of my first marriage”, Simon belts out. And in that moment, my concern is for the kid. Whatever happens to that kid, trapped as he is in this morass of self-conflicted lost and loathing? That’s Simon’s secret art. Pushing us into momentary concern, then pulling us back. And that’s the secret art that lies at the heart of Brian Bendis’ and Mark Bagley’s Brilliant.
Brilliant does this slow burn. Right at the beginning you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered into the wrong book. That this smart-aleck kid hopped up on nothing but arrogance is playing out a Mark Millar book. That this superpowered bank robbery is nothing but brio, betting too much in the last rounds of a hand of poker, representing what you’re not holding.
And during the college dorm party it doesn’t get much better. (Except for Bendis’ elegant suggestion of a homoerotic element to the relationship between Albert and second main character who remains unnamed). But up on the roof at the after party it all falls into place. Amadeus, the kid from the bank job talks to the recently returned Albert about the relationship between Science and Science Fiction. His description of Jack Parsons and the founding of the Jet Propulsion Labs (and Parsons’ connection to scifi writers of the day) is passionate, moving. And then there’s the denouement—what if science fact can be inspired by science fiction, one more time? It’s an assault on the cultural inertia that was recently decried by scifi writer Neal Stephenson.
And for the longest time now, “Graceland” will fade away. The kids are alright. Brilliant is the story of smart, passionate, motivated kids who worked themselves free from the trapped lives Simon’s generation seems to have dropped them into. It’s the real lesson that JJ Abrams found in Star Trek, that whatever the trouble, we’ll work ourselves free. It’s the reason you voted in 2008, no matter your age; to feel a part of the generational revolution already underway.
It’s early days yet, but Brilliant already feels like one of those books I’ll end up buying multiple copies of and just giving away to people. This book feels that important.