Zachary Lazar’s Sway, already the subject of glowing accolades in the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, is one of those novels whose full power doesn’t quite reveal itself until you get to the end. Reading this book is like taking a ride a dark, scary ghost train. Only in retrospect can you look back and see where you’ve been, what you’ve experienced, and how it all comes together. To make it even scarier, the ghosts, in this case, are real ones.
It seems somehow beside the point to talk about the plot of Sway — it’s not that kind of novel. Better to think of it as the literary equivalent of a hand of tarot cards. Each card, as its face is revealed, represents another star in a constellation whose aura is definitely malign, and whose planet, Saturn, is in retrograde.
Many of the cards have well known faces. There’s Brian Jones, ex-lead singer of the Rolling Stones. There are his rivals, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, with their glamorous, doomy Eurochicks, Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithful. There is shaggy cult guru Charles Manson, and there are and his followers, a rag-tag brigade of ruined youth including Bobby Beausoleil, who, at 22, received a death sentence (later commuted to life) for the murder of another of the Family’s fringe figures, Gary Hinman. Connecting them all is underground filmmaker and sullen magus Kenneth Anger, whose troubled film Lucifer Rising stars Marianne Faithful and Bobby Beausoleil, with music by Mick Jagger.
Some of the tarot cards represent places, each with its own special resonance and its own symbolic implications: London, Paris, Southern California, Marrakech. More specifically, there’s Hyde Park in July 1969, scene of the famous Stones’ concert just a few days after the death of Brian Jones. There’s its terrible counterpart in Altamont later the same year, scene of another pointless fatality. There’s the Spahn Ranch, one-time home of Manson, who is, at the same time, both a “demon” and a “sly, sophisticated con man” and whom, to his drug-addled followers, “in the end was just a bewildering reflection of themselves.” And there’s Cielo Drive, site of the Sharon Tate murders, which are fortunately only a side note in this complex web of sinister connections, along with the ongoing war in Vietman, LSD, police raids, and the psychic fragility that comes with sudden fame.
Like Lucifer Rising, which was finally completed in 1972, Sway is less a narrative than a mood piece, a psychohistory of certain moments between the beginning of 1967 and the end of 1969 — moments of malevolence, apathy, crisis, neurosis, and death. In charting this constellation of connected moments in space-time, Sway has something in common with From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic study of the 1888 murders in London, as well as David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, about the Yorkshire Ripper.
In the words of Aleister Crowley, quoted in the cryptic epigraph to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, “every man and woman is a star.” This is also a fitting epigraph for Sway, and an epitaph, perhaps for the 1960s. None of the characters in Lazar’s book are portrayed as demons, not Anger, not even Manson, but they all have sympathy for the devil, and as a consequence of contingency, the effect they have one another — and those around them — is nothing short of apocalyptic.