Listening to the latest work from stalwart performance artist/musician/composer extraordinaire Laurie Anderson calls to mind an old story that gets passed around at fiction workshops from time to time: A writer (never mind who) starts off his/her career with some promise. He (or she)’s selling stories to slicks left and right; the money is rolling in enough that the writer contemplates leaving or actually leaves his or her fulltime (teaching/sales/other) job for the lit life. But the writer’s agent, ever cautious and weary and wise to the trends of the publishing industry knows that this windfall is temporary. There are ebbs and flows to everything and a life in letters is one of them.
And so the agent hands the writer an envelope during one of the writer’s visits to The Office. “You’re doing well right now,” the agent says, looking a little tired after a lifetime of ebbs and flows with this writer and that, the ups and the downs and the downs again. “And that’s great,” the agent continues. “But at some point it’s going to slow down. It just does. That’s all there is too it. So I want you to have this.”
The agent slides an envelope across his/her desk with the writer’s name in a neat cursive scrawl on it. “Don’t open that until you need to,” the agent says. “When things are bleak and you haven’t sold a story in a year.”
Within months the agent is dead from a car accident or cancer or even a mugging, depending on the era. The writer is devastated but continues to push through, dedicating a new short story collection to the agent that fall. But within a few years the publications slow to a trickle like the one known well to men of a certain age whose prostates aren’t what they used to be. Then, nothing. A luxury car gets sold. Plans for a cottage in a resort town somewhere out East are mothballed. There are more teaching gigs and speaking engagements that there have been in a long time.
And so the writer looks at that envelope and says, “I wonder what’s in there?” Pulling an antique letter opening out from a drawer of the well-worn desk in his/her study he/she slides it through the envelope and watches as the tiniest strip of paper falls to the ground like a magical snowflake. This sliver of paper lands face down on the floor and so the writer must turn it over upon retrieving it.
It reads: “Write a story about a boy and his dog.”
Laurie Anderson probably didn’t have anyone offering such sage advice when she sat down to write the story and music for her latest offering Heart of a Dog, but that literary anecdote comes to mind. This is a story about magic and loss and what better way to convey those universal feelings than with that universal symbol of friendship?
Anderson’s dog in question is Lollabelle, born to a puppy mill and given a new lease on life by Anderson and her late husband Lou Reed. Along the way we learn about Lollabelle the dog, Lollabelle the companion, Lollabelle the dog who teaches herself piano, Lollabelle whose story intersects with Anderson’s recollections of life in New York, in the United States after 9/11.
There are cameras, collections of data, reconstructions of stories, facts about terriers, about dogs, about philosophy and there are uncertainties and revelations and moments when must pause to consider the potential of being in the Bardo, that intermediary place we are said to go after death where we wait to take shape for our next life.
This, and so much of the story told her, pivots on the axis of a never-ending cycle of life and death and wonder, of cynicism and optimism, of love and disappointment, of trust and deception, of loneliness and companionship.
Anderson being Anderson, she hasn’t delivered a story (this record is a companion to her new film which is out now) that is too weighty that we can’t handle it. What we learn here is that death is not really the end, that it is through death that we come to an understanding of life; what we learn here is that learning itself is temporary, that it will all be unwound as we leave this current life. What we learn here is something we have known all along: that Laurie Anderson is a wonderful storyteller who imbues the tales she tells with an uncommon humor and intelligence that provide us with a deeper understanding of the human condition.
As hard as it might be to imagine that anyone could keep a listener in rapt attention though a story that twists this way and that, through forests and rivers and hilltops on one coast or another, in recording studios and in the Bardo and the Real World. The years after 9/11 move by. Osama bin Laden is assassinated, the end of the world comes and its prediction is retracted.
You’d think that you might lose track of what’s going but the plot isn’t the point. These are scraps of thought that we chase, knowing that we understand what is being said, that the story can reveal itself one line at a time, no more, no less.
That’s what Anderson really does so wonderfully here and elsewhere in her career: She gives us just enough to keep us going and just enough to care about that we know that we’ve been here before even if it doesn’t always feel familiar.
And so, there is grief here, there is sadness, but also celebration. And also a song from Reed, a gorgeous song called “Turning Time Around” that says all of this and more and which makes the rest all the more important. And so this is the story of a woman and her dog and one that resonates and resonates as we wait for our time in the Bardo.